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Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: Epictetus


Epictetus was born into slavery and beaten until he was lame... but he became one of Ancient Rome's greatest thinkers by accepting every setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Philosophy professor Bill Irvine joins Dr Laurie Santos to delve into Stoicism - an ancient school of thought which urges us to reframe how we view the problems we all face and defuse the negative emotions of anger and envy that can be so harmful to our happiness.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Pushkin. This so did. The happiness lab is brought to you by the house should now create of the iconic J. Twelve sports watch J, twelve, the iconic Chanel walk with a timeless along a contemporary watch spired by the sleep lines of race cause and refined. Silhouettes yachts from the Americas got a revolution. Twenty first century watchmaker. Today's J Twelve is reinvented, while preserving its iconic identity, equipped with a self winding collar
Twelve point: one movement: it offers precision and performance like never before to learn more about the G20 watch. Visit chanel dot com we'll have bad days are laptops, die our relationships, fail or bosses. Let us go out freely admit that I sometimes get me, down by it all, but all those bad events can make me feel like I'm a long way from my goal of being happier and that's when I try to think of James Stockdale and a particularly bad day in his military career. It was September, ninth, one thousand nine hundred and sixty five, James was flying. His jet low over North Stockdale was hit by enemies. I had to reject, as he parachuted down to earth
We recognise that he was enjoying probably his final seconds of freedom and that the next five years minimum would be hell. He was looking at beatings, torture and a long imprisonment, but his enemy soldiers on the ground have shot of the pilot ripping his perishing. Stockdale gave himself a bit of a pep talk. He whispered, I'm entering the world of Epictetus Epictetus, was born into slavery. Two thousand years ago, his roman master permitted him to study and ancient philosophy called stoicism eventually Epictetus gained his freedom became one of the most important stoic philosophers in history. His ideas about how the happier life have continued helping people long after his death. In fact, his lessons on how to deal with challenges and how to put setbacks into perspective, help came Stockdale survive more than seven years as a prisoner of war. They also help me through some difficult
and more than two thousand years later. I bet the hope. You too so welcome to happiness. Lessons of the ancients with me doctor large centres, ok, testing. This is bill. Irvine testing, professor philosophy at right, state university. Yes, I'm recording his latest book. The stoic challenge is Probably my book of the air. It's just curious, but there was a great time to launch a book on dealing with setbacks, because we had come along, which was for a lot of people, a major setback. I talked to bill from one of our bonus episodes on the corona virus, but we were only able to scratch the surface of what stoicism can really teach us today. So I invited bill back to school us on stoicism in general and my favorite stoic of our epoch, tedious, so stoicism was cobbled together from other philosophies that existed in three hundred BC by GINO Obsidian. This was in in Athens.
To Rome in the first century BC there are the four greatest roman stoics and those be Seneca, Musonius, Rufus, Epictetus and more it s a really Us Seneca. Besides being a stoic philosopher, he was also an investment banker, a playwright counselor to an emperor people get this idea that the stoics we're just interested in in preserving com at all costs. But when you look at actual but history. You realised that a lot of them were very busy individuals. Where that there was that extra, success going on, but that wasn't the key thing to them. After Seneca was miscellaneous. Rufus Musonius had his own school. That was what she did. There were no colleges, see you couldn't get a job teaching in college, so what you did you started a school for you to have a six. As for school, you needed to have an intellectual product that would draw students someplace where
They would get the skills they would meet in life. Skills like how to be a success in politics had to be. Success in law, but how do you have a good life was also a component One of the students was epictetus We don't know a lot about Epictetus. He was born in about fifty see and started out life ass. Slave outta here I found out laboring in the fields, but he was acquiring basic skills of of writing. Remember they didn't have Xerox machines, they didn't have typewriters, apparently a one point, he got a beating severe enough to can a lame sleigh, so he was spent his life lane find we succeeded in getting his freedom and used it to start his own philosophy. School made him special. It came up with a lot of cash
chief sayings. That became what was known as the handbook or in Caribbean. It's a short little thing. You can read it in an hour and then you can spend the next decade pondering its contents stoicism. Continued to rumble along and tell the twentieth century when, as far as I can tell it, into a decline I mean so I was a college student starting nineteen. Seventy philosophy major and was not exposed to stoicism because we were exposed to philosophies of life because that didn't really matter- and the beautiful thing is right now we're in the midst of a stoic renaissance. So that's that's kind of others. Back story on stoicism in that's the kind of the place that epictetus hands in that story, one of their like, maybe twentieth century adopters stoicism is Admiral James Stock Now you know when his plane was shot down. He sovereign
Pour it saying that you know he knew tat. He was gonna, be stuck there for five years at least an is entering the world of ethnic cheetah, so as their quota he had now. This was the Vietnam WAR, so he became became a prisoner. Not at all a very pleasant existence. You know not enough to eat cruelty being beaten and for him it would have been a complete turn. Around. You know just a hundred eighty degree turn in the course of his life because he went from being on an airplane pie I presume lay. I must have been a college graduate from this life of of being a star, in some sense, a rock star, and now suddenly you're the low manner on the total and then for you, you wake up, and then the question is: what will I find to eat today and will I live?
