Epictetus’ Strangely ‘Modern’ Psychology
Although the field of psychology is more than a century old, its roots, arguably, can be traced back even further. Psychology, much like the natural and physical sciences centuries earlier, split off from philosophy in the late 19th Century. Williams James, many histories argue, remains the first “true” psychologist in the modern sense. James’ work in to the “study of the mind” was a type of “proto-psychology,” though, by today’s standards, but it still remains important nevertheless.
Yet, like many firsts in the western world, one could argue that the ancient Greeks were the first psychologists. Epictetus’ writings (pronounced, “epic-TEE-tus”), once read, seem eerily modern. This former slave who lived during the first and second centuries, forged his approach to life through his experiences. His philosophy, which would later be called, “Stoicism,” emphasizes a practical approach to thinking over lofty abstraction. And, as we will see, Epictetus’ philosophy appears similar to some schools of modern psychology.
Living Happily, the Epictetus Way
Much of Epictetus’s philosophy can be summed up by the following sentence:
You can’t always control what happens to you, so why worry about it?
In much of his work, Epictetus stresses the idea that an individual’s mood does not to be affected by outside influences. Modern advocates of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for instance, such as Albert Ellis, echo Epictetus when they advise readers that it is not outside events that trouble us, but our interpretations about those events.
“Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs,” writes Sharon Lebell, a translator of Epictetus. She continues: “In an age without psychotherapy, Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy was to help regular folks meet the challenges of everyday life and cope with inevitable difficulties.” Again, this sounds like the goals of a modern therapist, not like the words of 2000-year-old Greco-Roman philosopher.
As one dives deeper into reading Epictetus, one begins to understand the simply elegance of his advice, and one may easily apply it to modern life. “Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you,” Epictetus writes. “They are dazzled and deluded by appearances.” And: “What really frightens us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturbs us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
Epictetus forged his philosophy during his early years as a slave, when it became apparent that he could not control the events around him. Epictetus must have realized that all that he could control was his thoughts, so he sought happiness within himself. Later, when he became free, Epictetus developed his philosophy further. Like many Greek philosophers at the time, Epictetus lectured to students, and one of few surviving works, the “Encheiridion,” remains his primary work, although he did not author it himself. As customary for the time, someone else, perhaps a student, transcribed some of lectures. Unlike, say, Plato, Epictetus did not leave behind volumes of work, yet his ideas have endured.
The Stoic Approach
Although Epictetus is not a psychologist in the modern sense per se, his ideas do have import for modern psychology. When viewed closely, the stoic philosophy that he helped to develop looks a lot like modern approaches to therapy, such as Ellis’ CBT. Epictetus’ ideas, though ancient, remain modern, applicable. In a world full of stress—work, family, career—Epictetus offers a simple alternative, an alternative that invites us to take control of thoughts, our lives, and recognize the limitations of our spear of influence.
Rather than trying to control the world, Epictetus suggests that we should control ourselves.
Encheiridion: The manual for living. (2005). New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Lebell, S. (1995). The art of living: The classic manual on virtue, happiness, and effectiveness. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.