July 15, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Deal With The Cards You Are Handed (Epictetus Discourses In Plain English II.5)
Key ideas of this discourse
We have no choice about what happens. But we can choose how to deal with what happens.
We can be obstructed only in things we don’t control.
Deal only with things under your control. Handle the rest as it comes.
Be careful how you play ball, but be indifferent to the ball itself.
We are a part of humanity. When we are a part of a larger system, inevitable things happen. Knowing this, deal with things that happen without complaining.
Imitate dice players when dealing with life
Materials of action are indifferent. But the way we use them is not.
“How, then, can we preserve our stability and peace of mind while, at the same time, taking care to avoid hasty and thoughtless actions?”
“By imitating dice players. The counters are indifferent. So are the players. Our job is to make careful and skillful use of what has fallen, even though we don’t know what is going to fall.”
Externals are not in our power. Choice is
That’s our main business, even in life. We need to distinguish things, compare them, and come to the understanding that, “Externals are not in my power. Choice is.”
“Where do I find good and evil?”
“In your choices. In what your own. When it comes to what belongs to others, never think of anything as good or evil, beneficial or injurious and the like.”
“So, can we use externals in a careless way?”
“Not at all. Being careless is an evil when it involves choice. It is unnatural. Care is needed because the use of externals is not indifferent. At the same time, we can maintain stability and peace of mind because the externals themselves are indifferent.”
We can be obstructed only in matters we don’t control
Where something is not indifferent, no one can obstruct and compel us. We can be obstructed or compelled only in matters over which we have no control. These are neither good or bad, because they are not based on our choices. Blending the two – the carefulness of one devoted to material things with the stability of one who disregards them – may appear difficult, but it is not impossible. In fact, it is essential for our happiness.
Do what is in your control and deal with the rest as it unfolds
Say you are going on a voyage. What can you do? Whatever is in your power: Pick the captain, the ship, the day, and the time. Then a storm rises. It’s no longer your business, it’s the captain’s. You have done everything you could. Now the ship starts to sink. What can you do now? The only thing you can do – sink. But without fear, without crying, and without accusing god; as one who knows what is born must also die. You are not eternal, but a human being. A part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. An hour ends. So does your life. What difference is there in dying whether it be by drowning or by fever? You must die one way or another.
This is what skillful ballplayers do. They don’t consider the ball good or bad but only how to throw it and how to catch it. Grace, skill, speed, and expertise lie in that. While I can’t catch their throws even if I spread my coat to do it, they can catch the ball wherever I throw it. But if we are nervous about throwing or catching the ball, there’s no fun in it. How can we keep ourselves steady and see what comes next? “Throw it,” says one; “Don’t throw it,” says another; “You have thrown it already once,” says yet another. It would become more a quarrel than a game.
In this sense, Socrates was a ballplayer. He played in the courtroom. He challenged, “Tell me, Anytus, how can you say I don’t believe in God? Who do you think are the daemons? Have we not agreed that they are offspring of gods or of gods and humans?’ Anytus agreed. ‘Tell me then,’ Socrates continued, ‘If someone accepts that there are mules, shouldn’t they also accept there are horses and donkeys, the animals that produced them? Clearly, Socrates was playing ball. The ball in this case was his life, prison, exile, or execution; being separated from his wife and his children becoming orphans. These were the stakes and yet he played – with skill.
Be careful how you play ball, but be indifferent to the ball itself
We need to play the same way: Careful about how we play, while being indifferent to the ball itself. We need to show skill in dealing with external materials, without becoming attached them. A weaver does not make the wool, but uses her skills on the wool she is given. Whoever has given you food and property can take them back, and your body too. Accept what you are given and work on it. If you come off unharmed, people who meet you will congratulate you on your escape. But an insightful person will praise you and share your pleasure only if you have acted honorably. He will do the opposite if you have gained your success through dishonest means. When a person has a proper reason to celebrate, others have a reason to join in the celebration.
We are a part of humanity. Inevitable things happen
Why do we say, then, some externals are natural, while others are not?
It depends on whether we consider them together or separately. For example, if taken by itself, it is natural for my foot to be clean. But if I consider it as a part of my body, then it is proper for my foot to walk through mud and thorns and step on needles. It may even have to be amputated for the sake of the whole body. It cannot be considered a foot otherwise.
We have to reason that some such distinction applies to us as well. What are you? A human being. If you think of yourself as a separate unit, then it is natural to live to old age, be wealthy and healthy. But when you think of yourself as a part of humanity, then it is natural for you to get sick, face unsafe situations, struggle to make ends meet and even die before your time. Why are you then upset? Don’t you realize that just as a foot is no longer a foot when detached from the body, you are not a human being when you are detached from humanity? What is a human being? Part of a state. First, of that state which is made up of god and humans. Second, part of the state where one happens to live, which is a small copy of the universal state.
“Why should I be put on trial now? Why do people fall ill, go on an ocean cruise, die or get convicted?”
“We are given such a body as ours, in such a universe as ours, and in such a community as ours. Therefore, what happens to us is unavoidable. It is for you to step forward and deal with these things as best as you can.”
Thus, if you are declared guilty, you can tell the judge ‘I wish you well. I have done my part. It is for you to decide if you have done yours.’ After all, don’t forget, the judge runs a risk too.
Think about this
Externals are not in my power. Choice is. Where shall I seek good and evil? Within; in what is my own. (CG/RH)