till tomorrow, so he was an early adapter of stoicism, but ya think how fortunate he was to have been exposed to it before being shot down, because it gave him a way of dealing with the things he was to experience in here this is a line from Epictetus. It isn't what happens to us that has. The effect is how we frame what happens to its, how we interpret what happens to us, and so we may not have a lot of power over what happens to us, but we have Cyril Power over what we do with what happens to it with psychological frame we put it in, and there was one of that can't ass. Take things about Epictetus is that he was
an incredibly practical. I mean, I think, it's one of the reasons that Stockdale Runup Epic, tedious in particular, are not just stoics in general, and it seems like he read, which is the epic cheetahs was really trying to give us almost like early self help advice it. I think that the handbook almost sounds like a cell phone book in some ways One of the things I notice in the discourses is he talks about this idea that turning to stoicism is sort of like going to the hospital. Unlike what over the Stoics Jaw stock philosophers. Job is sticking to be like a doctor and a hospital, and he knows zealots students ought not to walk out in pleasure, but in pay and bright, and I think this is certain coming to terms with the stoic philosophy and what it means is like. You can't have to accept that there are certain things that you can't control, and so the stoic view is that you can achieve harmony in life. You can achieve happiness, but it takes a little bit at work yeah. So I had several different aspects of your restored philosopher, you're, interested in science. You might be interested in logic. Cause
you know your students are gonna have to learn how to reason. If they want to be lawyers, if they want to be a politicians, but besides there you're interested in the philosophy of life and most people lack that they just from day to day or they look around at the gulls. Other people are forming and assume that the other people, done their homework, usually they haven't. They just been copying their neighbours. The the stoics lower, were very careful to add that on is a component in their philosophy and didn't just talk about grand theories and principles and everything else, the question was: is their practical advice that they had to offer? It would have take a ways there should be lectures that people can come to an go away from thinking hard, not about Oh some, wonderful principle, but about well the way I'm living my life. I seem to be making some basic mistakes
I can't I want it again to some of their epic teeters insight. Specifically one of the ideas that comes out is this greek term, a minimum of the greek term, but is this term apprehension something that, in our power to its great it's great to me, drink tea or two? But this is this idea of things that are served up to us right and that classically is how Epictetus started his book we haven't had a handbook, starts in this huge in a light. Appetito brought people in English. What I call it a lot of people do this to they call it the dichotomy of control, so a dichotomy using either or its one or the other, and that economy of control is well. There are some things you can control and there are some things you can't control and king about anxious about dwelling upon the things you can't control. You are the biggest full on the planet. How come cause you can't control it. You're wasting
and control it you're wasting your time. You're wasting your energy, your causing yourself grief. You know you get up in the morning. You should realise that today, a number of things are gonna happen that simply go against me and if I expect to get up and go through today with anything bad happening. I'm a fool, and I a choice. I can't control that, but I do have control over something else, and that is my response to those things that happen. You can control your goals. Can you control whether you achieve those goals? Now No, but you can control what the goals are. You can control your values. What do you mean? are you in life do value fame and fortune? You value Really that's completely in your control and the stoic inside was, if you want to have a good life number one. You need to focus your attention on things you can control number two is when
to choosing your values when it comes to choosing your goals you wanna these values that are going to lead me in the right direction, in its goals that I'm gonna be able to achieve. I know some, the people I used to be one of em. I still am to some extent one of them, but I know this one person I've known for a long time. And he routinely says to me, voluntarily? I made Ex thousand dollars per year. Then Finally, I would be happier than our counter I'm a few years later and say: how is that acts thing gone for you? He says if only I had why. So this is this, had on a treadmill that were on don't get yourself on ahead on a treadmill, because you will never be satisfied. You will always want more so but that back to that a dichotomy of control. So there's things you can control things you can't,
