Know what is within our power

There is no shortage of people willing to give you advice.

Browse the shelves of your local bookstore and you will see what I mean.

There are thousands of people who, for the price of a paperback, will tell you how to eat, how to sleep, how to be successful, how to lose weight, how to find love, how to get rich, how to have great sex, how to get famous and how to be happy.

Doubtless, some of this is good advice, and some of it is not.

Personally, I think that if you are in the market for advice, you could do a lot worse than turn to the Enchiridion - which means "manual" - by the first-century Greek-speaking philosopher Epictetus.

The Enchiridion, which was penned by one of Epictetus' disciples, was perhaps the first self-help book. It is certainly one of the most influential, and also one of the shortest.

For the past 2,000 years, it has been a source of inspiration to people from all walks of life, including the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the psychologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis, the American naval commander and vice-presidential candidate James Stockdale, and thousands of ordinary men and women.


It begins with a simple but profound insight: "There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs."?

In other words, there are things inside of us, such as our thoughts and feelings, that we can control. And there are things outside of us, such as our health and reputation, that we can't control.

Take our bodies, for example. Epictetus says they are "beyond our power".

Sure, we can try to look after them. We can exercise, eat healthily and go for regular medical check-ups. But, still, we might get sick or meet with an accident.

Despite our best efforts, bad things might still happen to our bodies.

And it is the same with reputation. We can work hard, achieve a lot, conduct ourselves honestly and decently, and do everything we can to earn respect. But, still, it is within anyone's power to dislike and disparage us. We cannot control what other people think about us or say about us.

But what is within our power is the way we respond.

If we get sick or have an accident, we have a choice. We can bemoan and bewail our bad luck, and add a whole lot of mental anguish to our troubles. Or we can accept that such things happen, and make the best of our situation.

Epictetus put it like this: "I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can anyone then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace?"?

Similarly, when someone criticises or insults us, we can take it to heart, nurse the injury and destroy our own peace of mind.

Or we can accept that such things happen even to the best of us, and refuse to be ruffled.

Epictetus said: "Remember,

it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realise that your mind is complicit in the provocation."

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It difficult to remain calm and cheerful when our health fails us, or when we are insulted, or when we suffer any other kind of misfortune.

Epictetus fully accepted this.

But he insisted that, if we are prepared to work at it, we can learn to manage our emotions and reactions. And he claims that the rewards for doing so are substantial. "It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Know what is within our power'. Print Edition | Subscribe