If you could sit on a star and watch the planets dance around the sun, you’d bear witness to a Stoic truth: the world is meant to be in harmony. The universe is intelligent, rational, and ordered. As a piece of the world, a fragment of this intelligence resides within you. You have a role in establishing harmony.
Life is a play in which we all take part, and our duty is to play our part well. In this article, we’ll discuss the teachings of Epictetus: a Stoic philosopher who can help us achieve a life of harmony.
How to live a great life?
By acknowledging that a fragment of the world’s intelligence resides within you, you also acknowledge that most of it doesn’t. This means that most things in life are out of your control. You can’t decide whether you get sick or not. You can’t decide whether someone hires you. And, you can’t decide whether people like you or not. But, this doesn’t mean you don’t have control over anything.
You were given a small locus of control. Although you can’t establish the order of the external world, you have the capacity to generate the order of your internal world. You can’t control how the world responds to you, but you can control how you respond to the world. Your perceptions, desires, motivations, and beliefs are all in your control.
Achieving harmony with Nature begins by realizing that only the structure of our internal world is in our control. So, how should we structure this internal world? The world presents itself to all of your senses and gives you an idea to think. You get to judge whether these ideas are true and what their value is. As you judge things as true or false and valuable or valueless, you begin to give structure to your psychology.
This structure, or set of beliefs, determines how you’ll act. You’ll move towards everything you deem good and away from everything you deem as bad. How, then, will you bring down the hammer of your judgment? Epictetus gives us three hammers with which we can judge the world: virtue, vice, and indifference.
Virtues are ideas or actions that are good for everyone under all circumstances: they’re what we should deem as true and positively valuable. Vices are ideas or actions that are bad for everyone under all circumstances: they’re what we should deem as false and negatively valuable.
Things that don’t count as virtue or vice are indifferent. Indifferents can be preferred, like money, or not preferred, like illness. Your mind is a powerful hammer, but how well do you pass judgment? Can you judge as Nature judges? Can you live a life of virtue and harmony? Your philosophy is the seed out of which your actions grow.
The consequences of your actions are the fruit that your tree bears. Is your fruit sweet, or is it poisonous? Does it give life, or does it take it? In Stoicism, the goal of life is to bear sweet fruit. Can your flourishing be the flourishing of all? Imagine a tree that spreads its seeds through poisonous fruit: it benefits at the expense of others. This tree won’t flourish because it’s not in harmony with Nature.
Which animal would want to eat its fruit and spread its seed? Epictetus tells us not to be angry with those who bear poisonous fruit. In the end, they’re really just harming themselves. So, how can we bear sweet fruit? For Epictetus, the answer lies in how we structure our psychology and pass judgment on the world. Those who can avoid vice and approach virtue are the trees that can give life.
Who is Epictetus
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey) and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses and Enchiridion.
Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept calmly and dispassionately whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.
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Credit: Freedom in Thought