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The Miniature Epictetus on My Shoulder

The grounding effect of studying classical philosophy during a global pandemic.

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Photo courtesy of Alex Block on Unsplash.
Photo courtesy of Alex Block on Unsplash.

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“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” — Epictetus

Easier said than done, Epictetus. At the beginning of the semester, the words of this Stoic philosopher would have only served to taunt me. As a first-year college student in 2020, my fall was full of anxieties, very few of which regarded matters within my control. I couldn’t dictate the course of COVID, I didn’t have the power to force my peers to like me or become my friend, and I wasn’t able to manage the pain and distress in which the whole country appeared to be. I felt like my life and the world around me had a set course and I was just the paralyzed passenger. 

Initially, I treated “Living A Good Life” as a history class — I’d never taken a philosophy class before, I didn’t know how to sort its lessons in the file cabinets of my brain, so I analyzed the virtues of Aristotle and the lessons of Confucianism as a window into the past, a peek at how people used to live their lives. Each class and reading was a necessary getaway from the chaos of reality, but as I learned more about each classical perspective, I found my goal shifted away from absorbing information and toward application to my own life. I shopped each philosophy for the practices and values with which I resonated, regardless of whether they were applied within the context of their original school of thought. 

Perhaps the most illuminating day of the semester was the second day of my week attempting to live by the words of Epictetus, like a Stoic. As a temporary Stoic, my ideology dictated that the only thing ultimately under my control was my virtue — everything else was out of my hands, and furthermore shouldn’t be worried about. Put effort into that which you can change for the better, the Stoics say, and leave the outcomes of everything else to fate because regardless of what you do, they won’t change. So I made a list of every anxiety or concern that came up over the course of the day; in one column, those which I had the power to control, and in the other, those which I could not personally alter. By the evening I’d discovered of the ten categories of concern that had appeared since morning, I could control two things: my travel plans, and the effort I put into my psychology homework. Everything else that concerned me that day would be determined without my input, thus it wasn’t worth my time to think about them.

I now regularly converse with the miniature Epictetus that lives on my shoulder. If I’m concerned about something I have no control over, he points it out, suggesting that I move on and invest my energy in something I can actually change. If something doesn’t go my way, he shows me how to adjust accordingly, as one bump in the road rarely ends the journey. Ironically, studying a far-away classical philosophy in a period of chaos has grounded me. But I suppose that’s simply an indication that classical philosophy isn’t far away, it’s not dead or irrelevant. On the contrary, Epictetus and the Stoics, among the other schools of thought that I’ve now studied, serve as a reminder that the qualms of modern society have been faced in some form or another for centuries. Epictetus was not a college student moving away from home for the first time during a deadly global pandemic, but he speaks to those who are — reminding all of us that it’s not worth worrying about what you cannot control.

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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    - MARCUS AURELIUS

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