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Note: The following are excerpts from Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us about How to Live by John Sellars.
The Handbook of Epictetus opens with a fairly blunt account of what things he thinks are and are not ‘up to us’. The things that we can control – the things in our power – include our judgements, impulses and desires. Pretty much everything else is, Epictetus suggests, ultimately out of our control, including our own bodies, our material possessions, our reputation and our worldly success. He goes on to say that much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t.
This division looks like it might involve a distinction between things that are either internal or external: we can control our minds but not the world around us. Or we might think of it as a distinction between the mental and the physical: we can control our thoughts but not material things such as our bodies or possessions. Neither of those ways of thinking about it are quite right, although both do capture something of what’s going on. Epictetus does not say that we have control over everything internal to us or over all of our thoughts. Instead he claims that we have control only over a certain set of mental actions. To be more precise, he thinks that all we really have control over are our judgements, along with things that derive from our judgements. We don’t have complete control over everything in our minds; we don’t choose the sensations and memories that we have, and we cannot switch on and off our emotions (we’ll come back to emotions in the next chapter). No, all we have complete control over are our judgements, which is to say what we think about the things that happen to us.
Now, our judgements are hugely important because, among other things, they determine how we act. As Epictetus put it, they control our desires and impulses. We might see something, make a judgement that it is something good, which creates a desire for it, which in turn prompts us to pursue it. Depending on what the thing is – a dream career, an expensive house – it might be a long and arduous pursuit, carried out at great cost to both ourselves and others. But the whole process begins with a simple act of judgement.
So, judgements are fundamental, and we neglect them at our peril, but we often make them so swiftly that we don’t even notice that we are doing anything. We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s all just matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an avid reader of Epictetus, often tried to remind himself of this by pausing to think about the physical nature of seemingly desirable things before passing judgement on them: a fine meal is merely the dead body of a pig or a fish. Equally, the expensive gadget or executive car is just a lump of metal and plastic. Whatever value these things might seem to have is value that we attribute to them with our judgements, and not anything inherent in the things themselves.
The good news, according to Epictetus, is that we have complete control over our judgements, and with some reflection and training we can soon overcome the tendency to judge things unthinkingly. If we can do that – if we can become masters of our own judgements – then we’ll be in complete control of our lives. We’ll decide what’s important to us, what we desire and how we act. Our happiness will be completely within our own control. On the face of it Epictetus seems to be saying that we don’t have control over very much at all, but in fact he is saying that we have control over everything that truly matters for our wellbeing.
What about all the other stuff that he says we don’t control, all the stuff that preoccupies so much of our attention – our bodies, possessions, reputation and worldly success? We’ve already seen the Stoics argue that none of these things are inherently good. Epictetus’s point here is slightly different. His point is that even if you think they are good, the fact is that you have no control over them. If you make your happiness dependent on one of these things, it will be extremely vulnerable to forces out of your control. Whether it be a romantic relationship, a specific career ambition, material possessions or a certain physical appearance, if your sense of wellbeing depends on one of these sorts of things, then you have effectively handed over your happiness to the whims of something or someone else. That’s not a good position to be in. If you think you do have control over these things, when the plain fact is that you don’t, then frustration and disappointment are almost guaranteed.
The central claim is simply this: our emotions are the product of judgements we make. Consequently we are in complete control of our emotions and responsible for them. The man is upset about his brother’s anger because of the attitude he takes to it. If he viewed it differently, he would not have got upset. The Stoic claim – and this is an important point – is not that we should deny or repress our emotions; it is rather that we should try to avoid having them in the first place. A second important point is that the Stoics don’t think that someone can just click their fingers and make an emotion go away. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to think about this differently,’ and see one’s anger or grief magically disappear.
Chrysippus likened having an emotion to running too fast. Once you have a certain amount of momentum, you cannot simply stop. Your motion is out of control, and being in the grip of an emotion is very much like this. So, you can’t simply turn off an unwanted emotion at will, but what you can do is try to avoid letting the next one pick up momentum to the point that it becomes out of control.
This seems clear in the case of anger. When someone is angry, really angry, the emotion takes over and you can no longer reason with them. One person who knew about this all too well was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, originally a native of Spain. His career as an adviser in the inner circles of the Roman imperial court involved frequent confrontations with people in the grip of destructive emotions which were compounded by the fact that some of these people – such as the emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero – literally had the power of life and death over countless individuals, not least Seneca himself. Caligula was so jealous of Seneca’s varied talents that he ordered his death at one point, only to be talked down by one of his intimates on the grounds of Seneca’s poor health.
In his essay On Anger Seneca describes emotions such as anger and jealousy as a temporary madness. Picking up Chrysippus’s image of running so fast that one cannot stop, Seneca likens being angry to having been thrown off the top of a building and hurtling towards the ground, completely out of control. Once anger takes over, it compromises the whole mind. It’s being in this condition of being completely out of control that the Stoics warn against. Being a bit annoyed from time to time is simply part of life and does little real harm. Being so angry that one can no longer resist the urge to hit someone is quite another matter, and this is what the Stoics want to avoid.
