Epictetus
Epictetus


CHAPTER 24: How We Struggle with Circumstances

How a person deals with circumstances shows how strong he is. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a tough opponent. "For what purpose?" you may ask. So that you may become morally like an Olympic athlete is physically. But such accomplishment is not without sweat. A man makes a difficulty profitable if he chooses to make use of it.

"What does not kill me, only makes me stronger!" This quote is often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is at once the most vilified and most praised philosopher of the last two centuries. His ideas about the advance of mankind were used to fuel Nazism and various fascist movements. His philosophy stressed what he called the "will to power". He believed that every living thing struggled to gain dominance. His emphasis on the will bears some resemblance to Stoicism, but here the similarity ends as Nietzsche focused on the use of will to dominate others and Stoicism focuses on the will's ability to control the self. Although Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran Minister, he was scathingly anti-Christian. His problem with Christianity stemmed from the fact that he felt its early fathers led the church away from the example of Jesus. He also thought it was counter to reason, which he saw in the context of his main idea of a "will to power".

Agree with him or not, Nietzsche did have a knack for turning a phrase (even in translation from German). He was at least correct in his verbalization of the idea that adversity builds character. Nevertheless, he was not the originator of the idea. It has ancient antecedents, as we see Epictetus speaks of it here some 1800 years prior to Nietzsche's birth. The Old Testament is replete with stories where God "punishes" the Israelites for their sins. Such "punishment" would not be undertaken if the Israelites could not learn from their trials and tribulation.

Thus it seems almost trite to repeat the truism that "Experience is the best teacher." Through it we learn how to deal with future adversity, not merely in response to specific events, but to events in general. This is why, Epictetus tells us, God gives us such trials. He does so to make us stronger, better people. In this way, he attempts a partial answer to the age old question of "Why bad things happen to good people."

Chapter 24:

  1. How We Struggle with Circumstances
  2. Sending a Scout to Rome (24a)
  3. Death Is No Evil (24b)
  4. Stoicism and Inheritance (24c)
  5. How We Struggle with Circumstances (24d)
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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