Epictetus the Stoic


Epictetus[1] summarized the Stoic attitude of taking responsibility for what was within one’s control thus: “I must die. If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time.”

Milton Friedman summarized the role of the government thus:

“Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost come in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”

Alan Watts illustrated the idea that we are not omniscient with the story of the Chinese farmer:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.


[1] Epictetus (50 CE – 135 CE) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave in Greece and lived in Rome until his banishment. He lived in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His philosophy was a major influence on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 CE – 180 CE).

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