Epictetus: A Sage From Antiquity

Epictetus: a sage of antiquity

“It’s not the things that happen to us that make us suffer, but what we say about these things.”

With this simple but truthful phrase, Epictetus of Phrygia, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, laid the roots of contemporary psychology. Epictetus was born in the year 55 in Hierapolis of Phrygia and arrived in Rome as a slave of Epaphroditus who educated him until his exile in Nicopolis in the year 93, where he founded a prestigious school to which he devoted himself completely.

Even though he was enslaved and had a difficult life, Epictetus was a happy person. His philosophy was based on having very clear what was controllable and what was not, to modify in this way what could be changed and accept what could not be changed. In this way, he avoided torment and unhappiness for himself.

Epictetus accepted that his circumstances could not be controlled or changed in any way, but his mind could. In this sense he had immense power. He decided that things would only affect him if he decided to be influenced. That is to say, the fact of feeling positive or negative emotions did not depend on external factors, but internal, that is, on his thinking about the surrounding reality.

Most people, when they suffer from a negative or dysfunctional emotional state, such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, tend to believe that it is circumstances that cause these feelings or situations that have occurred. verified during their lifetime, but the truth is that most of the time it is not.

What really causes these emotional states is our way of interpreting the world, our attitude, our beliefs and our thoughts.  A proof of this can be the fact that the same situation arouses different emotions in each person. Logically, if the situation were responsible for emotions, all people would have to react in the same way and it is evident that this does not happen. For this, there must be a filter that determines the emotional situations.

Greek philosopher

Let’s take an example:  imagine you are traveling standing on a bus, attached to a support bar. Suddenly you get a strong bump from behind. You get mad because a rude hit you hard and you turn to tell him four, but … you realize it was a blind man. 

The stimulus that provoked your anger was the shock, but after seeing that the one who unintentionally pushed you was a blind man, you no longer think that he is a rude, but a poor man who did not want to provoke anyone. For this, we can conclude that what irritated you was not the shock received, but yourself, with your self-dialogue, with which you said that whoever pushed you was rude.

And it is wonderful news, because if it were not so, we would always be slaves to what surrounds us, puppets lacking in defenses that move according to the situations or ideas of others.

For example, if you get depressed because others criticize you, the ultimate culprit for that depression is yourself  who believe all those criticisms and negative opinions and make them your own. If your thinking about those criticisms changed and you didn’t give them importance, your emotional state would be different.

Perhaps it would be unpleasant, but you would not get depressed by the idea that other people have of you, because they are nothing but their ideas, not yours and that you must not make yours, unless you decide it yourself. If this were not the case, if your thoughts could not intervene, you should necessarily feel depressed or be able to change their minds, something that is often impossible.

In fact, the human being possesses the wonderful ability to be happy in almost any circumstance and situation. If you have the means to survive, you already have the essentials to feel good, but it is necessary that these ideas become deeply internalized, that they become your philosophy of life.

If Epictetus was happy even though he was a slave, it is thanks to this vision of life. We too can be in circumstances that have nothing to do with slavery. Maybe you are complaining a lot? You may be demanding too much from the world, from others, or from yourself. Do you feel anxious trying to control the uncontrollable? Stop opening the doors of suffering, stop complaining about what’s going on outside. Work out what you can and otherwise, leave it alone. Change your way of seeing things and things will change.

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