One of the major exemplars of the philosophical movement known as Stoicism almost 2000 years ago, Epictetus, a former slave, had much to say about taking the right approach to life. Through his teachings, which culminated in the dictated works of his Discourses and Enchiridion, Epictetus expounded on what virtuous living meant and what it should look like - not through theory, but through actual examples drawn from real life and the psychological attitudes one can adopt to make for a more trouble-free life and a 'tranquil' existence.

On this week's MindMatters, we take a look at the very influential teachings of Epictetus. Much like Gurdjieff (and perhaps even an inspiration to him?) we see how even centuries after his description of the 'art of living', his wisdom and insights into the human condition could not be more relevant for our own thinking and ways of living today.

Running Time: 00:53:32

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Here's the transcript of the show:

Corey: Hello everyone and welcome back. On this week's show we're going to be discussing the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Just like most of you out there, we here at Mind Matters studio have been impacted by all of the craziness that's been going on across the globe over the past month and it seemed like it'd be a good time to look back on an individual who so bravely, firmly and solidly stressed the importance of integrity and character during times of turmoil and chaos. This individual is none other than the former slave turned philosopher to thousands, named Epictetus.

As a bit of background, he was born in Hierapolis in Phrygia and he spent his early years as the child of a slave. It was in this culture that it's theorized that he picked up a very strong religious bent because the Phrygians had a cult for the Great Mother and they would regularly have great orgies. They were very intense in their rituals and in their religion, towards the Great Mother. So Epictetus comes across as being a much more religious Stoic than really any other Stoic that came before or after him. This is a big part of the works that were written down by his student Arrian when he became a philosopher in Rome after he was freed by his master and set up a very successful school until he was exiled.

But these works that come down to us over time have shrunk and shrunk, until now we only have four volumes out of an estimated eight original volumes of discourses that were gathered by his student, Arrian and that relate every kind of experience of students or people looking for advice and the kinds of interactions that they would have with Epictetus, the things that he would tell them, the kinds of conundrums that people would come into through daily life and his sage advice on every single one of those situations.

So as a book it's not a systematic philosophy but it's more a record of the kind of advice that this brave and strong-willed man, known as the marvelous old man, would give to people in need. We thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the advice that he offers to people because it is as relevant today as it was two millennia ago.

With that said, we'd like to take a look at what he thought, what was important. Most people out there are well aware of what the Stoics considered important and those were things that are only within our control. But we wanted to dig a little bit deeper into that and to flesh out what it means to live with integrity within such a world, within that system, and what it means to decide what is really within your control and what is outside of your control.

Epictetus wasn't without his flaws, philosophically speaking. He did have an idea that people could create their own ideas, that we had complete control over our thoughts and that by having complete control over our thoughts we could have complete control over our emotional reactions and that we could basically achieve a state of absolute happiness as long as we pursued what was good and we understood that what was good was what was morally good and that what was evil was what was morally evil. As long as we desired what was good and we desired to be that within ourselves and to find the good and to strive to be and act with integrity, we would eventually reach a state where we had some semblance of what they called eudaimonia. I'm probably butchering the pronunciation of that but it's just a state of happiness associated with the virtue of knowing that you've done everything you can in your life for the good.

Epictetus himself was born to a slave. His mother was a slave and he was a slave for much of his early life. We're not exactly sure when he was emancipated. There's some controversy over how well he was treated or the kinds of situations he experienced as a slave but undoubtedly his desire for freedom and his desire to teach everybody else what it meant to be free was imbued with the suffering that he experienced in being constrained and being forced as any slave in that kind of situation would be. But he was fortunate enough to travel around in circles that were high up at the time. His master was the clerk of court for Nero. So that gave him the opportunity to see what happened in the halls of power and what it really meant to have great wealth and great power and then at the same time to be able to evaluate whether or not such wealth, such power, such material affluence, was truly a good thing to have.

