Comments on Epictetus' “Enchiridion”

On free will, interconnectedness, and pragmatism

After publishing Why you can’t upset me (2021-07-08), I was asked about my opinion on Epictetus with whom I apparently share a lot of thoughts. While I was already familiar with the name, I had never studied the author’s works. I did just that by reading the Enchiridion (literally the manual, the handbook or vade mecum). What I provide here is an exposition of my main points of disagreement with Epictetus. This means that there are several propositions or claims I agree with, though I prefer to focus on the areas which, ideally, I would have discussed with Epictetus in a spirit of sincerity.

I should preface this by noting that my primary influences beside studies in political science, economics, law, history, are, in no particular order, the Pyrrhonian Sceptics,1 Diogenes of Sinope, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Protagoras (whatever little we have of them, alas!). I think there is an overarching unity in the works of those philosophers, as well as with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. I expect that to be identifiable in the works of Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of thought, though I have not studied Stoicism yet.

This unity is the underlying value system of the ancient Greek world, which we find elements of in, for example, the Delphic maxims and Greek polytheism at-large.2 Epictetus lived under Roman imperial rule where, I feel, those values were no longer relevant in much of quotidian life (if I were to roughly mark the beginning of the gradual demise of the ancient Greek world, it would be with the Peloponnesean War, the decline of the major city-states, and the subsequent conquests of Alexander which ushered in gigantism—but let’s not go into that).

Below I quote sections from the Enchiridion using the source provided by the Internet Classics Archive, as translated by Elizabeth Carter.

1 Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.


Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

This excerpt from the first proposition sums up the approach of Epictectus in the Enchiridion. While I agree that we should not worry about things which are external to us and focus on those which we can indeed control, I believe the distinction is not always clear-cut.

Consider desire, for example. The cause of it is not in our control, even though it may seem endogenous. If human affairs make you uncomfortable, think of a dog during mating season: as soon as it picks up the scent, it practically changes its entire behaviour. It won’t listen to you, it may refuse to eat, it will lose its sleep… Humans have such animalistic tendencies which are at once (i) hardwired and thus internal, and (ii) are triggered or amplified by external stimuli. In practice, there are feedback loops at play. As our presence is not decontextualised or, in other words, as we are always present in a system of systems defined by interconnectedness, so the distinction between the internal and the external must not be presented as an absolute but rather as an expedient analytical heuristic which helps guide our thinking yet remains analytical, i.e. is not the actual state of affairs.

The same can be said of actions. I am sceptical of the notion that we have free will, in the sense of an absolute agency or some “true inner self” that is not determined, framed, conditioned, or otherwise influenced by the cosmos. As we do not maintain a decontextualised presence, we cannot expect a certain quantity, which some may call the soul or the mind or whatever, to remain both unconnected or decoupled from the world yet capable of affecting change in it.

Some actions are fairly easy to qualify as falling within our control, or so the appearances would suggest. Others challenge our assumptions. Has it ever happened to you to walk down a busy street and suddenly turn sideways only to make eye contact with a stranger on the opposite side of the road who just happens to turn towards you all of a sudden? It happens to me frequently. What possibly compels us to act in such way? Reason cannot be it, for it feels reflexive. Could it be, and am I speculating rampantly here, that we feel the electromagnetism of another person and are just drawn to each other much like magnets? Other animals know how to adjust their orientation based on where the North pole is, such as migratory birds, so could we have a sense like that which is, nonetheless, unrefined or underdeveloped? There are parts of us which we think as automata, yet we ascribe to the totality of our subsystems, the human being as such, agency. Perhaps we are also automata, at least to a degree or under some circumstances? Do the uncoordinated acts of two parties to turn around simultaneously to meet each other eye-to-eye still fall within each side’s individual control in the same way writing this note does? I think not.

Maybe then, we should speak of “purposeful actions”, so that we clearly refer to acts which proceed from reason. If so, must we not apply the same qualifier for “opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion…”, as Epictectus puts it? This greatly limits the scope of what we can claim to control, for reason is only a part of our being. If, on the other hand, we only choose to speak of purposeful actions but otherwise let desires and the like fall outside the scope of reason, we still arrive at the same conclusion: the human animal is not made of pure reason, is not decontextualised, and cannot operate only at the rational level.

