Enchiridion of Epictetus – Chapter 5

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

It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgement that death is frightening – now, that is something to be afraid of. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves – that is, our judgements – accountable. An ignorant person is inclined to blame other for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.

The first sentence of this paragraph is perhaps one of Epictetus’s most famous quotes, and quite rightly so. I hold this to be one of best pieces of philosophical advice ever written. It goes to the heart of Stoicism in just thirteen words.

This thought is echoed in Hamlet:

“For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

~ “Hamlet”,act 2, scene 2, line 232, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

This chapter is also a great example of what an incredibly practical book the Enchiridion is. Let’s dig a little deeper…

Firstly, Epictetus explains to us the problem: “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them. “

Then, he uses death as an example and proves that while most people think that it is frightening, it actually isn’t.

The section on death is probably the part I most enjoy in this chapter. The use of logic to prove that “Death” is not frightening is fantastic.

Think about it – by giving a statement such as “Death is frightening”, we make it universal. Everybody must be frightened by Death for that statement to be true. Otherwise, the statement is really “I find Death frightening”. That’s a whole different approach. Epictetus gives Socrates’ willing acceptance of his death-sentence by the Athenian authorities as a clear example that death is not frightening.

As Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” (a book that I can highly recommend), would remind us, it only takes one counter example – one black swan – to prove that a statement is incorrect or that a theory is wrong.

Just as having thousand or even millions of sightings on white swans does not prove that all swans are white, seeing that almost everyone around is scared of death does not prove that death is frightening. The only thing it proves is that ignorant people are scared of death. By the way, I still personally fall under this category.

After he has dealt with death, he gives us the simple solution to our problems: holding our judgements (i.e. ourselves) accountable for what we think is good or bad.

While the solution is simple, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy, otherwise everyone would always be serene. Clearly, that’s not the case in our society.

So how do we take the first step in beginning to hold ourselves accountable? I find it incredibly difficult but the more I try, the easier and more automatic it becomes. What is very difficult is to instantly accept that it’s our judgements upsetting us and not the event, when the event is either currently happening or has just happened. It’s quite difficult to stay philosophical when you’ve just been punched in the face.

So I wouldn’t get to hung up in trying to change your instant reaction to the things around you. If a day or two later you can think it through and realise that it wasn’t the event that was the problem, but your own judgement, then you know that you’ve come a long way. Epictetus tells us just that: “To blame oneself is proof of progress.“.

When you realise that your (un)happiness is completely up to you, then you begin to take control of life, and from my personal experience I can vouch for it. It gives me a huge amount of confidence when I have big events in my life: I know that it’s how I frame the event in my head that matters, not the actual outcome of the event.

The last sentence of this chapter of the Enchiridion ” But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” is still a little cryptic to me. What I do understand is that Epictetus wants us to learn to accept events exactly as to happen, so you will never blame other people or your own judgements. Wanting things to happen, in whichever way they will happen is a clever tactic for life. You will never be disappointed and you will always have things your way.

It’s worth mentioning that one should hold this way of thinking/judging for both positive and negative events. It is just as bad, if not worse, to think that something is really great and get attached to it than to think something is really bad. This is because everything is, at best, transient and so if you have too many emotions about a certain something, it will inevitably have to be “given back” to the world at some stage, and then your attachments will cause you to become upset.