The Invincible Stoic

First Published in 2011 on

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed. 


Epictetus claims I can become invincible. It's an appealing notion. I can't claim to be a fan of pain. Few people are. The thought of leaving stress, anxiety, and hurt behind me resonates with a comfort seeking self. There's a reason I don't go to the gym enough, and it isn't a love of body fat. I've been told I live in a culture of comfort. Perhaps, but it seems more reasonable to admit that I come from a species of comfort-seekers. Which is also to say, I am simply a living being.

As I said, I'm not a fan of pain. However, I am a student of pain. Pain is the reason I never became a Buddhist. I respect much about that philosophy, but unlike Siddhartha I believe that pain is a feature, not a bug, in this universe. It is pain and struggle that shaped the world. Speciation exists because a billion habitats were not comfortable enough for a million billion stressed out ancestors of everything on this earth. So when Epictetus tells me to become impervious to my environment, I wonder if he's also asking me to cease developing. That's not my style. I remember the former me, a lot of them, and I always enjoy present me more. I figure by the time I'm 120 I'll be pretty damn fantastic. The thought of freezing into a mid-30s mindset is not very appealing.

So when I approach Epictetus, I need him to convince me that his Stoicism engages the world. I have no time for viewpoints that flee from it. Which brings me to his most famous line. Some things are in our control and others not. There, in a nutshell, Epictetus lays out the foundation that he built his stoic practice on. The more complete opening goes like this,

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

If I understand Epictetus, he equates control over things with ownership of those things. I find this reasonable. Possession is nine tenths of the law, and the other tenth involves me begging a more powerful force to get my bauble back. From that premise, Epictetus goes on to claim that I only own myself. Particularly, I only own my mental self. Notice that even my body isn't included in the ownership list. I accept this point as well. At present, my body is pretty much in sync with my mind. It does what I want it to do. If I were to talk to Michael J. Fox, however, we might have quite a conversation about the trustworthiness of the body. So here I am, saying that the only things I can effect with certainty are my own opinions of the world, my desires in the world (and the other side of the coin, my aversions) and my choice whether of not to pursue those desires.

A final Epictetus quote, this one from the Discourses. I will show the nerves of a philosopher. "What nerves are these?" A desire never disappointed, an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid, a proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. These you shall see. The nerves of a philosopher. To show nerve, you need something to steel them against. So there is a struggle here. It's the struggle to be invincible. Epictetus is wrestling with himself. He grapples with his intellect, trying to force it to pay attention to the right things and dismiss the rest. The struggle is internal but it is about his approach to the external world. His imperviousness, after all, ends with an assent which is not rash.

Stoicism engages with the world, but it refuses to struggle with it. Epictetus asks me to accept that I can't control my environment, but that I can control my reaction to it. Ideally, I will apply 100% effort towards only those things which I can control and in so doing I will act powerfully; free from fear, anger, and other burdens. Instead of struggling, I'm striving. The world can't wrestle me to the ground because I'm untouchable. Yet I'm still challenged to put one foot in front of the other to reach my goals. I will continue to develop under these terms. I can even thrive. I might not ever become invincible. I'm not sure Epictetus ever felt he got there either. Still, we can both agree that it's worth the effort.