true, but I have fiddled with it and aunts. I've come up with what I call the tri economy of control, when you say there are things you can control and things you can't control the phrase. The things you Can't control is actually ambiguous, Khazars, two different sorts of things you can't control. One of them is things that you have absolutely no control over that would be like whether the sun rises tomorrow. I have absolutely no control over that, but there also things you can't control in the sense that you don't have complete control over them, but you have partial control over them. What would that be? Well, my weight, for instance. I suddenly wish that I became a hundred and sixty pounds, no cannon try to do that. You do. I have some control over that yeah, cosy everyday. I sit down and eat. I have control over what I do eaten will and when I don't eat it's us
third intermediate categories- things I have some but not complete control over So I would argue that that's where, as a practising stoic, you should be spending most of your time. I think one way that focusing on what you can control is really high. If all is it means that if you get that right here ever really a victim right, like you, can't be a victim of your circumstances, if you're really tracking the things that just don't matter to write right. The notion of being a victim by the way that touches on a second stoic theme- and that is framing Sometimes you do have a say and were whether bad things happen to you. You never checked the gas gauge in your car, bad things are going to happen in Europe to blame and shame on you, but there. Are things where a bad thing happens that you couldn't have foreseen, but you do have control over the frame you put around it. You got a very interesting choice of weather. You're going to play the role of victim or,
play the role of target in its a huge psychological difference, because if you choose to play the role of victim, then you're going to feel sorry, for yourself, you're gonna be asking for people. Sympathy, you're, gonna, be probably depressed. If you play the role of target, then you can rise to that challenge. As a region, of doing that. You can gain character. You can change the world that difference between feeling like a victim versus feeling like a target, was an important distinction for James Stockdale. When Stockdale came crashing down to earth, he badly injured his leg and was left lame, just like as Euro Epictetus, but throughout all the pain and cruelty. Stockdale decided that he was game for the challenge and he was ready to take it on after the break will look at the path.
Tedious has laid out to help us all gain control, even in the worst of times the happiness poor turn in a moment when trying to take control of our own lives, Epictetus suggested adopting a state of mind that he called apathy and we need to become less bothered by the powerful emotions that often cloud our judgment. Apathy sounds a lot like our modern word apathy, but that's actually a misperception of stoicism that it's about turning off our emotions and not caring. What's going on around us, so I asked built: explain how apathy a really work
the stoics weren't anti emotion. They were anti negative emotion. They embraced positive emotions, they embraced feelings of delight they embraced joy. Those are all positive emotions, but they thought what makes us miserable is the negative emotions we experience. Like anger, like regret, like feelings of insecurity, they re lies that we are essentially at war with ourselves, and I use the room made analogy says suppose the only place you could live was an apartment and you realize and moving and you had to apartment mates. One was this utterly reflexive guy. Who is either panicking or react, in dramatic ways to whatever the circumstances were, the other one was just an, motioning basket case, you know whatever happened, he began as is the worst thing ever or this is the best thing ever and then there was real
national, you, ok and the problem. Is you couldn't escape them? You couldn't leave them. You had to deal with them. Have you accomplish that? And here's where stoic insight comes you manipulate them. You use your brain power, I mean you can simply try as an act of self control. To ignore What they're doing ignore? What they're saying? Good luck with that, because self control requires considerable energy on your part, if you ve ever tried to do meditation you realize. One of the very first things you learn is how difficult it is to just quiet your mind, set there for five minutes in a calm environment and don't have thoughts, and within thirty, seconds outside. Maybe before that you realise whoops, a thought just came into my mind and a lot of crazy ideas. Because of that we find
