Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Wisdom of Epictetus Applies To Us Now As Much As Ever

“It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” ― Epictetus

The first time I heard the above saying was while visiting the headquarters of the Worldwide Evanglization Crusade (WEC) in Fort Washington, PA, a missionary organization founded in 1913 by the famous British cricketer C.T. Studd. (Something like the Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth of cricket.) The elderly man's name was Alfred Ruscoe. I'd gone there to meet an author whose books had influenced me, Norman Grubb. Mr. Grubb, son-in-law of C.T. Studd, had written books about faith and about some of the people who had been associated with WEC, including its founder.

I remember this because I wrote it down. As the saying goes, the weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.

Ruscoe was an interesting man because he also wanted to write a book about many of these people, shining a light on some of their foibles. He didn't but he had seen a lot in his day, having been with C.T. Studd for ten years back at the beginning. Because of this direct contact with a historical figure, I was eager to here some of his stories. He said he would share with me if I would help him wash his car, which I was eager to do. I still have the notebook where I scribbled some of the statements he made that day, preserving them as if delivered by an oracle. In retrospect, I was victim to a scheme similar to Tom Sawyer getting the other kids to whitewash that fence.

While reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain this week I came across a passage pertaining to Epictetus. If I recall it correctly Twain stated that Epictetus never had an education and never penned a word, but his influence continues to this day. So last night I decided to confirm that I'd heard this correctly. (I'm listening to an audiobook.) Indeed he was born a slave in Phrygia, which is now Turkey, around 55 A.D. The Stoic philosophy that he espoused essentially states that since external events are outside of our control, we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus are contained in Volume 1 of The Harvard Classics. Like Socrates and Jesus, his teachings, still relevant today, were recorded for posterity by others, in this case his pupil Arian.

“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, "He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.” 

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”  

I think the Stoic worldview is misunderstood by many to mean be grim and just bear up. Epictetus knew that some actions in the world were external to his will and out of his control. We should not be bothered by things outside of our control. Our emotions should only respond to things that we can control, that depend on us.

For Epictetus, good and evil were exclusively involved in things under our control, were within us, not in external events. The events themselves were neither good or evil. It was how we viewed events that made them good or evil.

“Circumstances don't make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”  

“To accuse others for one's own misfortune is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one's education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one's education is complete.”

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. ”

“If you would cure anger, do not feed it. Say to yourself: 'I used to be angry every day; then every other day; now only every third or fourth day.' When you reach thirty days offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the gods.”

“Events do not just happen, but arrive by appointment.”

“Give me by all means the shorter and nobler life, instead of one that is longer but of less account!”

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If this topic interests you, visit Wikipedia for more on Epictetus.

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