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A Handbook for Public Life
What the ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus can teach us about politics and public life today
Of three main ancient Roman Stoics whose works come down to us across the millennia, those of the early second-century philosophy teacher Epictetus appear the least outwardly concerned with politics and public life. Neither an emperor like Marcus Aurelius nor a statesman and imperial advisor like Seneca, Epictetus was born into slavery and suffered a crippling leg injury at the hands of one of his masters. He served at the imperial court in Rome during the reign of the mad emperor Nero, where he attended the lectures of the leading Stoic philosopher of the day, Musonius Rufus. After his emancipation, Epictetus began teaching philosophy in Rome himself—only to be expelled from the imperial capital along with other philosophers by the Emperor Domitian.
Politics and public life today may not be as hazardous to life and limb as they were in ancient Rome, at least not in societies with a modicum of democracy and basic physical security. But they’re still a bruising, messy affair that’s not for the faint of heart. It won’t be smooth sailing by any means when we engage in public life, and we’ve got to know that going in—all without succumbing to the corrosive cynicism and fatalism along the way. As the scholar Robin Waterfield’s new translation of Epictetus’ complete works makes clear, the ancient Stoics still have much to teach us even in twenty-first century America when it comes to navigating the treacherous waters of politics and public life.
After his exile Epictetus set up a school in Nicopolis, a town on the northwestern coast of modern Greece, where he lived until the end of his days and taught philosophy far from the hustle and bustle of Rome. He never wrote any philosophical treatises for publication, and no private philosophical journal akin to Marcus’ Meditations survives. His two main extant works—the Discourses, after-class lecture notes recorded by his student Arrian, and the Handbook, itself a concise distillation of the Discourses—come from his time as one of the Roman world’s most sought-after philosophy instructors. In the four books of Discourses we still possess, Epictetus dwells principally on the practical application of Stoic philosophy to day-to-day life, or what he called the “art of living.”
But this focus on the everyday doesn’t mean Epictetus has nothing to say about politics and public life; quite the contrary. As a slave serving at the imperial court, for instance, Epictetus witnessed the politics of Rome and the escalating chaos of Nero’s reign first-hand. What’s more, his Discourses and Handbook are shot through with political imagery and references to relatively recent imperial history—events well within living memory. Most importantly, though, Epictetus gives us profound but practical advice on how we ought to conduct ourselves as we engage in politics and public life.
With both his specific remarks on politics and his more general advice on the art of living, Epictetus conveys three main lessons about participation in public life—lessons we’d all do well to heed today.
Keep Calm and In Control of Yourself
If there’s any one piece of wisdom Epictetus hoped to impart to his students, it’s the absolute necessity of what he called self-possession: the proposition that we really ought to keep ourselves calm and remain in control of ourselves even in the worst situations. It’s a deceptively straightforward idea, uncomplicated on the surface but containing a multitude of intricate facets when examined closely—and one that, as Epictetus himself repeatedly acknowledged, is as difficult to put into practice as it is easy to describe.
For Epictetus, self-possession means first and foremost relying on our faculty of reason—what he and the other ancient Stoics called our dominant faculty—and to stay level-headed when confronted with the volatile and often frustrating nature of public life. We may be passionate about a particular issue, candidate, or set of principles, for instance, but we can’t let ourselves be governed by our passions. Here, it’s important to note that the Stoics and other ancient schools of philosophy defined “passions” very differently than we do today; for the ancient Stoics, at least, the passions weren’t mere enthusiasms for a favorite sports team or musician but the destructive, negative emotions that take hold of us and cloud our judgement when our desires aren’t fulfilled. As Epictetus himself put it in the Discourses, “the root cause of passion is wanting something and not getting it.”
It’s not hard to see that definition at play today in the despair that flourishes today on both left and right when a particular candidate doesn’t win a race or a specific policy fails to make its way through Congress. What happens in these circumstances goes beyond the simple, natural disappointment inherent in a lost election or legislative vote—it’s the sense that all is lost, an anguish fueled by fear, anxiety and anger. But as Epictetus and his fellow Stoics would remind us, we do neither ourselves nor the causes we believe in any good when we allow these passions to impair our thinking and make us miserable.