ourselves living not in the present moment, and you know that's kind of Benda the ideal I live in the now. It's rather thing like so and so said. Something to me yesterday is he upset. With me, as he angry at me, is he gonna do something to make even more upset and o the elect. Nickel bill has to be paid and its do this evening. Suppose you had a neighbor who every five minutes was showing up at your door banging on the door and saying You should be angry now, then you should worry about now. You know you, you would get a restraining order, except it isn't a neighbour, and you can't of court of law, it's inside your head, so the stoics, the beautiful thing was they figured out a way. Not only kind of shot down those thoughts in those emotions, but to harness them and use them on their behalf and cylinder
to control negative emotions. This notion that we talk a lot about today in modern, effective science which this idea of emotion regulation. This idea that motions really are in our control and that we can take ownership to kind of down, regulate the negative ones, and one of the ways that modern science has figured out, the weakened down, regulate, negative emotions has to do with our judgments. Right is to realize that we are in control of how we experience and emotion, seems to fit a lot with were affected, has talked about when he talked about these impressions, and so it was ever tedious talking about about. When you you see something realize it, it's an impression that you and control yeah when somebody insult us. There are two ways we can respond. One is to get angry and upset and maybe a seek revenge and another is to simply shrug off. Just noise at your out on a walk in the dog barks at you. You know, if you re onto that by saying. Oh, that dogmas, none
prove of me that dog and so mean now it's just barking. Well, you can tweak the things other people say in exactly the same frame of mind, because some of them are not fully rational, coherent people, That's why they're going around saying insulting things when you're insulted you should just shrugged off or better still make a joke out of it, and you have in your power to do that and if you make joke out of it. You not only will prevent the insult from hurting you, but it's
Just almost the worst thing you can do to the person who insulted you. He wants to hurt you and if you laugh at off its proof that he hasn't hurt you so one thing I do in class when we're up to this point, is I tell the assembled group and it might be thirty- people might be fifty people, I say: ok, I want you to come up with the worst insult of me that you can think of, and then I'm gonna do account down and when we get to three. I want you all to shout out your insult at the same moment, so I do one two three against the Roma robs in this giant insult and then I just smile, and I say it's just noise now, sometimes I'm too clever by half as one of the times when I try this there's one student who waited until the noise had subsided and then said in a low voice old man,
and it's interesting cause your. I am a practising stoic and yeah yeah. Does this mean you're perfect? It means you, you ve developed your skills, And yet you know you start thinking that hurt outside it, and this really pissed lastly, with what we're learning about these different emotion, regulation strategies, I think at first when people think about emotion, regulation. They think about what might call like suppression right, like I just don't want to feel this emotion and while we're learning now from the neuroscience, is that suppressions really bad at my shut off emotion in the moment? But if you look physiologically young hooks somebody up to a skin response, you find the bat emotions coming out turn that a strategy is exactly where the tedious was talking about, which is what neurosciences are now calling reappraisal right. You know you reappraise that frustrating thing as a test in one study. You get folks to reappraise something bad opening to you as, like you know, think about how a doctor might think about our think about how you might think about it. If your designing again, this is just a guy.
In life, and the research really shows that people who are high on their ability to reappraise naturally users individual differences in this on people who are high on our ability to reappraise. Naturally, they tend to explain less depression and these overboard that their lives are less stressful. The cool thing is, if you teach people how to reappear, is in the laboratory, some work by James Gross, where he he shows people is really Steve videos like an amputation or Hiroshima victims, and he says you're trying to watch this documentary and away in a very met away. Rightly your doktor watching so you're historian, and of looking at it from afar and wide. Means that people naturally experience less emotion, air, but again nine. A lake suppression way we're trying to run from the emotions you just take that new frame and in everything works differently younger frame mixed. All the difference. I one of the things you can do is simply get frustrated. I was set back. There's something I wanted to do was prevented from doing it, so I'm upset as result or a different way. You can frame it as a test.
