Enchiridion of Epictetus – Chapter 1

In Enchiridion of Epictetus, Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

If then you desire (aim at) such great things, remember that you must not (attempt to) lay hold of them with a small effort; but you must leave alone some things entirely, and postpone others for the present. But if you wish for these things also (such great things), and power (office) and wealth, perhaps you will not gain even these very things (power and wealth) because you aim also at those former things (such great things): certainly you will fail in those things which alone happiness and freedom are secured. Straightway then practice saying to every harsh appearance,* You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to the things which are not in our power: and if it relates to anything which is not our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you.

*Appearances are named “harsh” or “rough” when they are “contrary to reason and over-exciting and in fact make life rough (uneven) by the want of symmetry and by inequality in the movements” Simplicius, v. (i.5).

I think it’s quite unfortunate that the first chapter of the Enchiridion is also amongst one of the longest. There is quite a lot of information crammed into a couple of paragraphs and I wonder how many people have picked up the Enchiridion, read the first chapter and then put the book down and told themselves that this whole Stoicism thing is too complex.

Also, I think the language used actually obscures some points. I’m not sure if that is to do with the original text or the translation. I don’t want to judge George Long’s translation because I am not a Greek scholar but I think that it’s worth taking a couple of minutes and having a modest, if completely unscholarly, attempt at rewriting the entire thing in simpler language.

Chapter 1, simplified.

Some things are in our control, other are not.

In our control are:

  • Our opinions (often called “impressions)
  • Our desires
  • Our actions

Out of our control are:

  • Our body
  • Our property
  • Our reputation
  • Our careers
  • Anything that is not our actions

The things in our control are, by their very nature, free – in both senses of the word. Nobody can charge you money for your thoughts, or restrain them.

The things that our not in our control are, by their very nature, subject to restrictions and often are in the power of other people or external events.

If you think that you can control the things that you cannot truly control, you will lead a disturbed life because no matter what you do, things will not go to plan.

On the other hand, if you understand that you can only control your thoughts and actions, you will have a good life. You will not blame other people for your failures, you will have no enemies and you will not suffer any harm because the nobody will have the power to harm you.

If you try and gain things that are out of your control, such as wealthy, property and a good reputation, as a pathway to happiness, you might get lucky and actually gain wealth, property or a good reputation but unfortunately you will not gain happiness.

Learn to analyze any situation or desire in the following manner:

Is it in my control or is it out out of my control?

If the answer is that it is out of your control, then be ready to say that “this does not concern me”.

Obviously I wasn’t truthful to the original text, but I hope that this perhaps makes it easier to reread Long’s translation and get more out of it.

What can we learn from this chapter?

I think that the main point of this first chapter is to arm us with a way to discern what is in our control and what is our of our control. I’ve spoken at length about this in a previous aptly-named essay, On Control so I suggest you go ahead and read that as I would simply be repeating myself here.

This is one of the cornerstones of the Stoic philosophy and for good reasons too.

Once you truly accept that almost everything is out of your control, many negative emotions such as anger, envy, greed and even sadness seem to vanish or diminish greatly. Obviously I am talking from personal experience, but I suggest you go away and think about it.

Practice asking “Is this in my control or is it out of my control?” in difficult situations. Often you will find that the situation falls into the latter category and so you might as well shrug your shoulders, say “C’est la vie” and get on with the rest of your life. If we can cultivate this attitude of “C’est la vie” to external events we will go a long way to removing negative emotions from our lives.

This doesn’t mean that you should take a passive role in life. For instance, I am first-aid trained and so I know how to give CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) and so if I find myself in a situation where someone is in need of CPR, I will obviously perform it.

But wait! Surely, if we can only control our thoughts and actions, we cannot possibly control whether that person lives or dies. So surely there is no point doing CPR?

Well, there is a point in doing CPR. I cannot control whether that person lives or dies, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t perform CPR. I will do it to the best of my ability just because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps no amount of CPR will be able to save that person but that’s not something that I can possibly know with any certainty in that situation.

I will not gloat if that person survives and I will not beat myself up if that person dies because the fact that they lived or died is influenced by whether applying CPR was appropriate. If they died because of my lack of skills in applying CPR, then again there is very little that I can do about it now, except perhaps do another course. If I believe that I tried my very best then the rest is not up to me.