After he was emancipated and after he had studied under the preeminent Stoic sage of the day, Marconius Rufus...

Harrison: Musonius.

Corey: ...Musonius Rufus, he started his own philosophical school and spent the rest of his life devoting himself to teaching people how to be good, how to be good people and how in and of itself, that was the aim of success. That was how you would determine your success in life and that no matter what life threw at you, if you took the proper attitude towards it, you could find yourself in a position where you were better off, you had learned something and you had proven yourself.

In his brilliant way he could relate the stories from the Greek pantheon of gods in order to impress upon his students these epic feats of the gods, of Hercules, of Heracles, and how they themselves should look upon their lives as tests and trials just as the tests and trials that Hercules found himself in, turned him and proved the man that he was and that we also should take the tests and the trials that we have in front of us and use them to prove the kind of individual that we are and to always act with integrity and to keep our character in mind.

So with that said, did you guys have any place that you'd like to start?

Harrison: Well I just wanted to go back to a couple of things you said about his background and just give a couple of little anecdotes about those aspects. One was his own teacher Musonius Rufus. We talked about this book when we did our two shows on Stoicism - A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine, on the modern versions of Stoicism, the people who are actually modern practicing Stoics today who are very few in number.

So on Musonius, Irvine talks a bit about his teaching style. So he says, "Indeed when a philosopher lectures, (this is a real philosopher, like you were saying, so not just someone with their head in the clouds but someone who's actually embodying what they're teaching) this philosopher's words should make those in his audience shudder and feel ashamed. (This is Musonius's philosophy.) Rather than applauding him, they should be reduced to silence. According to Epictetus, Musonius himself apparently possessed the ability to reduce his audiences to silence for when he spoke, his listeners felt as if he had discovered and laid before them those traits of which they were secretly ashamed."

So right there that gets back to our show on Paul's philosophy in his letters in the New Testament and about the practice of what the prophetic word is in the Christian tradition, about laying bare and exposing and shining light on the secrets of the heart that you wish to be concealed. For Epictetus, the classicist Anthony Long, according to Irvine, sums up the two conditions that he placed on his students as the following: one, they need to satisfy the condition of wanting to benefit from philosophy and two, understanding what a commitment to philosophy actually entails.

So Irvine writes, "Epictetus knew that his words would be wasted on students who didn't yet recognize their own inadequacies or who weren't willing to take the steps necessary to deal with them." That just shows the actual practical level of the philosophy. You didn't go and listen to the lectures and take notes like it is in modern-day philosophy departments. It was an actual practice, a one-on-one or a many-on-one or a one-on-many interaction and teaching opportunity.

The way that Irvine puts it, "According to Epictetus, he told his students that a Stoic school should be like a physician's consulting room and that patients should leave feeling bad rather than feeling good, the idea being that any treatment likely to cure a patient is also likely to cause him discomfort. According to Epictetus the primary concern of philosophy should be the art of living. Just as wood is the medium of the carpenter and bronze is the medium of the sculptor, your life is the medium on which you practice the art of living."

So the third idea that I want to come back to, as you mentioned, was the influence of religion on him at an early age with the Great Mother cult, but also with his anecdotes about the Greek gods because in his writings Zeus takes a large role and Zeus is the prime god of the Greek pantheon. Irvine points this out and so of course there's the arguably accurate depiction of the Greek gods as these human-like figures with all of their character flaws and everything like that, human personality traits. But he points out that for Epictetus, Zeus was "A thoughtful, kind and loving God and when he created us he had our best interests in mind, but sadly he appears not to have been omnipotent. So in creating us there were limits to what he could do. In his discourses, Epictetus imagines having a conversation with Zeus in which Zeus explains his predicament in the following terms: "Epictetus, had it been possible, I should have made both this paltry body and the small estate of thine free and unhampered, yet since I could not give thee this, we have given thee a certain portion of our self, this faculty of choice and refusal, of desire and aversion.'"

