October 16, 2008
The Enchiridion and Meditations: A Comparison of Leading Stoic Thoughts
Two of the most influential works in Stoicism are The Enchiridion and The Meditations. The Enchiridion is a compilation of the thoughts of Epictetus, a slave who was a leading stoic thinker, arranged by Arrian, one of Epictetus’ students. The Meditations were written by Marcus Aurelius to guide himself in self-improvement.
The Enchiridion focuses mainly on the difference between what we can and cannot control. It is divided into fifty-two points, and the vast majority of them deal with control. His first point establishes the distinction between what we control and what we do not control: we control our actions and we do not control anything that is not our actions.1 Based on this point, Epictetus discusses several aspects of control. Two aspects that stand out the most are premeditation and reaction. Premeditation is the emphasis on things that you should know, practice, and focus on regarding what you can and cannot control. Thirty-two of Epictetus’ points dealt with premeditation directly, and there are more that deal indirectly. Reaction is controlling how a person allows external stimuli to affect him. Allowing for some overlap, Epictetus deals directly with reaction in fourteen points and indirectly in several more.
One of Epictetus’ points advises the reader to limit his desires and aversions to those things he can control. If one desires something that he cannot control, there is a chance that he will not obtain it, resulting in disappointment. Likewise, if a person is averse to something he cannot control, he may encounter it and be, in the words of Epictetus’ “wretched”. Epictetus continues by advising to suppress desires entirely, or, if necessary, to desire and avoid “lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.”
Epictetus emphasized reminding yourself about the natures of actions. At least eleven of his points refer to the nature of actions. Some remind the reader not to let the actions of others bother him, because he cannot help the way that they acted. He can, however, control the way he respond to those actions. Others remind the reader that external things do not affect the faculty of his mind, that he sees things through a filter of his own judgments and prejudices. Therefore, the reader is able to control his basic reactions by creating a more or less favorable filter as he sees fit. A final important grouping regarding the natures of actions is Epictetus’ reminders that no one can change the life with which he is provided. Since each man is dealt a certain life, all that is left to do is live the life provided to the best of one’s abilities. Epictetus says that if a man wants to be helpful to anybody, the best thing for him to do is to be the best that he can be at what he is. A man who is exemplary in his craft is an example to others; in providing an example to follow, the man is able to help all those who would follow his example.
Another part of premeditation is establishing beforehand how one should behave in various situations and generally in life. This form of premeditation becomes more evident toward the end of The Enchiridion. Roughly eleven points talk about either preparing oneself for something that may come up or establishing a certain character that a person chooses aside from external influences. Epictetus lays down a formula of thought for those who plan on seeking after new endeavors, encouraging careful forethought about the prices and consequences about each endeavor. Epictetus talks about how one should remain confident in what he is doing if he believes he is doing right. He also talks about always being prepared for death, because we cannot control it, and it will come unexpectedly. Behavior in company is addressed directly in two separate points. One states to establish certain characteristics that a man wants to have, both in private and in public. He should not do anything in excess, but always maintain self-restraint. The other point is much narrower in the sense that it deals specifically with how one should behave when eating meals with company. Once again, excess in nothing. A man should measure his appetite against the company he is with; he should remember that, though a large portion may be valuable to our physical appetites, there is also a portion that is appropriate for the social context, and this is the portion to take. Though less applicable in the modern context, Epictetus even explains the situation in which seeking answers through divination is acceptable for a stoic.
A man has control over everything that is his own action. However, much of the world is not our own action, and Epictetus understood this. Avoiding disappointment was important to Epictetus; he addressed how to avoid disappointment to some degree in eighteen points. A man is not to try to pursue or avoid anything that he cannot control, because if the object of pursuit eludes him or if the object of avoidance catches up to him, he will be disappointed and wretched. On two separate occasions, Epictetus reminds his reader that words are words and things are things; they do not, by themselves, affect in either a positive or negative light. It is the conditioned responses, ideas, and connotations that these words and things carry that affect. Therefore, a man should choose how he will react to the ideas and connotations that he carries with him. If he is distressed, he needs to remind himself that he is distressed by the ideas that are originally his, and, therefore, he has the power to dispel these ideas and their consequent distress.
He should not allow the insults of others to affect him as insults do because they are merely words or actions; it is our conditioned response to these words or actions that make us feel insulted. That man should, instead, choose not to feel insulted, treating the words as merely words. Additionally, if a someone harms or speaks against a man, that man is to remember that these actions and words are only the other’s reaction to what he sees as his duty. The harmed or slandered man is to remember that the offender is entitled to his own opinion, and that opinion may very well be wrong.
