June 14, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Be Steadfast In Your Practice (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English I.29)

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Good and evil come from our choices. If our judgement about externals is correct, our choice is good; if our judgement is distorted or crooked, then our choice is bad. Therefore, if you want something good, get it from yourself.
  2. Someone who threatens you physically can only threaten your body. If you lose the fear of externals, including your body, there is nothing left to fear.
  3. No one has control over what is truly yours, no matter how many opponents you face and no matter how powerful they are otherwise.
  4. You can always give up your life when there is a good reason to do so but not for trivial reasons.
  5. When you cannot change another person’s mind, realize that the person is no more than a child.
  6. When you face crises, see them as opportunities to practice what you have learned and use them so.
  7. Do not be bothered when ignorant people judge you. Don’t indulge in petty arguments.
  8. No one is a master of another. We are ruled by life and death, pleasure and pain.
  9. If you free yourself from our emotions, you will not have any troubles.
  10. Don’t preach to those who are not ready to understand.
Good and evil do not come from externals

Good and evil come from our choices.

“What are external things then?”
“Externals are the means we use for good or evil.”
“How do we find good?”
“We find good by not attaching value to externals which are just the means. If our judgement about externals is correct, our choice is good; if our judgement is distorted or crooked, then our choice is bad.”

This is a God-given law: If you want something good, get it for yourself. But you say that you’d get it from someone else. I repeat, get it from yourself. If some tyrant threatens me, I say

“What are you threatening?”
“I will put you in chains.”
“Oh, you are threatening my hands and feet.”
“I will behead you.”
“Oh, you are threatening my neck.”
“I will throw you in prison.”

“Now you are threatening my entire body. If you threaten me with exile, I will say the same.”
It is not me who he is really threatening. No, not as long as I completely believe externals are nothing to me. But if I am afraid for any of it, then it is me he threatens. What is left there for me to fear? What does he have control over? Over things in my power? No one has control over those except me. Over things not in my power? I don’t care about those.

No one has power over what is in your control

It is not about philosophers being disrespectful of authority. Not at all. You will not find any of us philosophers teaching disrespect for those who act within their proper authority. They can have all of my body, my property, my reputation, and those that are about me. I challenge anyone to show that I encourage others to lay claim on those things.

“Yes, but I want to control your judgement too.”
“Who gave you that power? How can you conquer another person’s judgement?”

If the king says he will win through the use of fear, then I would say he doesn’t seem to understand that mind can only be conquered by itself, not by another. Nothing else can overcome the power of choice but itself. For that reason, the law of God, “Let the better always prevail over the worse,” is excellent and just.

“But aren’t ten people stronger than one person?”
“In what though? Only in things they are superior: such as restraining, killing, and dragging people away, taking their property.”
“In what way are they worse then?”
“A person with correct judgement is superior to ten without correct judgment. Put them in the balance. The person with correct judgement would drag down the scales.”
“Are you saying then that it was all right for Socrates to have suffered at the hands of Athenians?”
“Not Socrates, idiot. Say it as it really is. The poor body of Socrates was seized, dragged, and thrown into prison by stronger men. Someone gave his poor body hemlock and it died.”

Your body is an external. Your judgements are not

Do you think all this is so unjust that you should blame God? Didn’t Socrates have other resources to offset all this? What was the essence of the good for him? Do you want us to listen to you or to him when he said, “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me. If it pleases the gods, so be it.” Show me a person who can get the better of someone with superior judgement. Try all you want, but you cannot, you can’t even come close. This is the law of nature: “Let the better be always be superior to the worse.”

Better where? Only in the area of one’s expertise. One body is stronger than another body, many bodies are stronger than one, and a thief is stronger than those that are not thieves. That’s how I came to lose my lamp – the thief was better at keeping awake than I. But he had a price to pay for the lamp: for its sake, he became a thief, lost his ability to be trusted, and became a brute. He thought it was a good bargain!

“It is easy for you to talk like that. But here I am grabbed by my collar and dragged down the streets. Then someone shouts at me: ‘Hey philosopher, what good have your views done you? Look, you are being dragged off to prison and soon you may lose your life too.’ Tell me, what Introduction to Philosophy could I have read that would have saved me from a situation like this? It is not that I have learned nothing. Philosophy taught me that I should be indifferent to things beyond my control. They are nothing to me.”
“So, have you not benefited from knowing this? Why do you look for help from philosophy except in those areas it can help you?”

As I sit in prison I can think to myself that anyone who laughs at me is deaf to the real meaning of words. They cannot understand what they hear. Neither do they care to know what philosophers say or do. Let them be. I hear

“Come out of prison.”
“If you don’t want me to be in prison any more, I will come out. If you do, I will go back again.’”
“How long will you keep this up?”
“As long as reason tells me that I need to be alive. When reason tells me otherwise, you can take my body and good health to you!”

We must not take our lives without reason

But we must not take our own life without reason, or because it has become feeble, or for some other trivial reason. It is contrary to the will of God. He needs such a world and creatures like us. If he gives the signal, as he did in the case of Socrates, we must obey it as you would if it from your commander-in-chief.
“Should we tell this to all and sundry?”
“What would be the point? Is it not enough to convince ourselves of this?”

