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Exploring Encheiridion 19 – Episode 59


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You can always win if you only enter competitions where winning is up to you. When you see someone honored ahead of you or holding great power or being highly esteemed in another way, be careful never to be carried away by the impression and judge the person to be happy. For if the essence of goodness consists in things that are up to us, there is room for neither envy nor jealousy, and you yourself will not want to be a praetor or a senator or a consul, but to be free. The only way to achieve this is by despising the things that are not up to us. (Ench 19) If anyone thought jealousy and envy of others is a modern phenomenon, Epictetus clarifies that these destructive emotions are not new. They are exacerbated by modern technologies, which provide a constant stream of social media posts with people showing off expensive clothes, jewelry, cars, houses, vacations, announcing their promotions, and displaying their bodies for the world to see. Social media turned “keeping up with the Joneses” into “keeping up with the Kardashians.” Most modern societies teach us these externals are associated with happiness. Indeed, we are inclined to think the lives of these rich, famous, beautiful people must be filled with happiness. The Stoics make it clear possession of these externals does not ensure happiness. We don’t need to rely on the Stoic conception of happiness to destroy this myth. Hollywood provides us with a constant stream of tragic stories about the lives of the rich and famous. Sadly, most people spend their lives chasing happiness in things that are not up to us. While the acquisition of externals almost always does provide an immediate feeling of happiness, it is always short-lived because this form of happiness is not the state of well-being offered by Stoicism. In this chapter of Encheiridion, Epictetus offers another serving of his consistent message: if we focus our attention on those things that are up to us—our faculties of judgment, motivation, desire, and aversion—we will avoid the pathological emotions that cripple the masses of people and make progress toward true well-being. Like I have said before, understanding the distinction between what is up to us and not up to us is quite simple. However, putting that understanding into practice consistently is extremely difficult. To make progress toward a virtuous character and its accompanying well-being, we must keep our attention (prosoche) on what is up to us our faculties of judgment, motivation, desire, and aversion—and despise everything else. This is the crux of Stoic practice. Does that mean we should despise my spouse, children, job, community, body, etc. since they all fall into the category of externals that are not up to us? No! It means we must despise our judgment of those externals as “good” because none of those externals will bring us the well-being we seek. We cannot remove externals from our lives. Even if we were to remove ourselves from the jealousy and envy of others by moving to a deserted island, without any channel of communication with others, we would still encounter externals like weather, animals, snakes, bugs, hunger, thirst, etc. We cannot escape externals, and we should not try. Externals provide us with the grist for the mill that develops our character. What would wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice mean apart from externals? So, what should we do when faced with the impression of someone we know who has a possession commonly judged as “good”? Especially when we may be inclined to think they didn’t earn it? What should we do when someone else gets the promotion instead of us, and we believe they are less worthy? Before jealousy and envy take hold of our psyche, we need to perform that three-step process on these impressions I highlighted in Episodes 9 and 37: Stop It Strip It Bare See It from the Cosmic Viewpoint If you don’t recall the details of that process, I recommend you go back and listen to Episodes ...

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