The Freed Man

Next up is Epictetus' Discourses and the Handbook. Epictetus is yet another Stoic author. Unlike our previous two Stoic authors, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus was neither wealthy nor powerful. Rather, he was a freed slave he strove to live simply. His explanation of Stoic principles is the most rigorous and best-organized of the three authors. His "handbook" is actually a concise compilation of Stoic ideas created by one of his students. It is so concise that I could easily imagine it as a pamphlet. Maybe as the modern Stoicism movement continues growing it will become one. However, his rigor does come at a cost. His writings feel like lectures. This is probably because they originally were lectures. They lack the intimacy of Seneca's Letters or Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. For this reason, many modern proponents of Stoicism recommend leaving him for last. I think I would have been happier had I started with Epictetus but I can see how leaving him for last may be beneficial for most people.

Epictetus brings clarity to a number of issues for me. For example, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius speak of the Stoic observance of duty. But one's duty is never clearly defined. Epictetus offers some crucial guidance here. He argues that one's duties are defined by one's social relationships. In other words, your duties are primarily to your family and friends. You have a duty to be a good son or a good father and a duty to be a good friend. And then less immediately one has a relationship to one's community, city, and country. This clarity also presents a challenge for me. I am semi-estranged from my own family and I have a hard time feeling a patriotic duty to a country that has allowed itself to be consistently mismanaged my entire life. In short, Epictetus brought me one step forward on the matter of duty only to present mewith a new problem to solve.

Epictetus also clearly avoids the fallacy of believing that perception determines reality, which Marcus Aurelius seems to argue for. Instead, the Handbook says, "It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things." In other words, perception determines one's emotional state. This says nothing about objective reality. The change is only within ourselves. I am much more comfortable with Epicetus' framing of the issue than that of the other two authors.

Epictetus also makes the point that allowing one's judgment of another person's actions to affect one's emotional state gives that person power. And such an action is irrational in a way. Why should we reward those who cause us harm with further power over us? He cites an example of a man who is easily upset by his slave's incompetence. If the slave can shatter his owner's emotional composure effortlessly, who is really in control?

There is plenty more to Epictetus but much of it is just a more direct explanation of things covered by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. For example, the need to accept fate, the need concentrate on living one's philosophy rather than merely thinking about it, or the need to detach one's happiness from external things. But his brevity and clarity mean that he is the author I will most likely reread when I feel the need for reinforcement.