The Discourses are a collection of lessons and teachings recorded throughout the lifetime of the philosopher Epictetus (to learn how to pronounce the name, watch this video https://youtu.be/faPDHeqxOmA) . Epictetus was born a slave, and his experiences and hard upbringing had profound impacts on his teachings. Through The Discourses, Epictetus teaches his philosophy in a practical sense, explaining how it should be used in day-to-day life instead of just imagining hypotheticals. Most of the teachings in The Discourses center around how the most important things for us to focus on in life are the things that we can control, and that we are wasting our time and energy when we allow ourselves to be bothered by things that we can not control. In other words, we should not allow the things that we cannot control to cause us additional stress or hinder us from further progress. In this way, Epictetus taught methods of self-discipline partnered with ways to accept and live alongside external forces that we can not impact.
Book III of The Discourses opens with a discussion on what makes up the possessions of excellence of a man. Epictetus sees a man that he is familiar with dressed in a much more ornate fashion than usual and challenges him on his appearance. He asks the man what he finds beauty in, for appearance does nothing to change one’s beauty, despite changing their outward appearance. Epictetus states that the beautiful are just, temperate, and moderate, and he tells the man that “so long as you neglect these things, you must be ugly, even though you contrive all you can to appear beautiful.” He then goes on to say that in order to be a wise and good man, one should practice active decision making and avoid being reactionary and careless. Doing this helps to work towards one’s desires deliberately and purposefully.
Epictetus then delves into what it means to be good and the importance it has in relationships. He states that the soul inherently welcomes good and rejects evil, so once a person starts trying to do good things, they usually invite more good into their being. In a similar way, good things and evil things are both drawn to things similar to themselves, so people who try to do good should try to surround themselves with others who do the same. For this reason, Epictetus argues that if your own family does not do things to make you or themselves better people, you should not hesitate to cut them out. “There is no intimate relationship between me and my father, but there is between me and the good,” he states. According to his argument, you cannot control the family you are born into, but you have a say in the people that you surround yourself with, so it is better to be surrounded by good people than it is to choose to be around your family if they do not choose to be good. This shows the extremity to which Epictetus practices what he teaches about the importance of what we can control versus that which is out of our hands.
On behaving in public, Epictetus once again presented a series of proverbs that explained how our choices impact our lives above all else. In his first example, he stated that one may behave and celebrate as they please in their own home, but if they choose to act extraneously in public, they must be willing to accept the ridicule of other people. In his own words, “Celebrate as many games as you choose in your own house… But in public do not claim more than your due, nor attempt to appropriate to yourself what belongs to all. If you do not consent to this, bear being abused.” Epictetus then provided another example, on the subject of leaving a public setting, such as work, due to an illness. He acknowledges that contracting an illness is not the fault of the ill person, but he questions why, if they knew that they were sick, they would bother coming in the first place. Epictetus argues that by coming to work sick just to leave early, energy is wasted all around; if one does not have the energy to leave bed, then they should not do so in the first place, but they should do all that they are capable of in whatever state they are in. By making the decision to use energy to leave home, only to have to then return from work early, a person wastes their day through their own choices, which they then try to blame on something out of their control. Both of these examples show Epictetus acknowledging that some factors are out of our control, but it is those choices within our control that define our quality.
During one of his lessons, Epictetus was asked why it was that if they were living in a time of such advanced reason, they were not seeing the same advancements and progress that was seen in the past. He responded by arguing that, as a matter of fact, great progress was being made, just in different fields. The civilizations of the past had to concentrate their efforts on survival alongside nature, and so they cultivated their minds and experiences towards these fields. The men of Epictetus’ time did not have these same issues to worry about, and instead cultivated their minds towards progress in governance and quality of life. At different stages throughout history, humanity has had to choose which fields needed the most concentration, and then collectively cultivate and advance that field.
