The Discourses, a series of lectures delivered by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and written down by his student Arrian in 108 CE, are best conceptualized as a form of therapy, with the philosopher, in this case Epictetus, adopting the role of physician or therapist.
As the analogy goes, according to Epictetus, the proper function of a professional philosopher is similar to that of a physician, in two respects. First, the physician does not advertise; those with physical ailments seek the counsel of a physician to prescribe the proper treatment regimen for the purpose of restoring a natural state of health. Likewise, those with ailments of the soul (mind) seek the counsel of a philosopher to prescribe the proper course of treatment for the purpose of restoring a natural state of psychological health and well-being.
Second, one does not expect their visit to the doctor to be pleasant; the patient must recognize their own symptoms, seek their own medical care, and be willing to implement the treatment regimen regardless of its unpleasantness. Likewise with the philosopher; their subjects must recognize their own symptoms (underlying dissatisfaction with life), seek their own counsel, and willingly implement the (often unpleasant) treatment regimen. As Epictetus said:
“The philosopher’s school, ye men, is a surgery: you ought not to go out of it with pleasure, but with pain. For you are not in sound health when you enter.”
Epictetus’s mission, then, was to restore psychological health, and philosophy was the requisite subject. The course of treatment, however, is not easy or pleasant, but if followed, the committed student can overcome their discontentment and achieve a lasting and permanent state of psychological well-being.
Shortly, we will see how Epictetus fulfilled his role as physician of the soul; but first, a quick note on metaphysics.
The theology of Epictetus
Much has been written on the theology of Epictetus and his incessant references to Zeus, god, and the gods. While Epictetus’s conception of god is far different than modern conceptions—in that, through our rationality, we share a portion of god (Zeus) within ourselves and need nothing external for a happy or blessed life—we will largely sidestep any serious discussions of theology or metaphysics in this post, opting instead to cover only the ethical dimensions of Epictetus’s teachings.
Here’s the reason: the course of treatment found in the Discourses—prescribed to help the student attain absolute psychological freedom—is effective regardless of one’s ultimate metaphysical position. Whether one believes in a supreme deity, pantheistic order, or atomic chaos, it is still the case that the only thing entirely within one’s command is one’s judgment alone. We cannot control natural events, other people, or even our own health (entirely), but we do retain ultimate sovereignty over our beliefs, and this is precisely and exclusively the domain of ethical self-improvement regardless of one’s thoughts on the existence of ultimate order or chaos in the universe.
The reader, of course, may object that ultimate sovereignty over one’s beliefs presupposes the existence of free will and that free will is, in fact, an illusion. We will sidestep this issue for two reasons: (1) pragmatically, it is impossible for anyone to really believe that they can’t control their own beliefs, and (2), if you cede over control of your own beliefs to deterministic forces, there is little point in discussing anything at all, because everything—including whether or not you believe in free will in the first place—is beyond your control.
Therefore, for the sake of this post—and for our own sanity—we will take for granted the fact that we retain control over the things we believe and the goals we set for ourselves.
What, then, is the principal diagnosis that causes us so much suffering, and what are the treatment options available to us from the Stoic tradition? Before we can answer that, we must first examine Epictetus’s conception of human nature.
Human nature, rationality, and the pursuit of happiness
The good news for the student of Stoic philosophy, according to Epictetus, is that they already have the prerequisite knowledge and disposition to live a happy and fulfilled life free of psychological disturbance. The philosopher’s job is to simply restore this natural state of health by diagnosing and correcting aberrant thoughts and behavior, as a physician might prescribe antibiotics to clear up a bacterial infection.
For Epictetus, all human beings share an innate desire and capacity to be happy, to be rational, and to live with others; humans are, as Aristotle maintained, rational, political, and social animals.
Further, humans have a natural affinity for truth and consistency and a natural aversion to conflict and inconsistency. Human beings, following reason, hold beliefs and behave in certain ways because they think it is the true and right way to think and behave. No one sets as their goal to hold false or inconsistent beliefs, or to act in irrational ways. Irrationality is the term we apply to the beliefs of others, not to ourselves.
