Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the second episode of the season two of Veep on HBO (a very good political comedy that I strongly recommend), Mike, the Veep’s director of communications purchased what appeared to be a sinking boat and failed to resell it on eBay. He now has enormous debts and recently decided to stop depressing about that.
MS. VICE PRESIDENT (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld): How you doing, Mike?
MIKE (Matt Walsh, Upright Citizens Brigade): I’m doing great, ma’am.
MS. VICE PRESIDENT: Heard about your financial situation. You know, the boat and everything.
MIKE: It’s fine. I’ve changed the only thing I can– my reaction to things.
MS. VICE PRESIDENT: Oh. And your boxers occasionally, I hope.
MIKE: I have a fresh pair every day now.
MS. VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, good for you, Mike.
Stoicism was one of the most important and enduring philosophies to emerge from the Greek and Roman world. With Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus (AD c. 50 – 130) is the greatest representative of the Roman stoicism. He was born in Phrygia (Asia Minor) and was the slave of an abusive master named Epaphroditus, who was himself a former slave that Neron emancipated. Epictetus then went to Rome, where he was in turn emancipated. In Rome, he founded a renowned school of philosophy, where he advocated an ethics of renouncement (he would himself live in simplicity and humility). Thanks to his pupil Flavius Arrianus who gathered his teachings (Discourses of Epictetus), he is known for his philosophy of life that consists in remaining stoic when facing hardships. In 89, an edict by the Flavian emperor Domitian against philosophers had him banned from Rome. He settled down in Nicopolis (in Epirus, western Greece) where he lived until… well, he died.
The philosophy of Epictetus is mainly based on reason of divine nature and human freedom (If you want to, you are free), and on the famous distinction between what is up to us and what is not:
“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, no are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men.” (Discourses)
Epictetus’ teaching aspires to be a method to achieve happiness through ataraxia and inner peace: by accepting with bravery and love the hardships we were destined to endure. “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters“, he says. The gravity of our trials is distorted by our own judgement: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”
“But if we had feared not death or banishment, but fear itself, we should have studied not to fall into those things which appear to us evils. (…) What then disturbs me? The sea? No, but my opinion. Again, when an earthquake shall happen, I imagine that the city is going to fall on me; but is not one little stone enough to knock my brains out?
What then are the things which are heavy on us and disturb us? What else than opinions? What else than opinions? What else than opinions lie heavy upon him who goes away and leaves his companions and friends and places and habits of life?” (Discourses – Chapter XVI: That we do not strive to use our opinions about good and evil)
It is thanks to Epictetus that this mental disposition towards events of life became the characteristic feature of the stoic philosophy. According to Epictetus, a good philosopher has to develop, just “like an athlete”, with time and perseverance, that capacity of dealing with misfortune. The good philosopher has to learn how to master her own desires. The whole work about morals is about our desires: you have to think about the relativity of values and convince yourself that what an event’s being good or bad to you is all up to you.
But what is philosophy? Does it not mean making preparation to meet the things that come upon us? (Discourses 3.10.6, trans. Oldfather)