Epictetus part 13: What’s important?

Note: this is the thirteenth part of a weekly series, in which I translate and discuss the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus. New posts will be released every monday morning (GMT).


The thirteenth paragraph starts with the exact same words as the twelfth: “If you want to make progress”. And again, Epictetus tells us that we should not worry about external things like wealth and fame, but about the most important internal thing: keeping your will in accordance with nature. In fact, he warns us that other people might ridicule us, but tells us we should simply withstand their mockery:

If you want to make progress, put up with being thought unknowing and stupid about external things, and don’t even wish to be considered knowing. And if you seem to be a person of importance to anyone, distrust yourself. Because you should know that it is not easy to keep your will in accordance with nature and keep external things. On the contrary: if you care for the one, you are bound to neglect the other.

External things don’t determine our happiness, but keeping our will in accordance with nature does. Since we can’t have both (as Epictetus explained in paragraph 1), we should focus on the latter. Indeed, if we seem to be important or have status, we should be wary, for it might be a sign that we are off-track. If we are considered to be persons of importance, we might be chasing fame instead of happiness. It is possible that fame and happiness coincide – stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were surely famous –  but we should only strive for happiness, by keeping our will in accordance with nature. Fame and fortune may follow or may not follow. It doesn’t matter: we can be happy with or without them.

 

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