Epictetus Pumps Iron, Part One
Note: This article series is – in many ways – a continuation of my earlier post “Life Lessons Learned from Lifting.” If you haven’t already, you may want to read that entry first before beginning this series.
One of my loves – outside of lifting weights – is philosophy. When you hear/read the word philosophy, there is a good chance that another word – “boring” – springs to mind. But I’m not talking about the dull, dry, armchair/academic variety of philosophy that is prevalent in modern Western society. I’m talking about philosophy as it was originally intended to be: a way of life, a way of being.
In recent years, philosophy as life-practice is on more of an upswing, probably because of the rise in popularity – or at least the growing interest among Westerners – of Eastern philosophy: Buddhism and Taoism respectively.
But Western philosophy, once upon a time, was also a viable way of practicing life. In fact, I would even offer that at one time it was not just equal to the Asian philosophies that are now popular in our culture, it surpassed them in many ways.
Ancient Greek philosophy – at least as it developed in the few centuries before and after Christ – wasn’t focused so much on abstract concepts as it was on the attainment of virtue. Philosophy was meant to be the vehicle to attain tranquility, control one’s emotions, live in peace with your fellow human being, and attain a virtuous life. Although the philosophies – be it Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Cynicism, or Skepticism – differed on their approaches, they all agreed that tranquility, peace of mind, and virtue were the goals.
Of these philosophies, the one that has influenced me the most – and the one that I think offers the most benefits for the modern world – is Stoicism. The Stoic sages par excellence include Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius. All four of these sages are wise teachers for anyone wishing to follow the Stoic path. Aurelius is the loftiest, the most poetic, and the most admirable of the four – his Meditations is a must read for any aspiring philosopher. But I believe that Epictetus is the most direct, straightforward, and practical of the group. And his work “The Enchiridion” – also known as “The Manual” – is both a great introduction to his Stoic thought, and a readily-available handbook of Stoicism.
|painting of Epictetus|
It is to The Enchiridion and Epictetus – and their applications in the realm of building muscle and strength through the art of training – that the rest of this series will focus upon. What follows are passages from The Enchiridion that have relevance in the world of muscle-building, followed by my commentaries of each passage.
Epictetus on That which is in Our Control:
Some things are in our control and others are not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, public office, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, un-hindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, re-strained, in the power of others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that which 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 those things to be your own which are your own, and what belongs to others to be theirs, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Work, therefore, to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
If you want to build a lot of muscle, strength, and power; if you want to look good, feel good, and be healthy; worry only about those things that are within your control. Things within your control: how hard and diligent you are during your training session; how consistently you train; how consistent and diligent you are with your nutrition regimen; the knowledge that you acquire in order to be stronger, more muscled, healthier, and more fit. Things not within your control: how quickly your body responds to the training and eating regimen; your genetic potential with regards to building strength and muscle; what other people do in the gym; the results of lifters other than you; what others say and think about your training, your goals, and your lifestyle.
Spend your time and energy – both valuable commodities that determine your quality of life – on the variables of your training lifestyle that are within your control. Why waste time worrying about what others are doing? If others need help or ask for help, that is one thing. By all means, you should help others as much as possible. I enjoy very much helping others with their training dilemmas; one of the reasons for this blog. But I can only offer and provide the help and the advice – it is up to others how they use it. And I worry not one second about those people that neither care nor wish to use my training advice. Nor do I worry about others who may disparage my training philosophy.
We live in a society where many people are concerned about the lives of celebrities. Many people – through the advent of social media and through crap like reality television – live vicariously through what others do, say, and how they live. Unfortunately, it’s also the same way in the bodybuilding and strength training communities. Many young, aspiring lifters and bodybuilders spend too much time reading “profiles” of popular bodybuilders, powerlifters, or other strength athletes. They concern themselves with gossip and the going-ons of these lifters. But the time spent doing this is largely a waste. Read about popular, well-respected lifters in order to get sound advice on training. But don't concern yourself with other things.
Epictetus on Not Being Disturbed by Things that Happen to Us:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Someone who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.
Our own life principles are what obscure us from seeing things as they are. During the course of your training career – especially if you take strength training seriously – you will have many things that happen to you that are not conducive to gaining muscle and strength. You will get sick during training even when you are at your peak (maybe especially during that time). Even worse: you will acquire injuries that force you to take time off from serious lifting. These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. They are just the way things are. It is our minds that make more of them than what they are – our minds tell us that these things “are bad,” that they will prevent us from growing the amount of muscle we want, or prevent us from getting really strong. Yes, it is true that these things will cause our gains to slow – or even come to a halt for a certain period of time – but there is no reason that this should prevent our minds from continuing to reside in tranquility. And when things such as this happen to us, we can spend the time training bodyparts that aren’t injured, or we can spend the time acquiring more knowledge so that we will be better prepared for training when we are capable.
Here is another quote that Epictetus offers that relates to this same thing: “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”
In Part 2 of this series we will cover more of Epictetus’ sound advice for modern training.