Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

Brooklyn Bridge Park covered by snow after Winter Storm Gail.
A snow-filled scene at Brooklyn Bridge Park after Winter Storm Gail hit New York City. I took the photo with the Open Camera App on my BlackBerry Classic. Edited for publication by Victor V. Gurbo.

Un-shoveled snowbanks and patches of ice make walking in New York City a bit of an adventure in the aftermath of Winter Storm Gail. I am no stranger to falling on ice, although I have avoided the fate in recent years. I avoid falling by carefully attending to how I walk rather than resting on my laurels. In this post, we will examine a maxim from Epictetus’s Enchiridion that both describes careful walking and uses careful walking as an analogy for clear and disciplined thinking.

Note on our Enchiridion translation: I will use Elizabeth Carter’s 1790 translation of Enchiridion, hosted at MIT, for all Enchiridion excerpts in this article. It reads very well despite its age, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to Epictetus’s work. I used one passage from this translation of Enchiridion in one of my earlier articles.

A Brief Introduction to Epictetus’s Enchiridion

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher in Rome during the first and second centuries A.D. Born a slave, he became one of the most important stoic philosophers from the early Roman imperial period. One of Epictetus’s most well-known surviving works is The Enchiridion (the Handbook), which is composed of just over 50 short chapters on how to live well.

One of the central and most referenced themes of Enchiridion appears in the first chapter:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.

Epictetus, Enchirdion, ch 1. (Elizabeth Carter Tr.)

For that reason, Epictetus advised readers to refrain from desiring to control that which was not within their ability to control:

[I]f 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. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will compel you or restrain you.

Epictetus, Enchiridion ch. 1 (Elizabeth Carter Tr.)

What is perhaps Epictetus’s most oft-quoted line comes from chapter 8:

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, ch. 8 (Elzabeth Carter Tr.)

Walking with Epictetus – Chapter 38 of the Enchirdion

Chapter 38 of Epictetus’s Enchirdion reads as follows:

When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, ch. 38 (Elizabeth Carter Tr.)

For the simple purposes of the instant article, we can understand the “ruling faculty of [the] mind” as that part of the mind which distinguishes right from wrong, good from bad, and guides our actions accordingly. Referring to Epictetus’s first maxim, quoted in the prior section, this ruling faculty would be required to distinguish those things which are within our control and free from those things which are outside of our control and therefore slavish. Epictetus recommends that we govern this ruling faculty as judiciously as we watch our step while walking. One wrong step can lead to a physical injury, and one wrong action can damage our mind’s ruling faculty and cause more wrong actions. If we undertake actions as carefully as we walk, we can be sure that our actions are in accord with living well.

Being Reminded of Epictetus while Walking in the Show

My previous two articles were about winter walks. First, I wrote about the benefits of walking in the winter. Second, I created a short post with pictures from a walk through the snow in the aftermath of Winter Storm Gail in New York City. In the latter post, I noted the dangers to pedestrians posed by snow banks and ice patches and how winter walks in the snow require careful attention to one’s own steps and surroundings. Part of why I walk carefully in the snow and ice is because I am no stranger to falling, and it is only because of that caution that I have been estranged from falling in recent years.

After returning from my snow-filled walk, I thought of that one maxim from Epictetus where he used walking carefully as an example for how we should carefully guard our ruling factories. One need not accept the whole of Epictetus’s philosophy and his views on how the ruling faculty should be ordered in order to see the poignancy and cleverness of his example.

Examining Epictetus on Walking in Some Detail

Epictetus recognized that the ruling faculty of the mind might be an abstract concept. Therefore, he offered a concrete and universally understandable example – watching one’s physical step – to illustrate how one should guard the ruling faculty of his or her mind. The physical consequences of failing to watch one’s step is injury, whether by stepping on a nail, turning an ankle, or slipping on ice beneath a pile of snow at the curb (not that I have an experience with the last, of course).

Enchiridion describes the consequences of similarly not attending to one’s ruling faculty – preoccupation with and subordination to slavish things outside of one’s control (“If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life” [23]). Furthermore, Epictetus describes developing one’s ruling faculty as an ongoing process (“You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you…” [29]).

Epictetus recommends both that we guard our ruling faculty as carefully as we watch our steps both in order to choose the proper course of action at a particular moment and to build the capacity to do so in all cases.

Returning to Winter Walking and Other Matters

Epictetus’s walking example is generic. That is, he described walking generally, not walking in any particular conditions. For that reason, the example may seem a bit peculiar. Generally speaking, stepping on a nail is not particularly likely, nor is turning one’s ankle doing nothing other than walking. But when one thinks about wading through city slush, navigating snow banks on the curb, or stepping carefully on ice-covered ground, Epictetus’s example comes to life. As a general point, one can surely apply the caution with which he or she walks on somewhat dangerous surfaces in order to avoid physical injury to other sorts of actions wherein acting wrongly may lead to some other sort of harm.