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In contrast, the stoic philosopher Epictetus focused upon changing one's mindset to accept the ways of the world, rather than striving to change the world to achieve happiness. Epictetus' tone is far different than Plato's. Rather than focusing upon changing the structure of society, in his Enchiridion the Stoic philosopher instead focused upon bending the mind to accept whatever life may bring. Epictetus would no doubt say to Plato that creating an ideal society is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. Instead of the philosopher himself yearning after an ideal that cannot be created, it is far better to focus on how to live in the here and now.
One similarity which Epictetus shares with Plato is the fact that both are highly distrustful of common notions of happiness being equated with pleasure. Pleasure is seen as transient and ephemeral. Being happy cannot be equated with gaining material wealth or accomplishing externally-directed goals. Epictetus' philosophy seems very close to the serenity prayer that asks God to give a person the strength to change what can be changed, and the ability to accept what cannot be changed: "The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered" (Epictetus 1).
Epictetus has an almost Buddhist philosophy, in the manner in which he seeks to empty the mind of fluxuations and yearnings, and to accept everything and everyone with equanimity. "Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's" (Epictetus 3). Striving for power means little: "When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation" (Epictetus 4).
Some similarities exist between the philosophies of Plato and Epictetus in the sense that neither believes that personal choice is the root of happiness. Both also share a commitment to excellence: Epictetus also counsels his readers to act mindfully, and to devote themselves with zeal to all that they pursue, otherwise they are like children pretending to be gladiators, warriors, or actors (Epictetus 5). Diligence and an unperturbed mind in the face of both the extremities of grief and pleasures is what matters. But perfection is not possible in this world, counsels the Stoic, and there is no ideal, other than the ideal that can be created in the mind of tolerance and a truly undisturbed spirit.
While much can be learned from the sort of mindset cultivated by Epictetus, such passive acceptance in the face of fate can also create a society in which injustices are perpetrated -- for example, Epictetus advises not to correct one's servant to avoid disturbing one's placid mind; he does not advocate resisting the practice of servitude. Plato, in his zeal for perfection and harmony creates a society which sacrifices all autonomy and personal justice for the justice of an ideal world. Neither vision seems like an acceptable way to live one's life today.
Even though individuals must work together to create a community that is more supportive of the happiness at all, no Platonic community can eradicate choice to such a degree in the pursuit of perfect and maintain the happiness of participants. For me, the truest path to happiness is to cultivate the tolerance and balanced Stoic mindset, but still be sufficiently mobilized against injustice that I can use my life to achieve a higher purpose. Happiness lies in making a meaningful commitment to the world, and changing what can be changed for the better. A just society cannot be static, like the Republic, but must be responsive to change and to people's expressed need for change…[continue]
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