Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12
How to be content, or as Arrian titled it: On Contentment. Chapter 12 of book 1 of the Discourses by Epictetus has a lot for us to unravel. It builds up from a solid foundation that starts concerning the gods, to how we can live a content life. The information about Stoicism that we can find in this text is tremendous.
“Concerning gods.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.1
The first words of this discourse show us that he means business. Starting at the foundation of what most people believe in. He does a great job of addressing pretty much everyone. First, those who affirm there is no deity. Second, those who believe there is, but that it is inactive and aloof. A third group says it exists, but only has thought for the greater and heavenly things and not for anything at all on earth. Another group says that it does take thought for human affairs and things on earth. But only in a general manner, and with no thought for individuals.
“And there is a fifth group, to which both Socrates and Odysseus belonged, who say, ‘Not a move do I make unseen to thee.’”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.3
Examining the gods
Now comes the examination of all of them. And to begin with, there is an assumption made at the beginning, that leads those that follow. Epictetus first looks at those who believe there is no god. The assumption he makes, from a Stoic standpoint, is that we ought to follow the gods. In one of my other reflections, we looked at the Stoic concept of God. But the idea comes down to it that god is the Rational Universe, the logos, which holds reason and logic. The core idea behind Stoicism is to live in accordance with nature, which is the Universe. That’s why it makes sense for Epictetus to make this assumption. The gods to him are reason and logic.
Building on this premise, he continues looking at the rest and comes to the same conclusion for all of them except for the fifth group. Unless the gods see everything and determine it all and the laws that we live by, it is possible for us to follow them. When we talk of Stoic fate, this is what it comes down to. The rational universe, the gods, are the cause of all events and impressions that we receive. They can’t be inactive, because they act on everything. Now that it is clear that the gods are with us every step and moment of our lives, we must learn how to live with them and be free.
“For he is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can restrain.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.9
Be content with fate
We can find a possible contradiction here, which will be clarified later. If we have to follow nature, how can we then be free from restraint? Now we are looking at the small part of free will that we have in this determined universe. The term popularized by Nietzsche, Amor Fati, is useful here. If we love our fate, which is our choice, then we can become free if we see everything as the right thing to happen to us.
“But I would have whatever appears to me to be right happen, however it comes to appear so.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.11
The interesting part comes right after this and how this works from a Stoic view. But if we look at this sentence above first. He says that there is no wrong that can happen to me if I accept everything fate has in store for me. The sage would see it like this and be content. This wise person holds all the information and can see that the events that happen have their purpose in the rational scheme of the universe. The problem we have is that we have our ego standing in our way. How can it be that one event can be viewed as good by some and bad by others? This is caused by the difference of perspective we have on the situation. But the situation itself is the same.
Is this not madness? The one Epictetus has this discourse with asks, and adds that freedom is a noble and valuable thing. To which our Stoic teacher replies.
“But for me to desire at random, and for things to happen in accordance with such a desire, may be so far from a noble thing as to be, of all others, the most shameful.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.12
What stood out here was the idea that our desires are random. And that makes sense. If the desires were rational, then they would all be the same across humanity. Focus on survival and living well. But when we examine the wants and desires we have right now, they are all over the place. Some are still fighting for their survival and their next meal, while others are down in the dumps because they can’t afford their second or third car. They can’t go on a holiday where they don’t do anything and eat all they can. Then there are even more ridiculous desires. But what we can see is that they are random, to an extent. These desires are focused on what we see that others have and what we can’t get. Holding on to this, we can never be content.
Epictetus goes on to show us that there are some conventions in the world that we follow without wanting to do anything different. For example, how to write a name or play music. We do those as it is spelled or written. Then follows an interesting way of looking at these conventions that are shared throughout society.
“Or otherwise there would be no purpose in knowing anything, if it were to be adapted to each person’s personal wishes.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.14
If anyone did everything as they saw it, then how can we compare, share, or even understand each other? One of these shared ways of living is through language. If everyone spoke their own language, defining everything as they believed it should be defined, where would that leave us? This is also part of the logic aspect of Stoicism, one of the three important parts, alongside ethics and physics. But is our freedom taken away because of the conventions?
“By no means, but true instruction is this: learning to will that things happen as they do. And how do they happen? As the appointer of them has appointed.”Epictetus, Book 1, Chapter 12.15
Back to Stoic fate, the appointer, god, the universe. Accepting life as it happens and doing so with a cheerful demeanor.
Are you already in prison?
Now it gets interesting. We take accepting all events one step further and start talking about prison. Epictetus shows us that many don’t need to fear prison because they are already in one of their own making. Some are discontented when they are alone, and call the crowd cheats and robbers. They can’t be content either way. Some more examples are given and ends this list with this. ‘Throw him into a prison’, we hear Epictetus say. But what prison?
“Where he already is; for he is there against his will, and wherever any one is against his will, that is to him a prison.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.23
Let’s see how the example of his, Socrates, dealt with prison.
“Socrates was not in prison, for he was willingly there.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.23
And Socrates was in prison, but he didn’t feel that way. He had to be there to maintain his character and stay true to himself. However, the courts gave him a way out if he changed his behavior. And his friends arranged an escape possibility. He remained there and accepted the hemlock that took his life with virtue. There was no other option for him. He did so to remain free and content, even when locked up behind bars awaiting his death sentence.
Content with a lame leg
As we come to a close of this discourse, Epictetus leaves us with some interesting takes. What we know from his life, Epictetus was lame on one leg. And he uses that in his teaching. He doesn’t accuse the universe for his leg, he accepts it with joy. And even if it were to be given back to the universe, then he would give it back gladly. Here comes an interesting distinction Epictetus makes between the body and reason.
“Do you not know how very small a part you are compared to the whole? That is, as to the body, for as to reason you are neither worse nor less, than the gods.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.26.
With regard to the body, the part we play is infinitesimal. We don’t even register in the grand scheme of things. But when we look at reason, then we sit with the gods. That is the part of the Rational Universe we share. We will have to say goodbye to our bodies at one point and be content about it. But our reason and logic will go back to the universe. Or rather it will remain, as it has never left.
“For greatness of reason is not measured by length or height, but by its judgment.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.26
Am I accountable?
To end this impactful discourse on how to be content, we are left with a simple and straightforward look at our accountability. We are not accountable for the actions of anyone around us, not even fate. That is not up to us and our responsibility does not lie with them.
“For what, then, have you been made accountable? For that which alone is in your power, the proper use of your impressions.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 12.34
Whatever happens to us, is beyond our influence. Yet, to be content, we can make sure to have the right judgment on the events and impressions that we receive. This first starts with accepting the events as they happen, not to add a value judgment to them. Then we analyze and examine them and apply reason and logic. We then see what the best and virtuous action to take is. If we wish to be content, this is how we work towards it. For as long as we take the right action, we have nothing to be discontented about.