Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Tristan Vogel (H2)
Epictetus, His Thoughts, and My Personal Stoicism: Part 2
The past couple of years have been a roller coaster for me. There have been times that I have felt invincible as well as times I have not felt so strong. As my third semester comes to a close I recall all of these different feelings and the way I have responded to each of them. I would say I have been fair and honest for the most part but there are definitely times that I could have reacted better.
It has been approximately two years since I first discovered Epictetus and Stoicism. I happened to be in a Barnes & Noble looking for a particular book when a black and white cover caught my attention. I picked it up and scanned the back. It obviously interested me or I would not be here writing about it. It was a short book that simply summarized Epictetus’s life and The Discourses, one of Epictetus’s works recorded by a student of his. I immediately tried applying the wisdom in the book to my life. I’d say it worked for a day or two but I lacked discipline. I quickly forgot about the book and it had sat in a drawer since.
It was not until recently I picked the book back up where I left off and continued reading. All along this little book had been holding wisdom just waiting to be absorbed. The book, “The Art of Living” by Sharon Lebell, has been a helpful aid to me since reopening it. A major theme of Epictetus’s thoughts is that you can only control a few things in the world; one being your will which through association controls your happiness. The past year many unfortunate events have found their way to my doorstep. Every single one has made things more stressful and complicated. Or so I thought. Actually not a single one of these problems I have faced has made things more difficult. In each instance it was my response to them that made things more stressful and complicated.
Epictetus said that when a person can fit themselves between a stimulus and a response he/she will be much more satisfied because they will be able to control the situation instead of be controlled by it.
[Stimulus] Insert Self Here [Response]
Stoicism is highly concerned with self-control in every meaning of the phrase. A true stoic needs to be disciplined, accepting, and patient. In The Discourses, Epictetus talks about patience in relation to desiring a fig. In short, he says that one must wait patiently for a fig tree to first blossom, then bear fruit, and then allow time for the fruit to ripen before one consumes it. This example goes beyond waiting for fresh fruit. It can be applied to nearly anything one might experience in life. Several times I have given up on a task because I have felt overwhelmed form the start. Epictetus would have (probably with reproach) told me to reevaluate the problem and get back to work.
Epictetus influences my reactions now more than ever. When I am faced with a difficulty I step back for a second and ask myself the important questions. Does this in any way affect my happiness? What are some of the ways in which I can respond to this stimulus? How exactly will I choose to respond to it?
Just this week I have used this process to deal with problems that arise with my family, my ladyfriend, and school. After every instance I have felt significantly better than I would have if I had let the problem control me instead of the other way around. In the future I know that I will refer back to Epictetus. In fact, I would bet that I encounter Epictetus before the night’s end.
I think that Epictetus is correct in that controlling your thoughts and reactions is a streamlined path to happiness. I know that I am the least content when I allow external forces to dictate how I feel. Consider how much freedom one has when they take control back into their own hands. It is as if you have just been given the keys to a racecar with a full tank of gas.
Epictetus was also adamant about one’s social circle. He believed that one could only have these stoic-like characteristics if they surround themselves with others that do. This is the exact same thing as saying, “Be careful who your friends are,” and so on. I may not be the most patient person in the world or the most disciplined when it comes to controlling my impulse reactions but I do have a great set of friends. For as long as I can remember I have looked up to people worth looking up to and associated myself with people whom I knew would only allow me to grow. All of my friends are quick to say something if I begin to start doing something I should not be. When I am down or feeling unmotivated I have friends who are willing to listen and encourage me to keep trekking on. Last year I thought about dropping the honors college here at MTSU because I knew it would be much less strenuous to do so. My best friend reminded me of why that would be a mistake and I would come to regret it. Every time I think back to that day I mentally thank him for saying the things he did.
There are times I am critical of myself for taking twenty years to figure out some of the things I have discussed in these two blog posts. More concerning to me is those who still are having a hard time with it. I consider my circumstances and myself lucky. I wish for others that they will soon take control of the oars and steer their lives in a desirable direction. If it had not been for that coincidence two years ago in a bookstore I might still be having trouble. I think that philosophy should be a common core subject in public schools starting earlier than it does now. I am not certain that the high school I attended even offered a single philosophy course. The point is that if Epictetus was able to foster motivation within me it might work for someone else. Student success would rise as well as self-confidence among the youth. With a high self-esteem you can expect everything to improve. I am not strictly limiting this to the education sector either. Work performance may increase along with productivity and quality of work. If this occurred on a grand level like I am imaging it, a whole entire country could be transformed. Imagine a United States where happiness is real and abundant and not artificially created and limited. Go bigger. The world. What if the world were a truly happy place because people truly understood how to manifest it internally. Yes, this seems farfetched but there is potential for philosophy to boost the quality of life around the globe. Inexpensively too!
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