June 1, 2020 | Brian Chappell

The Enchiridion

If you search for the word “stoic” on various dictionary web sites, a panoply of words emerges, connoting a range of modalities: indifference, resignation, courage, patience, calm, maturity. Indeed, like with Thoreau, with Stoicism we must face certain popular misconceptions. First, we now use “stoic” as an adjective, to describe a certain state of being, when we should rather think of “stoic” as a noun, to describe someone who follows the way of Stoicism. But when “stoic” is used as a noun, we get something like this definition, from Vocabulary.com: “The noun stoic is a person who’s not very emotional.” Not a reputable dictionary? Let’s try Cambridge: a stoic is “someone who does not complain or show their emotions.” 

These definitions are perfect examples of how ideology and culture speak through the words we use. How else to describe this gross misunderstanding of Stoicism except to acknowledge that our culture valorizes and polices the very “stoicism” that these web sites define? And, true to our culture, it points in both ways. In certain situations emotionless-ness is regarded as desirable toughness. In others it is regarded as robotic coldness. Look to the protests that are igniting our country: who is allowed to express their anger, and who is asked to remain “stoic”?

Still, new language has currency in our culture, thanks largely to the flourishing of Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, which exhibits a high degree of compatibility with Stoicism. It is the language of acceptance, the ability to see things, including our own emotions, for what they are. We therefore now have a space in our discourse to develop the recommendations of ancient Stoics, such as Epictetus. 

The Enchiridion is an ideal tool for beginning with Stoicism. It is beautiful, but also structurally expedient. Rather than develop a single idea from beginning to end, the text consists of micro-chapters that address different facets of the philosophy that Epictetus develops. Consequently, as we read we can identify the chapters that really speak to us in our situation, share insights, piece together a new Stoicism for our times. 

With that activity in mind, I do want to share one idea that I think is central to Epictetus’ general purpose. He introduces it in the first chapter, indeed in the first sentence: “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.”  Making this distinction, Epictetus asserts, will make all the difference in your life. And in order to make that distinction successfully, one must remember one important fact about human nature: it is not that we must know the difference between perception and reality; rather, we must know that perception is reality. Becoming aware of how our perceptions fundamentally shape our experience — this is mindfulness, or nothing is. 

Once you’ve got your perceptions firmly in the grasp of your awareness, you must make the big move, which is nothing short of becoming a philosopher. Here we come upon my favorite passage of The Enchiridion, in which Epictetus eloquently and forcefully lays out the stakes for your life: 

Do you think that you can act as you do and be a philosopher, that you can eat, drink, be angry, be discontented, as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintances, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything—in offices, in honors, before tribunals. When you have fully considered all these things, approach, if you please—that is, if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase serenity, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, do not come hither; do not, like children, be now a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own reason or else externals; apply yourself either to things within or without you—that is, be either a philosopher or one of the mob.

Here we can return to the idea of cultural currency. While for many the idea of being a small-s stoic remains that image of an emotional void, many others, especially members of the technocratic billionaire class, are now drawn to big-S Stoicism as a road map for the future human, who has at last done away with what Epictetus consistently calls our “wretchedness.” For these individuals and their devotees (along with many Western enthusiasts of “mindfulness”) the purpose of life is to obtain, as Epictetus points out here, “serenity, freedom, and tranquility.” 

But we must now contend with the next cultural misconception, about these high ideals. I suggest that the technocrats and billionaires misread Epictetus’ first sentence. Rather than accepting that there are things which are beyond our power, they might re-translate this sentence to read like this: There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are not yet within our power. This aspirational Stoicism aims to use the tools of “serenity, freedom, and tranquility” to gain a final, unwavering power, a leap in our evolution, where the raw and open human becomes a dominable, optimizable machine. But return to the passage I have quoted here. To achieve “serenity, freedom, and tranquility” is not to be in control, and it is most certainly not to relax and detach. Rather, to become the philosopher that Epictetus describes is to free oneself from the desires of the mob. The freedom you gain is the freedom of your mind, and not the freedom of preference and control for which so many now strive. To be a Stoic is to be downwardly mobile, and therefore unrecognizable to the culture, not standing astride it. The commodification of Stoicism that we now see at the upper echelons is little more than another bastardization, and a dangerous one at that.