Greetings! I had originally planned to post today’s entry regarding Epictetus’ lessons on what is “in our power.” However, while paraphrasing the selection we’d be reading from, it was all becoming a befuddled mess in my mind. (It probably didn’t help that I was attempting this at 4:00am.) Despite looking at multiple translations of the excerpt last night, it just wasn’t clicking the way it needed to. I’m under the impression that it would benefit us not only for the next lesson, but in our overall progress toward the philosophic life, if we took a moment now to direct our attention from the chapter at hand and investigate some key terms and concepts in philosophy.
Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
“So the study of philosophy,” he said, “is no casual matter, for what is at stake is deciding whether we will be sane or insane.”
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.38)
What was your life like before you began studying any philosophy?
Were you lost? Living life in a mess? Lacking direction? Indifferent to your actions and choices?
Let me tell you, that honestly, each and every one of us was an idiot. Yes, you heard me. You were an idiôtês. You were an “uneducated person.” (Corny joke, I know. But Greek is fun this way!) But seriously, idiôtês implies that we really don’t have any idea about what freedom and happiness are, and we have no clue how to be truly free or happy. We’re just stupid and lost.
idiôtês = me before I started studying philosophy.
However, we could say that in our idiotic life, we eventually began searching for answers or direction. Direction to what? To eudaimonia. Let me explain. Eudaimonia doesn’t necessarily mean “happiness” like you might expect. It does mean happiness in a way, but all the little connotations associated with the Greek really disappear in the translation. We need to view it as something bigger than “happiness.”
eudaimonia = SUPREMELY BLESSED, flourishing fully, stable & enduring happiness; “persistence of flourishing that pervades one’s whole life”
We don’t have a translation for this in English, which is why we’re learning some Greek right now. In some new age book, this might be called something like “realizing your actuality” or whatever that means. Honestly, the fact that English doesn’t have a word for this really tells me a lot about what my culture values (or doesn’t value). Anyway.
Eudaimonia was considered the end goal of living. Perhaps a little something like a philosopher’s Nirvana if you want to look at it that way.
Ok, so here I am, a miserable little idiôtês, searching for my eudaimonia. How do I get there??
My friend, you achieve it by living according to nature.
What the heck does that mean?
You achieve it by developing your moral character.
Ok… how do I do that?
You achieve it by starting with the first step, which is…
To understand what is “in our power.“
My friends, we stand here at the gates of philosophy as puny idiôtês. Philosophy says that it will teach us how to achieve our holy grail, eudaimonia. As we step across the threshold into the school, we embark on our transformation from uneducated to educated, from unknowing to knowing, from ignorant to enlightened: from idiôtês to philosophos.
Are you excited yet??
I’ll conclude with the quote from the first part of Epictetus’ Handbook. Tomorrow we will be investigating this quote in further detail. It’s imperative for us to really understand it, as we just learned that our first step toward eudaimonia is to understand what is “in our power.” Read the quote below and ponder its meaning. This will help prepare you for our next post, but more importantly, you’ll be making your first steps of philosophical progress.
On one hand, there are things that are in our power. And on the other hand, there are things that are not in our power. In our power are our opinion, intention, desire, aversion; whatever is our own doing. Things not in our power include our body, possessions, reputation, status; whatever is not our own doing.
(Epictetus, Handbook 1.1)