May 19, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Freedom from the Opinions of Others
Key ideas of this discourse
- There is no need to worry about what others say about you.
- If others have things like money, office, and other things, it is because they worked for it.
- When you work towards making better judgments, this is where you should look for an advantage over others. But you don’t, because you don’t fully believe that what you have is as valuable as what others have. Therefore, you’re bothered by what others think of you.
- Pay attention to what you truly care about. Then you won’t be upset by what others think or say about you.
There is no need to be upset if others pity you
[A student said to Epictetus]
“It annoys me when people pity me.”
“Who’s responsible for this? You or the people who pity you? Can you stop this from happening?”
“I can stop it, if I can show them that there is no reason for them to pity me.”
“But is this something in your power – whether or not people pity you?”
“Yes, I think it is in my power. But people don’t pity me for the right reasons, for my faults that deserve pity. Instead, they pity poverty, lack of office, illness or death, and other things like that.”
“Then, are you ready to convince the world that none of these things are bad and that you can be happy even when you are poor, hold no office or honour? Or do you want show yourself off to them as a rich person and an official?”
If you choose the second option [of showing yourself off], then you are an egotist, a tasteless and worthless person. Think about what you must do to achieve this. You will have to borrow some workers, own silverware, and show them off in public often, each time making sure it looks different. You will need flashy clothes and all kinds of accessories. You should show yourself off as one who is honored by distinguished people and try to dine with them or at least make others believe that you do. You need to treat your body such that it looks better looking and more distinguished than you really are. You need to follow all this if you want to follow the second option, so people don’t pity you.
But the first option – convincing everyone what things are good and what things are bad – is both impractical and tedious. Even God himself couldn’t do it. That power hasn’t been given to you, has it? The only power given to you is to convince yourself and you are yet to do it. And you are trying to convince others?
You are not convinced yourself that what you have is good
Who has lived with you for as long as you have lived with yourself? Who could convince you as well as you could? Who is better disposed towards you and closer to you than you are to yourself? How is it then you have not convinced yourself of this? Isn’t this upside down? Is this what you’re concerned about? Is this what you’re anxious about? And not about how to get rid of pain, chaos, and humiliation so you can be free? Haven’t you heard that there is only one way to get there: to give up things that are outside your choice or control, to turn away from them and to admit that they are not your own?
“What kind of a thing is this then – someone else’s opinion about you?”
“It is something outside my choice or control.”
“Is it nothing to you, then?”
“Yes, it is nothing.”
“If you are still stung and disturbed by the opinion of others, can you say you are fully convinced about what is good and bad? Why don’t you let others alone, and become your own teacher and your own student? Let others think about whether it is in their interest to live according to nature, and live accordingly. But, as for you, no one is closer to you than yourself.”
“I have heard philosophers say and agreed with them; yet I don’t feel that my burden has lightened. What do you think it means?”
“Can it be that you are dull?”
“In other things I tried, I was not found to be dull. I learned to read and write quickly, learned wrestling and geometry, and learned how to analyse syllogisms.”
“Can it be, then, that reason has failed to convince you?”
“But there is nothing that I approved more from the beginning, nothing that I preferred more; and now I spend my time reading, writing and, hearing about them. To this day, I have not found a stronger argument than this. What am I missing?”
“Can it be that you still have contradictory opinions? That you have not strengthened your convictions through exercises and have not yet got into the habit of testing your convictions with facts? Have you stored your convictions away like old, rusty pieces of armour that no longer fit you?”
“If I look at other things I have learned, such as wrestling, reading, and writing, I am not satisfied with just learning. I continue think about and analyse the arguments that are presented to me. And I construct new arguments, even equivocal arguments. But I don’t exercise the necessary principles that will release me from fear, grief, passion, and hindrance and make me free; neither do I apply enough care to them. After all that, I am worried about what others will say of me. Will I appear important and happy in their eyes?”
“O miserable man, won’t you see what you are saying about yourself? What kind of a person are you in your own eyes? What kind of a person are you in your thoughts, desires, and aversions? What kind of a person are you in your choices, preparations, and projects and all other human activities? Yet you are concerned with whether other people pity you?”
“Yes, because I don’t deserve to be pitied.”
“So, you are upset by that? If one is upset, then doesn’t one deserve pity?”
“Then, how can you still say that you don’t deserve pity? The way you feel about pity makes you worthy of pity.”
