Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

The pain seemed to occupy Epictetus’ entire experience. Yet, part of his experience, Epictetus realized, he controlled. He could control his way of thinking about the pain. He still had power to reason, reflect and decide how to act, even if his body betrayed him at each turn. Two nights ago he’d wept unstoppably. Now he swallowed his sobs – he had this much power at least.

What else could he achieve? Epictetus forced himself to think about things other than his broken leg. A sunlit meadow. Cool water on his brow. The conjugation of verbs: he ran through his Latin and Greek. He thought about how brave he would feel in years to come when he had endured the trip, recovered and won his freedom. He coached himself: control the pain, don’t let it control you.

The pain continued relentlessly. Epictetus, by controlling his responses, held it at bay.

This is a true story, give or take some details. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135AD), who was born into slavery, was crippled for life when his leg was broken while he was being transported to Rome for auction. The experience of surviving the trip, without care or medical attention, prepared Epictetus for the Stoic lifestyle that he would adopt later on. Slavery taught him how to cope with social and political disenfranchisement. But it was the experience of lying below decks struggling with intolerable pain that taught him how to cultivate the power within.

We all have the ability to control our responses. The ability derives from our rational nature: our power to think critically about our experiences and to alter our view on them. The Stoics argued that the power of rational judgment is the only true power we possess in life. All other powers that we possess, such as powers that we derive from our relationships and communities, our money and possessions, our jobs and roles in society – all of these can be taken from us.

Take them away, the Stoics argued, and we still have an intrinsic power to maintain a rational state of mind. This is an intrinsic part of our human nature.

The Stoics valued this power over all other things, even life itself. When the Emperor Nero sentenced the Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3BC – 65AD) to death, Seneca (who know his time was up) called his wife and children to him, embraced them, and instructed a slave to bring a knife and urn. Seneca took the knife and opened his veins. Legend has it that he spoke on Stoic ethics as he died.

Seneca’s calm acceptance of death, passing away without signs of fear or suffering, is the Stoic ideal. Control your state of mind and you can be happy on the rack, the Stoics used to say. It is a grim teaching, but effective.

The first step to taking self-control is to affirm your power of rational judgment, the rational power within. To cultivate the inner strength to maintain a calm and balanced state of mind, you need to celebrate this power over all other things. You should focus on what is within your power of control and disregard everything outside of it. Everything that you cannot control by applying your reason is ultimately out of your hands. It is fate.

Don’t worry about fate, the Stoics counselled. Fate happens. Treat it with indifference.

We can reduce this Stoic teaching to three simple principles. Think of these principles as the Golden rules of Stoic practical philosophy.

Rule 1: Focus on what you can control.

Rule 2: All you can ultimately control is your state of mind.

Rule 3: What is beyond your control is fate. Fate is none of your business.

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This is an excerpt from Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

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