Epictetus raises so many currently unfashionable ideas here—God (Providence), humility, reverence—that it's hard to know where to begin. For secular moderns, his expression of wonder at the seemingly miraculous origins of milk, cheese, and wool can easily provoke a smile of condescension, perhaps even a sneer. The primitive naïveté! What can such a worldview—bound by the limits of first-century cosmology, ignorant of today's materialist, scientistic gospel and the “blind” inexorability of natural selection—have to offer that could be of any use to iPhone-Age Man?
We can’t read far in Epictetus without recognizing his belief in God. It’s also impossible to imagine a topic in current culture that has been so thoroughly mangled, misrepresented, and misunderstood. “The God question,” mankind's inherent itch to grapple with the ultimate mystery of existence, has, in recent years, played out on the internet, and in the publishing world, with all the subtleness and intellectual acuity of a Three Stooges pie fight. In the process, humanity’s most complex, fertile, culture-shaping force—rich in wisdom traditions, creative arts, ethical thought, and psychological insight, and, for many, positively crackling with intimations of the transcendent—has been reduced to a tiresome shouting match, with doctrinaire literalists on one side and scorched-earth anti-theists on the other. To call this state of affairs regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it.
I’m happy with Epictetus’s theistic leanings. But whether or not we believe in God, it’s important to guard against the occasional impulse, when we’re sifting these ancient ideas, to toss out both baby and bathwater. History is replete with philosophies and belief systems that, despite arguable doctrinal details, have provided wisdom and ethical guidance to men and women in every era and culture and at every point along the IQ bell curve. If you’re one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice, is some level of appreciation for finding yourself alive in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder and joy. If Epictetus, a crippled former slave who lived under some of Imperial Rome’s most treacherous rulers, found cause for, and wisdom in, adopting a fundamental position of humility and gratitude toward the universe, there is every chance that we, too, can benefit by embracing these attitudes.
Humility is a tricky subject, if only because it’s impossible not to sound laughably pompous when recommending it. Look here, you: Be humble! But that’s not it. We're not talking about personal humility of the kind that can be so treacherous if pursued head-on, the sort that easily warps into conspicuous, Uriah Heepish self-abasement that’s the opposite of what it pretends to be. No, we're after a broader, more foundational humility, a mindset that grasps our status as utterly dependent beings and that has absorbed, fully, the fact of our mortality. We want a humility not of groveling self-negation, but a clear-eyed recognition that every moment of our existence, as well as everything we have and are, is a gift. The mortality-humility connection is a natural one, and it is even reflected etymologically: Our word humility derives from the Latin humus, meaning soil or earth—the ground from which humankind arose, from which we draw our sustenance, and that will ultimately reclaim our bodies. We needn’t take it to morbid lengths, but occasional reflection on life’s contingency and brevity can provide a humbling perspective, one that can be both calming and a spur to greater engagement with life in the time left to us:
“Pass then through this tiny span of time in accordance with Nature, and come to your journey’s end with a good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
Through humility then—the acceptance of life as an unearned gift—we arrive at gratitude. One of the simplest and most ready-to-hand balms for a muddled life is the age-old remedy of counting our blessings. Granted, life’s bright spots can sometimes be hard to recognize, obscured as they often are by our day-to-day difficulties, by the usual dire headlines, and by the ongoing challenge of keeping our minds clear and our thinking straight. But when we can manage it, when the clouds part long enough to give us an objective glimpse of all we have to be thankful for, our gratitude can prove a strong antidote to the corrosive effects of cynicism, anger, sadness, and life’s accruing jumble of petty disappointments. And by reminding us of the often-unrecognized abundance in our lives, it can help to temper the grasping acquisitiveness that sometimes seems to drive us, even against our will. Finally, as Epictetus suggests, gratitude can help us regain our lost sense of wonder.
This is not just Epictetus’s idea. Gratitude is a virtue that enjoys high standing among the Stoics generally. Seneca, in On Benefits, says, “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” The first book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a poignant and grateful accounting of his indebtedness to family, friends, teachers, and others. Cicero called gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and “the mother of all the others.”
If you’re like the rest of us, bringing gratitude to the fore in your life will likely require a conscious effort. If you regularly pray, meditate, or practice some form of reflection focused on self-improvement, an easy step might be to add a minute or two to explicitly acknowledge those things, people, and events from your day for which you are particularly thankful. It’s not difficult, and once you get started, the number of good things happening in your life, even within the space of a single unremarkable day, may surprise you; they will certainly encourage you. In addition to recalling specific moments—the pleasant encounter with the shop clerk, the encouraging email from a friend, the old car that started and ran smoothly despite the bad weather—you might also remember those broader circumstances of your life that apply:
- the presence, or the happy memory, of loved ones
- a rational nature, a mind built for learning
- the ability, and the will, to rise above challenging circumstances
- good health
- meaningful work
- kindness from unexpected quarters
- the capacity for doing good
- nature: its power, beauty, and endless variety
- ...and so on
Regular practice with this exercise can grow on you. If you’re the journaling type, you can keep a written record of your reflections. You might even choose to follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and write about the people in your life to whom you are most grateful for help in shaping your character, providing for your education, and encouraging your spiritual/philosophical growth. Keep these notes and reflections to yourself, though; blasting them out to the world via social media can be a species of ego-stroking and will only sap their power. Marcus's Meditations were not written for publication; they were a tool for self-improvement and a form of spiritual exercise.
Once you’re established on the gratitude wavelength, you can begin to notice its impact on your daily life—lengthening your patience, recalling your attention to life’s smaller pleasures, and generally improving your resilience in challenging times. Humility and gratitude may or may not lead us to faith in God, but they can go a long way toward reawakening wonder and hope in even the most jaded adult.