August 16, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Align Your Desires With Reality (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.14)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. The learning process is difficult. While the results are pleasing, the practice is monotonous.
  2. The practice of a philosopher is to bring his desires in line with whatever happens. Nothing can happen against his will so his life is free from sorrow, fear, and disturbance.
  3. We should be like the gods in being free, benevolent, and compassionate.
  4. Most people go through life mechanically without wonder. You should develop a curiosity about the festival of life.
Pleasing results are the result of monotonous practice

A visitor from Rome (presumably Julius Naso, someone well-known at that time) came with his son to see Epictetus. At one of his lectures, Epictetus said, “This is the way I teach,” and stopped talking. When the visitor requested Epictetus to continue, he replied, “The learning process is always difficult for those who are new to an art and not familiar with it.”

Most finished products are attractive and charming and their use is obvious. It may not a joy to watch the way a shoemaker learns his art, but nevertheless the shoes he makes are useful, and aesthetically pleasing. The way a carpenter learns his trade may be tedious to watch, but what he produces turns out to be useful. This is even truer of music. If you watch someone learning music, you will find it quite monotonous. Yet the final product is pleasing and entertains everyone.

Bring your desires in line with whatever happens

Similarly, a philosopher’s job goes something like this: He has to bring his desires in line with whatever happens, so nothing ever happens against his will and nothing fails to happen except as he wishes. If you follow this, nothing will ever happen against your will and nothing will fail to happen except as you wish. You will lead a personal life free from sorrow, fear, and disturbance. At the same time, you will nourish your roles, whether it is natural or acquired, as a son, father, brother, citizen, wife, fellow-traveler, ruler or ruled.

Use your divine nature as your model

How do we achieve this? If you want to be a carpenter or a pilot, you need some formal training. It is the same here as well. It is not enough to wish to become wise and good, we need to learn certain things. We must find out what they are. The philosophers tell us that we should first learn that there is a God and that He provides for the Universe. We cannot keep our actions – or even our intentions and thoughts – hidden from Him. Then we must learn about the divine nature. If we want to please the gods, we must obey them and try to resemble them to the best of our ability. If the divine nature is trustworthy, we should be trustworthy; if the divine nature is free, benevolent, and compassionate, we should be free, benevolent, and compassionate as well. We should use God as our model for our thoughts and behavior.

“Where do I begin, then?”
“First start by understanding the meaning of words.”
“Do you mean to say that I don’t understand them now?”
“Yes, I do.”
“How is it, then, I have been using them?”
“Like the way illiterate people use written signs, or the way cattle use their senses. Using something is not the same as understanding it. But if you really think that you understand the words you use, let’s start with a few and test them to see whether we understand them or not.”
“I am a grown man and have been to three wars. I don’t appreciate being tested like this now.”
“Don’t I know it? You are here not because you think you need to learn anything. You cannot even imagine what you could possibly need. You are rich, probably have a wife, and many servants. The king himself knows you, you have many friends, you perform your duties, and you know how to reward your friends and punish your enemies. What more could you want?”

The missing element: The key to happiness

What if I could show you that you are missing the key to happiness? That you have spent all these days on things that are not right for you? That, to top it all, you don’t know what God is, what a human being is and what good and evil are? If I say you are ignorant of these things, you may bear with me. But, if I add that you don’t even know who you are, how can you tolerate it? Will you be patient, put up with my questioning and stay with me? Not at all. You’ll be offended and leave immediately.

Yet, what harm have I done to you? None. No more than a mirror that shows a plain person for what she looks like. Or a doctor who tells the patient, “Do you think you are well? No, you are sick. Don’t eat anything today. Just drink water.” No one says, “How rude!” But if I say to anyone “Your desires are unhealthy, your attempts to avoid things are humiliating, your purposes are confused, your choices are at odds with nature, and your values are random and false,” he immediately walk out saying, “Epictetus insulted me.”

Most people don’t pay attention to the festival of life

This is similar to what happens when you attend a fair where cattle are bought and sold. Most people are there to buy and sell cattle. But there a few who come just to see how the fair is organized, who is promoting it and why. The “fair” of the world in which we live is no different. Some people, like cattle, care only for their food. Your possessions, property, large household with servants, and public status are nothing more than cattle fodder.

A few others who attend the fair are capable of reflecting, “What is this world? Who runs it? No one?” No city or a house can function even for a short time without someone taking care of it. And can this design, so vast and so beautiful, run on its own, at by mere chance? Therefore, there must be somebody who governs it. But who is he? How does he govern? What are we who were made by him? What purpose are we here to fulfil? Are we connected to Him or not? They think about these things, make time for this, and learn as much as possible about the festival of life before they leave the fair.

The result? They are laughed at by others, just as spectators would be laughed at by traders. And as cattle would laugh at those who are interested in anything other than fodder, if they had any understanding.

Think about this

What if I were to show you that all that’s missing are the keys to happiness? That your life has been devoted to everything except what it ought to be? Epictetus, Discourses II.14.19 [RD]