Here, a concept at the heart of Epictetus’ thought and indeed Stoic philosophy in general proves exceptionally useful: the dichotomy of control. It’s another deceptively simple observation found in the very first lines of the Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some are not. Up to us are judgment, inclination, desire, aversion—in short, whatever is our own doing. Not up to us are our bodies, possessions, reputations, public offices—in short, whatever isn’t our own doing.” Success and failure in politics and public life are not up to us, but how we conduct ourselves as we pursue political goals and participate in public life is up to us—and that’s what matters. Or as Epictetus reminded his students: life itself may be an indifferent in and of itself, “but what we make of life isn’t indifferent.”
Two important corollaries follow from this more general counsel to keep calm and in control of ourselves. First, we ought to be intellectually flexible and open to new or discordant information in our politics—not dogmatic and close-minded. Indeed, Epictetus remarked that stubbornly persisting on a misguided course of action showed “the vigor of a someone with a brain fever.” Second, we should remember that what makes us upset in politics and public life isn’t what other people say or do, either about ourselves, our favored policies, or our core beliefs, but our own opinions about their utterances and actions. When we allow others to upset us, Epictetus warns in the Handbook, we effectively hand our minds over “into the keeping of any random person.”
Taken together, these two notions also help us keep in mind the possibility that we might be wrong—and that our interlocutors and opponents might simply be mistaken and incorrect rather than wicked and incorrigible. Of course, such inveterate characters do exist and must be opposed in appropriate ways. But if our political rivals are merely wrong, as they usually are, it does us no good to work ourselves up into a frenzy over their misguided rhetoric and dubious policy views. As Epictetus observes, another person “can only conform to his views, not yours” and, if they happen to be inaccurate, “he’s the one who’s harmed, because he’s also been deceived.” If we can’t convince our political opponents of our own views, he argues, we shouldn’t insult or get angry with our interlocutors but recognize our own limitations instead.
It's a spirit of generosity and tolerance we ought bring to our political debates and public life more often today.
Elections Aren’t the Only Things You Can Lose
As Epictetus regularly notes, we all too often trade our most valuable personal asset—our integrity—for things of far less worth, whether financial wealth or political power. “Destroying the good citizen and the friend in me,” he argues, “is no help to anyone—not to me, not to the city, not to my friends.” Indeed, society would be better off with “another trustworthy and respecting citizen” than one who devotes his ill-gotten gains to the benefit of the community. If we don’t maintain our integrity, Epictetus stresses, we’ll fail our duties as citizens and be of no use to society at large.
That line of thought has two main implications. First, we should all have lines we won’t cross—or we ought to at least realize what it is exactly we’re giving up in exchange for whatever it is we’re pursuing or want to achieve. Despite the importance of such matters, we rarely think ahead of time about what lines we’re willing to cross and why. More broadly, though, we need to keep politics and public life in proper perspective. It’s rarely if ever worth trading our own personal integrity for political power, and perhaps only marginally more worth exchanging it for specific political and policy gains like a Supreme Court seat or the passage of a piece of legislation deemed vital.
That’s not a counsel against compromise; far from it. Indeed, Epictetus himself agrees that an individual should attend to some wealthy and politically powerful benefactor in order to “have performed your function as a citizen, a brother, a friend.” But he goes on to warn that we should keep what’s at stake in perspective and not debase ourselves to achieve our goals: “Is the matter important enough for me to go to his door? Very well, I’ll goal. Is it worth discussing? Very well, I’ll discuss it with him. But if I have to kiss his hand and flatter him with words of praise, forget it.”
In other words, we ought not be so rigid in our political and policy views that we refuse to make reasonable concessions or bargain with others to get things done. Instead, Epictetus exhorts us to conduct ourselves with requisite integrity in politics and public life. Inflexibility is no virtue—Epictetus actively advised against it, after all, saying that stubbornness makes faulty judgments “uncorrectable and incurable.” The example of Cato the Younger, the ancient Roman statesman whose own refusal to compromise helped bring down the Republic, ought likewise to serve as a cautionary tale despite his heroic status among later Roman Stoics like Seneca.
