January 13, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Avoid Excuses and Train Everyday
Key ideas of this discourse
- Sooner and later, illness and death will overtake us all.
- So, instead of complaining, we should accept them cheerfully.
- Aim to improve yourself every day.
A student says [to Epictetus]
“I am not well. I would like to go home.”
“Were you never ill at home, then? Did you ever think about whether you are doing anything here that would improve the quality of choices you make? For, if you are not achieving anything, you might as well not have come here.”
Go home. Take care of your household affairs. If your decision making cannot be brought in line with nature, your little patch of land may. You may increase the amount of your small change, look after your father in his old age, wander around in the marketplace, and take up a job. Not being competent, you will do poorly whatever you happen to do next.
Keep your goals in mind
But, if you are aware that
- you are getting rid of your bad judgments and taking different ones in their place;
- you have changed your position from relying on things that lie outside the area of your choice to relying on those that are inside; and
- you sometimes cry, “Alas!” not for the sake of your father or brother, but for yourself,
then why pay attention to illness anymore? Don’t you know disease and death will eventually overtake us, no matter what we are doing? If you think you can be doing something better than what you are doing here when you are overtaken, go and do it.
As far as I am concerned, when death finds me, I would rather be doing nothing other than taking care of things under the area of my choice – trying to make it unhindered, unrestrained, serene and free. I want to be able to say to God,
“Have I in any way disobeyed your commands? Did I ever misuse the resources you gave me for any other purpose? Did I misuse my senses or my preconceptions? Did I ever accuse you of anything or find fault with the way you governed? I fell sick and it was your will. So did others, but I did it willingly. I became poor, it was your wish but I was joyful. I didn’t hold any office because it was not your wish but I didn’t set my heart on it. Have you ever seen me dejected because of it? Have I not always come before you with a cheerful face, prepared to do whatever you order me? Now it is your wish that I leave this festival. I go; full of gratitude to you that you found me worthy of sharing this festival with you; and see your works and the way you govern.”
Let these be my thoughts, let this be my writing, and let this be my reading, when I face death.
“But my mother won’t hold my head in her arms when I am sick.”
“Go home to your mother then. You deserve to be sick and have someone hold your head.”
“At home I have a nice bed to lie on.”
“Go back to your bed, then. No doubt you deserve to lie on such a fine bed, even when healthy. Please do not miss out on, by being here, what you could be doing there.”
Aim for improvement everyday
But what does Socrates say? “As one man rejoices in improving his farm and another his horse, so I rejoice day by day in following my own improvement.”
“In what way? Little philosophical phrases?”
“Man, hold your tongue.”
“In little philosophic theories, then?”
“What are you saying?”
“Well, I don’t see anything else that philosophers spend their time on.”
Does it mean nothing to you to never to accuse anyone, never to blame anyone, be it God or men? To always have the same expression in one’s face, coming in or going out? These are things that Socrates knew. Yet he never said he knew. He didn’t teach either. If anyone asked for philosophic phrases or theories he would take them to Protagoras or Hippias [Sophists who taught rhetoric]. It was like taking someone over to the market, if they came looking for fresh vegetables. Who, among you, makes the purpose of Socrates the purpose of your life? If you did, you would be glad to be ill, to go hungry, or to die. If anyone of you has been in love with a pretty woman, you will know that I am telling the truth.
Think about this
I hope death overtakes me when I am occupied solely with the care of my character in order to make it passionless, free, unrestrained. Discourses III.5.7 Epictetus [RD]