June 2, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Freedom from Anxieties

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. When you are anxious about the future, you are mostly concerned with what is not under your control.
  2. By thinking about what is not under your control, you let go of things that are under your control.
  3. You don’t have to be anxious. Either you’ll adjust to the new reality, or find ways of coping with it using what is under your control. If all else fails, you can exit this world.
  4. You can get rid of your anxieties by paying attention to what is under your control.
Don’t be anxious about the future

People find our difficulties and perplexities in external things.

“What shall I do?”

“How will it happen?”

“What will happen?”

“I am worried this will happen. Or, that will happen.”

All these are said by people who are concerned about what is outside their control or choice. After all, who says, “How I am to make sure that I don’t agree with something that’s not true?”

If someone is so naturally gifted as to worry about things like these, I will remind her:

“Why are you anxious? It’s in your own power. Be secure. Don’t rush to agree with something you have not put to the test using the rule of nature.”

Again, if you are anxious about your desire for fear that it would be incomplete or miss its mark; or about your aversion, for fear that you would fall into it, I would first give you a kiss of congratulation, because you’ve put aside things that excite others and their fears. You have turned your serious thoughts to your own true business, where your true self lies. After that, I will say to you, “If you always want to fulfil your desire, and always avoid what you do not want, do not desire anything that is not your own and do not be put off by anything that is not under your control. Otherwise, you must necessarily be bound to fail in achieving your desires and fall into what you want to avoid. Where is the difficulty here? Where is the room for, ‘How it will it turn out’? Or for, ‘Will this happen to me or that?’”

If it is outside your area of choice, it is nothing to you

“Is what happens in the future outside the area of your choice?”


“Does the essence of good and evil lie within your area of choice?”


“Is it in your power, then, to use whatever turns out according to nature?”


“Can anyone stop you?”

“No, no one.”

“Then don’t ask me anymore ‘How will it turn out?’ However it turns out, you will make good use of it, and the outcome will be a blessing for you.”

Tell me, what would Heracles have been if he had said, “What I can I do to stop a huge lion or a huge boar or savages from coming my way?” And why do you care? If a huge boar comes your way, you’ll struggle more; if evil people, you’ll rid of the world of evil people.

If it becomes unbearable, there’s always a way out

“Perhaps. But what if I die doing so?”

“You will die a good person, performing a noble action. You must die anyway doing something or the other – farming, digging, trading, holding a high office, suffering from indigestion or dysentery.”

What would you want to be doing when death finds you? As far as I am concerned, I would wish it to be something suitable for a human being, some charitable, public-spirited, or noble action. But if I cannot be caught doing anything as great as that, then I should like at least to be doing something that cannot be obstructed and which is proper for me to do: correcting myself, perfecting the faculty that corrects false impressions, and working to achieve calm while fulfilling my social duties. If I am so lucky, advancing to the third division of philosophy dealing with making judgments with confidence.

If death finds me occupied with these things, it is enough for me if I can lift up my hands to God and say,

“I have not neglected the faculties I received from you to understand and follow your rule. I have not dishonoured you, as far as it was in my power. See how I have used my senses and my preconceptions. Have I ever blamed you? Have I ever been dissatisfied with anything that came about, and wished it otherwise? Have I ever violated my social relationships? I am thankful to you for bringing me into this world. I am grateful for the things you have given me. I am content with the length of time I have enjoyed their use. Take them back again and assign them whatever place you wish. They are all yours and you gave them to me.”

Isn’t it enough to make one’s exit in such a state of mind? And what life could be better than this, more fitting than of someone who thinks this way, and what end could be happier?

But for this to happen, you must accept no small troubles and make such small sacrifices. You cannot wish for a high office and this at the same time. You cannot be eager to own land and this as well or worry about you or those who work for you. No. If you wish for anything that is not your own, you’ll lose what is your own.

Nothing can be had without paying the price

This is the nature of things: Nothing can be had without paying the price. Why are you surprised? If you want an influential office, you must stay up late, run back and forth, kiss hands, pine away at people’s doors, say and do many things unsuited for a free person, send gifts to many people and daily presents to some. And what do you get for all this? Twelve bundles of rods, to sit three or four times on the tribunal, to give games in the Circus, and distribute lunches in little baskets. [These are marks of a Roman consul.] Show me if there is more to office than this.

For calm, for peace of mind, for sleeping when you are asleep, for being awake when you are awake, to be afraid of nothing, and to be anxious about nothing, are you unwilling to make any sacrifice or any effort? But, while you are engaged in all this, if you lose something that belongs to you, or spend to no purpose, or if someone got what you should have got, are you going to get upset immediately? Won’t you balance what you are getting in return for what, how much in return for how much? Do you honestly expect to get things of such value for nothing? And how can you? One business has nothing to do with another.

You cannot devote your efforts both to getting external things and, at the same time, to your own ruling faculty. If you want the former, let the latter go. Otherwise, you will have neither the former nor the latter because you will be pulled in two different directions.

If you want the latter, let the former go. You’ll spill oil, you’ll lose your furniture, and you’ll be calm. Fire will break out while you are away, your books will be destroyed, but you’ll deal with impressions according to nature.

You will always have options in the future

“But, I’ll have nothing to eat.”

“If you are in such a bad spot, dying is an option. This is the harbour where everyone ends up, and this is our refuge. As a result, nothing that happens to us in life is difficult. You can leave the house whenever you want and no longer be bothered by the smoke.”

Why are you anxious, then? Why do you stay awake at night? Why don’t you calculate where your good and evil lie and say, “Both are under my control. Nobody can take one away from me and force me into the other.” Why don’t you then go to sleep and snore? All that’s your own is safe. As for what is not your own, it will be the concern of those who get it, given to them by He who has the authority to give it. Who are you to wish that it should be this way or that? You have not been given that choice, have you?

Be satisfied with those things that are under your control. Make the best you can of them. As for the rest, let them be as their master pleases.

If you have these principles before your eyes, will you lie awake at night and toss from side to side? What do you wish for? What do you long for? For Patroclus, or Antilochus, or Potesilaus? [These are close friends of Hercules, who had died.] For when did [Hercules] imagine that his friends were immortal? When did he not have before his eyes that he or his friends must die, either the following day or the day after?

“Yes, but I thought he’d survive me and bring up my son.”

“Because you’re a fool. You are counting on things that are uncertain. Why don’t you then blame yourself, instead of sitting here, crying like a baby.”

“Yes, but he used to put out food for me.”

“Because he was alive then, you idiot. Now he is dead. But Antomedon [charioteer for Achilles and Patroclus] will see to your needs. If he also should die, you’ll find someone else.”

If your cooking pot should break, would you die of hunger? Wouldn’t you send out for a new pot?

“No, because no greater evil could ever afflict me.” [Homer]

“Is this what you call evil, then? And, instead of getting rid of it, are you blaming your master for not warning you about it so you could go on spending all your time grieving?”

What do you think? Didn’t Homer write these lines for us to see that there is nothing to prevent even those of the highest birth, the strongest, the wealthiest, and the most handsome from becoming miserable and utterly unhappy if they hold incorrect judgements?

Think about this

If you wish for anything that is not your own, what is really your own will be lost. Discourses IV.10.19. Epictetus [RH]