It is not things that trouble us, but our interpretations of them

The Ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus once wrote that “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” Commenting on these wise words, Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and emeritus associate of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that “in other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behavior but how we interpret what happens to us.  Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made” (2010).

These words are all too true; our own interpretations can lead us to view the same object in contradictory ways.  As we interpret, so do we react.  It is for this reason that Epictetus and the other Stoic philosophers recommended a cool-headed, serene, patient, and accepting approach to daily life, for such an approach, they thought, would lead us to make the least troubling interpretations.   Strong responses of anger, bitterness, denial, aversion, clinging, craving, etc., would be minimized and with them, the suffering that usually follows from their presence.

Did they intend this philosophy for everyone?  My response to this question is that it is significant that the two greatest philosophers in Ancient Rome were an emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and a slave, Epictetuts. The Stoic philosophy proved universally applicable by people in all walks of life in Rome and certainly was intended for all.  It spoke to universal aspects of the human condition then and still speaks to us today.


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