He adds that, "If Epictetus learns to make proper use of this faculty, he will never feel frustrated or dissatisfied. He will, in other words, retain his tranquility and even experience joy despite the blows fortune might deal him. Elsewhere in the discourses Epictetus suggests that even if Zeus could have made us free and unhampered, he would not have chosen to do so. Epictetus presents us with the image of Zeus as an athletic coach. 'It is difficulties that show what men are. Consequently, when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a physical trainer, has matched you with a rugged young man.' Why do this? To toughen and strengthen you so you can become an Olympic victor. In other words, so you can have the best life possible. Seneca, (previous Roman Stoic philosopher) by the way. argued along similar lines. God, he said, does not make a spoiled pet of a good man. He tests him, hardens him and fits him for his own service."

So this is what I think of as the rugged, manly aspect of Stoicism. It doesn't pamper individuals. It doesn't give in to their weakest aspects and the weak parts of their personality. It's actually to develop that inner strength to overcome anything that the world will throw at you essentially. This is a theme we've covered in pretty much every show this year so far, at least, on Mind Matters, taking the lessons that life gives you and actually utilizing them for your own development as opposed to seeing the world as this hostile place that's just out to get you. This is a place where something can be learned from any situation, no matter how difficult, even death, even what people probably consider to be the worst thing that can befall them, even death is something to learn from and to approach, something to prepare for. You can die a good death.

That comes back to Gurdjieff too, like in our interview with Joseph Azize, to prepare not to die like a dog, to die an honorable death because it could come tonight, it could come tomorrow, it could come thirty years from now but you will die and you can die like...

Elan: A dog.

Harrison: ...a scared or ravenous dog, or you can die with dignity, with understanding and knowing that you'd made something of your life and digested the lessons of the material that has been provided for you in your life because you don't have control. That's one of the things - getting back to this locus of control that the Stoics talked about - there are certain things that are under your control and those are the things you should focus on affecting through your own will. Then there are the things that you can't control and the things you can't control are the things that you have to then decide how to react to, put into practice and how to deal with and digest those experiences.

So for your entire life you're presented with these things that are out of your control, but what is always in your control is your reaction to them and how you react to them and what you do in response to them. Now having this new experience, how do you now act based on that new experience? It's a curveball, that you had an experience before, so now that's what puts you to the test. That's the Olympic victor, the Olympian metaphor that Epictetus was using. Now you're put to the test and so now what are you going to do with it? It's not like you have this one opportunity, you have this curveball thrown at you and then you screw up and it's like okay, you're done. Fail!

No, now you have that experience and now if you fail, now you have a little bit more data, a little bit more information about the way the world is, the possibilities inherent in the world and inherent in your life. Now you can prepare for the next time that happens. You can say, "Okay well I wasn't prepared for this situation. Now I can be prepared for it in the future to a better degree but since I wasn't prepared for it beforehand, what else might I not be prepared for? You can let your imagination go wild a bit and say, "Okay well maybe something will pop into mind. Oh I hadn't even thought about that possibility before." Now you can prepare for that possibility that wasn't even within your realm of possibility, to go back to some of our previous shows on philosophy.

Corey: That ties right in with the very religious streak that runs throughout everything that he says. He firmly believes that that aspect of us that is within our control, is on par with the gods, that our ability to think and reason is that part of us that's connected to the divine and it's the only thing that we can really control, our own thoughts and our own opinions.

So he recommends to people that they make a duty of examining the opinions that they have and the judgments that they have in any given situation, that they make themselves sensitive to what they truly think about something. Whenever you're confronted by just about anything - the first thing that pops into my head is you're driving down the road and you've got some jerk you know passing you and just immediately you say 'he's a jerk', right?

Harrison: Oh, what a jerk.

Corey: This guy's a jerk, right? But for Epictetus, the important thing is always to keep in mind your own integrity, that part of you that's connected with God and to treat yourself with that kind of integrity and to ask yourself would a person with this integrity entertain such mean and base thoughts, off of you such little - just anything?

