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Exploring Encheiridion 5 (part I) – Episode 35


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It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their opinions about things. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible (otherwise, it would have appeared that way to Socrates as well), but the terrible thing is the opinion that death is terrible. So whenever we are frustrated, or troubled, or pained, let us never hold anyone responsible except ourselves, meaning our own opinions. Uneducated people blame others when they are doing badly. Those whose education is underway blame themselves. But a fully educated person blames no one, neither himself nor anyone else. (Ench 5) This passage complements Encheiridion 1, where Epictetus taught us that desiring and fearing things beyond our complete control will leave us “frustrated, pained, and troubled” and will cause us to “fault gods and men.” In Encheiridion 5, Epictetus takes this fundamental Stoic principle to its ultimate conclusion by adding death to the list of things we should not fear. He declares it is our opinion about death, rather than death itself, that troubles us. It is September 2021, and the Specter of death, in the form of the COVID pandemic, has been ever-present for more than two and a half years. This pandemic has changed our lives and our world. For some people, it has become an all-consuming fear. Yet, in this passage from the Encheiridion, Epictetus declares that death is nothing terrible. For most people, particularly those raised in the West, an assertion like this by Epictetus might seem bizarre, and it may even provoke a negative response or dismissal. Let’s be honest. This claim is completely counter to the way most of us think and attempt to live our lives. We were taught that externals like the negative opinions of others, poverty, sickness, and especially death are inherently bad and necessarily entail unhappiness. We learned this lesson early in our childhood, and we learned it well. So well, in fact, that we spend a great deal of time, money, and energy attempting to avoid all these externals, death in particular. However, practicing Stoics are repeatedly confronted with lessons like this in the texts that teach the opposite. Stoicism teaches us we can have a good flow in life regardless of our present situation. This doctrine is the crux of Stoic philosophical practice. At this point, some of you may be wondering, “In what way can that assertion by Epictetus be true? How can it be true that poverty, sickness, and even death are not terrible? How can it be that wealth, good health, and life are not inherently good?” Well, in every case except death, the answer provided by the Stoics is quite simple even though many people will likely find it unsatisfactory. The ancient Stoics teach us we must change our thinking about what is truly good and bad. They teach us that moral excellence is the only inherent good. Therefore, the Stoic path trains us to set aside our aversion to poverty, sickness, public shame, and everything that is not within our complete control, including death. There is no overstatement in this passage. Epictetus is not trying to shock us with hyperbole. He is simply restating a profound truth we repeatedly see throughout the Stoic writings. An excellent character (virtue) is the only true good, and a corrupted character (vice) is the only truly bad thing. Therefore, if we seek happiness in things and events we do not entirely control, we will be frustrated, pained, and troubled. Likewise, we will be miserable if we strive to avoid anything other than those irrational thoughts and wicked intentions that corrupt our character (soul). Okay, you may be thinking, I understand that virtue is the only good, and everything else is an indifferent and should not be desired as something good, in itself, or feared as something bad in itself. But how can death not be terrible? After all, Stoicism does not offer the consolation of an afterlife. To answer this question, Epictetus appeals to Socrates,

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