The things you control and the things you don’t

Don’t ask that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.


When in Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, Charlie Croker, an ageing, real estate tycoon who has been involved in one too many risky ventures and is going bankrupt, and Conrad Hensley, a young, menial worker who ends up in prison after losing his job as a result of Crocker’s financial problems, both accidentally discover teachings of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, they learn what it means to a be ‘a man in full’.

In prison, Hensley stumbles upon a book titled The Stoics, a collection of writings of Epictetus and other Stoic philosophers who flourished in Athens and Rome 2000 years ago. When he reads that Epictetus was born as a slave and imprisoned, tortured and crippled as a young man, he becomes curious and leafs through the pages to find Epictetus’ own words, such as: ‘If someone handed your body to a passerby, you would be annoyed. Aren’t you shamed that you hand over your mind to anyone around, for it to be upset and confused if the person insults you? … If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.’ Hensley slowly learns to be free from emotions that so often control us, when we should control them.

Our emotions are not passive reactions, they can be controlled by the mind – they are a matter of our own responsibility. After leaving the prison, he works as a nursing aide and sent to aid – of all people – Croker who is convalescing after an illness. Hensley introduces Croker to Epictetus’ teachings and Croker realises that not his wealth but mental and moral strengths are the only real goods, since they alone cannot be lost through bad luck.

Epictetus (AD c. 55–135), an emancipated slave, lived in the Roman Empire. He started a school of philosophy in Rome, but when in 95 Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome, Epictetus moved his school to Nicopolis, in what is now western Greece. He was revered by his contemporaries and many prominent figures visited his school, including Emperor Hadrian. Like his hero Socrates, he never recorded his teachings. Discourses, the only written account of Epictetus’ teachings, were compiled by his most famous pupil, Arrian. Discourses were a profound influence on Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic Meditations. Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180.

From Epictetus we learn that before we try to control our circumstances we have to control ourselves first; and nothing lies completely in our power except our judgments, desires and goals. Even after nearly two millenniums this message has not lost its relevance. Learn to appreciate the world as it is, not how you would like it to be.

‘Epictetus is a thinker we cannot forget, once we have encountered him, because he gets under our skin,’ says classicist Anthony A. Long. ‘He provokes and he irritates, but he deals so trenchantly with life’s everyday challenges that no one who knows his work can simply dismiss it as theoretically invalid or practically useless.’

In times of stress, Epictetus’ recommendations make their presence felt. Recent scientific research supports this assertion. Physicians have known for centuries that fake pills disguised as medicines – placebos – can help some patients. A new study that appears in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology shows that placebos do less for people who tend towards hostility and work best for those who are naturally resilient and altruistic. That’s good news for those who follow teachings of Epictetus.

© Surendra Verma 2015

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