Harrison: Such pettiness

Corey:. Such pettiness. No! Obviously you're going to want to root out those kinds of opinions that you have about just about anything, anybody, that pop up automatically throughout the course of your day because as Epictetus says - and this is one of my favorite lines of his - if you found out you were the son of Caesar, we wouldn't be able to listen to you because you'd be insufferable. But you find out that you're the son of Zeus and you don't care! {laughter} This is the thing. Each of us has this spark, this connection to the divine and we should treat ourselves with that level of integrity, that we have to treat the world and ourselves and our own thoughts like they are that important.

Elan: I think the beauty of his writing is that so much of what he presents, particularly in the Enchiridion, is aphorisms that were taken from his larger body of work, are presented with the very practical day-to-day experiences, much in the way that Gurdjieff would have presented situations, psychological realities and insights into the ways in which people think addressing certain things as ego and self-importance and all those things that are to be recognized and discarded as unnecessary and energy wasting.

It's through these several dozen aphorisms that he gives these little snapshots of situations and circumstances that one might find themselves in, that you could look at and reflect upon and think, 'I have an analogous experience like that and I may have erred on the side of ego or self-importance in that particular situation', or 'I can see how this is a very common psychological condition for most people because hey, there it goes and myself.' By the same token there are things that he expresses in his aphorisms that I think we sometimes intuitively realize for ourselves as truths about what the higher virtues are or what good character is, things that we may have seen other people demonstrate in what they write or how they behave.

We call it moral philosophy or philosophy in general, but this is just really very insightful ways of approaching life and being. There were so many of these that came up where I thought, 'oh this is something that I'd read from Carlos Castaneda,' or 'this reminds me of Paul' or 'this reminds me of even something Sun Tzu said in The Art Of War.' For all of these different ancient wisdoms, there's a reason, like you said earlier in the show Corey, that this work is still around even if it's been diminished and people don't really know who Epictetus was, or that he was a forerunner of so much of what Stoicism presents to us today in what people are drawing on when they're writing new books and presenting a whole slew of articles that we sometimes see on SOTT. He was the man! He was epic!

Harrison: Yeah, he was. {laughter}

Elan: Well on that note, to give some example of how he puts some of his wisdom into these very natural, identifiable situations, he writes:

"Has any man been preferred before you at a banquet? Or in being saluted? Or in being invited to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to rejoice that he has obtained them. But if bad, be not grieved because you have not obtained them and remember that you cannot. If you do not the same things in order to obtain what is not in our power, be considered worthy of the same equal things? For how can a man obtain an equal share with another man when he does not visit a man's doors as that other man does? When he does not attend him when he goes abroad, as the other man does? When he does not praise, flatter him as another does? You will be unjust then and insatiable if you do not part with the price in return for which those things are sold and if you wish to obtain them for nothing.

Well what is the price of lettuces? An obolus perhaps. If then a man gives up the obolus and receives lettuces and if you do not give up the obolus and do not obtain the lettuces, do not suppose that you receive less than he who has got the lettuces, for as he has the lettuces, so you have the obolus which you did not give. In the same way then in the other matter also, you have not been invited to a man's feast for you did not give to the host the price at which the supper is sold. But he sells it for praise, flattery. He sells it for personal attention. Give then the price. It is for your interest for which it is sold. But if you wish both not to give the price and to obtain the things, you are insatiable and silly. (I love that){laughter} Have you nothing then in place of the supper? You have indeed. You have the not flattering of him whom you did not choose to flatter. You have not the enduring of the man when he enters the room."

And this speaks to so much! It speaks to all of the politically, ideologically motivated goals that we're seeing right now in obtaining things for the self that aren't earned, for the lack of personal responsibility and hard work that goes into earning the types of things that people expect to have or demanding from a government that has been, in their mind, keeping them at a certain position. This gets back to Jordan Peterson, of course.

So his aphorisms are littered with this type of thinking where we have to really examine our own personal expectations of other people, of systems that are all around us. What are we willing to pay personally in order to have the things that we're envious that others have. Without looking at how that really works - and it's very basic - you're a child!

Corey: And silly.

Elan: And silly!

Harrison: And there's so much in that concept or that idea of payments too. He uses an example. Was it lettuce, like a head of lettuce that he was talking about? Right.

Elan: Yes.

Harrison: So buying lettuce and comparing that to the social status, not symbol, but the things that happen in life that are a result of that social engagement that you have with other people on a certain level and in a certain manner. So you flatter someone, you invite them over, you pay a visit to their house. These are all the social practices that are designed to establish a relationship and then get something out of it. It's the payment that you make in order to receive the social status. There are two levels of this payment but for the Stoics there was also your cosmic duty. This followed the Greek Stoics which was an entire system of physics, logic and ethics and how they were all intertwined. The Romans got rid of the physics and logic to a large degree and just focused on the ethics. But through an understanding of the nature of the world and one's place in it, there were certain implications of that way of looking at the world.

For instance, because man is rational and is imbued with that spark of Zeus's rationality then there are certain things that followed from that. You had to behave rationally. It was your duty and obligation to behave rationally and that had implications for your own personal behavior, your character, your social interactions, what you focused on, pretty much every aspect of your life. That's why it's the art of living.

So what is the payment that we have to give to the universe basically, to pay for our own existence? What are we here to do? What is our purpose? That is central to Stoicism. You can look at the entire Stoic philosophy as a system of payment. What are your obligations? What do you do and what must you do in your life in order to justify your own existence? All of the Stoic practices are those forms of payment.

So just like you have to give a Denarius or whatever to get to get your head of lettuce, and just like if you're playing the social game and you want something, you have to make the payment, well those things are all on a pretty low level for the Stoics. What's the real payment you have to make?

You brought up the political angle and expecting something from nothing and wanting what you are envious of in others and things like that. I want to get to something that Irvine says about what Epictetus would say about some modern phenomena like that. But to lead up to that there's a discussion on insults. I think we talked about it in either our Stoicism show and/or one of our Gurdjieff shows because they both said something similar about insults. If someone calls you a fool, well they might be right, in which case why be angry at them and if they're wrong then why let it bother you because that person is obviously a fool.

Elan: And if they're right, they might as well call me out for a lot of other stuff too because heck, I have a lot of faults.

Harrison: That's the Stoic way of accepting insults. But for Epictetus, the starting idea is that according to him, the self is the source of all benefit and harm to oneself, is the self itself. The source isn't external. It's not people being mean to you that cause you harm. The harm comes from yourself and essentially allowing that statement in this case, that insult to harm you.

So one of Epictetus's lines is, "Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting." This is putting the onus of that source of your reaction on yourself as opposed to that other person. "Listen to what that other person just told me. They're totally unjustified." "Well you're the one taking offense to it so that just shows an inner pettiness on your part and an inner weakness and a lack of control over your own self because you don't have to be offended. That person might be an idiot, in which case why be offended? And he might be right, in which case here you are acting like a total idiot when what that person said was completely accurate about you. So get over yourself!"

It's that judgment that you make yourself which relates back to what Gurdjieff would call the formatory apparatus. It's the automatic associations that we form that filter all of the experiences that we have. Something happens in the external world that gets filtered through this associative mechanism in our mind that then automatically colors it with a certain connotation or a certain feeling, a certain emotion. So we react completely mechanically to the insult that has just been made to us by this person with no active reasoning going on in the moment.

That's really what the Stoics recommended, this process of active reasoning about the things that happen in life, in this case insults, to actually stop for a second and reason about the situation. Well is what that person is saying true, in which case well maybe it is. "Oh, I am like that. Well why should I be insulted if my music teacher tells me I played that totally wrong, that my technique was horrible and I'm not paying attention?" Well it's because he's right!

Elan: Well I have a philosophical question for the both of you and I hope this isn't too much of a digression, but when you were saying all that Harrison, you mentioned the act of reasoning that would be involved in examining an insult for instance, so that you mediate what might be a painful statement to you without getting hurt, your thinking about it. In thinking about these things, is there a level of understanding this, or work on it, or assimilating all of this for ourselves where we become detached enough, where we don't even have to reason so much, we automatically accept or have knowledge of how this insult has been relayed, by who, a perspective on it, how much weight it should be really given, almost instantaneously?

Harrison: Yeah. I can't remember if it was Epictetus or one of the other Roman Stoics who said something similar but in a different domain. He was talking about doing good deeds like charitable things, doing good things for other people. He said that for an actual Stoic, they should do those things as a matter of routine, that the Stoic himself doesn't even notice himself doing them. It should just be second nature to just do these kinds of things which other people struggle to do, or do for social status. or for any other reason. For a practicing Stoic that has developed to a degree along that path, that way, it should be without a second thought, second nature and not even noticed afterwards. You shouldn't even necessarily remember that you did it. It's just like getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth. It's just something you do naturally. It's a habit that you've established.

So yeah, I'd say that at a certain point, certain ways of reacting and acting should just become habitual to the point where you don't even need to actively reason about it because ideally you've actively reasoned about it so often in the past that you don't need to do it anymore. It's not like a fried chicken just flying into your mouth. It's not free lunch. You have to work for it to start out with. But then it will become second nature after practice.

This leads into where I was going with this, bringing it to modern issues and modern political issues. It relates to this idea of free lunch because there is the element of that envy. For instance with billionaires, everyone hates billionaires of course, naturally, but how many people who are really envious of billionaires would actually be willing to do the things that billionaires do to become a billionaire, whether good or bad, whether shady or just working 20 hours a day? There are all kinds of elements that need to be taken into account.

Well would you be willing to either cut those corners and be so dishonest or to work that hard for the few people that have actually managed to become super successful, relatively free of unethical behavior? Well if you are, then your feeling and your opinion might have some value. If not then why should I listen to you?

On a slightly different line, this is what Irvine writes at the end of his chapter on insults. He says,

"We live in a time to be sure, in which few people are willing to respond to an insult with humor or with a non-response." (These are two of the recommended techniques for dealing with insults that the Stoics used.) "Indeed, those who advocate politically correct speech think the proper way to deal with some insults is to punish the insulter. What most concerns them are insults directed at the disadvantaged, including members of minority groups and people with physical, mental, social and economic handicaps. Disadvantaged individuals, they argue, are psychologically vulnerable and if we let people insult them, they will suffer grievous psychological harm. Advocates of politically correct speech therefore petition the authorities - government officials, employers and school administrators - to punish anyone who insults a disadvantaged individual.

Epictetus would reject this manner of dealing with insults as being woefully counterproductive. He would point out to begin with, that the political correctness movement has some untoward side-effects. One is that the process of protecting disadvantaged individuals from insults will tend to make them hypersensitive to insults. They will, as a result, feel the sting not only of direct insults, but of implied insults as well. Another is that disadvantaged individuals will come to believe that they are powerless to deal with insults on their own, that unless the authorities intercede on their behalf they are defenseless.

The best way to deal with insults directed at the disadvantaged, Epictetus would continue, is not to punish those who insult them, but to teach members of disadvantaged groups techniques of insult self-defence. They need in particular, to learn how to remove the sting from whatever insults are directed at them and until they do this, they will remain hypersensitive to insults and will, as a result, experience considerable distress when insulted. It is worth noting that Epictetus would, by modern standards, count as doubly disadvantaged. He was both lame and a slave. Despite these disadvantages, he found a way to rise above insults. More important, he found a way to experience joy despite the bad hand that fate had dealt him. The modern disadvantaged, one suspects, could learn a lot from Epictetus."

No comment. I won't comment on that statement.

Corey: Epictetus seems like a harsh taskmaster. He sounds like it in many ways. But I really think, just reading more and more about him, he's more an angel of mercy to those of us who suffer from having bad attitudes and from not really knowing, as he would say, what is within our control and what isn't and putting all of our work, our desires and our innermost hopes and dreams into things that will wash away with a massive flood these days. You never know.

But for Epictetus, that was where the religious portion really shone through. You can see that he had this desire to show men that there's something greater than anything that Rome could offer. You can go and price grain and you can sell grain on the markets and you can go to these courts and you can do all this dining. At the time it was just Babylon, really. It was similar to today. You can sit on your phone for 18 hours while you're locked up in your house and you can do this or that. You could watch Netflix for hours and hours. He would say don't ever forget that divine part of you that desires freedom.

Elan: I think a big part of the value of all of what he's trying to convey is that there is this immaterial gold. There is this non-ostentatious, superficial richness or riches that one can attain by building one's character, by being healthy in the sense of having values and having ethics for oneself and ways of behaving that are appropriate to one's relations to others. One way he conveys this in the fragments portion, he says "Patients are displeased with a physician who does not prescribe to them and think he gives them over to disease. And why are none so affected towards a philosopher as to conclude that he despairs of their recovery to a right way of thinking if he tells them nothing for their good?"

So what he seems to be saying is we're very reliant upon the most obvious treatments for physical disease when we have them, when we go to doctors, where we expect some kind of medication or treatment that's going to make us well physically. But how often do we recognize a sickness of the soul, of the character, of emotional and psychological difficulties and where is the person's expectation and rightful demand that a philosopher or someone who is insightful, whether they be a psychologist, a therapist, a writer, a leader of morals and virtues? There is far less of this expectation that they be healed from within on this other less materialistic sense of being.

So that's one of the things that is the thread that runs through all of his writing it seems. Instead of building one's house and having all of these externals that would seem to reflect riches and taste, that the real riches and the real taste aren't how one comports themselves with others and how one behaves and responds to their situation.

Harrison: One of the ways that Epictetus recommended to put this into practice, how to comport yourself with others, relates back to our previous discussion with Joseph Azize about Gurdjieff;s morning preparation because Epictetus advocated to prepare for your interactions with other people. If you know you're going to be interacting with someone during the day that annoys you in a particular way, prepare for that. Visualize it to yourself. Realize, I'm going to be interacting with this person. I know when they do this activity or they scratch their nose when they're talking to you, or something like that, or if it's something more serious than that, not something just so trivial that sets you off for whatever reason, but to recognize that and to prepare for it so that when it actually happens, you've already got it in mind. It won't affect you to the degree it does when it comes out of nowhere.

It isn't rational, to use the Stoics' phrase, to interact with the same person repeatedly and to be constantly surprised at the things that annoy you. {laughter} It's like, oh, they're doing that again! Oh, they're doing it again! Well yeah what do you expect?! They do that and you get upset every time. Does it make any sense to get upset every time they do it when you interact with them regularly? No! {laughter} It's totally stupid so what are you going to actually do about i?. To relate this back to the morning preparation, if you enter that relaxed, collected state and then picture that to yourself. Prepare for your day. "I'm going to be interacting with this person. Chances are they were going to do this thing that sets me off. Well does it make sense that it's going to set me off? Do I want to be set off? What does that say about me, that I lack control to such a degree that something so minor is going to upset me to such a great degree?" Well prepare for it. It's going to happen.

So when you go into that interaction you're ready for it and you can even treat it like a game. "Okay, well when is it going to happen? Let's see if I can predict it and if I'm ready for it when it comes." So you're waiting for and then it comes, they do whatever minor little distracting or annoying thing that they do and then you can observe that reaction for yourself, in yourself, without just reacting automatically and mechanically to that minor affront from the universe and the external world that upsets you so greatly.

Epictetus described it as establishing a certain character and pattern for oneself. So you create the pattern every morning and it doesn't necessarily have to be the morning. If you don't think about it in the morning at least hopefully at some time during the day, before the actual event, you'll think about it and be prepared for it, but you establish that pattern for yourself. "I'm in this pattern where I'm not reactive. I want to hold that pattern throughout the day and throughout my interaction with this person so that I'm not a slave to the automatic reactions that pop up in me as a result of the displeasing manifestations of other people." Yeah, it's going to happen. Other people are annoying.

We haven't talked about Marcus Aurelius but Epictetus was probably Marcus Aurelius's top guy, top influence, and one of the things Irvine points out in the book is that if you asked the people who interacted with Marcus Aurelius,, they'd say he's such a great guy. But he had this disdain for people. He thought that everyone was just annoying. Every single person was just this annoying slob that was just a pain to be around, but he recognized this about himself and despite all of that, he acted with dignity and magnanimity towards other people and other people appreciated it. From his perspective, they probably didn't appreciate it enough. They were still annoying slobs but it was his duty to himself to actually act in a way becoming an emperor, but also just for a human being and for a Stoic.

You can't do that if you don't prepare for it, unless you're just some saintly being that manifested itself on earth and is just perfect in every way. You've got to work at it.

Corey: You could even say that for Epictetus, we come into this world and for him we're all pretty much fools. He deigned to show people what it meant to actually become full human beings. But the unfortunate thing with Epictetus's philosophy is that there really isn't a great beyond. There isn't necessarily anything that we're working for in his philosophy. You can do all this work to live the Stoic good life and then afterwards, you're a drop in the sea again and you return from whence you came.

Another problem with his thought is that there is no such thing as evil. Unfortunately, everything that he describes about the human condition and all of the evils that this way of thinking, that this philosophy helps you to overcome, he didn't see evil as evil. He taught that you had to attain the perspective of God and from God's perspective, even evil was good. You had to have good in order to have evil, you had to have evil in order to have good and so from his perspective that meant that there was no really no such thing as evil. Unfortunately that doesn't mean that there is not evil, because obviously if there's evil in your system then that means that evil is real and unfortunately as human beings we can't attain that perspective. We still struggle and we have to labor in a world where evil is a very real thing and it's a constant concern. Everybody is worried about some kind of evil. You read the news and there's always some new evil, some form of evil. Sometimes it's hyped up. Most of the time is just evil telling you what evil really is, and hoping that you're fooled.

But that's one of the biggest things that I've taken away through reading Epictetus, to know what you're going for when you read it. When you're reading Epictetus it's probably best to be looking for an attitude. I think that's what he offers better than anything else. I can't remember the name of those monks who help you up Mount Everest, the Sherpa. They help you make the climb up this treacherous mountain, right? Epictetus is something like that, I think, for many, many, many people throughout history. He has been there to coach you in the darkest times that so many people go through. It never ends. His words will always be relevant.

So if you're going to read Epictetus, don't expect it to be perfect and don't expect to get the full picture on what man's place in the cosmos is, but expect to get a hard-ass attitude {laughter}, that you are a son or a child of the Divine, that you should treat yourself that way and you should treat others that way and that you should never allow yourself to become just a nasty rascal, as he would say. {laughter}

Elan: Well Corey, I'm glad you said all of that actually because there were portions of the fragments that seemed to present false equivalencies, like "Well you can either be poor but have good character or you can be rich and be an absolute jerk." It doesn't have to look like that exactly. So using your own critical faculties to suss out what may be good advice and what is less than truthful or less than insightful is important with a lot of this material.

Corey: And with that, we're going to wrap up today's show. We hope that this finds you well and healthy and if you liked the show, hit like, subscribe and share it everywhere that you can. Have a great week and we'll see you next time everybody