Epictetus’ Prescription for Psychological Resilience
From everything that happens in the universe it is easy to praise providence, if one has within him two things: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of the things that happen to each person and a sense of gratitude. For, otherwise, one will either fail to recognize the usefulness of what has come about, or else fail to be truly grateful if one does in fact recognize it. (Discourses 1.6.1-2)
Psychological resilience is a byproduct of Stoic practice; it is part of the good flow or well-being (eudaimonia) a Stoic experiences as a result of developing an excellent character (virtue). In his expression of the dichotomy of control, found in Enchiridion 1, Epictetus contrasts the psychologically resilient Stoic with those who have a troubled mind. Epictetus declares that “no harm can affect” the resilient mind of the Stoic; whereas, others will be hindered, will lament, and will blame gods and humans. Epictetus continues by encouraging us to aim at the ‘great things’ resulting from an untroubled mind. Nevertheless, as he points out, the development of a resilient mind does require some effort and changes in our lives. People have troubled minds because of their thoughts, desires, and intentions. As I have written before, Stoicism is not a topical applied balm; it is internal medicine. Stoicism works from the inside out, beginning with our thoughts and desires. Progress depends on our willingness to turn over the soil of our psyche to disrupt the roots of our currently entangled thoughts so we can plant new ones. In the above passage from the Discourses 1.6, we see two elements which are necessary for psychological resilience: a comprehensive view of things, and gratitude.
A Comprehensive View of Things
The first part of Epictetus prescription for psychological resilience involves practicing the cosmic viewpoint. The cosmic viewpoint allows us to escape our human-centered view of events and the judgments associated with that limited view. Life is not easy. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we all must face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in life. However, there is good news. Stoic practice equips us to “take arms” against that “sea of troubles” we call life; it prepares us “to be” in spite of life’s vicissitudes. To begin, we must abandon our limited human perspective and view events as if from above. The cosmic viewpoint teaches us to accept the truth that life is not easy. As Scott Peck wrote in the opening of his classic book, The Road Less Traveled:
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
As practicing Stoics, we can use the cosmic viewpoint to transcend the false expectations which cause a troubled mind. As I wrote in a previous post,
Once we understand the nature of the cosmos and our place in it, we begin to understand that external events are neither good nor bad, in a moral sense, because they are beyond our control. The only events which have moral implications for us are those we can control—our judgments. External events cannot harm our inner Self; only our thoughts about events can.
Epictetus makes this point succinctly:
It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them. (Enchiridion 4)
Pierre Hadot considers the cosmic viewpoint the beginning of Stoic practice. He writes,
Putting theory into practice begins with an exercise that consists in recognizing oneself as a part of the Whole, elevating oneself to cosmic consciousness, or immersing oneself within the totality of the cosmos. While meditating on Stoic physics, we are able to see all things within the perspective of universal Reason. To achieve this, we must practice imaginative exercise which consists in seeing all human things from above.
As I wrote in Day 2 of the week-long meditation on a passage from Seneca’s Natural Questions:
When confronted with something which might appear unsettling or disturbing, take a step back and try to envision the situation from the cosmic viewpoint. From the perspective of the Whole cosmos, does that inconsiderate driver who just cut you off look any different? What if you discovered that inconsiderate driver was rushing to the emergency room to see a dying loved one, would that change your judgment about the incident? Often, if we had all of the information about an event or a person’s behavior we would see things differently; we would change our opinion of things.
After we attain a new perspective from the cosmic viewpoint and thereby relinquish our anthropocentric judgments of events, we can begin to practice an attitude of gratitude for all that happens in our lives.
An Attitude of Gratitude
The second part of Epictetus’ prescription for psychological resilience in Discourses 1.6 involves developing a “sense of gratitude” for everything that happens. Stoics do not attempt to put a positive spin on events. Instead, Stoics seek to understand the nature of reality and human existence. The cosmic perspective helps us deal with life’s vicissitudes. How? By teaching us to limit our concerns to what is ‘up to us’—our judgments of events—and to love what we cannot control.
An attitude of gratitude distinguishes a love of fate (amor fati) from mere resignation and fatalism. How does a Stoic avoid resignation and learn to love fate? By choosing to see challenging events as opportunities for growth in virtue (excellence of character). Trials either make us bitter, or they can make us better. The choice is ours. Consider this: what would Stoics do without the people on Facebook who annoy us, the inconsiderate drivers who cut us off in traffic, the thoughtless actions of our loved ones, the unreasonable demands of a boss or customer who does not appreciate us, the pains in our bodies, or the occasional tragedies visited upon us? How would we grow in virtue without these ‘indifferents’ to shape us? How would we test or measure our growth without them? Finally, how much would we value virtue (arête) and well-being (eudaimonia) if it came easy, without much effort?
If, as Stoics, we accept that unpleasant events are going to happen, and they are beyond our control, then what would it look like to take our practice to the next level? What if we adopt an attitude of gratitude toward all those ‘indifferents’ outside of our control? Imagine the psychological equanimity that would spring from such an attitude. Marcus provides us with a wonderful example of an attitude of gratitude:
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (Meditations 4.23)
Marcus had that attitude because he trusted that, “Nothing happens to anyone that he is not fitted by nature to bear” (Meditations 5.18.1). Epictetus also highlights that same attitude of gratitude toward what happens when he instructs us:
Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life. (Enchiridion 8)
Try out these attitude adjustors for common ‘indifferents’ we all face:
- Thank you, universe, for that annoying Facebook post. It was an opportunity for me to use the dichotomy of control.
- Thank you, universe, for that inconsiderate driver. It was a chance for me to test my equanimity.
- Thank you, universe, for my inconsiderate loved one and ungrateful boss. They remind me that we are kin; we are fragments of the same whole and to work together is to be in accord with Nature.
- Thank you, universe, for that pain in my body. It reminds me my existence is brief. It inspires me to live fully in each moment with focused attention on my thoughts and actions. It helps me remember that even though the song of my life is short, its melody will continue to reverberate in the lives that remain after my music stops.
Use the model above and create your own attitude adjustors. Additionally, as you go about your day and face the many ‘indifferents’ that will inevitably challenge your virtue and equanimity, keep Seneca’s words close at hand:
To fashion a [Stoic] who can genuinely be called a [Stoic], a stronger fate is needed. For him, the way will not be flat: he must go up and down, he must be tossed by waves, and must guide his vessel on a stormy sea. He must hold his course against fortune. Many things will happen that are hard and rough— but things he can soften and smooth out himself. Fire proves gold; misery, brave men [and women]. (Seneca, On Providence 5.9)
Psychological resilience is a promise of Stoicism. It does not come quickly or easily; nothing of value does. The Stoic path teaches us to abandon the judgments of events that are derived from our limited human perspective. Then, we can develop and attitude of gratitude for all the events which occur in our life. The choice is ours; we can allow life’s challenges to make us bitter or we use them to make us better. Remember,
Whatever may come about, it is within [your] power to derive benefit from it. (Enchiridion 18)
 Peck, M. S. (1978). The Road Less Traveled & Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 15
 Fisher, C. (2016). Providence or Atoms. Retrieved from http://www.traditionalstoicism.com/2016/02/08/providence-or-atoms-2/
 Hadot, P. (2002) What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 136
 Fisher, C. (2016). What is Important in Life – Day 2. Retrieved from http://www.traditionalstoicism.com/2016/03/15/what-is-important-in-life-day-2/
 Stephens, W. (2007). Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. New York: Continuum, pp. 54-66. Stephens provides a masterful analysis the Stoic’s relationship to fate in his section titled, “The rationality of following fate.”