Happiness is a goal which men have sought over the ages. Stoicism is a school which enables us to gain happiness through a true understanding of character and power. (Annas, 1995). Epictetus is regarded as one of the principal proponents of stoicism the school in Athens established by Zeno of Citium. The key constituents of his teachings were based on the three branches of stoicism, logic, physics and ethics. However it is the focus of his main work on the latter that is ethics which has been discussed extensively to this day.
Epictetus being a teacher attempts to provide a moral guiding light to his students to live a contented life by a deep rooted understanding and practical application of philosophy. Epictetus has indicated in the Handbook that some things are under our control while many are not. (White, 1983). He goes to the extent to indicate that we have limited control over our bodies as well as our possessions, reputations and our public doings. Stoicism and Epictetus’ teaching would provide us some succor in the difficult times today determined by globalization of materialism but not philosophy.
Epictetus’ discourses are even more relevant with proliferation of material means, lack of proper guidance, focus on realistic rather than philosophical issues and a vague understanding of true happiness. Happiness (eudaimonia) as determined by Epictetus is an essential condition for maintaining moral character (prohairesis). (Annas, 1995). To attain happiness it is essential to understand what is in our power because it enables us to understand the true status of power and wealth, be untroubled by anxieties and prevents disturbing emotions from controlling us.
Understanding the true status of power is recognizing what is in our power and what is not. True power is the authority which we exercise over our own self and the capacity we have of judging what is good and what is bad. That which is not within our power is regarded as extrinsic. These externalities are not within our control and thus cannot be determined by us as being evil or good. We need to be indifferent to them rather than attempt to control them for this will only make us feel powerless and unhappy. This duality of power is not unusual but is natural. (Ziniewicz, 1996).
Things which happen and over which we do not have absolute control should not thus trouble us. True power denotes our ability to control our own self and not direct the actions and emotions of others. Frequently we are troubled by our inability to manage the passions and transactions of other beings particularly those that are immoral. We do not understand or some times even accept that we do not have control over another person’s moral character and action. Men have true power only over themselves and thus should ensure that they control their own self rather than attempting to run the thoughts and deeds of others.
Concomitantly it will provide them power to control their moral character and enable them to decide what is good and prevent immoral actions leading to overall happiness. This can arise from a true understanding of the limitations of power. Understanding what is within our power also enables us to recognize the true status of wealth. Wealth is being increasingly defined as possession of material means of happiness be it a large bank balance, stock equity in blue chip companies or large mansions and land holdings.
Those who are not fortunate enough to possess these seem to lament their misfortune and feel powerless despite living a comfortable enough life. However attaining true happiness will come about if we recognize that attaining greater external signs of wealth was not within our power. Those who were fortunate enough to be provided an opportunity to become rich have benefited from the same. Others need not feel unhappy and should understand that the true status of wealth is the ability to create what ever one can with the power one possesses.
This would lead to a true understanding of the power of wealth and its links with happiness. Anxiety seems to be the essence of modern life. Thus we see incidents of greater sadness including harm inflicted by people upon themselves as indicated by the large number of suicides and accidental deaths in today’s World. These are indicators of the inability of people to understand the limitations of power indicated by Epictetus. In the urge to control the happenings around them, men fall prey to the delusion that they are powerless when they find themselves overwhelmed by circumstances.
This leads to infinite sorrow and whining over ones weakness. Thus self pity begins to dominate their lives as they have not understood and accepted the limitations of their own power. People are seen to lament due to seeming disappointments referring to their own selves as, “poor me”. This phenomenon could also be explained with more ordinary experiences of falling sick. When we fall sick perhaps under most circumstances it is not within our power and we cannot control our illness to the extent that we would like to.
This should not cause us anxiety for just as we do not have control over our sudden infirmity, we also have limited control over getting well. Even doctors frequently medicate based on recognized symptoms and attempt to provide treatment based on a number of different hypothesis which may lead to a recovery immediately or could be delayed. While people attempt to control exposure to illness, there is no guarantee that they will not fall sick. Thus there is no point in feeling anxious over issues which are not within our control. Control over our emotions would also enable us not to be carried away by their intensity.
Thus anxieties created by first and fleeting impressions would be avoided and eventually lead to greater control by providing space for more insightful thoughts. An anxiety over loss that one faces in normal life is indeed a common occurrence. These are again the result of impressions by rushing to conclusions over our helplessness. However in case one does not panic, understand that the loss is a result not of our powerlessness but the limits of our ability over extrinsic power and focus on recovery from the loss, anxieties are known to disappear.
Thus we should not be disturbed and feel unhappy by our impressions of events. (White, 1983). Disturbing emotions are generally common place in today’s life as each person is subjected to the vagaries of modern living. Thus these emotions make life unpleasant and unrewarding as they not only gain control over us but frequently subsume us. Avoiding disturbing emotions is neither easy nor practical. The cycle of our experiences in day to day living leads to inevitable pressures and stress. Most of these emerge from our feeling of powerlessness.
However by understanding that the essence of power is to control our own minds we can overcome such emotions from taking control over us. By preventing the overriding influence of passions we will be able to face life with equanimity in the face of adverse circumstances and grave provocations. An understanding that our power is limited to our ability to adapt to circumstances rather than attempting to change or vary situations which are beyond our control will prevent disturbing emotions from controlling us.
To attain happiness it is essential to understand what is in our power because it enables us to understand the true status of power and wealth, be untroubled by anxieties and prevents disturbing emotions from controlling us. Epictetus lived in the early second century CE. But his understanding of the philosophy of stoicism has relevance to this day as it enables us to seek happiness in a modern world full of uncertainties, challenges and seeming threats.
If we are able to understand the limitations of our own power, uncertainties will not disappear but will certainly not create anxieties within ourselves. Challenges will seem surmountable by application of thought and threats will disappear for with greater control over intrinsic power, it will enable us to be truly happy. Understanding of power rather than possession of control can thus be seen to be linked to happiness and is much more applicable today with varied pressures of modern living.