Augustus (or, Sextilis) XII marked the Roman Festival of Herculia which commemorated Herculi Invictus (Hercules the Victor). It corresponded with a very popular Athenian festival, Herakleia, held some day in the corresponding month of Metageitnion at the gymnasium of Cynosarges.
It’s fitting to commemorate Epictetus this day who has such close ties with Rome, his physical homeland; Athens, his spiritual homeland; Hercules, whom he presents as a moral exemplar in his Discourses; and Cynosarges, the birthplace of Cynicism, which Epictetus also praised extensively (see Disc. 3.22 for example)
Overwhelmed with what I could potentially focus on for this important Stoic holiday, I’ve decided to focus on what’s arguably the most important contribution of Epictetus: his distinction between what’s “up to us” and what’s “not up to us.” He called this the “first rule” or “primary criterion” (protos kanon).
Some things are up to us, while others are not. Up to us is judgment, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.Handbook (Encheiridion) 1.1
“Some things are up to us, while others are not.” (tôn ontôn ta men estin eph’ êmin, ta de ouk eph’ êmin)
The phrase “up to us” (eph’ êmin) has been used as a technical term in Greek philosophy since Aristotle. When something is “up to us,” it’s meant in an absolute sense—it’s always and invariably in our power to influence; its existence depends on us. Thus, other translations include “depends on us,” “in our power,” and “in our control.”
We should keep in mind that Epictetus is listing things with an inherent property of being “up to us.” There may be things that seem “up to us,” but it will turn out that it is just a contingent property. For example, I may think that my computer keyboard is “up to me” since I am able to type out these words on it according to my intentions, but being “up to me” is not an inherent property of the keyboard. My computer may shut down, someone may come and steal it, I may have a stroke or otherwise lose consciousness. Thus, the keyboard’s being “up to me” is merely contingent on factors that are more obviously “not up to me” and can easily loose this property. The point is that, for Epictetus, if something is up to us, then it must be invariably and always up to us. So what does he include on this list?
“Up to us is judgment, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing” (eph’ êmin men hupolêpsis, hormê, orexis, ekklisis, kai heni logô hêmetera erga)
“Judgment” (hupolêpsis) includes opinions, beliefs, conceptions, and how we regard things in general, especially how we evaluate things. The word literally means a taking hold or grasping (lêpsis) underneath (hupo)—as if to then carry with you (see Ench. 43). Epictetus could have stopped the list here. This is everything—”life is judgment” (ho bios hupolêpsis) as Marcus Aurelius says at 4.3.4. He continues with more examples of what is “up to us” but they can all be reduced to judgment—either occurrent judgments (ones we are making in the moment as the result of conscious deliberation) but also dispositional judgments (ones that we’ve made long ago and carry with us so to speak).
“Impulse” (hormê) is the physiological process that occurs simultaneously with or quickly after judgment. The Greek Stoics defined impulse as a ‘motion of the soul towards something’ (Stob. 2.7.9) (and, keep in mind, that the Stoics take the soul to be physical— corresponding roughly to the nervous system). It’s important to note that while impulse in not in our immediate control, it is totally “up to us” in the sense that it manifests solely depending on our past or present judgments. Thus, it’s “up to us” to alter those impulses by reassessing our judgments. Impulse (hormê) and its opposite, repulsion (aphormê), can manifest in a couple different ways as Epictetus then proceeds to list…
“Desire” or “reaching” (orexis) is a kind of impulse toward something that we’ve judged to be worth pursuing and obtaining—either because it’s pragmatic to do so or because the object has been evaluated as “good”. When it’s the latter, we experience the unhealthy emotion of desire (epithumia) or healthy emotion of wishing (boulêsis) depending on whether “It is good” is an appropriate judgment of the object. Again, this is totally “up to us” even though it may take some work to get it right (thus, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius focus on the so-called “discipline of desire” to help with this).
“Aversion” or “withdrawal” (ekklisis) is simply the opposite of desire. It is a kind of impulse away from something (again, pthat we’ve judged to be worth avoiding or getting rid of—either because it’s merely pragmatic to do so or because the object has been evaluated as “bad”. When it’s the latter, we experience the unhealthy emotion of fear (phobos) or the healthy emotion of caution (eulabeia) depending on whether “It is bad” is an appropriate judgment of the object.
“not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing” (… ouk eph’ êmin de to sôma, hê ktêsis, doxai, archai, kai heni logô h0sa ouch hêmetera erga)
Body (soma) is not “up to us” because of its tendency to not do what we want it to do—a more frequent occurrence as we get older, but common enough throughout our entire lives. Instead of expecting our body to obey us, we should direct our focus and energy to our judgments and intentions: “I judge that it’s appropriate to type these words right now knowing full well that my body may have a stroke and loses consciousness.” Modern Stoics call the “knowing full well…” bit of this intention a “reservation clause”. It’s important to include such provisos into all our judgements knowing that most things are not “up to us”. I can use my body and the equipment of my life—reach out and withdraw in whatever way I think is appropriate—but I must face the fact that other factors will likely intervene to obstruct my intentions. This is even more true of property or possessions (ktêsis), reputation or the opinions of others (doxai), office or positions of power (archai) and everything I encounter beyond my own judgments and impulses.
I’ll stop my analysis there. This formula for living a happy and free life—Epictetus’ “first rule”— is so simple that many people read more into it than is necessary. The main takeaway that I want to impart is this: life is judgment. This is truly the only thing that is “up to us”—we make judgments about the world and about ourselves, we internalize these judgments that then trigger different kinds of impulses as we navigate throughout our day. These impulses manifest as actions and/or as emotions. So as long as we ensure our judgments are rational, our lives will go well. We must pay attention to them—especially the ones that we’ve internalized and are less aware of. We must stay open-minded and adjust our assumptions, beliefs, and judgments according to the facts. Slowly we will make progress.