Ain’t Yo Momma’s Handbook, Part 3 (Final)

Posted by EMILY

As promised, we’ll pick up where Part II left off:  Stoicism and Grief.  Perhaps the most famous words from Epictetus were his instructions on grief.  He said, when you see someone grieving, here’s what you do: “Do not hesitate… to sympathize with him verbally, and even moan with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to moan inwardly” (16).  So, basically, comfort your friend.  Cry with him if you must.  Whatever you do, don’t actually feel it. It will harm you if you do.

Some of his advice could be helpful in grief.  Continuing in the same vein, I found the following passage particularly to be profound:

‘Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but instead, “I have given it back.”  Did your child die? It was given back.  Did your wife die?  She was given back.  “My land was taken.”  So this too was given back.  “But the person who took it was bad!”  How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you?  As long as he gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.” (14)

This fits with certain theories of Jewish theory on grief (which is a topic for another time, but still), the idea being that our souls go back to G-d.  Now, Epictetus doesn’t mention souls, just the actual beings in themselves, but he does mention a giver of sorts.  He says not to question the motives or causes as to why loss occurs.  It doesn’t matter how or why loss happens- it just happens!  He completely nullifies the question, why do bad things happen to good people?  They just do, these are the consequences, so deal with it.  Furthermore, the idea of that return could allow us to process grief better-  if it’s never ‘yours’ to begin with, thus, when it is gone, you won’t be upset.

Aaaaaaaand this is where it starts to border on disturbing, in my opinion.  If you notice the trend here, Epictetus is starting to devalue human life.  In the previous passage, he likens humans to land.  While I do find the passage to be comforting, that equaling raises an alarm.  This alarm is only further justified in the following passage: “In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things.  If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset” (12).  So far, so good right?  Sounds reasonable.  WRONG.  Next sentence:  “If you kiss your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset” (12).  This is a serious WTF moment.


No matter how useful I find the idea of ownership of one’s emotions, a human being is not a jug. A human being is not land or a traveler’s inn.  In my opinion, anyone who claims otherwise is one of two things: a liar or a sociopath.   Like most philosophical theories, you can’t take it in its purest form, but diluted, it can be an excellent medicine. I could be wrong- maybe sociopaths have an inner peace of which the rest of us can only dream.  However, I can’t help but suspect that inner peace may not necessarily be the ideal state.  How many people have been truly happy just in a place of serenity? Personally, my life has always been better in peaks and valleys rather than a straight line.  Inner peace, as seems to be implied by Epictetus, is not equivalent to constant peaks, but rather, indifference to peaks or valleys.  Is it really just a slippery slope to a lifestyle of complete and utter apathy?In my opinion, yes, it could go there, and as someone who advocates voting, apathy is my enemy.   And even if inner peace were ‘constant peaks’, though I do not agree that this is what Epictetus implies, without the valleys, could we possibly expect the positive products of such downturns?  Do we lose all the art, sex, and rock and roll that come out of intense emotion?     Without pain, do we lose the ability to feel pleasure?  And that leads us to our next topic… the Epicurus and the Hedonists!  More on that later…

Hope you enjoyed my philosophical ramblings- please feel free to let me know what you think!

Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 2:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

Ain’t Yo Momma’s Handbook Part II

Posted by EMILY

Hope 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 the Stoics before in common use.  Hey, look at that guy not saying anything- he’s so brooding and hot!  How Stoic of him to keep all his feelings inside!  Sorry to let you down, ladies, that guy is not Stoic (Sorry, Oz). 


Well, probably not.  If he were, you’d probably not want him anymore.  See, a true Stoic doesn’t have those emotions.  They’d be too destructive to his being.  And here’s the big thing- a true Stoic doesn’t have to ACT Stoic.  The misconception comes from Epictetus’s instructions on how to carry one’s self.  His suggestions are, at all times, to speak little, when necessary.  Don’t indulge in luxuries- they’re really not that important.  Don’t even laugh, if you can help it.  He even asks that you give up the f bombs.  This isn’t such a bad idea when you think about it- speak little, but speak well.  Try not to discuss about the unimportant stuff.   To me, it is evident that this is not the main point of “The Handbook.”  Epictetus cares MUCH less about the external world (e.g. how you act and are perceived) than the internal being (e.g. how you actually feel).  Thus, when involving the sexy brooding, our usage of it is COMPLETELY off the mark.  Though it might seem to be the same externally, it isn’t- you shouldn’t be masking those emotions, you just shouldn’t have them at all.Though it might seem to be the same externally, it isn’t- you shouldn’t be masking those emotions, you just shouldn’t have them at all.

In Part III, you’re going to see how this affects a Stoic during times of grief, a time where emotions run the highest.  How does a Stoic, the utter emblem of detachment, deal with death?  I’m sure the suspense will be killing you, but hang on for Part III!

Published in: on May 17, 2009 at 1:56 PM  Comments (3)  

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.

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