The Reading Room

Epictetus and Psychological Freedom

Critics sometimes accuse Stoic philosophy of defending an inflexible rationalism calling for single-minded pursuit of virtue for its own sake, at the expense of other commonly recognized goods like love and accomplishment, which are considered merely of instrumental value in the pursuit of virtue.
This critique has some merit. However, readers encountering his Enchiridion should be struck by the philosopher Epictetus providing an outline of at least two key principles in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for putting common sources of fear and trembling in perspective.   
Like CBT, Epictetus advises that things in themselves don’t disturb us, only our attitudes toward those things, which our wills control [Enchiridion V]. Even the richest and most talented people can’t be happy if they are constantly worried about losing their riches, or less concerned about using their talents properly than with what others think of them. Global financial catastrophe and others’ opinions are beyond our control–and not ours to control in the first place. Making our happiness dependent on what is out of our hands invites an anxious mindset at best, as even good times and perfect political freedom won’t comfort someone who hands the reins of their happiness to something or someone other than their own will. 
Moreover, Epicteus and CBT advise us not to demand that events happen as we wish, but to prefer they do so. Epictetus goes further in claiming we should prefer that events happen as they actually do [VIII]. Many readers will find this latter claim overly fatalistic, as we don’t live in the rationally ordered teleological cosmos often imagined in Epictetus’ time. The point remains, nonetheless: even if we prefer matters to be different than they are, the real harm lies in treating reality as if one were entitled to good fortune or avoidance of bad fortune. Such an attitude is a recipe for misery because it is profoundly unrealistic. Misfortune will sadly visit everyone at times–some more than others–and it will often be an unexpected guest, not just an unwelcome one.  
For Epictetus, the key to well-being is keeping one’s will in harmony with the cosmos by playing the role nature or God has given one [IV]. If you desire what is not in your power, you are necessarily disappointed [II]. Not just disappointed but necessarily so. This strong modal claim suggests that desiring what you didn’t earn through your will, or desiring what can be taken from you at any moment, must set you up for failure. You have taken yourself out of the role you were given. Better to be poor and free from grief and fear than materially rich and beholden to these self-caused perturbations. 
Epictetus tells us not to let “the good life” dominate our attention [XII-XIII]. Abstaining from harmful pleasures is itself a safer and far greater pleasure [XXXIV]. Words can’t hurt you unless you let them [XX] because other people’s opinions are just that–we shouldn’t take insults personally when they’re the result of someone else’s misunderstanding. One could easily imagine Epictetus coaching us to stay off social media. [XXII]
Is Epictetus advising us only to “play defense” in warding off psychological harms, while not providing a positive vision for happiness and well-being? The approach Epictetus exemplifies is a valuable lesson in steeling oneself against inevitable tragedies and traumas life will bring. 
As Neera Badhwar observes, however, Stoicism can go too far if it tells us that virtue is not only necessary for well-being but sufficient too. Our friends or projects are not mere “preferred indifferents” instrumentally valuable for us to practice virtue. I don’t keep you as a friend simply because it gives me chances to drive you to the airport. We also value our friends and projects for their own sake, and we realize virtue by viewing and treating them as ends in themselves.
How you play the game matters but so does reaching the desired goal. Why would we strive if we were indifferent toward whether we actually attained what we strive for? By Stoicism’s logic, should we even welcome misfortune if handling it is the best way of realizing virtue?  
Perhaps instead the best defense against suffering is a good offense: to be rich and (relatively) free from anxiety or deep sadness. The universe is not a fixed and rational order where we occupy preassigned stations in life–it’s more chaotic and uncertain, but that also means it can provide more opportunities than a clockwork order. With this in mind, we can bear the loss of the fleeting things we love if we remind ourselves they are fleeting [III]. Our souls may be all we can rely on without fear of loss, but we learn who we are only by interacting with that ephemeral world in which Epictetus acknowledges we are indelibly part.  
Beauty lies in fragility, and our awareness of it, because of the fallible, vulnerable, and free creatures we are.