Enchiridion of Epictetus – Chapter 3

In Education, Enchiridion of Epictetus, Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, “I am fond of a piece of china.” When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, “I am kissing a mortal.” Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.

The difficulty that we find in this chapter is how to follow it to the letter without becoming a heartless bastard or worse, an emotionless psychopath. I think it’s quite easy to agree with the statement that we shouldn’t be too attached to material possessions.

Giving up one’s mental tranquility for material gains is never a good deal, especially when we realise that most material objects are transient. They will probably break, be lost, go out of style or simply wear out. Let’s not forget our friend hedonic adaptation which ensures that we get used to what we have and then stop enjoying it.

So Epictetus tell us to remind ourselves of what material objects actually are. I recently broke both my expensive smartphone and my designer glasses in the space of 48 hours. I was quite surprised how I handled the situation, in the past I would have been extremely annoyed, and perhaps a bit upset. This time I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on living my life, completely unaffected – apart from not being able to see very well and not being able to accept phone calls! This is a typical sign of progress. Nothing changed from the previous time something I had broke, except my opinion on the event. That’s the key.

A great way to train oneself to be untroubled by events is to practice the Stoic exercise of negative visualisation, i.e. thinking how things could be worse.

What if I had not broken my glasses but lost my sight? In moderation, this type of reflections helps one to put things into perspective. Often what appears to be a big deal in our own lives is pretty insignificant when you look at the big picture. Previously, I wrote an essay titled It Could Be Worse in which I discussed this very topic at length. Let me modestly quote myself about the advantages of negative visualisation:

  • By imagining what could go wrong, you can plan for it accordingly and so potentially decrease the chances of it happening. This is pretty much the basis for the useful, but much hated, Health and Safety procedures. Hearing stories of people going bankrupt during the last recession I am always amazed about the lack of a contingency plan, especially from small to medium-sized business owners. Employees also shouldn’t get off the hook, it’s not exactly unimaginable that anyone may lose their jobs, yet when it does happen people are caught completely unaware. When business is going well, many business owners are quite happy to chug along and not diversify. In some ways this is understandable because it means exploring uncharted territory and that obviously has it’s risks. Except the risks of one failed attempt at diversification are far smaller than the risk of having all your eggs in one market basket.
  • If something does go wrong, you are far more likely to handle it well if you had already imagined that it could have gone wrong. We tolerate misfortune far better when we are prepared than when things just happen out of the blue. For instance, both our hypothetical business-owner and employee would have built up an emergency fund because they would have considered the possibility of losing their main earnings.
  • It dramatically increases our appreciation of what we already have. This is one of the key factors to being content in life. We discussed in “Burn Your Ships” how we think our future self will be different from our current self but that’s actually hardly ever true. So if you are not content now, there will be little reason for you to be content in the future. Sure, you may have gained that job promotion you wanted, the car you really wanted, the partner you always dreamed of , but you will soon find that it’s just not enough. A perfect example of Hedonic Adaptation in full swing.

So it all comes down to using objectivity. Seeing things for what they truly are.

An object is an object, that’s it.

It’s not worth disturbing one’s mental tranquility over an object. I had an experience recently where I had my Leica (a very nice camera) stolen from my house in the middle of night, yet I actually came out of the whole experience better than before.

This type of mental state is quite easy to achieve, but what about dealing with death? Losing a relative or friend can be difficult, and they don’t have to die for you to lose them. They may decide not to speak to you again over some issue, they may move to the other side of the world, or they may become mentally ill and so they don’t even recognise you.

Unfortunately the latter is become more and more prevalent as the world’s population ages.

So how do we deal with these kind of events? We cannot run away from them, because they will happen. In your lifetime you will experience the death of friends, relatives and acquaintances.

Does this mean the human condition is doomed to tragedy?

Not at all.

If we can find a way to come to terms with both our own and other people’s mortality then we can leave a serene life.

In our examination of the previous chapter we looked at why we shouldn’t worry about what we cannot control. Now, seeing as death is a certainty, there is little point in attempting to control it. We can attempt to influence the timing, but not the final result.

So, let’s learn to accept death as a part of life. When you kiss your loved ones, remind yourself that you are kissing a mortal. This may appear to be a negative way to life but just stop and think about it, who is going to lead the more meaningful and serene life?

  • The person who takes his loved ones and everything around him for granted because he or she doesn’t entertain the thought that someday it may all be gone?
  • Or the person who actually reflects on the fact that things will break, people will die, friends will stop being friends and so decides to make every moment count?

Clearly the person in the second example will be far more grateful each time they see their loved ones than the person in the first example because they understand that everything is transient and so everything is bound to change and there is nothing they can do about it.

If we don’t take this approach to life we end up behaving like children – crying because our ice-cream cone fell to the ground. The old saying ” It’s no use crying over spilled milk” spring to mind here.

Anyway, thanks for reading (as always) and here are a few essays and articles from around the web that I think you may find interesting: