Updated: Feb 6
Original artwork by Julia Jarzyna
The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously wrote that ‘All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone’ (Pensées, 1670).
But does this have to be true?
Modern life seems to be characterised by the constant desire to control our lives. Whether the action is small, such as portraying an idealised life on social media, or as significant as choosing a career based on financial potential, this desire for control persists. The great irony is that much of what we attempt to control, is never really in our grasps. This is appears more apparent during the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has seen the entire human race radically alter their lifestyle due to a circumstance outside their control. Since this has been such a great contradiction to how we typically try to control our lives, the pandemic has caused many of us great mental suffering.
Already, there have been world-wide reports of significant rises in mental health issues. Adjusting to a circumstance that contradicts our deeply embedded belief in control is hard enough. Being confined to our homes and left alone with our thoughts only makes this harder. Perhaps then, the answer is to let go of our belief in controlling the external.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that much of our suffering is due to our misguided belief that we can control external circumstances. He instead proposed that anything external to our minds -‘the body, material possessions, our reputation, status’ – are entirely outside of our control (Discourses and Selected Writings, p.221).
Our attempts to direct to these external circumstances are futile. Rather, they cause us only disappointment and perpetual anxiety. Undoubtedly, many of us have already experienced these feelings as we have worried over the circumstances caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
When will our lives return to normalcy?
Will my elderly or at-risk relative catch it?
Has this stopped a potential romantic relationship from continuing?
How will I be able to experience happiness without the company of others?
These are thoughts that have likely run through all of our heads. Yet, these anxious thoughts cannot produce anything for us but unnecessary distress. To alleviate this, we must take direction of what is in our control. Epictetus believes that the only things we can control is everything internal to our mind:
‘our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and other mental faculties in general’
(Discourses and Selected Writings, p.221).
Although Epictetus’ philosophy runs contradictory to our materialistic cultural values, it offers us a solution to the mental suffering we may be enduring. When we become aware of both our autonomy over the internal and the futility of worrying about the external, we can instead take control of the thoughts that distress us. This may not at first be a comfortable process, since it is such a stark contradiction to the culture we are conditioned to. However, embracing such uncomfortableness is a first-step towards negating unnecessarily disturbing thoughts. In turn, we may begin to both grow as individuals and live in greater contentment. Epictetus wrote that progress for our mental health can only occur in one who ‘renounces externals and attends instead to their character’ (Discourses and Selected Writings, p.14).
If we continue to worry over circumstances beyond their control, we will ‘shift and fluctuate right with them’ (Discourses and Selected Writings, p.14). Worse still, we become ‘subject to anyone with the power to furnish or deprive them of these externals’ (Discourses and Selected Writings, p.14). The Coronavirus pandemic is frightening for precisely this reason, as it is a situation where no individual has power over their external circumstances.
Of course, it is tempting to disregard this advice.
Even more tempting is to justify our anxiety as necessary due to the exceptional nature of the pandemic. Afterall, given the challenging nature of life, we are susceptible to believing such external difficulties will inevitably cause us mental suffering. Yet we already often exercise the mental faculty to perceive external difficulties in less distressing ways. As per Epictetus’ example, even citizens of Ancient Greece would enter situations with the mentality that external difficulties do not outweigh one’s enjoyment:
‘You eagerly travel to Olympia to see the work of Phidias … Well, aren’t difficulties found at Olympia? Don’t you get hot? And crowded? … Don’t you finally get sick of the noise, the shouting and other irritations? I can only suppose that you weigh all those negatives against the worth of the show and choose, in the end, to be patient and put up with it all’
(Discourses and Selected Writings, p.19).
Although we may not be aware, we do decide to look past external difficulties in specific situations. Deciding to visit a friend, go on a date or take a holiday could involve numerous possible challenges. You may be involved in a serious accident as you drive to your destination. Midway through your holiday, you may receive a phone call telling you that a family member is gravely ill. Yet for most of us, we enter these situations thinking little about these potential circumstances.
Instead, since we know it is pointless to worry about such extreme possibilities, we typically approach these pleasurable activities with optimism. The problem is that we are not aware that we decide these mentalities. Consequently, we do not employ them when faced with an unfavourable situation, such as a pandemic:
‘Even though you have these powers free and entirely your own, you don’t use them, because you still don’t realise what you have or where it came from’
(Discourses and Selected Writings, p.19).
So, how do we begin to consciously employ this awareness?
Epictetus suggests that each time we experience a disturbing thought, we should respond by saying ‘an impression is all you are, not the source of an impression’ (Discourses and Selected Writings, p.223). In other words, we need to recognise that disturbing thoughts are only thoughts and do not exert control over us.
Admittedly, this may be easier said than done.
Yet every time we respond to our thoughts in this way, we begin to form this new, healthier habit. In turn, we can regain control from our destructive thoughts and alleviate our former mental suffering. At a time when mental suffering is so widespread, Epictetus’ Stoicism provides a hopeful alternative.
Epictetus. Discourses and Selected Writings.
Pascal, B (1670). Pensées.