February 21, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Approach Everything Carefully

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. In everything you do, consider what comes before and what comes after and only then act.
  2. Not everyone is suited to do everything. Different people are made for different things.
  3. Decide what you want to do and do it fully.
  4. Becoming a philosopher requires that one should be very disciplined. If you want to become a philosopher, make sure you are willing to pay the price.


Before undertaking anything, consider what is involved

In everything you do, consider what comes before and what comes after and then only act. Otherwise, you will start eagerly at first, but since you have not given any thought to what might follow, you will give it up in a shameful manner.

“I want to win at the Olympics.”

Yes, but consider what comes first and what comes after and then, if it is to your advantage, set to work. You must accept the discipline, submit to the diet, stay away from pastries, train as you are ordered at the appointed time, in heat or cold. You must not drink cold water or wine as you like. In short, you should hand yourself to your trainer as you would to a doctor. Then, when the time for the contest arrives you have to compete in digging [the practice of covering yourself with mud before a wrestling match], sometimes dislocate your wrist, sprain your ankle, and swallow quantities of sand and get whipped. And then, get defeated sometimes – after all that! Reflect on these things. Then, if you still want to become an athlete, go for it.

Otherwise, know that you are behaving like children who sometimes play wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and then play act whatever they have seen and admired. Likewise, you’re an athlete sometimes, gladiator sometimes; now a philosopher, and then an orator; but nothing wholeheartedly. Like an ape, you imitate whatever you see. One thing after another catches your fancy, but it stops pleasing you, once you become familiar with it. You have never started on anything with enough consideration, have never examined the entire thing carefully and systematically, but have always approached things randomly and half-heartedly.

Different people are made for different things

Thus, some people, when they see and hear someone who speaks like [the Stoic philosopher] Euphrates – and yet, who can speak like him? – want to be philosophers themselves too. But first consider what you are taking on, then your own nature, and what you can endure. If you want to be a wrestler, you will have to look to your shoulders, your back, and your thighs. For different people are made for different things.

Becoming a philosopher requires discipline

Do you think you can act the way you do and yet become a philosopher? That you can eat and drink like you do now, and be angry and irritable? You must stay up at night, you must work hard, overcome certain desires, abandon your people, be scorned by a slave, laughed at by those who meet you; come off worse than others in everything: in office, in honour, and in the courts. When you have considered all these drawbacks carefully, if you still think it fit, then approach philosophy. Be willing to give up all of this in exchange for serenity, freedom, and peace of mind.

Otherwise don’t come near. Don’t behave like a child – now a philosopher, then a tax collector, then an orator, and then a procurator of Caesar. These things don’t go together. You must be one person – good or bad. You must cultivate either your ruling faculty or external things. In short, you must assume either the role of philosopher or of a lay person.

[The following exchange seems unconnected to the rest of the discourse.]

When [the emperor] Galba was murdered, someone asked [Musonius] Rufus:

“So is the universe governed by providence now?”

Rufus replied:

“Have I ever, even casually, used the example of Galba to show that the universe is governed by providence?”

Think about this

In each action that you undertake, consider what comes before and what follows after, and only then proceed to the action itself. Discourses III.15.1. Epictetus [RH]