May 27, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Difficulties Show What A Person Is Made Of (Epictetus Discourses In Plain English 1.24)
Key ideas of this discourse
- Think of difficulties as opportunities for training.
- Understand that external things are nothing to us.
- Don’t fear others. You don’t have to, if you don’t lay claim on externals.
- Don’t envy others. Outwardly successful people can be tragic figures.
- If you don’t want to play the game quit. Stay or leave, don’t complain.
Difficulties are training opportunities
It is difficulties that show what a person is made of. So, when you face some difficulty, think of yourself as a wrestler. God, as your trainer, has matched you with a tough young opponent. But why? To turn you into Olympic-class material. This cannot be done without sweat. The way I see it, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours – if you are willing to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of well-conditioned opponent.
Understand that externals are nothing to us
We are now sending you to Rome as a spy. But we don’t want a coward for a spy – someone who is quick to turn back at the first noise or a glimpse of a shadow, completely frightened and announce, “The enemy is practically among us.” When you return, if you tell us,
“Things are dreadful in Rome. Death, exile, poverty, and spies are everywhere. Run you people, the enemy is already among us!” then we will tell you,
“Get lost. And keep your forecasts to yourself. Our only mistake was to send out such a spy.”
We had sent Diogenes as a spy and he came back with a very different report. He said, “Death is no evil, because it is not dishonorable. Reputation is the empty noise of fools.”
He brought great news to remove pain, pleasure, and poverty. He preferred little clothing to purple robes, bare ground to a soft bed. And to prove his claims he produced his courage, tranquility, and freedom as well as his tough, radiant body. He said,
“There are no enemies nearby! All is profound peace.”
“How so, Diogenes?”
“Look at me. Am I wounded, disabled, or running away from anyone?
Don’t envy others
That’s how a spy should be. Instead, you bring us all random things. Go back and examine things more closely, setting aside your cowardice.
“What should I do then?”
“What do you do when you leave a ship? Do you take the rudder and oars with you? No, you leave with your own luggage, oil-flask, and wallet. If you remember what belongs to you, you won’t lay claim to what belongs to others.”
The emperor says “Take off your consul’s robe.”
“Then I will wear a plain toga.”
“Take off that too.”
“Fine, I will go naked.”
“I still envy your calm.”
“Take my whole body then. Take it all.”
Is there any reason to fear anyone, if I am ready give up my body?
You protest, “But so-and-so will not leave his estate to me. What then?” Did you forget that none of it is yours? How then do you call it your own? Do you call the hotel bed yours? If the hotel-owner dies and leaves the beds to you, you will have it. If she leaves it to someone else, he will have it. You will have to find another bed or sleep on the floor. Do so with courage, and snore away.
Remember, tragedies take place among the rich and among kings and tyrants. No poor man fills a tragic role except as a member of the chorus. Kings start off in prosperity: “Decorate the palace with festive garlands.” But about the third or fourth act, “O Cithaeron, why did you receive me?” (Cithaeron was the mountain on which the infant Oedipus was left to die.) Fool, where are your crowns? Where is your diadem? Even your guards can’t help you now. So, remember, when you meet someone like this, you are in the presence of a tragic figure, not an actor but Oedipus himself.
“But he is so blessed to walk around with an entourage.”
“Join a crowd. You too will have an entourage.”
Stay or leave, but quit complaining
So, remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children who say, when they are tired of the game, “I will play no more.” When you feel weary of the game, say “I will play no more” and depart. If you stay, quit complaining.
Think about this
It is difficulties that show what men are. Discourses I.24.1. Epictetus/William A. Oldfather