What is a thing’s real nature?
Donald's Commentary on The Handbook of Epictetus #3
With everything which entertains you, is useful, or of which you are fond, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least things, “What is its nature?” If you are fond of a jug, say, “I am fond of a jug”; for when it is broken you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your own child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be disturbed. — Epictetus, Enchiridion 3
This is a short passage but one of the most notorious in the Stoic Handbook. One of the basic practices of Stoicism is the ability to describe things in an objective way that seems to have been inspired by natural philosophy or ancient Physics. Anaxagoras was the first person to be called a “philosopher” at Athens and he taught Pericles, the great statesmen, to view events like solar eclipses as natural phenomena rather than warnings from the gods. This naturalistic perspective, it was claimed, actually gave the Athenians an advantage in battle against more superstitious Greeks, like the Spartans, who would refuse to fight because they were afraid of omens.
Today we talk about clients in therapy viewing events from a scientific perspective, in a neutral and value-free way. Epictetus describes this as asking “What is its nature?” He means that we should stick to the facts without imposing strong value judgments and describe things in a matter-of-fact way. You can view the philosophical ideal of “plain speaking” (parrhesia) as an attempt to strip away the rhetoric used to evoke strong emotions. Today we would also see this as a form of decatastrophizing, by learning to describe events in plain language and view them more objectively.
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