“Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.” (René Descartes, Discourse on Method)
This passage was written by the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, but it just as easily could have been written by an Ancient Stoic philosopher. For the Stoics, like Descartes, were acutely aware that most people suffer more than necessary due to their inability to control their thoughts. But uncommon is the individual who takes concerted steps to correct this deficiency, who strives in other words, to master their inner discourse. Rather, when we find ourselves in a difficult period in our life we tend to look outward. We blame our discontent on other people, the state of society, or a lack of wealth, social status, power, or fame.
But while there is no denying that the external world offers up many challenges, our environment is not the most fundamental determinant of our well-being. For as humans we have a unique power – we can create misery or joy independent of our surroundings. By thought alone we can turn a peaceful environment into the worst of hells or find internal peace in the midst of tragedy. Most people tend more toward the former situation, not the latter, and for this reason we will turn to the wisdom of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher and former slave, whose writings provide practical advice for escaping the self-imposed chains of our sometimes-torturous thought patterns.
“You must be one person, either good or bad. You must either work on your ruling principle, or work on externals, practice the art either of what is inside or of what is outside, that is, play the role either of a philosopher or of a non-philosopher.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion)
Epictetus believed that we each have a choice: We can take the common path and structure our life around the pursuit of material good and external values such as social status, or we can choose the path of the philosopher. For in Epictetus’ day philosophy was first and foremost a way of life. A philosopher was one who strove to master the art of living, and for the Stoics this was analogous to mastery of one’s mind. For a good life, according to the Stoics, is more likely to be achieved by those who learn to control their thoughts, than it is for those who believe that before they can be content, they must attain some pre-conceived notion of worldly success. The reason the Stoics held this view was because they recognized that our control over the external events of our life is limited, or as Epictetus famously put it:
“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices. . .” (Epictetus, Enchiridion)
If we tether our happiness to things not within our control, be it wealth, beauty, social status or even our health, we will suffer unnecessarily. For chance, luck, randomness, or whatever one wishes to call it, plays a massive role in each person’s life. We can easily lose the external goods or accolades on which, in ignorance, we base our happiness, or even fail to attain them in the first place. But acceptance of this does not have to lead to fatalistic resignation in the assumption that because some things are out of our control, so to is our well-being. For as Epictetus explained “it is not things that trouble us, but our judgements about things” (Epictetus, Enchiridion) and because we can control our judgements, the quality of our life is also within our control.
But if we have lived a life where negative thought patterns have reigned supreme, how can we begin moving in the direction of mastery over our inner discourse? Epictetus suggested that we start off small. For after years of neglect we need to strengthen inner capacities that have long lay dormant, and this can effectively be done by practicing on the minor annoyances of life:
“Begin therefore with little things. A little oil is spilled, a little wine is stolen: say, “This is the price of tranquility; this is the price of not being upset.”” (Epictetus, Enchiridion)
Once we can remain calm amidst small misfortunes and impediments, Epictetus advised that we strive to diminish our need for social validation. This advice is especially pertinent as many people in our day judge the value of their actions almost completely on how others react. These people, Epictetus would say, are slaves to the opinions of others; they have relinquished control of their faculty of judgement and in so doing ceded control of their happiness.
“If someone handed your body over to a passerby, you would be annoyed. Aren’t you ashamed that you hand over your mind to anyone around, for it to be upset and confused if the person insults you?” (Epictetus, Enchiridion)
After minimizing our need for social validation and taking back control of our inner life, Epictetus saw it as necessary to begin cultivating the ability to accept those things we cannot change. For life, he believed, is best viewed as a game of dice. The conditions of our existence at any moment are like the die that have been thrown, they cannot be changed and must be accepted, but how we react to them, just as how we play the die after they have fallen, is up to us.
Most people, Epictetus realized, do not accept and play the die of life as they have been thrown and this is a product of a weak mastery of their inner self. For while they can accept the good, they try to deny and flee from challenges and hardships. If, however, we have chosen the path of the philosopher, we will discover that we do not need to view hardships as misfortunes, but instead can regard them as opportunities to strengthen our inner resolve:
“It is circumstances which show men what they are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like the trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. “For what purpose?” you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.” (Epictetus, Discourses)
After learning of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers many people will feel a brief sense of empowerment in the realization that there are other ways of existing in this world – ways far more conducive to a fulfilling life. But fear and laziness often get the upper hand and rather than taking steps to change, many people persist as they are, and tell themselves that tomorrow they will make amends. But in most cases, this tomorrow will never come, and a point will eventually be reached, sometimes sooner than expected, when there is no tomorrow, or at least not enough of them to make up for the vast amount of time that has been wasted.
“If you now neglect things and are lazy and are always making delay after delay and set one day after another as the day for paying attention to yourself, then without realizing it you will make no progress but will end up a non-philosopher all through life and death. So decide now that you are worthy of living as a full-grown man who is making progress, and make everything that seems best to be a law that you cannot go against. And if you meet with any hardship or anything pleasant or reputable or disreputable, then remember that the contest is now . . . and you cannot put things off anymore and that your progress is made or destroyed by a single day and a single action.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion)