Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Lesson from Epictetus

It is cold here in Boulder. Cold, as in 4 degrees yesterday morning, and 5 degrees right now. I just checked the weather forecast online, and for today there is a 100 percent chance of snow - how can there ever be a 100 percent chance of anything? This might be our third snowfall in the past week, or maybe the fourth; I've lost count. Now, many people who don't live in Colorado think it's always cold and snowy here. Not so. Here in the Front Range where I live, it's usually mild and almost always sunny - kids wear shorts to school in January, and I see my students sunning themselves on the grass even in the middle of the winter.

One of my students in my big intro to ethics class yesterday, as I was chatting with them before class, asked me, "So are you willing that it snow?"
The question was meant to invoke my favorite of all philosophers, the Stoic Epictetus, whom we had studied together earlier in the semester. Epictetus gave this definition of freedom: A man is free for whom all things happen according to his will. According to Epictetus, we have no control over what happens in the world: that is not "up to us." But we have complete control over our own wills: "My will? Not even Zeus can conquer that." So the way to be free, to have all things happen according to our will, is simply to will that things happen as they do.

If there was one thing Epictetus hated, it was complaining. "My nose is running!" one person sniffled to him. "Well, wipe it, slave!" Epictetus shot back. "I have to be beheaded, and all by myself!" another one whimpered. "Would you have the rest of the world lose their heads for your consolation?" Epictetus retorted.

All right. It's cold. It's snowy. The weather is not up to me. "For Zeus has not made you dispenser of the winds, but Aeolus." The only thing that is up to me is my will. So, yes, I might as well will that it snow today. I'm not quite ready to accept being beheaded, but I can accept that it's going to snow. Again. I can make myself hot chocolate. I can wrap myself in a blanket. I can bake a pan of apple crisp. I can cuddle with my cat, Snickers. I can even steal some time from grading to do some writing.

Let it snow!


  1. Stay warm and cozy with Snickers and Bundy.


  2. Yay Epictetus! And what a delight to find your blog. This will be a treat to read.

  3. My husband is a huge fan of Epictetus! Can't wait to tell him that you are,too!

  4. I'm encountering Stoic thought in my Daoism class this semester - interesting combination.
    Hope you make it to the spring thaw! Boulder is beautiful in spring!