March 19, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

How to know that you are making progress (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.4)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

Discourses is a collection of Epictetus’ conversations with his students and visitors, as recorded by his student Flavius Arrian. Discourses forms an excellent introduction to Stoicism and, in this series, The Stoic Gym presents Epictetus’ Discourses in plain English.

To achieve serenity and peace of mind, you should

  • direct your desires toward good things and away from bad things; and
  • understand that you can achieve serenity only if you get what you want and do not get what you don’t want.

You cannot make progress in these areas by simply reading books about them. You need to practice these principles.
As you make progress, you will be less inclined to indulge in self-pity but face anything that comes your way fearlessly and with dignity.
Be grateful knowing that you can achieve serenity and peace of mind.

Reading books is not enough

You have learned from philosophers that

you should direct your desires toward good things and away from bad things; and

you can achieve serenity only if you get what you want and do not get what you don’t want.

You are making progress when you completely get rid of your desires (or put them off for now) and direct your aversions only to things under your control. If you try to avoid things not under your control, you will fail sometimes and be unhappy.

If virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind, and serenity, then as you progress building virtue, you progress towards happiness, an untroubled mind, and serenity. You will agree that, no matter where the perfection of it is, you make progress toward approaching it. Why is it then, after knowing this, we brag about our progress in things unrelated to this?

“What does virtue achieve?”
“A life that flows smoothly.”

So, who is making progress? Someone who has read [the Stoic philosopher] Chrysippus’ books? If virtue is no more than reading books by Chrysippus, then progress is nothing more than reading as many of his books as we can. By accepting this, we are saying that virtue produces one thing and progress towards it produces something different.

One can be sarcastic about this and say, “You can read Chrysippus all by yourself. Aren’t you making great progress!” Why do you mock him? Why do you try to distract him from becoming aware of his error? Don’t you want to show him the purpose of virtue, so that he will know what to work on?

“And what is that?”
“Working on your desire and your aversion.”

Make it your goal to never fail to achieve your desires or experience things that you would rather avoid. Try not to make mistakes in exercising your impulse to act or not to act. Be equally careful before accepting an impression as true. But first things first, look at the most essential ones. If you are constantly anxious and nervous while trying to be perfect, how have you made progress?

Don’t show me your efforts, show me the results

Show me what you have achieved so far. If you were an athlete, I would want to see your shoulders. Don’t tell me, “Look at all my training weights,” but show me your shoulders. Enough of you and your weights; show me what your weights have achieved.

Similarly, don’t tell me how thoroughly you have read the book On Impulse. Idiot, that’s not what I am looking for. Show me instead what you learned from the book: how you exercise your impulse to act or not act, how you manage your desires and aversions, how you approach life, how you apply yourself to it and prepare for it. Are these in harmony with nature? If so, show me the evidence. Otherwise, be on your way. Don’t comment on books or write them yourself. What do you gain by it? Don’t you know books are cheap? Are you worth more than the cost of the book you are commenting on?

Don’t look for your work in one place and results in another

Live what you have learned. What is progress then? If you can show me you have learned that

  • you are not controlled by things outside of you but by your choices;
  • you need to work on exercising choice that is in harmony with nature;
  • you are elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, and self-respecting;
  • if you are controlled by things outside your power, you cannot be free or faithful. You will be tossed back and forth and be at the mercy of others and they can thwart you;
  • when you rise in the morning, you observe and keep these rules. You bathe and eat as someone who is faithful and honorable; and
  • you apply these principles from the moment you wake up, eat and bathe like a person of integrity, and apply these principles to everything that happens, just as a professional runner applies the principles of running to running or a professional musician applies the principles of music to singing.

If you can show me all these, then I will know that you are making progress and have not traveled in vain. But if all you are interested in is only reading books, I would advise you to go back home and take care of domestic affairs. You are here for nothing. The purpose of studying is to learn to get rid of complaints, misfortunes, disappointments, and self-pity. You should learn what death is as well as what things like exile, jail, and poison are, so when something unfortunate happens, you can face it with dignity like Socrates facing his death sentence: “My dear Crito, if this is what pleases the gods, so be it!” and not saying “Poor me, an old man. Is this what old age is all about?” Who says such things? Not just the humble, but Priam and Oedipus expressed such thoughts. And so did all the kings of legend. What are tragic stories except descriptions of people who went after things that were not under their control, failed, and as a result, suffered?

The gift of serenity

If these tragic stories can trick us into learning that external things are outside our influence and therefore nothing to us, it will help us live in peace, free from disturbance. I wish this for me, it is for you to decide what you wish for yourself.

These principles on which serenity is based are true, Chrysippus assured us: “Take all my books and you will find things that are in harmony with nature give us peace of mind.” We praise God: “How fortunate we are! Great benefactor who shows us the way!” We build temples and statues for things such as crops, corn, and vine we believe he has given us. Aren’t we forgetting to be thankful to the one who found and explained the truth that pertains not just to living but to living well? Who among you has ever erected a statue, built a temple, and praised God for that? We praise God and offer sacrifice for giving us wheat and wine. But he has produced such a wonderful fruit in a human mind that intends to show the true secret of happiness. Are we going to forget to express our thanks for that?

Think about this

These doctrines on which serenity and peace of mind depends are not false. Take all my books and you will see how true and in harmony with nature are things that give me peace of mind. Chrysippus