August 12, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Choose Knowledge Over Anxiety (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.13)

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. When you feel anxious about meeting someone, it is because you believe they have something that you want and you may not get it.
  2. This arises out of your ignorance about what is under your control and what is not. Once you study this fully and understand it, you will not feel anxious under any condition.
  3. If you still think others can control you and feel anxious about it, then you have not understood what I have been telling you. You are not cut out to be a philosopher.
The reason for anxiety is ignorance

Whenever I see someone who is anxious, I ask, “What does this person want?” Unless you want something that is not under your control, how can you be anxious? If you play a musical instrument by yourself you have no anxiety. But when you enter a music hall, even if you have fine voice and can play the instrument well, you become anxious. You not only want to sing well but also want to be applauded by listeners, which is not under your control.

“Where you have knowledge, there you have confidence and you are not concerned about what others may think. So, your anxiety comes from lack of knowledge and practice in areas other than music.”
“Lack of knowledge and practice about what?”
“You don’t understand what an audience is or what their applause means. You have learned how to play all the notes from the lowest to the highest. But what an audience is, what its applause amounts to – this you have not studied or understood. So, you necessarily become nervous and pale.”

I can’t say that you are not a musician just because you are nervous, but I can say many other things about you. I call you a stranger because you don’t understand where you are living; you have lived here all your life yet do not understand the laws and customs of the country. You don’t know what is permitted and what is not. You have not consulted a lawyer who could tell you how things work here.

Where there is knowledge, there is no anxiety

No one writes a will without knowing how to write it or consulting someone who does; or sign a bond and offer guarantees. But when it comes to desire, aversion, impulse, intention, and purpose, we don’t care about consulting an expert.

“Why do you say that?”
“Because people want what they cannot have and try to avoid what they cannot escape. They do not know what belongs to them and what belongs to others. For, if they did know all this, they would not be blocked or disappointed. Or anxious.”
“Why?”
“Do you fear something that’s not bad or evil?”
“No.”
“Or things you have the power to avoid, even if they are bad and evil?”
“Of course, not.”
“So, if things outside our control are neither good or bad and things that we control cannot be taken away from us, or imposed on us without our consent, then what is left for us to be anxious about?”

What are we anxious about? Our body, our possessions, and what powerful people may do to us. Never about anything under our control. Are we anxious about having a false opinion? No, because it is under our control. Are we anxious about falling for an unnatural desire? Again, no, because this is under our control. So, if you see someone pale and anxious, just like a doctor diagnosing trouble from a patient’s skin, say, “He is affected by desires and aversions and is not well. Because nothing else can account for his change in complexion, his trembling, his chattering teeth, or his shifting weight from one knee to another.”

This is why when he went to see (the emperor) Antigonus, Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) had no anxiety. What Zeno valued, the emperor had no power over. Things that the emperor had power over, weren’t the things that Zeno valued. But the emperor was anxious about meeting Zeno because he wanted to please Zeno, which was out of his control. Zeno had no great desire to please the emperor. Why would an expert need approval from a rookie? For what? Do you know the standards by which someone can be judged? What a good or a bad person is and how they got that way? If so, how come you are not a good person yourself?

“How do you figure that?”
“Because good people do not grieve, complain, or groan. They don’t turn pale, tremble, and say, “How will he receive me? Will he listen to me?” Idiot, it is his concern. He will do as he pleases. Why do you worry about things that are not your business? If he fails to receive you well, is it not his problem?”
“Sure.”
“Is it possible that someone makes a mistake and someone else suffers the harm?”
“No. But I am still anxious about how I will talk to him.”
“Why can’t you talk to him anyway you like.”
“I am afraid I will lose my composure.”
“If I were to write the name “Dion,” would you be anxious?”
“No.”
“And why not? Is it not because you have learned how to write it?”
“Yes.”
“And would you be as confident reading the name?”
“Yes.”
“Because when you study a discipline, you gain strength and confidence in that discipline. Now you have practice in speaking. What else did they teach you at school?”
“Logic and arguments that change.”
“For what reason if not to argue skilfully? ‘Skillfully’ meaning to argue with polish, and argue securely, intelligently, without being flustered or confused easily, and with confidence.”
“Yes.”
“Then you are like a soldier on horse-back about to meet a foot-soldier. Are you still anxious?”
“But the king has the power to kill me.”
“Then speak the truth, you sorry specimen, and don’t brag or call yourself a philosopher. Be aware who your masters are and, as long as you allow them to control you through your body, be ready to submit to anyone stronger than you.”

True philosophers are not anxious

Socrates had studied how to speak. So, he spoke the way he did to tyrants, to the jury, and to anyone when in prison. Diogenes had studied how to speak. So, he spoke the way he did to Alexander, Philip, the pirates, and the person to whom the pirates sold him as a slave. As for you, just leave these to those who have studied the matter and are confident. Return to your own business and just be there. Make up syllogisms and explain them to others. “In you, the state has found no captain.”

Think about this

As long as you have this attachment to your body, be ready to submit to anyone or anything of superior physical force. Epictetus, Discourses II.13.23 [RD]