Ain’t Yo Momma’s Handbook Part I

Posted by EMILY

Which is a good thing.  If it were, it might mean that your mother doesn’t love you.  First of all, to clarify for anyone who’s not ventured into the Stoics, we’re working with Epictetus’s “The Handbook[1].”  This is a handbook for life.  It basically tells you how to deal with emotions to improve your life and obtain inner peace and harmony.  My goal here is to discuss some of the useful points of the Handbook, as well as some of the pitfalls (including the objective itself).  Please note that I am not going to talk about the Ruling Principle because though, while an important part of Stoic theory, Epictetus only makes reference to it.  It is not, in my opinion the main message of “The Handbook.”

Before I get into the actual philosophy, hello!  I am Emily, a Cohort of The Commune.  I majored in Philosophy in college, am currently working at a giant corporate firm, and am soon to be bound for law school.  I, personally, am a fan of the Greek philosophers and have a very soft spot for Hellenistic philosophy (think: Stoics, Skeptics, and Hedonists).  My biggest claim to Smith College Department of Philosophy fame was writing a senior special studies (not technically a thesis, but the same type of thing) entitled The Ethics of the Soul in Joss Whedon’s World of Television.  I’m continually adding to that paper now that I’m two years out and hope to post more on that later!

Anyway, back to the philosophy- that’s what it’s all about anyway, right?  I recently re-read The Handbook as a way to deal with my life.  My personal mantra is taken from the very first line: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us” (note: I’m using Nicholas P. White’s translation).  I repeat this internally over and over like a crazy person during times of crisis- it’s calming, I swear.  See, Epictetus was a genius- he predicted the first part of the Serenity prayer, used by many an addict to get by.  Anyway, Epictetus was a hardcore Stoic.  I happen to admire the Stoics.  I just don’t think I could ever be one, not fully (which shall be explained shortly).  But first, the good stuff.  Above, I mentioned my mantra.  Think about it- the best thing that you can do for yourself is to acknowledge what is within your control and what is not.  Epictetus basically tells us, don’t sweat the small stuff!  Logical, no?  Like… SPOCK!!

Sorry, I know the connection is loose, and I have very little knowledge of the show, but I’m under the impression that I’m not allowed to post unless it connects to Star Trek somehow.

Epictetus says, you can’t control what you look like or what other people say about you.  If you worry about that stuff, you’re going to have a terrible, terrible angsty life.  However, you control YOU, how you react to the external world.  And if you do this, as Epictetus says, if you “think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own… no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all” (11).  Really think about it:  the ability to say, consistently, you know what?  This really isn’t my problem.  That unrequited love?  Nonexistent.  It’s totally not up to me, so I’m not going to worry about it.  Got laid off?  Who cares?  Not me.  The key is not just to say any of this, but really and truly to believe it.

Hope you’ve enjoyed your dose of Hellenistic philosophy for the day.  I will continue this discussion in two more posts to follow daily.


[1] Epictetus.  The Handbook (The Encheiridion).  Trans. Nicholas P. White.  Indianapolis/Cambridge:  Hackett , 1983.

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Published in: on May 15, 2009 at 11:13 AM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice work. Reminds me of one of my favorite books Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A lot of the Behaviorist school of psychology is built around the idea that the only thing you truly have control over is your reactions to stimuli. You can’t control other people (and, by extension, you aren’t responsible for their reactions to your behavior), you can’t really control events, so you’d better at least be able to keep yourself on a leash when the world gets pear-shaped.

    The problem with this philosophy, and I say this from the point of view of someone who really admires the Stoics and their brethren, is that there is a tendency towards fatalism and passivity. This can be very problematic if one’s tendencies already lie in that direction.

    Really, the trick is finding that fine-line between “doing” and “not-doing” where you don’t act unless it’s neccessary, and then only in a very small way that gets the maximum results. To the untrained eye, it looks like you’re not doing anything, but stuff gets done, in a seemingly magical fashion. Then you look like a fucking Jedi.

    • I very much enjoyed your response. I have not read Meditations, but I will look into it.

      I completely agree with your assessment of passivity- which you will see in Part III.

      As for the ability to be Jedi-like- I can only hope. You’re right- I often feel conflicted about the Stoics because they are so right about some things, but they take it JUST too far. Their ability to recognize what is and is not “theirs” is something I would love to have myself. But not if I have to be the unfeeling shell that Epictetus somewhat suggests. But I am getting ahead of myself- Part III will get into that.

  2. […] you all enjoyed Friday’s discussion.  Let’s take a step back:  even if you’re not a philosophy fan, you’ve probably heard of […]

  3. I would love to read your original “senior special studies” sometime. (I’ve been indoctrinating my fiancé to Buffy now. We recently got through the second season finale, and even though I can recite it almost as well as watch it, it still makes me tear up.)


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