In public life, then, self-awareness and attention to our own actions are an absolute necessity. If we want to win an election, enact a policy, or work in government, we ought to do so in ways we won’t regret—whether a day or a decade later. That’s a reminder too many of us need today, but it’s also a call to cultivate personal interests and lives beyond politics and public affairs. If we have these enthusiasms and responsibilities, that means we we’re less likely to lose ourselves when we lose elections or votes—as we inevitably will.
Just as importantly, though, a life outside politics helps us keep public life in perspective—and reminds us of its true nature and real value.
Remember the Nature and Purpose of Public Life
Along with the other ancient Stoics, Epictetus considered participation in the public life of our communities to be a fundamental philosophical duty for every individual—one rooted in human nature at its most elemental. “After all, what is a human being?” he asks in the Discourses. “A part of a city—in the first place, a part of the city made up of gods and human beings, and then a part of the city that is supposed to be our nearest and dearest, which is a small copy of the universal city.” To put it another way, we’re all in this together.
Accordingly, Epictetus views “citizen” as one of the leading roles we play in life, along with other essential roles like parent, child, spouse, sibling, and friend. These roles derive from our social relationships, “whether natural or acquired,” and they help tell us how we should conduct ourselves in any given situation—namely, that we should act in accordance with the role that seems most relevant under the circumstances. In the end, though, it’s ultimately up to us to play our shared roles as citizens skillfully, and how well we play them is what really matters when we engage in politics and public life.
Indeed, citizenship’s prominent place as one of humanity’s basic social roles alongside the likes of parenthood and friendship illustrates just how important Epictetus and the ancient Stoics saw involvement in public life. They regarded it as nothing less than intrinsic to their own philosophy of life and believed it to be a major, defining point of contrast with their main philosophical rivals, the Epicureans. In fact, Epictetus goes so far as to mock Epicurus and his followers several times in the Discourses for what he sees as their failure to acknowledge humanity’s inherently social nature—and the duty that human nature imposes on us as individuals to participate in public life in whatever capacity we can.
What does this duty of citizenship entail? Epictetus is quite direct and explicit here, stating that when death arrives for him—as it must for us all—he’d like to be found “doing something that’s proper for a human being—something benevolent, something that contributes to the common good, something honorable.” Simply put, participation in public life requires a generous and tolerant attitude, honorable conduct, and a focus on the common good above all else. We fulfill our philosophical duties as human beings and play our role as citizens well when we act in accordance with these principles, whether with reference to our own society or humanity as a whole.
When it comes to politics and public life, then, Epictetus and the ancient Stoics would say that our ultimate goal is to contribute in a constructive way to the whole—whether that’s our friends and families, our local communities, our nations, or our common humanity.
At the same time, however, Epictetus reminds us to remain alert to the difficulties and hazards inherent in politics and public life. As he counsels early on in the Handbook, “Whenever you’re about to start on some activity or other, remind yourself of its characteristic features.” Epictetus remains well aware that politics can and often does devolve into the sordid, dishonorable, and disreputable; indeed, his numerous vignettes of ancient Roman public figures invariably involve some high-ranking senator or imperial grandee forced to cope with exile or imminent death at the hands of one emperor or another. Not for nothing does Epictetus dedicate one of the entries in the Discourses to a discussion of the “proper attitude to have toward tyrants.”
We’ve got to understand that we’ll inevitably come in for malicious criticism and painful personal attacks as we fulfill our duty to participate in public life, as hard as that may be in practice. As Epictetus might tell us, that’s simply part and parcel of the enterprise upon which we’ve embarked. It’s not at all easy, but we’ll be better off—and more effective—if we know and accept that reality going in.
Nor can we expect permanent success or failure in politics or public life. Our victories will almost always be temporary and incomplete, but so will our defeats and setbacks. More to the point, though, they’re not up to us—it’s possible to give a cause or campaign our all and still lose. All of which brings us back to the dichotomy of control and the first lines of the Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.” When it comes to politics and public life, we can only control our own effort—and that’s more than enough.
While Epictetus concerned himself first and foremost with the art of living in the widest possible sense, we can still learn much from him and his Stoic philosophy as we carve our own path toward a better politics and healthier public life. We’d do well to listen to what he has to say—and put it to work in our own troubled public life today.