Withdrawing from Externals

Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will to exercise it and to improve it by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest, and if he has learned that he who desires or avoids the things which are not in his power can neither be faithful nor free, but of necessity he must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest. Of necessity he must subject himself to others who have the power to procure or prevent what he desires or would avoid. Finally, when he rises in the morning, if he observes and keeps these rules, bathes as a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man, in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles as the runner does with reference to running, and the trainer of the voice with reference to the voice - this is the man who truly makes progress. This is the man who has not traveled in vain. But if he has strained his efforts to the practice of reading books, and labors only at this, and has traveled for this, I tell him to return home immediately, and not to neglect his affairs there. All of this man's work and travels are for nothing. But the other thing is something. He should study how a man can rid his life of lamentation and groaning, and saying, "Woe to me," and "wretch that I am," and rid himself also of misfortune and disappointment and to learn what death is, and exile, and prison, and poison. If he does this he may be able to say when he is in fetters, "Dear Crito, if it is the will of the gods that it be so, let it be so"; and not to say, "Wretched am I, an old man. Have I kept my gray hairs for this?" Who is it that speaks thus? Do you think that I shall name some man of no repute and of low condition? Does not Priam say this? Does not OEdipus say this? Nay, all kings say it! For what else is tragedy than the perturbations of men who value externals exhibited in this kind of poetry? But if a man must learn by fiction that no external things which are independent of the will concern us, for this part I should like this fiction, by the aid of which I should live happily and undisturbed. But you must consider for yourselves what you wish.

So a person who succeeds in improving his life is the person who makes progress in the realm of ethical stoicism. Epictetus spells out plainly what this means: a person "withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will to exercise it (his will) and to improve it (his will again) by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest."

Christ preached a similar message. All of his teachings naturally tell his followers to give up worldly possessions to follow him. This would be the same as Epictetus telling us to withdraw from externals. He knows possessions can make life easier, but depending wholly on them gives them control over our lives. The emphasis on will is important. Epictetus wishes us to exercise self-control. In Christianity the emphasis is slightly different, but amounts to the same thing. Paul would have us surrender our will to the Spirit or to God. This basically means having the will power to do what God would want us to do in every situation. This requires considerable self-control, especially at first when our will is weak from never having been exercised.

Part of the exercise of will that Epictetus speaks of here begins with an internal struggle to understand what is right and what is wrong, that which we should seek and that which we should avoid. But that is not the end of it. There is an outward effect that results from acting on the knowledge gained in this philosophy. Our actions become aligned with our convictions.

Chapter 4:

  1. On Progress or Improvement
  2. Chrysippus (4a)
  3. Evidence of Progress (4b)
  4. Withdrawing from Externals (4c)
  5. Where Tranquility Arises (4d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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