Men do not merely react to each other. Nature itself provides circumstances and situations to which a man reacts. Epictetus remembers this, and addresses reactions to nature, as well. A key part of a man’s reaction to nature must lay within the fact that nature is impartial; anything that happens to someone else can easily happen to oneself. Therefore, in viewing a person going through a hard time or a happy time, a man should not treat that man any differently than he would treat himself in that same situation. The reader is also advised not to grow too attached to anything that is not in his control. His wife, his family, his possessions: all of these things can easily be taken from him. Therefore, the man is advised to treat his possessions as if they were not his, but merely lent or borrowed for an indeterminate amount of time. These things may be taken back at any time, and, unless a man is prepared to return them or give them up at any time, he will face distress.
While The Enchiridion is a collections of Epictetus by one of his students, Meditations is a journal written by Marcus Aurelius to help him in his own growth as a philosopher. Aurelius begins his Meditations by reflecting back on what he has learned from his family, his mentors, and his companions. He focuses his reflections on the virtues and bits of wisdom that people have passed on to him. Good morals, modesty, piety, and general abstinence, among other things, Aurelius attributes to learning from his family. From companions, he learned that his character needed improvement, not to busy himself with trivial things, the strength of will and purpose, to have a good disposition, and much more. Further, from mentors, Aurelius learned not to search for faults nor to reproach those with coarse talk, as well as how to correct a man without wounding his pride.
Aurelius examines his father’s character in detail, reflecting on all the things that he has learned. He recalls observing a mild temper, and purposeful modesty. His father did not view himself as more important than other citizens, and valued labor and perseverance. He remembered the way that his father carefully questioned in all matters that required his judgments, sorting through first impressions, always persistently seeking the truth. Aurelius reflects on his father’s administration of the empire and his management of expenditures. He notes that his father was rarely in need of a physician because he took care of his body well. He honored true philosophers, and did not reproach philosophical pretenders. He was easy to talk to, and did not give the impression that it was an effort for him to stoop to the level of man he was addressing. He disliked change, but he worked on what needed to be done. Aurelius’ father dressed and lived modestly, resisting temptations and enjoying without excess. He also examined things thoroughly and systematically.
Systematic examination is a strong recurring theme in the remainder of Aurelius’ Meditations. Nothing is more productive that requires such elevated thinking than understanding a thing and how it fits into the universe. When something appears to be wonderful or amazing, rather than be awed by it, Aurelius encourages a man to systematically take it apart, piece by piece, so that he can understand how to categorize it in this world. Aurelius repeatedly states that everything in the universe is a product of order and rankings and relationships. He also suggests to reflect internally on your own motives and desires. Interestingly enough, Aurelius also talks a lot about how there is no difference between different things, how all things consist of the same substances. All men are the same, because all men die. After death, some remain on in name and in memory, but, given enough time, these too pass. And since all of a man’s life and all of his posthumous fame is merely a speck of time in infinity, there is nothing particularly different or special of any one man from another. Men aside, even their elemental make up is common with all other things. The physical, the body, all returns to dust. The soul, each man’s inner daemon, dissipates after death into the seminal intelligence which governs the universe.
As shown, the differentiation between the physical and the soul was also important to Aurelius. In general, when he spoke of physical things, he focused on their temporality. Physical things are always changing. They are weak, prone to succumb to desires. He advises for a man to keep his soul separate from his physical body and the associated desires and aversions. Aurelius talks about how everything is transient, and that soon our physical bodies will return to dust. However, a man that prefers intelligence and the soul is content and beyond the reach of anything that would try to upset him. A common man will seek a physical retreat, but there is nothing more revitalizing than retreating into one’s own soul. He says that a truly refined man admires the soul itself and is not so distracted by the so-called beauty of trinkets and baubles. The body is not able to differentiate between different things, but it is the soul that creates opinions and differentiations between objects. He even goes so far as to say that nothing has any value except that which cannot be taken from a man, that is, his mind. Despite all these differences and his obviously expressed preference for the soul, Aurelius says to always be prepared to show the relationship between the soul and the physical if excellence is expected. He also expresses how sad it is when a man’s soul dies before his body does.
Aurelius also emphasizes the present. Through the present, he shows that all men are equal. If all that any man has is the present, then past infamy or honors are irrelevant, and the future is completely uncertain. He advises repeatedly to be content with the life that one has, to make the most of his present situation, to be satisfied with what he is allotted, and to adapt to the life he was given. For those who are concerned with living long lives, Aurelius advises to be content with the lifespan given. He talks about how nothing is new, that everything has once existed before, and that, if a man has seen everything of his day, he will have seen everything that has been or will be. For those concerned with merit, Aurelius says that all men are the same, for all they can do is live in the present. Those who seek to build a name for themselves so that they will be renowned in the generations to come must learn that days, years, and even generations all minutely different when juxtaposed with the expanse of infinity. He reminds time and again that everyone will soon die, and that memories of them will fade soon after. Aurelius says to look back to the great civilizations and great men of those civilizations and note that they are all dead; the civilizations are gone. A man grows daily closer to death, so he should not waste any of his time. He should live as though he will die at any moment. Therefore, a man should not disturb himself with opinions and ideas and focus on doing his best in the present.