I did everything that was under my control and the rest does not concern me. To get a better idea of this concept, perhaps it’s best to use an analogy.

Let’s imagine we are an archer who needs to hit a target. We can practice our archery skills until we are masters, we can commision craftsmen to build the highest quality bows and arrow and we can wait until we think the conditions are near-perfect. This still doesn’t guarantee that we will hit the target. As soon as we let go of that arrow, there is absolutely nothing we can do to influence its path. It’s not up to us whether the arrow will hit the bull’s eye or go wildly off-target.

A few questions worth thinking about.

  • Considering that life and death is not under our control, should we not be disturbed by the death of a loved one? Will this philosophical view desensitize us to everyday life?
  • If we have no control over anything outside ourselves, should we even bother to do anything? Why even bother letting go of the arrow if an uncontrollable gust of wind will just take it off target?
  • Is it actually possible not to care about “externals” in the society that we live in today, surrounded by advertising and people who only care about externals? Is there too much social pressure to conform to the norm for someone to act differently?

Hopefully, we will slowly begin to be able to answer these question in the next fifty or so installments of this series of essays but you can be sure of one thing, a lot more questions will spring up.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you Emanuele,

    ok, so I shouldn’t worry about the weather.
    should I worry about bringing an umbrella?
    I could get very anxious about bringing an umbrella.
    If I forgot the umbrella, I am to blame, right?
    So I am worrying about the weather because I don’t have my umbrella.
    What if I don’t own an umbrella?
    Should I go into the trouble of making one?
    Should I beat myself because I didn’t make an umbrella and I am now wet?

    sounds funny, but it is serious, it is my sticking point with the starting maxim.

    cheers!

    • Hey Aristides,

      Yup, you shouldn’t worry about the weather, but actually, you shouldn’t worry about much at all!

      I’ve discussed in my essay on Stoic Exercises (http://emanuelefaja.com/ten-insanely-useful-stoic-exercises/) regarding how we can attempt to live the best possible life – one which is free from negative emotions.

      Regarding your umbrella…

      Let’s say you don’t own one, there are a few options available to you (excluding making one):

      #1. You can acquire one. This can be done by buying, finding, stealing, or borrowing the umbrella.

      #2. You can simply decide that you won’t own one.

      If you want to do #1 because you need an umbrella, make sure that you don’t compromise yourself while trying to get what you want. So don’t steal an umbrella, because while you will gain an umbrella, you will lose some of the characteristics of what makes you a decent human being, such as trustworthiness and empathy with others.

      If there is no way you can get an umbrella without compromising your situation, then simply accept #2. You won’t have an umbrella, and when it rains, you’ll probably get wet, but you know what? That’s not so bad.

      It’s often beneficial to think about the worst possible outcome regarding the decisions and situations we end up in, and we will often find that they are not so bad after all. Many ancient philosophers discuss how losing everything you own may actually end up being the best thing that ever happened to you, and how we should actively practice poverty and prepare ourselves, so we can handle the shock better if it ever happens, and adapt faster.

      To answer your questions:

      If I forgot the umbrella, I am to blame, right?

      Nope, as long as you believe that you live in a world that is populated by flawed human beings that do forget things. If that’s the case, then it is in your nature to forget things, including umbrellas. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

      Should I go into the trouble of making one?

      If you want. However, it’s much easier to stop wanting something than to make the effort required to get it. That can be true of an umbrella as well as large amount of wealth, sexual partners, or fame.

      Should I beat myself because I didn’t make an umbrella and I am now wet?

      Only if being wet is a bad thing, which, in fact, it’s not. It’s just water touching your body, very much like it does when you drink, take a shower, or go swimming. In fact, we should generally learn to accept our decisions, and the fact that we can’t have the cake and eat it. Check out Chapter 25 of the Enchiridion of Epictetus (http://emanuelefaja.com/enchiridion/) for more on this. Don’t think because you are wet that you came out worse – after all, you didn’t have to bother building an umbrella!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment here, and I hope to see you around soon!

      Emanuele.

      • thank you Emanuele for your reply, it is very kind of you.
        And it is very helpful.
        I will keep on reading. 🙂
        greetings from Athens!

        • Hey,

          Thank you for taking the time to comment, feel free to do so on any of the other essays if there is something you would like to discuss!

          All the best,

          Emanuele.

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