My free will scepticism implies that I doubt the mind/body or soul/body duality which the ancient Greeks believed in and which we find in many other traditions, including Descartes’ decontextualised thinking mind or traditional and contemporary views on the afterlife and the like. I don’t think we have sufficient proof to provide credence to the belief that something in us, which is supposed to be our true self, can have an intransient, standalone, indeterminable presence. If the soul exists, it exists as what and where? If it is some ethereal or otherwise different substance, how can it possibly be bound by the body? And if it can be bound by the body, it means that it can be similarly constrained by everything like the body, which includes the universe as we know it, for our body essentially consists of the same star dust and dynamics we observe “out there” (water, carbon, minerals, acids, electricity…). If the soul exists in a different dimension, then there must still be a point at which our dimension connects with that one and so what is the nature of such a link? And how is that other dimension anyhow relevant if the soul is still trapped within the body? There are too many questions and too little in the way of evidence.

There is, however, a certain sense in which death does not entail an absolute end and that is because matter/energy is reconfigurable. Put simply, when you die you turn into dust and that may then find its way into another form of being. What we understand as our self though, what we would like to retain forever, is a reality that only exists circumstantially as an emergent phenomenon that arises in the particular interplay of the systems of systems that make up our presence within the supersystem that environs, influences, determines us. If the construct Protesilaos is only possible in the constitution of the case that involves a specific arrangement of an immensely large multitude of factors, and if the world always changes to the effect that all factors in the relevant system of systems are no longer conducive to the re-creation of that particular arrangement, then Protesilaos, properly so-called, cannot exist anew unless the full array of factors, which could be the entire universe, that made such an event possible is replicated as well. We have trouble reproducing seemingly simple tasks (they are not, just saying), such as tracking an executable program down to its source code, so good luck with cosmic-scale reproducibility! And we haven’t even discussed what the “I” truly is, whether it is a constant or a variable, absolute or situational, etc.

Couched in those terms, my take in Why you can’t upset me is meant as a practical disposition towards living in the imperfect world of human relations and only describes how I have thus far approached things. It should not be read as a set of exhortations on following my example, for I state in no ambiguous terms that I may be wrong and these notes here should further demonstrate that I do not, in any case, imply that simplistic binaries can help us understand the world.

Back to Epictetus:

9 Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

Here we notice the mind/body divide, which I alluded to earlier. My opinion on this take, even if we accept the dualism for the sake of argument, is that your body will always hinder your mind’s ability to make choices when something is wrong with it. When you are starving, you cannot think clearly. When you are delirious in pain or fear, you cannot philosophise.

In ancient Greece, people used to live by the maxim that a healthy mind exists within a healthy body (again the dualism which I questioned earlier, though bear with me). The point is that to be able to think clearly and to make the right choices, you must not be dealing with hindrances such as pain or illness.

To me the duality between the body and the mind is not helpful, especially once we recognise that they are interdependent so that the state of the one affects that of the other. I consider them part of the same supersystem of systems that we discern as a human being. They are interlocked, as those common examples suggest. What you eat, breath, think, the prevailing conditions in your immediate environment, are all part of your overall condition and will all contribute to how you feel and act (genetics notwithstanding). It is a cycle. If you consume food and drinks which are effectively poisonous over the long-term (processed food, fried meals, over-concentration of any substance such as sugar or alcohol, or even the seemingly innocuous fresh orange juice that removes most of the fibre instead of eating a whole orange…), you will be affected physically and emotionally and your capacity to use your mind will diminish accordingly. It is impossible to have an unhealthy body and maintain a perfectly healthy mind.

Despite the obvious areas where physicians specialise in, I think of health as longer-term stability. For example, you do not indulge in sweets during New Year’s celebrations, gain a few extra kilos, and then spend the next few months laboriously trying to lose that added weight so that you look good when you go to the beach. Then, when the summer is over, you go back to profligate eating habits. Such erratic cycles must be hampering your ability to focus your mind on creating something. Stability means predictability, which engenders a sense of certainty. Let it be boring and bland, so that it becomes a near given and so that it functions with as little friction and as minimal effort as possible. You do not get preoccupied by the underlying uncertainty and can commit more resources elsewhere and with greater efficiency.

We should add exercise to the mix. You should be active though not expend all your energy on it as then there will be nothing left for creativity. Take a 30-minute walk in the morning and another in the evening, or whatever works for you to be physically in shape but also not be exhausted. As with everything, do not overdo it: to be “in shape” does not mean to put on mass, as that will force you to eat more and set you on an upward spiral that is difficult to sustain. Difficulty of this sort implies that resources will be reserved for the wrong cause. Again, we are dealing with the mind and the body as parts of the same system.

33 Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

Perhaps there is miscommunication here, though the way I interpret this suggests that you should envisage a role and channel all your vitality to assume it at all times. I believe that would be a terrible mistake and my recent imaginary dialogues, which are nonetheless based on actual events and describe real stories, cover in some detail.3

If you are someone who enjoys talking, then do not assume the reserved and silent type of persona as that will contradict your nature. You will be introducing friction which will, sooner or later, cause problems including depression. I have acquaintances who have an artistic flair and who are all talkative and gregarious. Would their creative side be facilitated by essentially confining them to a silent, reserved, and solitary lifestyle? I think it would be detrimental to them. The same is true for people who are not people-oriented: if we try to force them to act in an unnatural way to them, they will suffer the consequences.

