August 26, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Knowing Means Nothing If You Don’t Practice The Right Way (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.17)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

You should come to learn philosophy with no conceit.

We all understand intuitively concepts like good and bad. But we don’t know how to apply them properly to a given situation. This is why get into conflict with other.

It is not enough if you understand these things intellectually and talk about them. You have to practice them diligently if you want to make any progress.

When you want to learn, come without conceit

What is the first order of business when you start learning philosophy? To set aside your self-satisfaction about what you think you know. You are not going to learn anything new, if you think you know it already.

When we come to philosophy we freely talk about what should or should not be done, what is good or bad, what is mean or noble. On that basis, we assign praise or blame, accuse or condemn, and pass judgments on good and bad behavior, and distinguish one from the other.

We intuitively understand concepts, but not how to apply them properly

Then what do we come to philosophers for? To learn what we think we do not know – the basic principles. Some of us want to learn from philosophers because we think they will be witty and sharp. Others do so because they think they will gain some advantage from it. It is ridiculous to imagine you are going to learn anything other than what you want to learn. You cannot hope to make any progress in any area without putting in the effort. Yet many people make the mistake that [the Greek orator] Theopompous made when he criticized Plato because he wanted to define every word:

[Theopompous] “Did no one before you use the words ‘good’ and ‘just’? If they did, were they just making noise without understanding the meaning of these words?”
[Plato] “Who told you, Theopompous, that we don’t intuitively know the meaning of these words? What we don’t know is how to apply them correctly. It is impossible to apply these intuitive concepts to life without first understanding to which class of things we can apply each concept. It is like telling physicians, ‘Have you not used the terms “sickness” and “health” before Hippocrates came along? Were you then talking nonsense?’ Of course, they had an idea of what health was but couldn’t agree on how to apply it correctly. One doctor would say, ‘Fast’ and another would say ‘Eat.’ One would say “Cut a vein” and another would say “Give him blood. Why? Because they could not apply the concept of health correctly to specific instances.”

It is so in life as well. We all talk about good and evil, useful and harmful. It’s all in our vocabulary.

“But do we understand how to apply them correctly? Let’s see. Prove it.”
“How can I prove it?”

Apply them to specific cases. What Plato classifies as “useful”, you may classify as “useless.” Both of you cannot be right. For some rich is “good”, for others it is not. For some, pleasure is “good” and for others health is “good.” If all of us understand these intuitive concepts correctly, and need no further clarification, then we do we disagree with one another? Why do we blame one another? But I don’t even need to refer to such conflicts. Just look at yourself. If you are good at applying your intuitive concepts properly, why are you unhappy and obstructed?

For now, let’s ignore the secondary field of study – impulse and how to regulate them. Let’s ignore the third field of study as well – assent. Let’s simply look at the first. That alone provides enough proof that you are good at applying intuitive concepts. Are you realistic in your desires, that is realistic for you? If so, why are you frustrated and unhappy? Aren’t you trying to escape the inevitable? How else can you explain your facing misfortunes of any kind? Why do you get what you don’t want but not what you do want? This is the greatest proof of misfortune: You want something to happen and it doesn’t; You don’t want something to happen and it does. Who can be more unfortunate than you?

Tragedy happens when intuitive concepts are misapplied

Isn’t this what drove Medea (in Euripides’ play) to kill her own children? It was noble in the sense that she realized what it means to have one’s desire frustrated. She wanted to take revenge on the man who hurt and humiliated her. How? By killing her children. That would punish her as well, but she didn’t care. Thus, a noble soul was ruined. She didn’t know where the power lies to do as we wish. We cannot get this power from outside or by rearranging circumstances. If she had given up wanting to keep her husband, she would not have failed to fulfil her desire. If she had given up wanting to live with her husband at any cost, wanting to live in Corinth, and wanting anything but what actually happens, who would have stopped her or compelled her? No one. She would have been as unstoppable as God himself. When you have God to guide you and conform your wishes to what actually happens, how can you have any fear of failure?

Make it so that whatever happens is what you want to happen

You may desire wealth and be averse to poverty but you may end up getting poverty and not wealth. The same is true of the other external things that are outside your choice: health, status, honor, country, friends, or children. Think of these things as God’s business and hand them over to him and let him administer them. Make it so that whatever happens is what you want to happen. How can you then be unhappy? But how can you call yourself educated, if you still experience envy, pity, jealousy, and fear and complain everyday about your condition and about God? What kind of education is that? You learned logic and about changing arguments? Now let go of your past learning and make a fresh start. Realize that you have barely touched upon the most important thing. Begin with this foundation and build on it: Establish how only what you wish to happen happens; nothing you don’t wish does.

The three disciplines

Give me a young student who comes to the school with this single purpose, like an athlete in action: “I don’t care about the rest. All I want is to spend my life free of obstruction and distress, hold up my head high no matter what happens, and be a free person, a friend of god, fearing nothing that can happen.” If any of you can show me that you are such a person, I would say, “Come in, young man, to claim what is your own. You are a credit to philosophy. Yours are all these possessions, books, and discourses.

Thus, when the student learns and masters the first area of study, comes back to me and says, “I want to be free from fear and emotions. Not just that. As a respectful, philosophical, careful, and attentive person, I would like to know my duty to God, to my parents, siblings, country, and to strangers,” I would ask the student to progress to this second area of study.

When the student has mastered the second area of study as well and says, “I have mastered this second area. Now I would like to be secure and unshakable, not just when I am awake but even when I am asleep, drunk, or depressed.” My response would be, “You are God. Your goals are praiseworthy!”

Learning means nothing, if you don’t put it into practice

But no, what do I get? You come and tell me, “I want to master Chrysippus’ work on Liar. If that’s your plan, you might as well go and jump in the lake. What good will come of it? You will continue to be unhappy while reading it and be anxious when discussing it with others. This is how you talk:

“Shall I read it to you, or you to me?”
“I admire the way you write.”
“You write well, in the style of Xenophon.”
“You write well too, in the style of Plato.”
“You, in the style of Antisthenes.”

After having shared your dreams with each other, you go back to your former habits. Your desires and aversions, impulses, designs and plans don’t change. You pray and desire for the same things. You don’t look for someone to steer you in the right direction, but are actually offended by any advice. You say, “A mean old man. He didn’t feel concerned enough to say ‘It’s a difficult journey you are going on. I will light a lamp if you return safely.’”

Is that what a good-natured person would have said? Sure, wouldn’t it be wonderful for someone like you to come off safe? Isn’t it worth lighting lamps for? There is no doubt that someone like you deserves to be free from death and disease!

Throw away this conceit that you possess any useful knowledge. Approach philosophy like you would music or mathematics. Otherwise you won’t even come close to making any progress, even if you mastered the complete works of (philosophers like) Chrysippus, Antipater, and Archedemus.

Think about this

Why is it that when you want something, it doesn’t come about, and when you don’t want it, it comes about? For that’s very strong proof that you are in a troubled and unfortunate state. Discourses II.17.17-18. Epictetus [RH]