Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4

An archer aiming at the target, one way measure progress is to know what the objectives are.
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Chapter four of the Enchiridion of Epictetus by Arrian is all about how to make progress as a Stoic. Furthermore, he gives us a look at what to measure it by and what not. What does Stoicism aim at? The Stoics describe the good life as being virtuous and in accordance with Nature. We are fortunate to have Epictetus show us what the result of this kind of life is.

“What does virtue achieve? Peace of Mind.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4.5

There we have the goal of living a Stoic life. Nothing like the description we can see on different media outlets or hear when people talk about stoicism. They describe a person who suppresses their emotions. Uses the bad ones for strength, such as anger, or labels as weak those who acknowledge feelings like sadness or grief. They are talking about lowercase stoicism. The progress they are making is not in line with the nature of the individual. Because it creates generalized opinions on the impressions of others. And it labels certain emotions as good and bad, while they need to be examined in the moment with reason and logic.

How to measure progress?

“Now if virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind and serenity, then progress towards virtue is certainly progress towards each of these.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1 Chapter 4.3
Measure the progress that has been made.
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How do we measure progress then if not by looking at the virtues, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance? Since virtue will give us a life of Eudaimonia; of happiness and well-being, this is what we should focus on. But to achieve this highest goal, we need to know what our task is to perform and where to seek our progress. Who else but Epictetus to show us what this means.

“Seek it in that place, wretch, where your task lies. And where does it lie?”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4.11

Our task lies in those elements we can find throughout the teachings of Epictetus. In desire and aversion, exerting our impulse to act or not to act, in assent or the withholding of assent. The first one of these, knowing what to desire and what to avoid can be summed up by one point in the Handbook of Epictetus by Arrian.

“Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”

Epictetus, The Handbook, 8

Examine and accept what happens

Examine the progress that has been made. To illustrate some examinating tools of a doctor.
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Many emotions, those that are often seen as bad ones, are triggered by events that fail to meet our wants or do meet that which we try to avoid. This doesn’t mean we can’t have goals to work towards or others we wish to prevent from happening. But we should be able to accept whatever outcome occurs. They shouldn’t have such a grip on us that they limit our freedom and impact our happiness. If we do want to check whether we are making progress, we can look at how we react to externals. Whether they fall within the sphere of desires or aversions. The more acceptance we demonstrate, the more we move to the higher good.

Learning how to act or not is determined by the part we share with the Logos, our rational mind. It is up to us to examine each situation with an objective view as it happens. Only then can we decide whether we should act or not and in what way. The only right action is the moral one, in accordance with Nature and for the benefit of the community. Followed by the progress we can make in giving assent or not to the impression we have.

This means that we need to learn to recognize what the correct impressions are and learn to accept them. For starters, there is no good or bad, only events that happen. How we react to them is what matters, our actions in the moment count. Fear of the future is not a correct impression to assent to, for the future is not under our control and has not happened yet. We cannot fear what does not exist.

Where is progress then?

“If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own faculty of choice, working at it and perfecting it, so as to bring it fully into harmony with nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, self-respecting.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4.18

We go back to the basics of Stoicism. Turn to your faculty of choice, that which is under your control. One important step, which is required to be able to trust our faculty of choice and know what our nature is, is to know ourselves. The foundation of philosophy is to examine ourselves. This leads to us being able to make the best of the moment and of our impressions. As the example that Epictetus uses in this chapter of a runner who runs and a voice trainer who trains voices, so must we find what we should do. And if we don’t know what profession is ours to take on, then at least we should be a good person. How?

“When he rises in the morning, he observes and keeps to these rules; bathes and eats as a man of fidelity and honour; and thus, in every matter that befalls, puts his guiding principles to work.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4.20

Who is making progress?

Epictetus asks this question and he looks at a person who has read many treatises of Chrysippus. Chrysippus was the third leader of the Stoic school after Zeno and Cleanthes. He took Stoicism and its teaching to the next level. Epictetus continues in his examination to ask whether virtue consists in having a thorough understanding of Chrysippus. This would mean that to make progress, we need to learn all there is about Chrysippus. We can bring these ideas 2000 years forward into the present day. Is one, who knows all the teachings by heart and can quote all the philosophers, making progress toward a virtuous life? Is that how we measure someone who is on the path to the good life? By the size of their library? Or do we look at the actions and behavior they display?

This reminds me of when I was young and went to religion class. Our pastor told us that one could go to church every Sunday and not be a good Christian. While another person would only go ever so often and could be a good Christian. The good life is lived within oneself and not found in externals. Although we should continue our quest for knowledge and try to educate ourselves as much as we can, the important part is the practice. Stoicism is a practical philosophy and that’s where it should be put to the test. We won’t do it right all the time, but as we begin our journey, we should at least do our best. And the more we do so, the better we become. In the Handbook of Epictetus, we can see an outline of how progress can be evaluated concerning blame.

Education as a tool

“It is the action of an uneducated person to lay the blame for his own bad condition upon others; of one who has made a start on his education to lay the blame on himself; and of one who is fully educated, to blame neither others nor himself.”

Epictetus, The Handbook, 5

Education is necessary for the one who wishes to make progress in her journey toward virtue. But it’s a tool that will give her guidance as she deals with everything her fate has laid on her path. Understanding where her control lies, how to listen to her guiding principle, and make the best of her impressions. Or as Epictetus puts it:

“‘Take the treatise On Impulse, and see how thoroughly I have read it.’ That’s not what I am looking for, slave, but how you exercise your impulse to act and not to act, how you manage your desires and aversions, how you approach things, how you apply yourself to them, and prepare for the, and whether in harmony with nature or out of harmony. For if you are acting in harmony with nature, give me evidence of that, and I will say that you are making progress; but if you are acting out of harmony, go your way, and do not merely comment on these treatises, but even write such works yourself.”

epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 4.14

It is clear cut for Epictetus how to make progress like a Stoic and how to measure it. Show me how well you are living, don’t tell me how well you can read or recite the texts. These words of his always stick with me. And as I am trying to educate myself more, I remind myself that true learning and testing are done in life. In nature, in society, in family, in the world, that’s where my mind should be. Let’s all take a lesson from Epictetus and look up to the world around us and see what progress we are making.

How to Make Progress Like a Stoic
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2 thoughts on “How to Make Progress Like a Stoic

  • 29 May 2023 at 04:39

    Nice piece. To measure my progress, I look at my reaction to externals.
    Just wondering, do you still go to church? As an ex Catholic agnostic, I have noticed that there are common aspects to Stoicism & Christianity and subtle differences between the two, e.g., use of the concept of Logos, etc., where Logos is the Word of God for Christians.
    I wonder, if you have noticed the same, how much is derivative and how much of it is cultural and how much is simply common to humanity.
    Anyway, thanks for your insight.

    • 5 June 2023 at 09:13

      Thank you, John, I appreciate your kind words a lot. I no longer go to church, that isn’t where I personally find the message that connects to me. But there are plenty of similarities between Christianity and Stoicism. You mentioned some excellent points in your comment that are more than relevant.


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