Aurelius wrote a lot about a man’s work ethic as well. A man was supposed to do his best in the present time and situation, but how was he supposed to go about doing this? He was to learn from nature, not from books. A man should be willing to learn new things, but never get too caught up in learning new things so as to lose direction. He should never wander aimlessly. When he works, a man should be willing, thoughtful, purposeful, and focused. He should never act without a purpose, nor simply mimic his instructors. He should not waste time thinking idly of others, but spend time thinking about things that can be commonly useful. A man should not act as though he will live forever, but live a good life in the time he has left. Even though men of the past are dead and gone, a man should still try to learn from men of the past. He should refrain from forming opinions about things, but if he must judge, he should judge in an objective light. He should try to live the same in public and in private. He should keep his pleasures simple, allowing other things to be social acts. When the external world disturbs him, the man should focus on the tranquility and harmony within himself. He should value his mind greatly, for it leads to tranquility, harmony with society, and a life obedient to the gods. A man should always do his duty, because there is no reason to do otherwise. He should not allow the opinions of others to disturb him while he does his duties, nor should he discourage the pursuits of others. Since different types of men work together differently, each man is responsible for understanding these differences and knowing with what sort of men he works. He should also listen to what others have to say, and, as best he can, try to see from the speaker’s point of view. When persuading men, a man should refrain from the use of force, but persuade, instead, using reason.
Reason was an important faculty to Aurelius. The universe is reasonable because reason exists in it, evidenced in men. Reason and philosophy are completely self-sufficient. A man should always do the most reasonable thing. A man should always be ready to do whatever is useful and reasonable, and whatever is more right than the way in which he going. Aurelius is so confident in reason that he says, if a man follows reason and principles, those who despised him will honor him within ten days. The very format of the vast majority of Aurelius’ points shows his emphasis on reason: this is, therefore this is; because of this, there is this. At one point, Aurelius essentially says, “I have reason and I use it, if you have reason, why do you not use it?” For Aurelius, everything followed a pattern of reason. Things happen in the universe according to universal reason, and each man behaves according to his own reason.
Epictetus, through The Enchiridion, focused most of his teachings around what a man can and cannot control.1 Aurelius, as evidenced in Meditations, journalled on a broader basis, covering topics of systematic examination, living, and reason. However, this is not to say that Aurelius neglected the subject of control altogether. In many ways, the teachings of Epictetus pervaded the writings of Aurelius. There is much talk of opinion, which is controlled. Aurelius often advises to look to oneself, especially in times of turmoil. He talks about happiness achieved through being satisfied with what is at hand; this satisfaction is achieved through controlling reactions. Aurelius makes numerous references to “good men” and “happy men” who are unaffected by changes nor the opinions of men. One of Aurelius’ points can be summarized as “there is no harm where there is no opinion”. He makes numerous references to opinions affecting men and disturbing them. If inner strength can overcome opposition and create aid through adversity, it is only because a strong man chooses to see assistance where a weaker one only sees opposition. In another place, Aurelius points out that neither praise nor insults change the property of the object in comment; it is opinion and ideas that carry the weight. Much, if not all, of Aurelius’ discussion on “evil” is also based on opinion. Finally, a lot of Aurelius’ advice to achieve tranquility, happiness, or harmony is related to control. A man is supposed to choose it, to be, bad circumstance set aside. This cannot be done unless he is controlling his reaction to the circumstance.
Stoicism as a philosophy is very controlled. It is a philosophy that finds peace and harmony in balance and ignorance. Pleasures in excess are against the modesty that is endorsed by stoics. Pain in excess exists because a man is not strong enough to control how he reacting to the stimulus. It is duty-filled; duty to self, duty to a community, duty to the gods. Reason finds its place in stoicism, but reason that is cold to a fault. There is no room for human error for the perfectly reasonable stoic. If someone errs, correct him, show him the correct way, and let there be no more error. It holds emotions on a tight reign. Choose not to respond negatively to another’s antagonism. Refuse to be insulted. Do not be sad when something is lost or a person dies, because they were not yours in the first place. If you choose to show emotion, it must be shown equally for everyone. Mourn your neighbor’s loss as if it were your own. Celebrate his victory as if you had emerged victorious. Stoicism seems too cut-and-dry. What if your neighbor’s victory is at your own expense? Epictetus would probably advise to choose not to be bitter toward your neighbor, and choose not to respond negatively to your loss. Aurelius would likely have you seek solace in the quiet of your own soul, which should remain untouched by this whole series of events.
Arrian. “The Internet Classics Archive | The Enchiridion by Epictetus.” The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html (accessed October 2, 2008).
Aurelius, Marcus. “The Internet Classics Archive | The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.” The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Antoninus/meditations.html (accessed October 14, 2008).