The latter half of Book 3 of Epictetus’s Discourses includes some highly specific proverbs on how to act in certain situations, to include dealing with sickness, exercise, and multiple short chapters he titles “certain miscellaneous matters.” All of these writings take a physical example, such as illness, and then tie them into the wider theme of Epictetus’s writing, the idea that one should only worry about the things they have direct control over. Chapter 8 sees Epictetus describing the difference between what is good and what is evil. Most notably, he says that “things beyond the power of the will” can be neither good nor evil, they simply are. He gives more examples, including a ship being lost at sea or the death of a loved one. In chapter 10, Epictetus notes that “It is not the business of a philosopher to look after these externals, neither his wine nor his oil nor his poor body, but his own ruling power.” This is as explicit as this text gets, clearly stating that one should not worry about the externals, or things out of one’s control.
Chapter 12 is about weighing desire for pleasure against stoicism and self-control. Epictetus makes the point that while it may be difficult to resist the urge to pursue pleasure that is dependent on things out of one’s control, the discipline you will gain is well worth it. This concept is what he refers to as exercise, and it is a key tenet of the message of stoicism. To understand and believe these concepts is one thing, but the most important part of the belief is that one lives it out through their actions. This is also the reason some of the chapters of The Discourses are so highly specific: Epictetus wants the reader to have an understanding of how to put these practices into action in any situation they encounter. His life story, being born into slavery before being granted his freedom and living as a philosopher, makes it understandable why a person would strive so valiantly to keep their focus on the things they have command over and why they would draw their happiness from that. A life filled with strife and grief would be infinitely more manageable if viewed through the lens of stoicism.
The Discourses of Epictetus outline how to live life happily, focusing primarily on how to align fate with desire. Chapter IV continues to present principles that Epictetus believes will lead a man (or woman) to a meaningful life where you are content and desire what fate, or God, presents you. He highlights that desire, pity, and anger can lead to our self destruction, going as far to say that we control how we let external, and internal, views and opinions affect us and that if we do let it impact us, we give those opinions, those outsiders, power over us. Ultimately, Epictetus acknowledges that we are granted freedom from God and are therefore under the contract of God; we should thus follow that path that fits us, claim what is ours, and live the comfortable life by doing things that make us happy and not letting others worry us. The Discourses provides us a guideline that attempts to ensure we understand how to live happily and contently, without corrupting our character.
Epictetus has a hard start to his life. With the way he explained his principles, the central idea is that we must not be terribly troubled by the events in our life because most of the time, they are well out of our control. In chapter one of book four, we learn that Epictetus believes in aligning our own happiness with what life has to offer. Since most things are out of our control, we have to endure the things we experience and learn to appreciate such things that aren’t always according to plan. This could be the will of fate and/or the gods. Additionally, we can see how Epictetus applies this concept to his life, as he stated, “I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God. Is it His will that I shall have fever? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should move toward anything? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should obtain anything? It is my wish also. Does He not will? I do not wish. Is it His will that I be put to the rack? It is my will then to die; it is my will then to be put to the rack,” (Epictetus, Book 4). There are many things in life that occur which potentially are not in our favor, but what he is emphasizing is that we must search for the good in things that may be perceived as bad. This way, we can learn to be patient with an unexpected event and then proceed to create our own righteous moment. Epictetus abides by the will of God, or life, but he also aligns his will with importance to the higher powers.
In chapter two of book 4, Epictetus shifts his focus to the other aspect of this idea: being your own person. In relation to making peace with things that are and are not in our control, we must learn who we are and accept it. We can’t follow the ways of our friends or intimates, as Epictetus believes not following this rule will ruin a person. He explains how we must try to be the best, not just a “jolly fellow,” (Epictetus, Book 4). We have to reach a point where people place obedience in us and we place obedience in them. Learning who we are and accepting our fate is what will enrich our lives.
Chapter 3 of Book IV, outlines the concept of claiming what is our and what we should and should not exchange for things. Epictetus focuses through his chapters on a somewhat isolationist perspective, in which we should claim, control, and maintain what is ours, protect it and respect it. Claiming what is not ours is not our God given right, and that we should not allow ourselves to feel a feeling of loss, especially when we get more then we gave, or succumb to being ungrateful as both of these feelings will do more harm than good long term, to include compromising our good nature and character.
