March 14, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Don’t Imitate Others Blindly

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. To be an expert you should first digest what you have learned.
  2. Don’t imitate the actions of others without understanding the foundations.
  3. Until you have digested what you have learned and understood fully what is involved, act with modesty and don’t imitate people who know much better than you.

The following is an excerpt from the book Stoic Training, Book 3 of Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English. The complete book is available in online and print editions from Amazon and other online bookstores.

Show your mastery through results

People who have learned principles in theory want to vomit them up immediately, just as those with weak stomachs throw up their food. Digest the principles first, and you won’t vomit them up this way. Otherwise they just turn into vomit – foul food, unfit to eat. But, after you have digested them, show a change in your ruling centre that is due to those principles, just as athletes can show their shoulders because of their training and diet, or as master artists can show the results of their learning. A builder doesn’t come up and say, “Listen to my discourse on the art of building,” but gets a contract and builds a house. He thereby shows he has mastered the art of building. You should do likewise.  Eat like a human being, drink like a human being, dress, marry, become a parent, assume your social responsibilities, put up with abuses; put up with an inconsiderate brother, a father, a son, neighbour, and fellow-traveller. Show these things so we can see that you really have learned something from philosophers.

But, no. You say, “Come and listen to me reading out my commentaries!” Go away. Find someone else to vomit over.

“Yes, but I can explain Chrysippus’ writings to you as no one else can; analyse his language and style with perfect clarity; and I will even add some sparkle of Antipater and Archedemus.”

So, is it for this then that young people should leave their homelands and parents, to hear you interpret trivial phrases? Shouldn’t they go back home as patient people, helpful to others, tranquil, with a mind at peace? Shouldn’t they be furnished with all they need for their journey through life, so they can face up to everything that comes about and derive honour from it? But how can you pass on to them what you yourself don’t have? Have you done anything else since the beginning than to spend all your time trying to solve syllogisms, equivocal arguments, and those developed through questioning?

Don’t imitate the actions of others. Understand what’s involved

“But so-and-so lectures. Why shouldn’t I do the same?”

“It’s not something you can do at random and without proper thought, idiot. One must be of the right age, follow a certain way of life, and have the guidance of gods. You don’t agree. Yet no one sails from a harbour without first offering the gods a sacrifice and praying for their help. No one sows the fields casually but only after praying for help from Demeter [the goddess of agriculture].”

So, can anyone start on such important work as this without the help of gods? Will those who approach gods meet with good fortune? What are you doing, other than profaning the Mysteries and declaring,

“Look, just as there is a shrine there, there’s one here too; there is a priest there, I will get one here too; there is a state official there, I will appoint one here too; there are torches there, there will be torches here too.”

Both can speak the same words. So, what’s the difference between what happens there and what happens here? Are you saying there is no difference, you most impious man? Do these actions bring you the same benefits if they are carried out in the wrong place and at the wrong time? Shouldn’t you approach with sacrifices and prayers? Don’t they require that you purify yourself first? And that your mind hold the thought that you are coming here to participate in sacred rites that are of ancient antiquity? Is this any way to benefit from Mysteries? Is this any way to appreciate that all these things were established by people of earlier generations for our education and the betterment of our lives?

When you imitate without understanding, you are trivializing

As far as you are concerned, you are divulging it to everyone. You are spoofing them and placing them outside their proper time and place, without sacrifices, without purification. You don’t wear the costume that the priest should wear; you don’t have the right hair or headband. You don’t have the right voice, you are not of the right age, you have not kept yourself pure like the other person has, but you have been satisfied just to steal the words he utters and recite them. Do you think words are sacred in themselves?

Approach with caution and respect

You need to approach this very differently. This is a great mission, a serious mystery and is not granted to anyone who comes along. Even being wise may not be enough to take care of the young. You should have a special aptitude and inclination and, by God, a particular physique. You need a calling from God to fulfil this function, just as Socrates was called to fulfil the function of correcting the errors of others, as Diogenes was called to fulfil the function of regally reprimanding them, and as Zeno was called to fulfil the function of teaching and establishing the principles of philosophy.

Instead, you want to start practicing as a doctor, having nothing more than your medicines. You neither know nor have taken the time to learn when and how you should apply them. “Look at him. He has those eye salves. I have just the same!” Do you know how to use them? Do you have any idea when and how they will do any good? And to whom?

Be aware of your limitations

Why, then, are you putting in danger matters of the highest importance? Why are you careless? Leave it to those who can do it and do it well. Don’t bring disgrace to philosophy by your actions like many others do. If philosophical principles interest you, sit down and work on them yourself. But don’t say that you are a philosopher and don’t let anyone else say that you are one. Say instead, “He is mistaken. My desires are not different from what they were before, nor are they directed towards other things. I don’t assent to other things than what I used to. And I am not able to interpret impressions any better.” If you think correctly, this is what you must think and say to yourself. Otherwise, act recklessly: do what you are doing. That’s what you are suited for.

Think about this

You open up shop as a doctor with no other equipment than your medicines: as to when or how you should apply them, that you neither know nor have ever bothered to learn. “Look, that man has those eye salves and I have just the same.” Do you have the ability, then, to make proper use of them? Discourse III.21.21. Epictetus [RH]