July 5, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Achieve Tranquility By Avoiding Externals (Epictetus’ Discourses II.2)

Key ideas of this discourse

When you are the master of your desires and emotions, you win.
Going after externals makes you a slave.
Do not provoke others unnecessarily.

You win when you control your desires and aversions

If you are going to court, consider what you want to keep and where you want to win. If your choice is fully in line with nature, you are totally secure, all will go as planned and you have nothing to worry about.

When you guard what is your own, what is by nature free and want only those things, you don’t need to worry about anything. No one else is the master and no one else can take these things away from you. If you want to be a person of honor and trust, who can stop you? If you don’t want to be stopped or forced to do something against your will, who is going to make you do it? The judge may pass a sentence which she may think is fearful. But how can she force you to react to it as being terrible? As long as you control your desires and aversions, there is nothing to worry about. This is your opening statement, your case, and your proof. This is your last word and your acquittal. This is why when someone asked Socrates to prepare for the trial, he said

“Don’t you think I have been preparing for this my entire life?”
“Preparing for it how?”
“I have minded my own business, never did anything wrong, either in public or in private.”

Going after externals makes you a slave

However, if you want to preserve the externals such as your body, property, and reputation, that’s a different story. Begin right now. Make every possible preparation. Study the character of the judge and your antagonist. If you must clasp men’s knees, clasp them; if you must weep, weep; if you must groan, groan. When you go after externals you become a slave. Stop being pulled in different directions, wanting to be a slave at one time and wanting to be free at other times. Be one or the other fully: free or a slave, cultivated or ignorant, a fighting cock or a docile one. Endure being beaten to death or give in all at once. You don’t want to be the person who withstands many blows and then gives in.

Do not provoke, except by intention

If Socrates wanted to preserve externals would he have said, “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but not harm me”? Was he so foolish as not to see this path did not lead to that end, but elsewhere? Why then did he not only disregard the judges, but provoke them as well? Consider what my friend Heraclitus did in a trivial lawsuit about a piece of land in Rhodes. After proving his case, he went on to comment, “I don’t care what your decision is going to be. I am not on trial, but you are.” Thus, he lost his case. What need was there for this? Don’t make any additional comments or even say that you are not going to make any additional comments, unless you want provoke the judges deliberately, as Socrates did. If you are going to do that, why rise to speak? Why even answer the summons? If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come. But if reason dictates that you should answer the summons and convince the judge to the best of your abilities, you must do accordingly, while always maintaining your true character.

There is a price to pay for externals

Looked at this way, it is also ridiculous to say, “Give me some advice.” What advice can I give you? You should rather say, “Enable my mind to adapt to whatever happens.” To ask for some advice is like asking what name you should write when you are about to write a name. Suppose I say, “Dio,” and your teacher comes along and says, “Theo,” what will you write? If you have practised writing, you know what to write no matter what is dictated to you. If you have not, what can I tell you? If conditions suggest something else, what will you say? What will you do? Remember this general principle and you will need no advice: if you go after externals you will be tossed up and down according to the will of the master. And who is your master? Anyone who has control over what you desire or what you want to avoid.

Think about this

If you gape after externals you must necessarily be tossed up and down, according to the inclination of your master. And who is your master? He who has the authority over anything that you strive to acquire, or want to avoid. [CG/RH]