I imaginary, still regards gods, in which case then, instead of focusing on the set back, you think about how you're are going to overcome them, set back and you're than to show those stoa gods who is in charge. You cannot defeat me, so it's a an interesting way, so we are just trying to prevent the emotions were harnessing them making them work on our behalf. A pay particular listen to anger, it's an insidious, emotion, an event that happened to you years before can poke itself into your head at three in the morning, and then you find that the person is long gone, not part of your life, and yet you find it anger returning one bit of advice that I offer based on stoics is doing your best to nip them in the bud inside. Describe the three second rule: or maybe it's the five second brilliant. Our food falls on the floor at Missis,
an urban method turn something if you pick it up within three or five second said: it's gonna be fine anger works that way to sell something happens. And then you ve got this beautiful interval a matter of seconds, but a beautiful interval where you get a very. Quickly frame it and then how you do that, but you gotta be quick cuz once the anger arises, it it's gonna have a life of its own then what you do. Is you say? Oh, it's, a setback. Are you still regards you're shaking your fisted them? they're, using this person as part of their mechanism, to test me and I should throw this in the story. Gods are actually, good guys and gals of because why are they doing this to you they're doing it to you to strengthen you like a good coach, you take it easy I compliment that they think you're worth the attention so that one of these cases, where you regard the person just as this fool this
Haagen. This machine, that's being used as part of the test of you get to the final thing I wanted to mention about Epictetus, which is that he realised that this was in it. You work now. He realized that this was gonna, be a path, and in that sense he was embodying this wonderful psychological principle. The growth mindset you know, you're not gonna, be upset fix stoic right now, but you're working towards it in the right way and some talk about her She doesn't other stocks gonna embodied this idea, like you know what we're not there yet but kind of working towards this goal over time. Yes, When you life sets. You back, and I described these stoic tests how'd you pass the stoic test. First of all, the stoics do not still gods do not grade you, you don't get an email saying that was a b ploss but his which need to work on sets all self graded, but you grated according to two standards. First, did you find a work around doesn't have to be a perfect work around, but did you find the best work around you reasonably could? Did you use your cortex
to try to think through the possibilities and come up with work round. Second and more important component of the grade. Did you keep your cool while you did it? That's most important part of the great, because when you think about most of life setbacks it isn't that sent back itself the causes you the harm, it's your response to the set back its allowing yourself to get angry to get up. Sat, that's what causes the damage so for the stoics. It could look to the entire world that the stoic just failed big time in doing something. So, for instance, there
the tennis match and that the stoic lost he lost and that's that's failure. But if you ask the stoic the Stoa could say, I can see how someone on the outside would look at it that way, but my goal was not to win this game. My goal was to train for this game to the best of my ability come up with the best strategy for playing this game, as I could play the game to the best of my ability- and I did things. I did not win the game, but it was not a failure. Here's the interesting wrinkle on that- and that is, if you approach life, thinking those terms, your more likely to have external successes cause if you did the best you could
It's all. You can ever do if you did the best, you could and routinely do that you're gonna get better and better, and so you actually have not only the internal successes, which is what the stoics were primarily interested in, but the extra the successes as well, even though it's an old strategy, its one that still works, and I note with again we started this episode with Stockdale, and now he had to go through some pretty hard core. So it God challenges not made it through in part because he had this tool and you know what so there's a lot has changed in the last two thousand years, but human psychology has changed barely an I owed So what would be surprising if something that worked two thousand years ago and psychological terms didn't continue to work today? I love talking to Bell. He always a helpful way of reminding me. The stoic challenge never ends were constantly being tested. Constantly. Being offered chances to gain wisdom and to react with good humour,
fact. You might have noticed that my side of the interview sounded a bit crap here than usual, and that was because my recorder died right in the middle of the interview, but did get angrier frustrated. No, because when you think about it, this is a wonderful stoic challenge. Plus we had a backup, so we were good but just to comply, James Stockdale story: he was eventually released from captivity in nineteen. Seventy three throughout his. Higher imprisonment. He was guided. His understanding of stoicism his conduct is a prisoner was so virtuous. He was awarded the medal of honor upon his return. Stockdale went on to lecture about his life behind bars. He urged other people to implement the lessons of Epictetus in their own daily lives. Stoicism Stockdale said is a noble philosophy that proved more practice. Then Modern cynic would expect, but there's still one more episode in this current season of happiness. Lessons of the ancient
so join me next time when we travel way way back in time to meet the Buddha. The happiness lab is currently produced by right, the show was mastered by Evan and our vigil music was composed by Zachary Silver special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew included meal about colleague, Liore Heather, Fain, Sophie Crane, Mckibben. Sandler, gigabytes bird and my agent bendy is the happiness lab is brought to you by Pushkin industries and the doctrine. Lorry centres.
Transcript generated on 2020-09-28.