What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice?  A familiar sight enough.  So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’  Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.  (Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”  In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone.  (Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.”  But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.  However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case.  Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where.  For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught.  (Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?”  But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.

“The cosmos = change; life = opinion.”

But among the principles ready to your hand, upon which you shall pore, let there be these two.  One, that objective things do not lay hold of the soul, but stand quiescent without; while disturbances are but the outcome of that opinion which is within us.  A second, that all this visible world changes in a moment, and will be no more; and continually think how many things you have already witnessed changing.  “The cosmos is change; life is opinion.” (Meditations, 4.3)

The Greek says very simply: ho kosmos, alloiosis. ho bios, hupolepsis.  Literally: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion.”  This was obviously meant to be memorized, like slogan or mnemonic.  Marcus means that the external world is constantly changing and nothing lasts forever; and that the quality of our lives is determined by our judgments, mainly those about what is good or bad in life.

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