4th October 2018
By Javier Fernández Aguado
Born slave in Hierapolis (Phrygia) around 55 d. C., Epictetus was asked on multiple occasions about the harmonious balance that should give meaning to a life. His teachings, filtered for some anachronisms, are altogether contemporary.
Well ahead of what later Central European thinkers would develop with greater ontological rigor, Epictetus differentiates between objective and subjective work. The first is the product or service by which each one is paid. The second is what we are becoming because of the way we behave when we act.
The author’s value is largely due to the emphasis he placed on the effort to become good professionals and people, and not on stubbornly seeking utopian perfection. Every human being must undertake the exciting adventure of improving as a creature, of becoming what he should become.
His three major anthropological propositions are: to control disordered passions, to be consistent with one’s own responsibilities, and to understand the world and interpret ourselves within a changing, ambiguous, complex and vulnerable universe.
His influence emerges from both from his contributions and from the way he lived in alignment with his thinking: he resided in a small-sized hut and avoided fawning adulators. Thanks to Epaphroditus, he was able to study at the school set up by Musonius Rufus, the stoic teacher. After years of respected teaching work in the city of Rome he had to go into exile in Greece, only to die at around 80 years of age in Nicopolis. His seed was sown in others, including Marcus Aurelius who was also known as “The Philosopher” among emperors.
Enchiridion or the handbook on life is the outcome of an abridged compilation of Epictetus’s precepts by the historian, Flavius Arrianus.
A step ahead of what is known as post-truth today, Epictetus explained that “people are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them”. What for one can be a disaster, for another is the springboard for a radical transformation on the meaning of their own existence.
A forerunner to that medieval author who formulated the aphorism, “do not put your peace in the mouth of men”, Epictetus taught not to depend on other people’s judgments. He pointed out the fragility of the value of others’ opinions, since “personal merit cannot come from an external source”. This he polished off with sweeping wisdom: “Who cares what others think of you!”
Not everyone will understand such deep thoughts in a world focused on aesthetics and judgement by others. How much gossip would disappear if this thinker’s propositions were imposed!
Epictetus encourages to not to lose the core business, not just the company’s, but also that of existence itself. He does it with the simile of the traveller who upon coming off the ship, allowed himself to be distracted by any trifle, at the risk of missing the ship. This is how he describes this: “But if the captain calls, rush towards the ship and leave all behind without looking back.”
Once again, we corroborate that what some people put forward today, sometimes superficially, has been analysed and explained in depth by the classics; they are not the ancients, but ones who contribute truths–wisdom—that transcends the generations.
Let me end with a finishing touch: his proposition to examine reality with optimism: “Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”