Think of a role you try to assume as a mould. It only works if it fits you. Liken the process to wearing a smaller-sized pair of shoes and committing to a long-distance walk. What will happen in such a case is that you will either injure your feet or will have to remove the constraints. A role may not have a physical grip on you and may not limit your range of motion, though it still affects you emotionally. Emotions are just another part of the human experience whose effects will most definitely reverberate in other parts of the system and create their own feedback loops.

More generally on Epictetus’ point, I am not fond of etiquette and elitism that disguises as normativity. You are not a philosopher because you are quiet or because you act in conformity with a certain mode of conduct or stereotype that looks philosophical. You are not a rock guitarist just by having long hair or whatever the fashion accessory is. There has to be something genuine there, something that underlies whatever mask you are wearing.

With regard to talking about the “proper subjects”, I find that you cannot expect someone to make the leap of faith of joining you in advance of knowing you. Take, for example, a discussion that starts out about soccer. You can still draw linkages between particular phenomena to systemic magnitudes, such as how footballers play a game every three days with no regard to their well-being, how that relates to the ruthless, ever-expanding industry surrounding the sport, and how all this exhibits the same mechanics as with other industries, and so on.

Then there is the case of conversing with people who simply cannot philosophise. They may still be good friends, relatives, neighbours who can contribute to a betterment of your life. In those cases, you may find yourself covering topics such as dog training, how you make your own bread, why you collect herbs from the mountains, the deeds of your favourite artist, or whatever. You do not need to be single-minded to lead a philosophical lifestyle. If all you really want is to only talk about your own interests and if you cannot find others to do so, then you must realise that the only option is to withdraw to a hermitage. Is there such a place for philosophers?

In practical terms, if you really want to philosophise you will have to do it on your own. Why do you think I write this commentary on someone who lived centuries ago?

35 When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?

In an ideal world, this is appropriate. In reality though, it will put you in trouble. I am a pragmatist and recognise when I can get things my way and when attempting to do so risks jeopardising my position. Think of Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer’s Odyssey (and a major character in the Iliad) who was captured by a cyclops. To skip the details, Odysseus does not reveal his intent and fakes weakness to ultimately injure the monster and escape from its cave in order to embark again on his journey back home. If he had behaved all chivalrous, he would have been eaten alive.

Now imagine a prosaic scenario. You are conscripted to fight for a war you do not believe in and for a state you consider immoral, corrupt, illegitimate, or whatever. To you the most reasonable course of action, the only one which is legitimate, is to flee from the battlefield. While you think you have done nothing wrong, those who placed you in that predicament will not share your sensitivities and will likely execute you for treason.

Even in cases where you do act rightly, you can still be afraid of those who censure you wrongly. Though you hope that if you conduct yourself in moderation and with restraint that you are free, the fact is that freedom has an intersubjective, else collective, aspect. You cannot have “inner freedom”, so to speak, in a regime that oppresses you. You cannot behave in a manner that is conducive to philosophy in a place where people do not tolerate and outright penalise your scepticism or apparent eccentricity. And so on.

Throughout history the prevailing conditions oscillate between extremes that involve freedom of expression to repression of all dissenting voices. Are you expecting a Socrates to exist within Byzantine theocracy or a Sappho during the witch hunts? The intellectual who is naive enough to believe that everything will be sorted out with reason and good manners, and who thus does not pay attention to developments on the political front, stands to lose whatever modicum of freedom is available. If you recognise that your ability to think and act on your own accord is contingent on your milieu (and so it is not, strictly speaking, “your own”), then you will care greatly about what is happening all around you and, like Odysseus, you will be fully prepared to stab the cyclops in the eye when the opportunity arises.

This final point brings us back to the claim that humans are not purely rational animals. Stand ready to deal with those propensities.

  1. Read the Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus though note that I do not follow those too closely as I have my own ideas, such as in my Scepticism as a type of certitude (2018-09-28) and Notes on the modes of Scepticism (2017-07-26). Also of relevance: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28). [^]

  2. Think, for example, of ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (nothing in excess) and how that informs the ethics of moderation or AΡΧΕ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΥ (rule/control yourself) and the idea that exercising restrain is virtuous. To be clear though, I suggest that those are elements that underpin the value system of that era: we still need to study the philosophers, poets, and authors of tragedy (in the original sense of “tragedy” as a work of art). [^]

  3. These are: