Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Self-Power (Epictetus)

Over the next week, I'd like to share some excerpts from Epictetus that lend insight into the philosophy of the Stoics. It would be interesting to discuss the merits and the misgivings we might have with this philosophy, and if you like how it agrees or differs with our understanding of Buddhism. I've tried to start the discussion off by providing my own short comments and hope others will join in…

Enchiridion 1: Of things, some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion and, in a word, whatever are our own acts; not in our power are the body, property, reputation, office and, in a word, whatever are not our own acts. Things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance, but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. If you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, then you will be disturbed, but if you think only that which is your own to be your own, and that which is another's as it really is belongs to another, then no man will ever compel you, you will blame or accuse none, you will do nothing against your will and no man will harm you, for you will not suffer harm. If you aim for great things, remember that you must make no small effort, but some things must be put aside or postponed for the present. If you aim also for wealth or power, perhaps you will not gain them, but you will certainly be distracted from those things alone by which freedom and happiness are secured. Straightaway then, practice saying to every harsh appearance: "You are an appearance and in no manner what you appear to be." Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, "do you relate to something in my power or to those things not in my power?", and if not in your power, be ready to say that it does not concern you.

Commentary: This in a nutshell is the philosophy of the Stoics. Such an attitude of the renunciation of the external it would seem could be abused or taken advantage of, but it could never be manipulated for it constitutes a declaration of absolute freedom of the mind. And yet to what extent could it in fact be disempowering? It seems to entail an indifference in our attitude to things outside our power, and consequently an indifference in our behaviour regarding such things. But circumstances might change. That which is outside our power might yet be overcome through our efforts to master it. The right manner of this renunciation of the external is perhaps best explained in terms of the subtle distinction between indifference and equanimity. Equanimity (upekkha) is the seventh and ultimate factor of enlightenment. Unlike indifference, it is rooted in wisdom.

Originally published on Buddhist Travellers in 2011.

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