The Consolation of Philosophy
Epictetus has been my astringent companion for more than twenty years. And a bracing friend he is. The purest spirit among all the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus tells the truth as he sees it — and always without any varnish.
This former slave (his name means “Acquired”), a Greek living under the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, Epictetus taught on the streets in the common language of Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, during the very time (c.A.D. 54-68) when our fledgling Christian movement was beginning.
My own little hardbound volumes of his discourses, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) have traveled with me from sea to shining sea. Dog-eared, read, re-read, marked, learned, inwardly-digested, endlessly indexed and cross-indexed and loved within a dog-ear of ragged death, these volumes have seen me through many sad and perplexing hours, through times of self-doubt and self-pity, as well as times of joy. They represent an ultimate consolation of philosophy, reminding me again and again what it means to be a human, why wisdom matters, and how we ought to live.
Epictetus is one of the great pagans of faith, not Christian, but long beloved by Christian theologians, saints and philosophers through the ages, because of his sacred wisdom. He gives us one of the finest descriptions of the concept explored and used so fruitfully by John Calvin, the idea of adiaphora (matters of indifference or inconsequential matters), the idea that some things just aren’t essential and shouldn’t be fought over. But he gives us more, much more. He describes for us a way of being that remains unshaken by life’s inevitable ups and downs.
What do you have control over in this world? Epictetus asks. Very little, really.
Storms and plagues may wipe out what you possess and take the health and compromise the safety of those you love. Tyrants can take your physical freedom, even your life. You may not have control over external circumstances. But you do have control over your personal understanding of and response to what happens to you. In this, at least, you are free. Ultimately one thing is under your control: “the proper use of impressions,” or our interpretation of that which happens. But that is enough.
Epictetus says that philosophy does not profess to secure for us any external circumstances. Each person’s life is the subject-matter of the art of living. And this art of living is mastered when we are able to take whatever life throws at us with equanimity and grace.
The achievement of this quality of wisdom will not come overnight, he reminds us, but “nothing great comes into being all at once.” And when at last we have learned the art of living, we will become immune even to the threat of death by the most terrible tyrant.
We will greet calamities and cruelties to ourselves with the same grace as when we meet good fortune, knowing that “difficulties reveal what we are,” and nothing can make us miserable unless we allow it to do so.
“If all this is true,” Epictetus says, “and we are not silly nor merely playing a part when we say, ‘Man’s good and man’s evil lies in moral choice, and all other things are nothing to us,’ why are we still distressed and afraid?”
Is it possible for a person of genuine wisdom, then, to express sorrow and pain?
Yes, of course, Epictetus says.
Even the wise person is only human. “And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the center of your being.” You may express distress and disappointment, in other words, but do not despair.
Even death has no more power over us than to deprive us of life. One can kill me, Epictetus says, but the killer does not have the power to “hurt” me.
The goal of philosophy, according to Epictetus, is to educate and form a person who is able to “lift up your neck at last like a person escaped from bondage, be bold to look towards God and pray, ‘Use me henceforward for whatever Thou wilt; I am of one mind with Thee; I am Thine; I crave exemption from nothing that seems good in Thy sight; where Thou wilt, lead me; in what raiment Thou wilt, clothe me. Wouldst Thou have me to hold office, or remain in private life; to remain here or go into exile; to be poor or be rich? I will defend all these Thy acts before humanity; I will show what the true nature of each thing is.'”
Perhaps only a person who had spent a good part of his life a slave in chains could conceive so perfectly of a philosophy which is basically a Declaration of Independence from all external circumstances. Epictetus tells us that no one can take away our freedom, even if he places us in the darkest dungeon; no one can triumph over us, even if they take our lives. No one has the power to make us miserable, no matter what they do to us.
Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose; nor is joy dependent upon the vagaries of circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind which can be cultivated with discipline. And joy is available to everyone who knows how to be free.