Accordingly, if we are dissatisfied with our lives, it is because, despite believing in the rationality of our own beliefs and actions, we are fundamentally mistaken in our judgments. It is the philosopher’s task to point out to us how we are mistaken and how to instead “make proper use of impressions.” This was the underlying pedagogical approach of all ancient schools of philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, Platonism, Skepticism), but it is from the Stoic tradition that we find the most effective and no-nonsense therapeutic techniques (this is why Stoicism has had the most profound influence on the development of modern Cognitive behavioral therapy).
For the Stoics, a fair characterization of their approach—one that distinguishes them from all competing schools—is the idea that happiness can be attained through the realization of complete and unfettered psychological freedom. This, rather than pleasure, for example, is the highest good.
Every human being, as a rational and social animal, has the capacity for achieving happiness, but, as there are many more ways to be unhappy rather than happy, people fall into psychological and cultural traps that prevent this realization. These traps are variations of a single, universal human affliction—the placement of one’s happiness in the hands of things we can’t control.
Diagnosis: self-imposed psychological servitude
The most exceptional fact about Stoicism is its identification of the underlying affliction responsible for all human suffering: the desire for things not within our control, or, to put it another way, self-imposed psychological servitude to external events and to the people around us.
What makes us unhappy? In general, we’re made unhappy when there are things we desire that we don’t or can’t have or when there are things we do have but would rather avoid. Happiness is simply a state in which one desires nothing more or less than one has. Epictetus realized that this state can be maintained indefinitely if one trains their mind to accept all events exactly as they happen.
If Epictetus repeatedly refers to his students as slaves—as he does throughout the Discourses—it is because they are proposing views that place them under the perpetual servitude of other people and external events. As Epictetus said:
“Everyone is subject to anyone who has power over what he wants or doesn’t want, as one who is in a position to confer it or take it away. If anyone wants to be free, then, let him neither want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others; or else he is bound to be a slave.”
According to this, it is a mistake to try to secure happiness through, for example, the acquisition of fame, because the desire for fame places you in the servitude of those whose praise you seek. Likewise, the desire for money and power places one in the servitude—to some degree or another—of those that can confer it or take it away. A loss of fame, money, wealth, or power—which could occur at any moment regardless of one’s best efforts—would result in intense psychological suffering so long as one’s well-being is tied to something so fickle, impersonal, and dependent on others. Even the thought of losing such externals can create a constant and underlying level of anxiety and fear.
The practicing Stoic, upon reflection, learns that a consistent and dependable state of contentment is achieved only by attaching oneself to the things within one’s complete control—judgment and virtue—which cannot be lost or given away except voluntarily.
Human suffering, anxiety, and fear, therefore, all result from some manifestation of the fear of losing something external to oneself, as this places oneself in constant servitude. The only way to overcome this affliction is to emancipate oneself from dependence on externals by turning inward to what really matters, and to what one really controls.
Treatment: the cultivation of reason and virtue
Notice that Epictetus is unequivocally and completely placing the blame for someone’s own unhappiness squarely upon their own shoulders. The reasoning is as follows: the only thing we are truly responsible for—and in complete control of—is our own judgments, not the events we experience or the impressions we confront (sensations, emotions, fleeting thoughts). Since happiness or well-being is confined to the realm of judgments, and our judgments are entirely up to us, our own well-being is entirely up to us. If we are unhappy, our judgments are simply mistaken, but, since we retain complete control over our judgments, it is in our power to change them and therefore improve our own psychological well-being.
This is not the typical view. We normally blame everything other than ourselves for our own misfortunes and unhappiness. We are driven by our desires for externals and voluntarily hand over our freedom to those around us and to forces beyond our control. These are the psychological traps we repeatedly fall into, encouraged by the cultural traps of contemporary life.
We are taught—and constantly bombarded with messaging—to overvalue externals and to undervalue our own rational faculty and character. Instead of focusing on character development, we worry about making enough money and accumulating enough goods to make us look successful to others. We place ourselves in the servitude of our employers, our careers, and the praise of our neighbors at the expense of our own self-respect, values, and inner contentment.
The antidote to this superficial valuation of externals is simple but difficult—the turning inward to focus on oneself and the development of one’s character, and, in the process, the attainment of complete psychological freedom.
This is the gift given to us by nature, or, as Epictetus would say, by the gods. It is available to everyone at all times, even during periods of intense stress and difficulty. Here’s Epictetus on how to handle hardships:
“What, then, should we have at hand to help us in such emergencies? Why, what else than to know what is mine and what isn’t mine, and what is in my power and what isn’t? I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?…You can chain my leg, but not even Zeus can overcome my power of choice.”
The comment regarding Zeus is significant. Epictetus, throughout the Discourses, is reminding us that, while our physical bodies represent an insignificant part of the universe, our capacity for reason puts us at the level of the gods. As Epictetus wrote:
“Don’t you know how tiny a part you are, compared to the All? With regard to your body, that is; for with regard to your reason, you are not worse nor lesser than the gods. The size of reason cannot be measured by length or height, but by the value of judgments.”
It is only through the cultivation of reason, in the service of developing virtue, that we can live like gods on earth, unperturbed by external events. And although this ultimate goal of Stoic practice can never be fully realized, one should nevertheless make the effort. As Epictetus said:
“That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
If you want to be a Socrates (Epictetus thinks you should), and you want to cure your state of psychological servitude, the necessary treatment regimen is uncompromising: desire nothing other than what happens; desire nothing beyond what you currently have; focus on the development of virtue guided by reason; set goals and establish preferences but don’t become psychologically distrubed if they are left unrealized; use all adversity and hardship as opportunities to practice your Stoic resolve; handle every situation and hardship in the optimal way by looking inward to what you can do and not outward to what other people can do for you.
As you adopt these practices, you slowly come to realize how foolhardy the behavior of most people is. Who would complain about something that is not within one’s control? Only a fool. Who would sacrifice their self-respect and self-worth over a misfortune that is unavoidable? Only someone uninstructed in philosophy. While this mindset takes practice and is rather intense, the reward for this practice matches its intensity—the attainment of total psychological freedom.
(For more information on Stoic practice, check out A Daily Checklist of Stoic Psychological Techniques and Exercises.)
Implications for society
The reader may get the impression that, by focusing entirely on the development of one’s character, Epictetus has nothing meaningful to say about ethics in the broader sense of acting appropriately toward others. However, as we’ll see, the philosophy of Epictetus has rich social ramifications.
If one understands that the only true goods for a human being are reason and virtue, and that all humans share the same rational faculty, then one is also compelled to realize that what is good for oneself is good for others as well. This fundamental reciprocity, discovered through reason, is formulated by Epictetus as a version of the golden rule:
“What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose upon others.”
Elsewhere, Epictetus said:
“You avoid slavery, for instance; take care not to enslave. For if you can bear to exact slavery from others, you appear to have been yourself a slave. For vice has nothing in common with virtue, nor freedom with slavery. As a person in health would not wish to be attended by the sick nor to have those who live with him in a state of sickness; so neither would a person who is free bear to be served by slaves, nor to have those who live with him in a state of slavery.”
Reason compels us to recognize that what is good for us is good for others, that to wish for suffering on others is the greatest hypocrisy, and that to live in the presence of sickness or servitude is not desirable for a healthy soul.
Epictetus was, as a result, unapologetically cosmopolitan. As Epictetus said:
“If what philosophers say of the kinship of God [nature] and Man be true, what remains for men to do but as Socrates did—never, when asked one’s country, to answer, ‘I am an Athenian or a Corinthian,’ but ‘I am a citizen of the world.’”
Humans, despite differences in body, geography, or material wealth—all externals of indifferent value—share the same rational faculty given to them by god or nature. As rational animals, all humans share a universal bond and duty to not impose on each other that which they do not want imposed upon themselves. Since what we retain complete control over—our rational faculty and virtuous character—is what we most desire for ourselves, we likewise should desire the same for all humankind.
This turning inward—through the development of one’s moral character—paradoxically makes it far more likely for one to engage in altruistic acts, as the distinction between egoism and altruism disappears, as do the arbitrary distinctions that divide humanity into race, class, or gender. If I no longer have the desire to manipulate other people for the attainment of externals (money, power, fame), I lose the habit of using other people as means to an end, and can begin to perceive others as equals.
And so Epictetus’s cure for individual unhappiness may be just the cure we need for society in general.
My favorite translation of the works of Epictetus is Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford World’s Classics) translated by Robin Hard.
One of the best secondary sources on the Discourses is Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by A. A. Long.
Also check out 8 Stoic Principles from the Handbook of Epictetus and Three Rules of Life From the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which explains how Marcus Aurelius put into practice the teachings of Epictetus.