Bad Habits

If it is a bad habit which aggravates us, we must try to seek aid against habit. What aid then can we find against habit? The contrary habit is our aid. You hear the ignorant say, "That unfortunate person is dead. His father and mother are overpowered with sorrow. He was cut off by an untimely death and in a foreign land." Here use the contrary way of speaking. Tear yourself from these expressions. Oppose to one habit the contrary habit. Oppose sophistry with reason, and the exercise and discipline of reason. Against persuasive appearances we ought to have manifest precognitions, cleared of all impurities and ready to hand.

If we view things wrongly out of habit, then we should develop good habits. The Christian writer, C.S. Lewis addressed this subject in his remarkable book, "The Screwtape Letters". He noted that behavior, as well as our way of looking at things, is strongly influenced by habit. Good work habits breed good work. Like Epictetus, he recommends the individual cultivate a logical and intelligent way of looking at things. C.S. Lewis advocated the Christian perspective. When adversity strikes, it does not help matters to curse and swear and rant and rave. Rather it helps to look on circumstances as a trial. We can face them, change what we can for the better and pray for God's help with the rest. This is habit that can be developed in small things so that it becomes a positive force in great things. When you trip over a cord on the floor, don't curse the cord, find a way to move the cord so that it will not be in your (or someone else's) way in the future. You prick a finger while pulling weeds, wear gloves next time. A Christian deals with all problems with equanimity, because he knows he has the free will to change what he can, and God will or will not do the rest.

But a negative point of view might not only be a matter of habit. It might also be a construct we have been taught. We sometimes see incidents or things in a negative way. This might be the way that they actually are, but it takes reason to see that the incident might be positive. For example, in modern society, we no longer live in a world where people go to work for the same corporation for their whole lives. People leave jobs or are fired on a daily basis. This sounds bad. We have been taught that job security is a good thing. But there are many people who have lost their job who created a new company along with thousands of new jobs. Invention and creativity are spawned by the boom and bust cycle of the business world. It seems a bruising thing in the short run, but in the long run it has improved the lives of millions, not only the people whose jobs changed, but the millions who benefit from the new products that are generated as a result.

Epictetus mentions "precognitions". He is talking about keeping in mind things we understand intuitively. For example, the average person understands the results of the laws of gravity (though the mechanics may be obscure.) Thus, when a person sees a magician levitate his assistant, he knows that the magician is not truly making his assistant float. The magician is performing a trick. In this way, precognition helps the individual not be tricked. Rather he is entertained, looking for the way the trick was performed. He does not say, "The magician levitated the girl." Rather he asks, "How did the magician seem to levitate the girl?"

Chapter 27:

  1. On Appearances
  2. Bad Habits (27a)
  3. The Undiscovered Country (27b)
  4. Our Interests and Our Religion (27c)
  5. Epistemological Skepticism (27d)
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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