Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 15
What does philosophy promise? Book 1.15 of the Discourses of Epictetus by Arrian covers this exact question. In a short lesson, Epictetus answers one of his students in a brief and direct manner. And while it is simple in words, when we have to put it into action, we see a whole new set of obstacles. Can philosophy make promises at all? It’s a bold statement, one that Epictetus shares with great confidence. And what is this promise that philosophy makes?
“In every circumstance I will preserve the governing part in accord with nature.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 15.4
A bold promise
A bold promise to make by philosophy. But let’s look at what this powerful phrase means to us. We start with ‘in every circumstance’, this points us to the present moment. An important aspect of Stoic philosophy is to stay in the present. That is the only moment in time that we have agency. Not the past, that’s gone. Nor the future, that hasn’t happened yet. As events happen to us, we are required to objectively observe them and see what they ask of us.
The second part of the quote above points us to the governing part. Our reason and logic, the gift given to us by the gods, the rational universe. This is where our control lies and our choices and opinions stem from. Philosophy promises us that we are able to make the best use of it if we try. We will have our limits, unless we are the sage, but we can do our best to try to improve as much as we can. The governing part separates us from the rest of the animals and moves us one step closer to the divine.
A sense of direction
Then we come to one of the key parts of Stoicism; to live in accordance with nature. From Diogenes Laertius, we can read that Zeno himself coined this phrase. But what does this mean, and why is it part of the promise philosophy makes? To live in accordance with nature gives us a sense of direction. We talk about personal nature and universal Nature. It can be difficult to live in a certain way, that’s why the Stoics help us out. They show us what the best way to make progress toward is. Which is to be as close to nature as possible. To do this, we need to understand ourselves completely and try to be at peace. Combined with this is Virtuous living.
The question the visitor asked Epictetus in this discourse was how he could stop his brother from being angry with him. He received a short but clear answer from the Stoic teacher.
“Bring him to me, and I will tell him; but to you I have nothing to say about his anger.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 15.5
It is not up to us
What Epictetus was saying here, was that the anger of his brother wasn’t up to him. His brother would have to commit to philosophy as well to regain control of his state of mind. This is a valuable lesson for us as well. However much we want to try to alter how people around us feel, this is not our task. We can support them, and be there for them, but at the end of the day, it is their responsibility to want to change their ways. The best thing we can do is live our best life. We can set the right example for them to see and try to emulate. Sometimes the best thing for us to do is to let go.
Yet the visitor wanted to know how he could live in accordance with nature if his brother wouldn’t reconcile with him. The answer Epictetus gave him was; time.
“No great thing comes into being all of a sudden.”Epictetus. The Discourses. Book 1, Chapter 15.7
To give an example, Epictetus looks at nature. Not even grapes or figs are there in an instant. They need their time to grow and ripen. So must we approach our progress. We need to give time to each stage and make sure we are ready for the next one. If our goal is to live the good life, and have peace of mind, then we need to put the work in. Practice the teachings of our philosophy. The promise it makes is a clear one, but can’t come to fruition without our effort. That’s why Stoicism is a pragmatic and active philosophy of life. The real change is made in the application.
We might not make it to the perfect state of philosophy’s promise, but we can try to get as close as we can. Beauty lies in simplicity, but that’s also where the difficulty is found. The same goes for Stoicism. Be virtuous and live in accordance with nature. It sounds so easy, but go and try it. Then you’ll see how hard it is. Moreover, to be consistent at it. But it is in our power to try our best and keep making progress. Along the way, you will find some fruit ready for you to pick and enjoy. And when we can keep the focus on ourselves, instead of others, then we can make the best progress. For us this results in our peace of mind and living a good life.