Ancient and modern

Epictetus on Twitter

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

One definition of addiction is repetition of a behaviour despite adverse consequences. Twitter users will know all about it, especially those on the end of abusive or illegal threats. All communication systems are, of course, liable to such misuse, but presumably technology will fix this problem. Meanwhile, Epictetus (AD 35–135), a freed slave, would advise the abused to (wo)man up.

Aristotle defined a decision as ‘a deliberate desire to do something within the agent’s immediate range of alternatives’. Building on this definition, Epictetus argues that our range of alternatives is restricted to our rational faculty, what goes on in our heads: ‘our opinions, impulses, desires, aversions’ and the actions that result from them. These, and only these, are ‘up to us’. Epictetus makes Zeus put it like this: ‘If you will take care of this faculty and consider it your only possession, you will never be hindered, never meet with impediments.’ In other words, if we ‘enable our mind to adapt itself to whatever comes to pass’, we shall lead a happy and trouble-free life.


Epictetus proceeds to give a number of examples. ‘If you see someone weeping at the departure of a child or loss of property… be at once ready to say: “It is not what has happened that afflicts this person, but his judgement concerning it.” Do not hesitate to sympathise with him, or even groan with him; but be careful not to groan inwardly too.’

More to the point, ‘Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but your judgment that these things are insulting. So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you.’ In sum: ‘Keep guard against yourself as your own worst enemy.’

It is arguable that the current public cries of anguish are exactly the reaction the abusers crave, demonstrating their control(l) over terrified victims. On the other hand, if the abusers are shut up, their silence might be even worse – only jokers warn their victims in advance. Problems, problems: Epictetus would advise giving the Twitter addiction up altogether.

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  • “It is not what has happened that afflicts this person, but his judgement concerning it.”

    In sum: ‘Keep guard against yourself as your own worst enemy.’

    So very true.

    For example, as child development expert Rudolph Schaffer points out:

    “It has become apparent that there is no direct relationship between age and the impact which experience has on the individual, that young children are not necessarily more vulnerable even to quite severe adversities than older children, and that considerable variability exists in long-term outcome. 

    “The ONE variable that does help to predict how a traumatic event might impact on children is ***how the adults around them cope with it***.”

    The point being that children and adults are hurt and harmed far more by the hysteria of others surrounding any misfortune that they have experienced than they are by the misfortune itself.

    For example, if you convince people that they have been damaged for life by some experience, then damaged for life they will probably be.

    Tell them that their experience was relatively trivial, and this is how they will likely feel about it.

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