May 10, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
How To Act When You Meet The Powerful (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English 1.19)
Key ideas of this discourse
This discourse discusses how we become arrogant when we think we are powerful. We also become subservient to others when we think that others are powerful. There is no need for this if we stop valuing external things.
Power, whether real or imaginary, makes people arrogant.
We are not frightened by what others might do to us, we are frightened by our thoughts about what might happen.
It is not antisocial to be self-interested. It is common to all beings.
We become subservient to others when we value external things.
Power makes peoples arrogant
Uneducated people who have an advantage over others, real or imaginary, will grow arrogant. A powerful person, for example, will say.
“I am very powerful.”
“What can you do for me then? I want my desires unrestricted. Can you give me that?”
How can you? Have you achieved it for yourself? What else can you offer me? I want to avoid only those things I would like avoid. Can you give me that? Have you achieved it for yourself? I always want to get what I want. Can you give that? When you are on a ship, you trust the pilot’s expertise, not your own; when you are on a carriage, you trust the driver’s skill. It is no different with other things. So, what does your superiority amount to?
“Everybody pays attention me.”
“Well, I pay attention to my plate, wash it and wipe it. I pay attention to my oil flask – I drive a nail in the wall to hang it. Do these things make them better than me? No, it just means that they are of some use to me.”
I look after my donkey too. I wash its feet and clean him down. Everyone looks after themselves and looks to you as they look to their donkey. Who respects you as a human being and wants to be like you, as if you were Socrates?
“But I can harm you.”
“Oh, I forgot. I should watch out for you like I would for some virus or infection and erect an altar for you.”
It’s our thoughts that frighten us
What scares most people and keeps them frightened? It can’t be the tyrant and the bodyguards. What nature has made free cannot be restrained by anything except by nature itself. A person’s own thoughts can frighten her. If a tyrant threatens to chain our leg, whoever holds her leg in high regard will beg for mercy. A person who cares more for his character will say,
“Go ahead and chain it, if you like.”
“You don’t care?”
“No, not in the least.”
“Wait, I will show you who’s in charge.”
“How do you propose to do that? God has made me free and he is not going to allow his son to be enslaved. You are a master of my corpse and you are welcome to that.”
“Do you mean to say that you will pay me no attention when you come across me?”
“No, I’d rather look after myself. If you insist, I will admit that I give you the same attention I give my dishes.”
Self-interest is a common instinct and not antisocial
It is not us just being selfish. It is the way it is. Everything we do is done for our own ends. The Sun moves across the sky for its own purpose. Even God acts on his own aims. But, while achieving his aims, God’s actions benefit the world, so we respect Him as the giver of these benefits. He made rational beings the same way. Humans cannot achieve their personal goals without, at the same time, providing for the community, contributing to the common benefit. Finally, it is not antisocial to do everything for one’s own sake. In any case, what do you expect? That we should not concern ourselves with our welfare? Then how do you explain the fact all living beings are driven by the same instinct of self-interest?
We grovel when we value things not under our control
When people hold absurd opinions about things not in their control, taking them to be good and bad, they will of course grovel before powerful people. Not only before the powerful but their flunkeys too! Tell me, how does someone become wise when he is made a bathroom attendant by the emperor? Why do we suddenly say that ‘Felicio [a common name for a slave/freedman] made such wise comments’? I hope he is kicked out of his position, so I can see you change your mind and consider him a fool again.
Epaphroditus (Epictetus’ owner when he was a slave) once sold a slave because he was useless. The slave, who was a shoemaker, was bought by a member of Caeser’s household. So, he became a shoemaker to the emperor. If only you had seen the way Epaphroditus honored him! “How is my friend Felicio today?” If someone asked us “Where is your master?” he was told, “He is in conference with Felicio.” Hadn’t he sold him off because he was useless? How did he become so wise suddenly? Well, that’s what happens when we value what is not under our control.
Someone is promoted. All who meet him congratulate him. They kiss his eyes and cheeks, even hands. At home, lights are lit in his honor. He climbs up the Capitol and offers a sacrifice of thanks. I ask you, who has ever offered thanks for the right desires or for impulses in agreement with nature? It seems that we only thank God for what we believe to be the good things in life.
A man asked me today about accepting an important public office, the priesthood of Augustus. I told him not to accept.
“You will incur a lot of expense for little return.”
“But the clerk will add my name to a public contract.”
“OK, you attend the signing ceremonies now. What happens when you die?”
“My name will survive me.”
“Carve it in stone, and it will survive equally well. Outside Nicopolis, no one will remember this.”
“But I get to wear a crown of gold.”
“If your heart is set on a crown, make one out of roses. You will look prettier in that.”
Think about this
It is not anti-social to be constantly acting in one’s own self-interest. Discourses I.19. 13. Epictetus/Robert Dobbin
[God made it so that] human beings are incapable of attaining any of their private ends without at the same time providing for the common good. Discourses I.19. 14. Epictetus/Robert Dobbin
When people hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, regarding them good or evil, it is quite inevitable that they pay court to tyrants. Discourses I.19.15. Epictetus/Christopher Gill