Stoicism as a Philosophy for an Ordinary Life: Massimo Pigliucci (Transcript)

As you’ve seen, that’s outside of my control. Do I worry about it? No.

Let me introduce you to Epictetus. He was one of the most important Stoic philosophers of antiquity. He was a slave. He was born in Hierapolis, in modern-day Pamukkale, in Turkey. He was acquired — in fact, his name means “acquired.” We don’t know his real name; Epictetus just means acquired.

And he was brought to Rome to the court of the Emperor Nero, where he did pretty well. Eventually, he was freed. He was, you know, a bright guy, so he started going through the streets of Rome preaching Stoicism.

And for his troubles, he got punched on the nose. So he figured that wasn’t a good approach. It was in his power to change the approach, so he started over, and he established his own school, which was very successful until the Emperor Domitian kicked out all the Stoics out of Rome because he did not appreciate their “speaking truth to power,” as we would say today.

So Epictetus moved and went to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece, reestablished his school and became one of the most famous teachers of antiquity.

The reason I like Epictetus is because he’s blunt and he has a sarcastic sense of humor. And I’ll give you a taste of this in a second.

Here’s what he says in “The Discourses”:

“I’ll have to die. If it is now, well, then I die now. If later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived, and dying, I will tend to later.”

Don’t worry about death; worry about lunch. You know you’re going to die; that isn’t under your control. Lunch, on the other hand, is under your control.

Now, I told you about the dichotomy of control being one of the two fundamental pillars of Stoicism. Here’s how Epictetus himself explains it. He says:

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“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing. Not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

And note, if you stop for a second and think about it, it’s like that is weird. He’s saying that my body, my property, my reputation are not in my power? What do you mean?

I can decide to go to the gym and eat healthy. Of course, my body’s under my power. Unless a virus strikes you down. Unless you have an accident and you break your leg.

The idea is that you can do things, you can make decisions about your health, your reputation, etcetera, etcetera, but ultimately, you don’t control the outcome.

So what does that mean in practice? It means that we should try to walk through life by internalizing our goals, not worry about the outcomes, because those are outside of our control, but worry about our intentions and our efforts because those are very much under our control.

One of the beautiful metaphors that the Stoics introduced was that of an archer. Imagine that you are trying to hit a target. What is under your control? Well, the practice of archery — you can practice for hours and hours. You can choose the best bows and arrows that are available to you. You can take care of those bows and arrows. You can focus up until the second in which you let the arrow go.

But after that, things are completely outside of your control. A gust of wind can ruin your best shot. The target may move, especially if he’s an enemy soldier, and you missed.

So what do you do? According to Cicero, the actual hitting of the mark would be to be chosen but not to be desired. So you do not attach your own self-esteem to the outcome; you only attach it to what is under your control, to your attempt.

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In practice, in today’s life, these can change the way you look at pretty much everything. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Let’s say you’re up for a promotion for your job. Now, the normal thing to do would be to worry about whether you’re going to get the promotion or not.

According to the Stoics, that’s the wrong way to look at it: the promotion itself is outside of your control. Your boss may have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, he’s upset, he’s got something else on his mind, and the interview is not going to go well. Or maybe somebody else deserves the promotion better than you do even though you did well, and again, that’s not up to you.

What is up to you, of course, is to prepare the best you can for your interview, to put together the best resume possible, to work really hard to actually, in fact, deserve that promotion. That’s the locus of your control; that’s where you should focus your efforts.

Or think in terms of relationships. You know, everybody wants to be loved. But that’s not up to us. It’s up to the person who may or may not love us.

What’s up to us is to be the most lovable person, to be affectionate, to be there for them. Whether they decide to stick with us or not — not under our control.

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