March 25, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Don’t complain; you have no reason to (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.6)
Key ideas of this discourse
The universe is well organized and everything is well co-ordinated. From this we can infer there must be a creator who created all this.
The grandeur of creation is all around us. We don’t see it or appreciate it. Instead, we keep making bucket lists of places we must see before we die.
We have the resources to cope with every difficulty we face. Instead of using the resources we have been given to cope with the problem, we complain.
The harmony of the universe: Why there must be a creator
If you can see things in the larger context and if you have a sense of gratitude, you will find reason to praise providence in everything that happens in the world. Otherwise, you will not be able to see why something has happened. If you do see it, you will not be grateful for it. For example, think about colors:
Colors are not enough; colors need vision to see.
Vision is not enough; vision needs objects to see.
Objects are not enough; objects need light to see.
Who thought of all these things – colours, vision, objects, and light – together and created them so they nicely fit into each other, like a sword fits into a scabbard? No one? When you consider how many things are created to be perfectly compatible with each other, it makes sense that it can’t be random. Rather it is a creation of an artisan. When we see a sword and a scabbard together, we assume that someone made them. Why don’t we assume a creator when we see vision and light together?
What about the desire to have sex and the human sexual organs created so compatibly for this purpose? Don’t they demonstrate that there is a creator? Then, what about our minds? We get many impressions but we choose among them. We combine different things in our mind, form certain ideas, and draw some conclusion. After considering all these complex mental processes, can you still discount the possibility of a creator? If you do, it is up to you to explain how all these things came about and how such wonderful craftsmanship came into being on their own, as random phenomena.
Do only humans have such skills? It is true many skills are special to humans, skills that rational beings need. Irrational animals have many of the same faculties as humans and use the impressions they receive through their senses. But they don’t understand them, while humans do. Use is one thing, understanding is another. It is enough for animals to look after their biological needs: eat, drink, sleep, breed, and so on. Human beings are different. For us, that is not enough because we are given the faculty of understanding. To achieve our proper purpose in life, we need to act appropriately and methodically, in line with our nature. Otherwise we will fall short of our purpose.
Our purpose in life to see and appreciate the wonder around us
Each animal was created for a purpose. Some for production of cheese, some for farming, some to be eaten, and so on. To fulfil such functions, animals don’t need to understand the impressions they receive and make distinctions among them. But we are brought into this world to witness the work of the creator. Not just to witness but to appreciate it as well. So, it is shameful for a human being to begin and end where irrational animals do. We should begin where they do, but only end in contemplation and understanding, and adopt a way of life in harmony with nature. So, take care not to die without being a witness to these things.
You travel long distances to see works of art and put many things on your bucket list. You think it would be unfortunate to die without seeing what is on your list. But to see the work of the creator, you don’t need to travel anywhere. It’s where you are standing right now. Don’t you ever want look at it, understand who you are, why you were born, and why you received the gift of sight?
Quit complaining and realize your strengths
You may say unpleasant and difficult things happen in life. Quite so. Suppose you get a beautiful place. Then what? Won’t you get hot? Won’t you find it crowded? Won’t you get soaked when it rains? Won’t it be noisy? Won’t you find other irritations? Knowing all this, you still go there because you think the beauty of the place is worth it. Have you not received the inner strength to cope with any difficulty that may arise? Have you not been given fortitude, courage, and patience? Why then should you worry about what happens, when you are armed with these virtues and have the power to endure? What could possibly constrain, compel, or even annoy you? You don’t see all this. Instead you moan, groan, shed tears, and complain.
“But my nose is running.”
“What do you have your hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it?”
“But why should my nose run in the first place?”
“Why waste your time protesting? Isn’t easier just to wipe it?”
What would have become of Hercules, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag, boar, or brutal criminals? What would he have done without such challenges? Clearly, he would have wrapped himself and slept.
“In that case maybe he should have created these challenges for himself – such as searching for a lion, a boar, and a hydra to bring them into his land.”
”While it would be madness to create problems for ourselves so we can solve them, the challenges that came Hercules’ way proved useful tests of Hercules’ nature and strength.
Now you know all this, and appreciate all the resources you have. When you are done, say “Let any difficulty come my way. I have the resources and a constitution given to me by my creator to deal with whatever happens.”
But no, there you sit, trembling with fear about what might happen in the future and upset about things that are happening now. You blame God. How does such weakness help? Yet God has given you the strength to tolerate trouble without being humiliated. He has also provided you a means to be free of constraint, hindrance, or compulsion, without having to fall apart. You have all these powers given to you which God himself cannot take away. Yet you don’t use them. You don’t even realize what powers you have and where they came from. Instead, you sit there trembling in fear and complain about what might happen. You refuse to acknowledge your creator and his gifs. Some of you don’t even acknowledge his existence.
My challenge to you
Let me show you that you have resources, strength of character, and resilience. I challenge you to show me what grounds you have to be complaining and reproachful.
[Commentary: Epictetus argues for the existence of God this way: Everything should have a cause. When you look and realize how coordinated the universe is, how smoothly it functions, and how well orchestrated everything is, it should be obvious to anyone there must be an intelligence behind it. This is the standard argument put forth even today by many as proof of God’s existence. A plausible argument perhaps, but it does not answer the question who created the intelligence that co-ordinates everything else.
From a broader perspective, however, this discourse is a call by Epictetus to his students to stop complaining, and understand they already have all the resources they need to cope with any difficulty that may come their way. They should be thankful rather than worried, anxious, or fearful].
Think about this
I undertake to show you that you have the equipment and resources for greatness of soul and a courageous spirit; you show me what occasion you have for complaint and reproach! (Epictetus/Christopher Gill)