Always seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible. — Rene Descartes
That quote basically broke my head the first few times I read it, so yes, I empathize with you. However, there was an important point to it. Descartes, along with Marcus Aurelius, George Washington, and Seneca the Younger (not a fun name to have) were all famous stoics.
If you don’t know what a stoic is, that last sentence might have fallen flat on you. Let me explain.
A stoic is someone who follows the philosophy of stoicism. As for stoicism, I’m turning to a great mind of the 21st century for that definition:
Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. Wikipedia
It’s a surprisingly accurate definition considering its size. Marcus Aurelius wrote a giant book on the subject! And now, I’m going to tell you about the one stoic that might actually surpass Marcus Aurelius (he’s got big shoes to fill).
Epictetus (the name starts off epic and just rolls right off the tongue) was born in present-day Turkey, at around 55 AD (a long long time ago in a galaxy right around here). He was born a slave, and was most certainly crippled (in the leg), although records conflict about whether he was born like that or his master broke it.
Once Emperor Nero died (he’s a whole other whack-job story), Epictetus was freed! Being a reasonable man, he chose the logical career path — philosophy. (Didn’t even consider being a librarian. Come on, man!) Epictetus taught about a lot of different aspects of stoicism, and actually influenced Marcus Aurelius’ book, Meditations! (Didn’t see that coming, did you?!) He even made a school, to teach people about his philosophy, and help them live their best lives.
The Path of the Philosopher
For Epictetus, philosophy was a way of life (considering most manual labor and other jobs were out of the picture). Epictetus, like many others after him, tried to master his life, and for stoics like him, this meant mastering his mind, and a lot more.
The keys to stoic philosophy are mastery of the mind, keeping death present in your mind, accepting the moment, and knowing that virtue is the only good. Let’s go a little deeper.
Mastery of the Mind
Part of stoic philosophy is understanding that the only thing within your control is your thoughts. The world is like a spiderweb of interconnected events; something across the globe can influence what ends up on your news feed today. You don’t have control over that. You don’t even have control over your own body. You can influence some things, to a degree, but for the most part, the only thing you have control over is your mind. Being a stoic means trying to live life as best you can, and since the only thing you have control over is your mind, that’s a good place to start. Mastering your mind means mastering everything you have control over. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Keeping Death Present in Your Mind
Stoics understand that the only true problem in life is death. It’s not the best way to put it, but it does help you understand. By keeping death present in your mind, you understand that running out of ice cream isn’t the end of the world. Getting a bad mark on your test isn’t the end of the world. You can even shrug off failing an exam, once you understand that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. Does running out of ice cream mean you’re going to die? No. So why does it bother you? Answer: It doesn’t. That’s how stoics stay so . . . stoic. Things just don’t faze them, because they’re not as bad as death.
Accepting the Moment
This ties in heavily with the other two. Accepting the moment is really similar to mastering your mind, in that you have to accept what the spiderweb of life is giving you. You can’t change it, or control it. The only thing you can do is act in a manner that you choose. You choose how you think and act, but you can’t choose the situation. The only thing you can do is make the best of what’s happening.
Virtue is The Only Good
This idea is central to the stoic philosophy. Virtue is the only good, because it has no extrinsic value, rather, it has intrinsic value. Epictetus even developed a system to help us understand what acts are virtuous.
There are three parts to this system: virtue, vice, and indifference, all fairly self-explanatory. Virtuous acts are positive, and positively impact (almost) everyone involved. Circumstances filled with virtue are the most impactful in life. However, actions filled with vice, virtue’s opposite, have the opposite effect. These are actions that harm, and are deemed wrong. Finally, actions of indifference don’t really harm or help anyone. This category also includes miscellaneous acts (e.g. those that don’t fall into virtue or vice).
Filtering by these categories allows us to choose actions that positively impact us and others, and allow us to grow and learn as people. They allow us to live our best lives.
Epictetus’ teachings are powerful, and have impacted many people. I would even go so far as to say that they are more powerful than Marcus Aurelius’ after writing this article. Epictetus actually influenced Marcus Aurelius, and probably every other stoic that has ever been. His teachings allow us to take actions that positively impact the world and ourselves.