May 12, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses ||

Act on What You Learned

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Any desire – be it for money or for peace – makes you a slave.
  2. Read with a view to act on what you learn.
  3. The more value you attach to external things, the less free you are to choose.
  4. Always remember what is under your control and what is not.
  5. When you desire or feel averse to something, you become a slave to the one who controls the object of your desire and aversion.
  6. Take things as they come.
  7. It is not your action, but your judgement that gave rise to the action, that decides whether it is good or bad.
Any desire, even a desire for peace, can make you a slave

A desire for money and power makes you miserable and submissive to others. But so does its opposite, a desire for leisure, peace, travel, and learning. As a rule, if we attach value to externals of any kind, it would make us submissive to others. It makes little difference whether you want to be a senator or not want to be one; whether you want to hold office or not want to hold office; whether you say, “I’m in a bad way. I can’t do anything because I am tied to books,” or you say, “I’m in a bad way. I’ve no time to read.” A book is external. So is a position external, like honour and office.

Why do you want to read anyway? For entertainment or to learn something? Either way, you are being frivolous and lazy. Judged by proper standards, reading should lead you to peace. If it doesn’t, what good is it?

“But reading does make me peaceful. That’s exactly why I am unhappy when I’m deprived of it.”

“What kind of peace is this if it can be so easily disturbed? Not even by the Emperor or a friend of the Emperor but by a crow, a flute player, fever, or thirty thousand other things? True peace of mind is continuous and undisturbed.”

Now I am asked to do something. I’ll do it. I will pay attention to the boundaries that I need to respect; act confidently but also with restraint; and without desire or aversion regarding externals. At the same time, I pay attention to other people’s words and actions. I don’t do this looking for an opportunity to criticize or ridicule them but to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes.

“How do I do stop it, then?”

“I used to make the same mistake once. But, thank God, not anymore.”

If you have acted thus and made it your concern, isn’t it as good as having read or written a thousand lines? When you eat, do you wish you were reading? Aren’t you happy to be eating in a manner you learned by reading? The same goes for bathing and exercising. Why don’t you behave the same way whether you meet a powerful person or an ordinary person? If you are calm, poised and dignified, if you observe what is happening (rather than being observed) around you, if you don’t envy those who are honoured ahead of you, and if you don’t let externals confuse you, what else do you need? Books? Why? For what purpose?

“Isn’t reading a kind of preparation for living?”

“But there is more to life than reading. It is like an athlete entering a stadium and immediately complaining that he is not in the gym working out.”

This was why you did your workouts, trained with weights, practiced in the ring with your sparring partners. Are you looking for these now when it is time to act? It is as if, when it is time to deal with impressions and judge them to be true or not, you are looking to read the book On Comprehension! Why is this? It’s because you never read for this purpose; you never wrote for this purpose – the purpose of using the impressions we receive in accordance with nature. Instead, what you care about is to learn what was written on the subject, so you can explain it to someone else; how to analyse an argument or examine the hypothetical argument.

Read not just to know, but to act on what you read

Where you are enthusiastic about something, there you are bound to face obstacles. You desire what is not under your control? Be prepared to be obstructed, to be frustrated, and to fail. But,

  • if you read On Choice not out of idle curiosity but to choose the right course of action;
  • if you read On Desire and Aversion so you may never fail to get what you want and not get what you don’t want; and
  • if you read On Duty so in your social relationships you never do anything irrational or inappropriate;

then we wouldn’t be frustrated or become impatient with our reading. We would be happy to act on what we have learned. Instead of saying, “I have written so many pages today; I have read so many pages today,” you will say, “Today I made choices in the way that the philosophers teach; I stayed away from desires, and was averse only to things under my control; I wasn’t flustered by so-and-so or angered by so-and-so. I was patient, restrained, and co-operative.” This is the way to thank God for what we should be thankful for.

As it is, we don’t recognize how similar we are to the crowd in other ways as well. Others are afraid that they won’t hold office while you are afraid that you will. Don’t be concerned. Just as you laugh at others, laugh at yourself too. What is the difference between a person with fever who craves water and a person with rabies who is afraid of water? How can you be like Socrates who said, ‘If it pleases the gods, so be it”?

Do you think that, if Socrates had decided to linger in the Lyceum or the Academy talking to the young people there, he would have served so readily in so many campaigns? No. He would have moaned and groaned, “Poor me! Here I am feeling miserable. I could have been back at the Lyceum, enjoying the sun.

Is that your job. Sunning yourself? Is it not to be happy? Is it not to be free of obstructions and restraints? How would he have been still Socrates if he had groaned and moaned? How would have gone on to write hymns of praise in prison?

Don’t complain

Remember this. The more value you attach to external things, the less free you are to choose. Things outside our control include not only office but freedom from office also; not only business but leisure also.

“Should I then spend my life in this chaos among the mob?”

“What do you mean by chaos? Among the mob? What’s hard about that?”

Imagine you are at the Olympics. Regard the chaos as a festival. There too, one man shouts this, another man that. One pushes the other. Even in swimming pools there are many people. Yet, who doesn’t enjoy the Olympics and feel sorry to leave?

