Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 1
Our Reasoning Faculty, a gift from the gods, the Rational Universe, our power to make the best use of our impressions. To live in accordance with our nature and Universal Nature. Reason is found within the individual and the infinite, the one element that combines it all. Therefore, to understand what is in our power and what is not, we need to start with the source of it all. Where we can find our peace and take our strength.
In the first discourse of book one, Arrian shows us what Epictetus said about what is in our powers and what it is not. And he starts with the Reasoning Faculty. It is the one aspect that constantly contemplates and consequently approves and disapproves of itself. It examines both itself and all other things.
“The Reasoning Faculty; for that alone of the faculties that we have received comprehends both itself – what it is, what it is capable of, and with what valuable powers it has come to us- and all the other faculties likewise.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1 Chapter 1.4
The Reasoning Faculty
We need the Reasoning Faculty to help us deal with our impressions in the right way, the moral way. Why are these impressions so important? They alone matter to us and where we should put our focus. We get inputs from the world around us, from the events that happen to us. Destiny, the Universal Reason, happens whether we like to or not. And to make our lives go smoother, we need to learn to accept and even embrace it. Since we have no control over these external events, we need to focus on what we do control.
“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1 Chapter 1.17
Stoicism is a toolset to help us live virtuous and peaceful lives. Above all, it helps us realize how fortunate we are to possess a part of the Divine. This is what sets us apart from the rest of life, this Reasoning Faculty. Because without this reason, there is no possibility for us to even contemplate making our lives better. Which is where the true difference is made. Reading and discussing these topics have their place. They can help someone recognize what powers they have. After that realization is made, it needs to be put into practice. This is done by trial and error. With the reassuring idea that we will most likely never be perfect. The Stoics reflect on the Sage, the wise person, as the one to model.
The Perfect Sage
Yet, this example seems to be so close to perfection, that we can only look at it and try our best. However, if we look at where the Sage puts her attention, we see that it might not be that far out of our reach. She looks only at what she can control. To examine her impressions and decide on a moral action based on that. We, in most cases, choose a different vision.
“We choose instead to take care of many, and to encumber ourselves with many; body, property, brother, friend, child, and slave.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 1.14
Take a step back and ask yourself where your attention lies. You can try to live a healthy life and still fall ill. The best advice you ever gave can be brushed aside. The loved ones we try to save can still be taken away from us. This can lead to all sorts of emotions that disturb our peace. And that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t care about others or our health, but we need to remind ourselves what they are. They are beyond our control and they are as prone to change as we are. They are the preferred indifferences. And unless we see them as such, they can turn into desires and aversions
It’s still relevant
Reading these ancient texts, as Arrian wrote them about 2000 years ago, we can see that little has changed in human nature. We are still more preoccupied with externals than with ourselves. In our current time, with all the information at our fingertips and the look we have into the lives of others, we compare even more. The only problem, and this hasn’t changed, is that we get a distorted look. People don’t give us the full view of what is going on. Most of the time we only see the positive and we mirror that to what we don’t have. This leads to feelings of frustration, anxiety, inferiority, and more. It is impossible for us to know what goes on in the minds of others. They might not even know about their own thoughts.
“What, then, should we have at hand upon such occasions? Why, what else than to know what is mine, and what is not mine, what is within my power, and what is not.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 1.21
What must we study?
Bring it back to its essentials. In Stoicism, we read that we need to live in accordance with nature. But what does that mean? It is here where we find the answers. Epictetus spells it out for us. The Reasoning Faculty is a piece of Providence within ourselves. It is in our power to examine our own thoughts and let the rest go. This isn’t easy, let’s admit that as well, but we need to make an effort to try. This is what we need to study and remind ourselves of every day.
“Why do you not study to be contented with what is alloted to you?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 1.27
How do we study this? Daily practice and reminding ourselves where we need to point our minds. For this, we need to use the essence we share with the Rational Universe, the Reasoning Faculty. And let’s fence the time of interest off, by looking only at the present moment. This is the only period in time that matters to us. Now that we know the tool and the timeframe, we can add the third part to the mix. The impressions we have. If they fall out of the time we are focusing on, then they are not worth our evaluation. We can’t change the past nor can we determine the future with our present actions. Our duty lies in performing moral action in the now.
Our Reasoning Faculty to live Now
If we do so, then our desires and aversions can’t be restrained. For we accept the present moment as it appears to us. We view it with an objective mind, nothing is good or bad, and those are the impressions we give to them. As these moments occur, we can still experience impulses from them. Emotions overcome us, but it is up to us to pause and examine them. The more we do so, and the more we train ourselves, the more we can reduce their impact.
Ending this reflection on the first discourse of Book One, with an example of how to live in the moment.
“I must die. If instantly, I will die instantly; if in a short time, I will dine first, since the hour for dining is here, and when the time comes, then I will die. How? As becomes a person who is giving back what is not his to own.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 1.32