The Enchiridion of Epictetus — Chapter 16

In Enchiridion of Epictetus, Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

This is one of those chapters that can be incredibly difficult to comprehend, especially if you don’t already have a background in Stoicism.

On a superficial level, this can be read as advice not to share in other people’s grief. However, it is actually a practical reminder of the question of control, and what we can control and what we cannot. The death of a son — anyone’s son — is not within the control of anyone. You are powerless to stop anyone from dying in some way. And so, this should be recognized as one of those things that happens as part of the experience of life, and so it should not be looked on as a bad thing. It just is.

Of course, this is not to say that you should not perhaps miss the times you shared with this person, but you can, in fact, use this chapter to ensure that you use the time you have with everyone in a worthwhile manner.

The problem with acting as if no-one is ever going to die is that it ignores reality, but may also cause you to take things and people for granted, and when reality inevitably comes around and takes someone you love or something you like, you will be hit much harder than if you had, at times, spent time contemplating their loss, your reaction, and how that would feel.

This is the practice of negative visualization, and it is perhaps , paradoxically, one of the best way to ensure that you can enjoy life and what you have right now to the full.

Because we are only able to live in the present, the way you act now is the way you will live your life. While this may appear simplistic, it is actually quite profound. So, if you’re always waiting to reach a certain goal before you can be happy or tranquil, you will always stay in that state of waiting to reach for a certain goal. The goal will change over the time, but that feeling of anxiety and discontent will be there permanently.

On the other hand, being able to appreciate what you have right now, means that you will gain the capability of always enjoying what you have right now, regardless of how much you have. The amount of “stuff” in your life may change, it may accumulate or it may be all taken away, but you will still be content.

So, how you think about life is how it is, and even the death of a son should not shake you.

“For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~ Hamlet, act 2, scene 2, line 232, William Shakespeare

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