Enchiridion I



There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming, therefore, at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, toward the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which [you have; and first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

In defining everything outside our own mind as a 'semblance,' Epictetus predicts the move that Immanuel Kant will make during the Modern era. For Kant, everything we know about the outside world has to go through a process of simplification he calls 'transcendental apperception.' For example, our mind takes the evidence of our five different senses about some outside event and unifies it into a single event. Thus, in an important way Epictetus is correct: our evidence about what is going on outside of our mind is a kind of semblance, something different from what the things out there really are. His claim that we can dismiss these things as 'merely' a semblance is more difficult, but even Kant will affirm that we can only know the semblances -- the phenomena -- and not the true world outside (the noumena). 

In the first section we get the core charge, which is stunning in its difficulty. Who among us could really not care if we suffered in our body, for example? I ride motorcycles fully aware that I run the hazard of being crippled every time I do, but that does not imply that I have no concern about the matter. The same with horses; one might break one's back doing that, but the fact that one rides anyway does not imply that one does not care if one broke one's back. Nor, ordinarily, would we regard a failure to be concerned about dangers like this as if it were praiseworthy. Aristotle would call it a kind of rashness, not a true form of courage but its excess. 

Once Lancelot conveyed his willingness to face injury or death in battle to a lady, though, saying, "All shall be welcome that God sends." Arguably this is the fault of Job, who endured losses such as are described here without complaint until the losses touched his own body (as Satan thought would be the case). By the end of the book he confesses that God's judgment, and not his own, is the righteous one; and Jesus, asking that 'this cup' might pass him, nevertheless adds that it should be according to the will of the Father and not his own. There is good warrant in myth and faith that Epictetus is on to something here. 

In any case this is the heart of the thing: to divide the world into that which we can master, and that over which we ultimately have no control, and then to concern ourselves with the area of our own mastery. That is what principally concerns us, and the thing we have the power -- and perhaps the honor -- to perfect. 


J Melcher said...

I intend to attempt to follow along much more closely this discussion.

Question, just administrative:

"in one word, whatever affairs are our own."

What IS the Greek word , the single word, encompassing the ideas of "many" and "relationships" and "ownership"? Does there exist no modern English word with this one Greek word as a surviving root?

Grim said...

The word appears to me to be ἔργον. It can encompass works of the hands or of industry, actions we take, deeds, etc. But it also implies ownership, in the way that I sometimes refer to 'The Two Rules of Business." These are:

1) Mind yours.
2) Keep out of mine.

So you might best translate it as something like 'in one word, our business.'

Let me refer you to the best source I know for trying to work through these things in Greek, as an English speaker who may not have studied as much Greek as you'd have wished. Here is the relevant page for this document.


Christopher B said...

While not terrified I'm definitely uncomfortable when off the ground any significant distance. However I find that if I'm engaged in a task it's easier to deal with the anxiety. It's not that I'm unmindful of the risk but it's not at the forefront of my thoughts. It couldn't be, or I'd not be able to get the icicle lights off the gutter :)

I'm guess that you would feel similarly about your motorcycle riding. You're aware of the risk but if it was the primary focus you'd never be able to enjoy the ride, and might not even be able to get rolling. Training and practice let us put some of the risk evaluation into our subconscious, and it only taps our conscious mind on the shoulder when some definite action or decision needs to be made.

james said...

Detachment seems to be a major theme--one of the greatest desiderata. And yet... What's the shortest verse in the Bible?

Grim said...

Fair point, although it is susceptible to the criticism that it may be God’s business to care about all these things; trying to harmonize what is right for the divine incarnation with what is right for others is always tricky.

Now it may be an issue for the Great commandment, which seems to require loving those outside as yourself. But perhaps not: if you love them just the same, you would counsel them to seek the same kind of peace and tranquillity that the Stoic detachment offers you. Loving them as one’s self would not require you to care more about their body than your own. You should want them to know the same peace that comes from trusting God to handle the world outside, perhaps.