Be tolerant of those who cannot understand

If children come to us clapping their hands chanting, “Today is good Saturnalia,” do we say, “There’s no good in that?” No, we join them and clap our hands too. So, when you cannot change a person’s mind, recognize that he is a child. Clap hands with him. If you cannot bring yourself to do that, just be silent.

Challenging times are opportunities to practice what you have learned

It is important to remember this so, when you face difficult situations, you will know it’s time to show what you have learned. A good student just out of school would not look for easy problems to solve. An athlete would not like to be paired with someone with inferior ability. But when a crisis comes, we start groaning and want to keep on learning. Learn what? If you cannot demonstrate in practice what you learned, why learn it in the first place?

I guess some of you might be sitting here losing patience and thinking, “When will I face a challenge similar to the one he did? I am growing old here sitting in a corner while I could be winning at the Olympics. When will it be my time to face a similar challenge”’ That’s the attitude that all of you should develop.

There are gladiators in Rome who get frustrated when they are called up to fight and matched with an inferior opponent. They beg God and their supervisors to be allowed to fight. None of you here show such spirit. I would like to escape to Rome just to see my athlete in action; how he, at least, practices what he has learned.

“These are not the circumstances I want”
“It is not up to you to choose them. You are given a particular body, particular parents and brothers, a particular country, and a particular position in it. You come here expecting me to change these. You are not even aware of the assets you already have that will make it possible to cope with any situation you face.”

You should instead say, “Tell me what to do, and I will practice it well.” Instead you want to choose what problems I should set for you. You want to decide on the conclusions as well. A time will come, I suppose, when actors will think of their masks, high-heeled boots, and long robes are themselves. “Man, these things are your materials and you have a part to play. Say something so we’ll know whether you are an actor or a buffoon – both have common costumes but not the same voice.” If I take away the costume does the actor remain? He does, if he has the right voice.

No matter what life offers you, play your part well

So it is in life. “Take this job as a governor.” I take it and show how a properly educated person behaves. “Take off your senator’s robe and put on beggar’s clothes. Come on the stage as that character.” So what? I still have the power to use my fine voice. “What role do you want me to play now?” As a witness called by God.

“Come on then, you earned the right to represent me as a witness. Is there anything good or bad outside of the choices you make? Do I harm anyone? Have I given control of each person’s choice to anyone else? What witness do you bear for god?”
“I am miserable and pitiable. No one cares about me. No one helps me. Everyone despises me.”
“Is this your evidence, making mockery of his appeal to you, when he has honored you and judged you a worthy witness?”
“But if some person of authority judges you as impious and unholy? How does that affect you?”
“I have been judged impious and unholy.”
“Nothing else?”
“Nothing. If he had said that the statement, ‘If it is day, it is light,’ is false, what happens to the statement? Who is judged? Who is condemned? Who got it wrong – the conditional statement or the person who said it was false?”

Don’t be disturbed when the ignorant judge you

Well, who is this person to pass such judgement on you? Does he know what piety or impiety is? Has he studied it? Where and from whom? A musician will have no respect for a person who mistakes the highest string for the lowest string on a musical instrument. A mathematician will have no respect for a person who thinks that the same circle will have a different radius at a different point. So how can a truly educated person pay any attention to an uneducated person with regard to what is holy or unholy, just or unjust? How dishonorable of the educated that would be! Is that what you learned here?

Wouldn’t you rather leave such quibbles to insignificant people who sit in a corner, receive their small fees or nothing and whine about it? Will you not step forward and practise what you have learned? We don’t need any more quibbles – our Stoic texts are full of them. What do we need then? We need people who apply what they have learned and bear witness to it in their actions. I would like you take on this character so I don’t have to use old examples when I teach and I can use an example of our own.

Who should think about these things? Those who have the time for it. Humans are made for abstract thoughts. Let’s not study them in a hurried and distracted way. Sit free of distractions. Listen now to the tragic actor; then to the musician. Don’t behave like an escapee who praises the performers while nervously glancing around, ready to be alarmed and disturbed if someone mentions the name of his master. It is shameful for philosophers to study works of nature this way.

We are unable to enjoy life because we are in the grip of emotions

What does “master” mean? No one is a master of another but death and life, pleasure and pain. Without these, bring me the king, you will see how unwavering I am. But when he comes with these things, along with thunder and lightening, then I am afraid. I act as if I am a runaway slave, brought to face his master. Even when I have a break from these things, my attention to the performance is no better than that of the slave’s. I wash, drink, and sing but all the while I am afraid and gloomy. But if I free myself from my emotions that make the master frightening, what troubles can I have?

Avoid the temptation to preach to those who cannot understand

Should I then announce this to the entire world? No, because we need to make allowances for the uneducated. We should say to ourselves: “They are telling me what they think is good for themselves. So, I can’t blame them.” Thus Socrates forgave his jailer who wept when he was about to drink poison and said, “How noble you are to weep for me!” He does not say to the jailer, “That’s why we wouldn’t let the women in!” No, he treats the jailer indulgently as he would a child and says it only to his close friends who can understand it.

Think about this

If you wish any good things, get it from yourself. Discourses I.29.4. Epictetus (WO)