Seneca insists that we don’t need anger to respond to acts committed against us or our loved ones. It’s always better to act calmly from a sense of loyalty, duty or justice than to rage for revenge. If on occasion anger might seem to spur us on to, say, fight against some great wrongdoing, Seneca says it would be much better to do the same thing under the guidance of the virtues of courage and justice.
Anger, like all emotions, is the product of a judgement made in the mind. That means it is something we can control, or at least it is something that we can try to avoid in the future. But once a judgement has been made, anger soon becomes something tangible and physical. Seneca describes anger as a disease of the body characterized by swelling. Whatever the emotion might be, we can probably think of numerous physical symptoms: heart racing, temperature rising, palpitations, sweating, and so on. Once these are in play there’s nothing we can do to make them go away except wait.
All humans will experience what Seneca calls ‘first movements’. These are when we are moved by some experience, and we might feel nervous, shocked, excited or scared, or we might even cry. All these are quite natural reactions; they are physiological responses of the body, but not emotions in the Stoic sense of the word. Someone who is upset and momentarily contemplates vengeance, but does not act on it, is not angry according to Seneca, because he remains in control. To be momentarily scared of something, but then remain firm, is not the emotion of fear either. For these ‘first movements’ to become emotions proper would require the mind judging that something terrible has happened and then acting on it. As Seneca puts it, ‘fear involves flight, anger involves assault.’
There are thus three stages to the process, Seneca suggests: first, an involuntary first movement, which is a natural physiological reaction out of our control; second, a judgement in response to the experience, which is within our control; third, an emotion that, once created, is out of our control. Once the emotion is there, there is nothing we can do but wait for it to subside.
Why do we make the judgements that generate these harmful emotions? If you think that you’ve been injured in some way by another person, it might seem perfectly natural to become angry with them. Seneca says that anger is usually the product of a sense of injury. So the thing that must be challenged is the impression that some injury has happened, which already contains within it a judgement. Epictetus puts it like this:
Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.
This is why, he continues, it is important not to react impulsively to events. It is essential to pause, take a moment and reflect on what has just happened before making a judgement about it. If someone says something critical about you, stop to consider whether what they say is true or false. If it is true, then they have pointed out a fault that you can now address. As such, they have benefited you. If what they say is false, then they are in error and the only one being harmed is them. Either way, you suffer no harm from their critical remarks. But the one way in which their remark could cause you a real and serious harm is if you were to let it provoke you into a state of anger.
I. [Seneca] insists that nothing bad ever really happens, given that all external events are neither good nor bad in themselves. Someone who keeps this idea in their mind and doesn’t rush to hasty judgement will simply accept what happens for what it is, without judging that something terrible has occurred.
However, Seneca goes further. Not only does he think that we ought not to see apparent misfortunes as genuinely bad; he also thinks that we ought to welcome them as things that can benefit us. The good person, he says, treats all adversity as a training exercise. Seneca draws an analogy with a wrestler who benefits from taking on tough opponents, and who would lose his skill if he only ever faced weaker challengers. The wrestler only gets to prove his skill when facing a real adversary, and a tough match also acts as training so that he can develop his talents. Adversity in life works in a similar way: it lets us display our virtues and it trains them so that we can improve. If we can see this, then we’ll happily welcome adversity when it comes.
Seneca draws a further analogy with soldiers, making references to a wide range of famous historical examples. Just as a general will only send his finest soldiers into the most difficult battles, so too will God send the toughest challenges only to the most worthy individuals. To experience adversity, then, is a mark of having a virtuous character.
Conversely, excessive good fortune is in fact really bad for us. When are we ever tested if we never experience any difficulties? How will we ever develop the virtues of patience, courage or resilience if everything always goes well? There is no worse luck, Seneca says, than unending luxury and wealth, which will serve only to make us lazy, complacent, ungrateful and greedy for more. This is real misfortune! By contrast, whatever adversity life throws at us will always be an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to improve our characters.
II. Seneca knew all too well about adversity from his own life. His attempt to draw out some positives from his experiences was no doubt one of a number of things he did to help him cope in difficult circumstances. As he wrote to his mother, Helvia, while in exile on Corsica, ‘everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts’. The language he uses in On Providence can sometimes make it sound as if he relished the fight, ready to welcome the next onslaught for the benefits he could take from it. But in one of his letters to his friend Lucilius he strikes a quite different tone:
I do not agree with those who recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. No one in their right mind goes out looking for adversity, even if it can teach us some useful lessons along the way. But developing the skills to cope with it when it does come – as it surely will – can only be to our advantage. It falls hardest, Seneca says in his letter to his mother, on those who don’t expect it, but is much easier to cope with if one is prepared for it. This idea is developed in another letter of consolation, this time to Marcia, a friend who had been battling with grief. She had lost one of her sons some three years earlier, but her suffering hadn’t really subsided. The natural period of mourning was over and now her grief had become a debilitating habit of mind. It was time for an intervention.
Learn more about Lessons in Stoicism on Amazon.
Buy Lessons in Stoicism: Print | Kindle | Audiobook
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.