May 30, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses

Freedom From Following the Wrong Course

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. When you see someone with things you don’t have don’t envy. Think of what you have in their place.
  2. By craving things that are of no value, you lose things that are of value.
  3. It is easy to reverse the wrong course of action, once you see the value in doing so.

If you don’t see any value in reversing the wrong course, not even God can help you.

Do not envy what others have; you have something else

When you see someone in power, compare it to the benefit you have by not wanting it. When you see someone rich, see what you have instead of riches. If you don’t have anything in their place, you would be miserable. But if you have the advantage of not needing riches, know that you have something more than what the other person has, and of far greater value. Someone has an attractive spouse; you, the happiness of not desiring one.

Do you think these are trivial things? And what would these same people – the rich and powerful with attractive spouses – give to be able to look down upon riches and power, and those attractive spouses whom they love and win? Don’t you know how thirsty someone gets who is feverish? It has no resemblance to that of a healthy person. A healthy person drinks and her thirst is gone. But a sick person feels all right for a while, feels nauseous, turns water into bile, vomits, bellyaches, and is even thirstier than before.

By craving things, you lose the valuable things you have.

It is much the same to have money and yet crave it, have power and yet crave it, sleep with an attractive person and yet crave her – there will be jealousy, fear of loss, shameful words, thoughts, and deeds.

“And what do I lose?”

You were modest before. Now you are not. Have you lost nothing? Instead of Chrysippus and Zeno, you now read [the erotic writers] Aristides and Euneus. Have you lost nothing then? Instead of Socrates and Diogenes, you have come to admire a man who can seduce and corrupt the largest number of women. You want to be handsome (although you are not) and make yourself up and want show off your bright clothes to attractive women. You consider yourself lucky if you come across a good perfume anywhere.

But formerly you did not think of these things but only where you might find a decent discourse, a worthy person, and a noble thought. For this reason, you used to sleep like a man, appear in public as a man, wear men’s clothes, and hold discourses worthy of a man.

After all this do you still say that you have lost nothing? Is it just small change to lose self-respect and decency? Or do you think these things count for nothing? Perhaps, to you, these things no longer look serious. But there was a time when you thought it the only serious loss and harm, and you were most anxious that nobody should drive you away from such thoughts and actions. Now you have been driven by such thoughts, not by others, but by yourself.

It is easy to correct yourself

Fight against yourself and regain your decency, self-respect, and freedom. If anyone ever told you about me that someone was forcing me to commit adultery, to wear clothes like yours, to wear perfume, would you not have gone and murdered the man who was mistreating me this way? Now, aren’t you willing to come to your own rescue? And how much easier it is to rescue yourself! You don’t have to kill, put in jail, or attack anyone. You don’t have to come into the open but only talk to yourself, someone who will be readily persuaded and to whom no one can be more persuasive than yourself.

So, first judge your actions. When you have condemned them, do not give up on yourself. Don’t act like spiritless people who, once they give in, abandon themselves completely and are swept off by the current. Instead, learn from gymnastic trainers: Has the boy fallen down? “Get up and wrestle again until you get strong.” You should also react in some similar way. You should know there is nothing more flexible than the human mind. You only to have to will a thing; it happens, and it is set right. On the other hand, you only have to doze off, and all is lost. Both destruction and deliverance come from within.

If you don’t see the value of this, no one can save you

“What good do I get after all that?”
What greater good than this are you looking for? Instead of shameless, you will become self-respecting. Instead of faithless, you will be trustworthy; instead of self-indulgent, self-controlled. If you are looking for anything greater than these things, go on acting as you do now. Even God can no longer save you.

Think about this

Fight against yourself, vindicate yourself for decency, for respect, for freedom. Discourses. IV.9.11. Epictetus [WO]