Why should you care if what others say about you is not true? Haven’t you heard what [the philosopher] Antisthenes said: “It’s a king’s lot, Cyrus, to do well, and be spoken ill of.”
My head is perfectly all right. What do I care if others think I have a headache? I have no fever, yet people sympathize with me as if I had one:
“Poor man, how long have you had this fever?”
So I put on a long face and say, “Yes, I have not been well for a long time.”
“What will happen to you then?”
“Whatever God decides.”
At the same time, I’m secretly amused at those who pity me. Why can’t I do same thing when it comes to other things? I’m poor, but I have the right judgment on poverty. What is it to me if people pity me for my poverty? I don’t hold office, while others do. But I have the right judgment about holding or not holding office. Let others pity me or look to their own, but I am not hungry, thirsty, or cold. Yet because they are hungry and thirsty, they think I am too. What should I do then? Go about announcing, “Don’t be fooled, you people. It’s all well with me. I pay no attention to poverty, lack of office, or anything else except for correct judgments, which I have without any restriction. I really don’t think about other things.” What nonsense is this? How can I have right judgment when I am not satisfied with who I am but feel upset about how I look to others?
If others have what you don’t have, it’s because they worked to get it
“But others will get more than I do, and be held in greater honor.”
Isn’t it reasonable that those who work towards an advantage should have it? They worked towards holding office, and you towards making correct judgments; they to wealth, you to judging your impressions the right way. What you should look at is whether they have an advantage over you on things you worked towards, but they didn’t. Are their judgments in accordance with nature? Are they more successful in achieving their desires? Are they able to avoid what they don’t want? Are they more certain of achieving their goals in their designs, purposes, and choices? Do they do what is fitting as human beings, as sons, as parents, and as designated in other relationships?
If they hold office and do everything to get it, and you don’t hold office and don’t do anything to get it, why don’t you tell yourself the truth? Isn’t it most unreasonable to expect a person who work towards something to be less successful than the one who doesn’t?
“No, because I take trouble over right judgments, it is more reasonable for me to have the upper hand.”
“Yes, in what you take trouble over – your judgements. But in those things that others have taken more trouble over than you, give way to them. Otherwise, it would be like expecting yourself to hit the target in archery, because you have correct judgments. Or expecting to surpass blacksmiths in their trade.”
Pay attention to things you care about
So, stop taking your judgments so seriously. Pay attention to things that you care about. And then cry if you aren’t successful in getting them, because then your crying is justified. But you say that you are busy with other things and are attending to those things. As people say, “One serious business has no partnership with another.” [This is a quote from Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, as translated by William Oldfather.]
One person gets up at dawn and looks for someone who is close to a powerful person and salutes him; looks for someone with whom he can have a pleasant conversation or send a gift; thinks about ways to please a dancer; or how he may please someone by maligning someone else. Whenever he prays, he prays for things like these. Whenever he sacrifices, he sacrifices for things like these. He applies the saying, “Let not sleep descend on your weary eyes,” by Pythagoras for these purposes. [Then he wonders] “Where did I go wrong in my flattery? What did I do? Could it be that I acted as a free and noble-minded person?” If he does find any such action he criticizes and accuses himself: “What did you do that for? Couldn’t you have lied? Even philosophers say that nothing stops one from lying.”
Ask yourself these questions
But if you have really paid attention to nothing else other than how to make right use of impressions, then, as soon as you get up in the morning, you should ask yourself:
- What have I yet to do to achieve freedom from passion? To achieve peace of mind?
- What am I? Am I just a worthless body? Am I property? Am I reputation? None of these.
- What am I then? I am a rational living being.
- What then is expected of me? Go over your actions in your mind.
- Where have I gone wrong in achieving happiness?
- What did I do that was unfriendly, unsociable, or inconsiderate?
- What did I fail to do that I ought to have done regarding these things?
Since people differ so greatly in their desires, actions and prayers, do you still expect to have equal share with them in those things to which they have devoted time, but you have not? Is it any surprise that they pity you and you are upset?
“But they are not worried if you pity them.”
“Because they are convinced that they are getting good things, but you are not so convinced. So, you are not happy with what you have and you want what they have. But, if you are truly convinced that what you have is good while they are mistaken, you would not care at all about what they say.”
Think about this
If you were truly convinced that it is you who are in possession of what it good, and they are mistaken, you would not even have given a thought to what they say about you. Discourses IV.6.38 Epictetus [CG/RH]