Who doubts that we live in a culture of blame? Whatever you suffer, whatever you do, whatever emotions you feel, whatever you lack is someone else’s fault. If you are poor, sick, or uneducated; if you are unhappy, unsuccessful, and don’t get the respect you think you deserve, and if these things make you angry, resentful, jealous, envious, and hopeless…fate, other people, society, government, or God is to blame.
Epictetus (AD 50 to 135) was a stoic philosopher who suffered greatly in life, as a slave, under torture and abuse, and through sickness and banishment. His thoughts were collected and published by a disciple and translated into English as Discourses. I have long admired Epictetus’s thoughts but only recently have I read straight through Discourses. Like other Stoics, Epictetus believes that everything that happens in the world of appearances happens by necessity. We have no control over what merely happens to us. Hence to fret, worry, rage, or despair over the appearances and their impact on us makes no sense. We don’t control them, can’t prevent them, and can’t change them.
According to Epictetus, the only thing we control is our inner self, which is free from the necessity that determines the course of external events. No one and nothing can make you feel or do anything against your will. If you feel anger, resentfulness, jealousy, envy, self-pity, or despair, you choose to do so. You control what you do in response to every situation. If you betray your friends or curse God because someone threatened to drive a sword through your heart, you cannot blame the threat for your sin. You chose to value your life above faithfulness or piety. You are responsible for what you do no matter what choices nature, fate, and other people place before you.
What does Epictetus’s wisdom have to say to the culture of blame? We do not have to accept the Stoic view that everything in the world of appearances happens by necessity in order to acknowledge that we do not control what happens to us. We control only what we do in response. You don’t have to be a Stoic to understand that no power can force us to choose what we do not will or do what we don’t want to do.
Clearly, Epictetus understood that we are not always responsible for the external circumstances that affect us. The forces of nature and the actions of other people often affect us negatively. So, you do not have to take on guilt for circumstances over which you have no control. Hence much of the suffering we endure can be “blamed” in a certain sense on external forces. But only objectively. That is to say, external circumstances are responsible for much of the bodily suffering we must endure. The culture of blame, however, becomes pervasive when we habitually blame external circumstances for our unhappiness and sins. In other words, we refuse to take responsibility for our free choices and place the blame on something else, pretending that we have no control over our inner selves. This endemic denial of responsibility for our actions is what I mean by the culture of blame. Everyone is oppressed, deeply offended at any slight, awash in self-pity, always looking for someone to blame. And indeed you may have to deal with harsh circumstances, but Epictetus and Jimmy Buffet agree: if you are unhappy and “wasted away again in Margaritville, “it’s your own **** fault.”