Don’t be hard to please. Don’t complain about trivial things. “The vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is foul, it upsets my stomach; I don’t like the vegetables. Similarly, people say, “I don’t like leisure, it’s lonely; I don’t like a crowd, it is noisy.” If you happen to find yourself alone or with a few other people, call this peace and go along for the duration. Talk to yourself, work on your impressions, and sharpen your preconceptions. But, if you happen to find yourself in a crowd, call it the games, a festival, or a celebration. Try to share the festival with the world. After all, what is more pleasing to a lover of human kind than the sight of many people? We take pleasure in seeing herds of cows and horses. We take delight in watching a fleet of ships. Why, then, hate the sight of a group of humans?

“But they are loud. I’ll go deaf.”

“All right. You go deaf. What’s it to you? Will it stop you from judging impressions correctly? Who can stop you from using desire and aversion, choice and refusal according to nature? No noise, no shouting is loud enough to do that.”

Remember these central questions

Remember these central questions:

  • What is yours?
  • What is not yours?
  • What is given to you?
  • What does God say that you should do now?
  • What does God say that you should not do?

A little while ago, God wanted you to take some time off, communicate with yourself, write, read, and hear about these things and prepare yourself. You had the time available for it. Now he is saying, “Come. Now take the test. Show us what you have learned and how well you have trained. How long do you plan on working out alone? It is time for you to find out whether you are an athlete who deserves to win or one of those who travel around the world, only to be defeated everywhere.”

If you want peace, don’t be a slave to desires

Why, then, are you upset? No public contest is without commotion. There must be trainers, supporters who cheer, many official supervisors, and many spectators.

“But I want to live in peace.”

“Well then, mope and be miserable. That is what you deserve. What greater punishment do you deserve for ignoring and challenging God’s will than to be miserable, dissatisfied and envious? Don’t you want to free yourself from all this?”

“Yes, but how can I do that?”

“You have heard often that you must get rid of your desires completely and be averse only to things that are within your power. You must give up all external things – body, reputation, fame, books, applause, office, and freedom from office. Because desiring any of these things immediately makes you a slave, you are a subject, you can be restrained and compelled, and you are entirely at the control of others. Keep this verse by Cleanthes handy:

‘Lead me, Zeus; lead me, Destiny’”

Take things as they come

Do I have to go to Rome? I go to Rome. To Gyara? I go to Gyara. To Athens? I go to Athens. To prison? I go to prison. But if you say, “When do we get to Athens?” you are lost. If you don’t get to Athens, you will be disappointed because your desire is not fulfilled. If you do get to Athens, you will be overjoyed for the wrong reasons. Again, if you are stopped from getting what you want, you are stuck with what you don’t want. Therefore, forget these things.

“But Athens is beautiful.”

“But happiness is much more beautiful; and having a peaceful and undisturbed mind, dependent on only yourself.”

“But Rome is so crowded and noisy.”

“But serenity is worth all these aggravations. It is the proper time. Let go of all your dislikes. Why are you like a donkey enduring the burden? Otherwise, you will always be slave to someone who can who can have you released or block your way. You will have to serve him as you would a devil.”

There is only one way to be happy. Keep this thought ready for use morning, noon, and night. Give up the desire for things not under your control. Don’t think of anything as your own. Hand over everything to fortune and the deity. Leave these things in the care of supervisors appointed by God. Meanwhile, you concern yourself with only one thing: what is your own and what is free from restrictions. When you read, read about this. Write about this. Listen about this.

Your judgement behind your action is what makes it good or bad

That’s why I cannot call someone productive, if I hear he reads and writes all night long. I need to know why he is doing it. You wouldn’t call a man productive if he loses sleep over a girl. Neither would I. If he loses sleep for fame, I would call him ambitious; if for money, greedy; but not productive. If he does it for the sake of his ruling faculty, to live well in accordance with nature, only then would I call him productive. You should never praise or blame a man for an action that may be good or bad, but for the reasons for his action – his judgement about it. Judgements are unique to each individual and they are what make one’s action good or bad.

Be happy with the present

Knowing all this, be happy for what you have. Be satisfied with what each moment brings. If any of these things you studied and learned prove useful to you in your actions, be joyful. If you have got rid of or reduced your tendency to impulsiveness, indecent language, recklessness, laziness, and if you are not motivated by the same things that motivated you once, at least not to the same extent, then everyday becomes a festival: today because you acted well yesterday, tomorrow because you acted well today.

How much better reason is this for thanksgiving than a consulship or a governorship! These things come to you from your own self and from God. Remember who gave them, to whom, and why. If you are brought up to reason like this, how can you ever ask where you will be happy and where you will please God? No matter where they are, aren’t people equally distant from God? And, no matter where they are, don’t they all see the same thing?

Think about this

Don’t be hard to please. Don’t complain about trivial things. “The vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is foul, it upsets my stomach; I don’t like the vegetables. Discourses IV.4.25. Epictetus