Chapter 4 of Book IV builds upon issues that can corrupt our character and how to avoid them. Epictetus acknowledges that we should desire a life that is peaceful and allows us contentment, but warns we must be cognizant of the fact that, “not only the desire of power and of riches makes us mean and subject to others, but even the desire of tranquility, and of leisure, and of traveling abroad, and of learning.” (Epictetus, Book IV) We place a value on objects or external entities that inherently give those things power over us as we desire them. His example is reading; reading can make you happy, but if it does not, then why subject yourself to it [sic]? We should not waste time figuring out Shakespeare famous “to be or not to be” so long as we are happy with the choice or fate we are assigned. We should not go through life searching for tranquility, as this life only leaves us constantly searching for what we may never achieve.
This hunt for internal peace is reminiscent of the Anakin Skywalker, who was on a constant search for a peaceful life and a way to protect his wife and future children, but is compromised and finds evil in the wake of his search, causing him to lose everything that he was so desperate to protect. Anakin’s failure to understand he could not control things outside his power, like foreseeing the death of his wife or the death of his enslaved mother, is something Epictetus says makes us slaves to society; trying to control everything in order to ensure our peace will drive us to insanity. We should be happy with the path provided to us, and make the best of the situation, instead of focusing on material possessions and doing everything in our power to change fate only to be consumed by our ambition.
Chapter 5 builds off this concept that we should control what is in our control; we should not attempt to control others and therefore should not waste time fighting with others. We must speak calmly and listen, but not subject ourselves to engaging in pointless arguments. Society calls on us to hold higher standards; the golden rule of treating others how you wish to be treated is the essence of what Epictetus is getting at in this chapter. There is a bright side to every situation; if someone attacks you, do not retaliate as this corrupts your character and makes you worse then the attacker, instead be grateful you are not dead. Controlling our actions and reactions are imperative, and our society must demand this. Going back to Anakin Skywalker, mourning his mother, while understandable, leads him to massacre her killers in retaliation. Epictetus says this is very dangerous; Anakin had no control over the killers, and therefore morning and retailing only corrupted Anakin and made him subject to dangerous thoughts and actions.
We also should be cognizant of how we let others’ opinions affect us. We should not play into others’ foolishness. No one can tell you who you are or what you are as only you control this, therefore do not be afraid of others or their opinions, they can not harm you unless you let them. Our opinion is what makes us indestructible or breaks us, and only we can decide which one it is. People can become enemies simply over differing opinions when in reality it should not matter if you and your friend have varying opinions so long as you do not let it affect you. Football fans can wage war over an opposing fan’s comment or victory; Philly is the prime example of an entire city’s morale and environment being controlled by the Eagles game.
Losing to the Cowboys may start a riot, when in reality the outcome of the game has nothing to do with the city or the individual fan; only the team has control of that fate. Fans should have fun, but not compromise themselves over something so outside their control.
Epictetus goes as far as to say God provides us the ability to not care and be free from “check,” but that it is up to us to maintain control of our ability to not care about opinions. Epictetus ends Book IV with a few sentences concerning pity, and ties his thoughts together by stating it is up to us if we allow ourselves to pity ourselves, that being concerned over others pitying us is not our job.
Ultimately, the Discourses of Epictetus outlines how we can live our life constantly, while answering questions about everyday life that could compromise our happiness. Caring about what we control is really all we can do as an individual in a large society.
Evan Sparks is a senior at Virginia Tech double majoring in History and Political Science. He hopes to get a master’s degree in education and work as an educator in the future.
Jillian Skahill is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in Political Science. She is planning on commissioning into the US Army as a Military Police Officer, and wants to one day work for the DEA.
Graham Warren is a junior at Virginia Tech majoring in Political Science. He plans on commissioning into the United States Marine Corps and becoming a fighter pilot.
Afshan Shabbir is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in Political Science. She plans on working as a political analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency in the near future.