Epictetus: Philosopher Humor



Here is an example of Epictetus’ humor from his Discourses Book 1, Chapter 26:

“I know a man who clung to the knees of Epaphroditus [a philosopher] in tears and said he was in distress, for he had nothing left but a million and a half [dollars]. What did Epaphroditus do? Did he laugh at him, as we should? No, he was astonished, and said, ‘Unhappy man, how ever did you manage to keep silence and endure it?”

“We”: Taking Care of Us, and not Solving World Hunger


Late nights with college friends, long flights with aircrew over the ocean, discussions at family gatherings, social parties, and poker games…it seems that I have discussed “how things should be” with thousands of people.  I have heard countless opinions on how the world “should be.”  I certainly have a few of my own.  We can ironically refer to these conversations as “solving world hunger.”  Dialogue below:

  • Questioner: “What did you do last night?”
  • Me: “We solved world hunger.” (Translation;  We talked, talked, talked, about all of the things we think we could fix about the world, and basically accomplished nothing…but it was fun.)

So often, I reach for the moon and stars with my mind, thinking I can have an effect.  I get frustrated at the entire world around me, and how messed up it seems at times.  I want to fix it.  If I were king of the world, I certainly could.  In the end, all this thought and talk about “solving world hunger” is just talk.  It has very little impact.

“If I were the king of the world, I tell you what I’d do.  I’d throw away the cars and the bars, and the war, and make sweet love to you”–Three Dog Night from “Joy to the World”

You probably won't solve world hunger.

You probably won’t solve world hunger.

So then how do I make an impact, after I am ready to serve?  Well, this is where I start contemplating “we.”  By “we,” what do I mean?  Well, let me start a list of people I think of as “we”:

  1. My spouse or beloved
  2. My children
  3. My extended family (Parents, Brothers and Sisters)
  4. Coworkers
  5. Neighbors (on my street)
  6. Close Friends

Certainly, I should not continually and focus on me alone.  However, when I am ready to serve, it certainly should begin with those closest to me.  The philosopher has to determine who the “we” are (or is).  Above I have listed my “we.”  Some people think that every human, plant, and animal in the world is their “we.”  More power to them.  I claim that they have overextended their efforts.  I propose that they have minimized their impact by trying to control what they cannot, and by diverting their precious resources away from what they can control.  The closer the radius, the greater likelihood that there is control.

I will end this entry, with one simple exercise that you can practice in your interactions with your “we.”  For one day (or one week if you dare), maintain your patience with your spouse/significant other and/or your children.  When you feel impatience with them setting in, take some breaths and realize that they are not yours, that they are independent of you.  Then, really listen to them!  Their actions are completely out of your control, but your REACTIONS to them are completely in your control.

Try really listening to your loved ones.

Try really listening to your loved ones.

Good luck!  You know the exercise won’t be easy.  Please let me know how it went.

Taking Care of Yourself: A Parable


Like the traveler on an aircraft, you are vulnerable.  At any time, the cabin may lose pressurization and you would not have enough oxygen to breathe.   If there were to be a rapid decompression, vapor would fill the room, the pressure would drop, and your lungs would deflate.  Your lungs would be unable to provide you the required oxygen, because there is simply not enough pressure.  Of course, if everything worked as expected, the oxygen masks would drop providing you with enough pure oxygen to survive until the situation was under control.

(In the video:  The Masks Drop at 1:28)

But did you remember what the flight attendant said?  “Always put your own mask on first.”  Why?  Because if you tried to put your child’s mask on first you would pass out before you might help either her or you.  You must put your own mask on FIRST.  Once you do, you can help others.  So make, sure you are taken care of, then move on to helping those closest to you.

Notice that you don’t have to be safely on the ground or 100% secure to help others, but you do have to at least have the tools to function as a servant.



“If one were to measure what is agreeable by the standard of pleasure, nothing would be pleasanter than self-control; and if one were to measure what is to be avoided by pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control.” Musonius Rufus

How do I live?  Isn’t that the whole point of having a philosophy?  It is good to have a philosophy, to be whole and virtuous, to have tranquility, but is it a mistake to spend the bulk of my time and thought on “me”?  In the end, we are looking for our own contentment. I am not going to lie to myself; in the end, how I live my life is determined by how it makes “me” feel.  Will my actions and thoughts bring me tranquility?

I close my eyes for a moment.  What do I sense?  Where is the center of this sensation?  For some, it will be in our heads, for others it will be somewhere near the center of mass of our body, maybe the navel, maybe near the heart.  What is my perspective when I open my eyes?  The perspective comes from the center of my head.  When I listen where does the sound go?  Inside me somewhere, yes?  When I feel pleasant, where do I feel it…somewhere within the boundaries of my body, no?  Everything starts somewhere within the confines of “me.”  For you, it is the same.

The Eyes are the "Portal to the Soul"

The Eyes are the “Portal to the Soul”

My point here is that I cannot avoid the fact that everything in my life starts with an egocentric motive, it starts with me.  All things in my life start with me.  All the things that I can control are inside of me.  My mood, my thoughts, parts of my health.  This is not to say that everything in me is in my control.  I will maintain that cancer may destroy my body regardless of how much I do not want it to.  My brain does not fire on all cylinders all the time despite how much I want it to.  The examples abound of things I cannot control within me.  But here is my point: if it is something we can control, it is within us.  Nothing outside of us is completely in our control.

Tall Ship

Are you “seaworthy?”

Moreover, too many times we attempt to “fix” the world around us before we have made ourselves ready for the task.  Before setting sail, shouldn’t we make sure our ship is seaworthy?  Absolutely!  Keep in mind, that you could spend 100% of your time on yourself, and of course there will still be imperfection.  For a ship, being seaworthy does not mean that there aren’t maintenance issues to be dealt with constantly.  Eventually, you have to sail with what you have, and you deal with the minor issues on the ship as they appear.  So, I hope you see my point:  tending to your own mind and body is first and will take the bulk of your time, but that is so you can well and faithfully serve where necessary…but only if and when you have readied yourself.

I think that is why the Stoic philosophy is so “me-oriented,” since that is the locus of control that we truly have.  That is why me is always first.  Wholeness begins with yourself.  You can serve others better when you are whole.

Me, We, and They


I think living a virtuous life is a balance between tending to me, we, and they. It starts with tending to “me,” but at some point I move on to “we” and “they.”  As I move on to “we” and “they,” I always return back to “me” again, cultivating my own virtue.  Certainly, part of virtuous living is how effectively I keep these in balance, and how smoothly I transition to tending each.  A good balance I think, is about 50/30/20 (me/we/they).

Starting with "me."

Starting with “me.”

I will discuss this in more detail soon.  Starting with, “me” of course.

...then "we" and "they"

…then “we” and “they”

“Root out the violence in your life, and learn to live compassionately and mindfully. Seek peace. When you have peace within, real peace with others is possible.”
Thich Nhat Hanh