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

Learn To Handle Things That Are Indifferent (Epictetus Discourses In Plain English II.6)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

Life is indifferent. The way we use it is not.

When you know less about something, yield to those who know more.

On things that you know more than others, don’t brag. Minimize your show of superiority.Take responsibility for what belongs to you, not for what belongs to others.

Don’t be afraid of what is not under your control.

Life is indifferent; the way we make use of it is not

Hypothetical arguments are indifferent, but the way you judge them is not indifferent – it can lead to knowledge, or opinion, or delusion. So it is with life – life is indifferent; but the use we make of it is not. Therefore, if someone tells you that these things are indifferent, don’t become careless about them; if someone advises you to care about them, don’t become miserable or be too impressed by them.

Be gracious when you know more; be yielding when you know less

Have a clear idea about your training and talent in these matters. This way, when you see that you are not qualified, you can keep quiet and not be upset if others outshine you. Where logic is concerned, you can be superior to them. If this upsets them, you can pacify them saying something like, “I just happened to learn these things a few days earlier than you.” When something involves practical training, don’t pretend you have the skill if you don’t have it yet, but yield to those who do. Be content to remain calm and composed.

“Go and pay your compliments to so-and-so.”
“Yes, I will. But I won’t grovel.”
“But you had the door shut on you.”
“I have not learnt how to break through windows. When I find the door shut I have two options – go away or go through the window.”

“Then talk to him.”
“I will, but as an equal.”
“But you did not get what you wanted.”
“That his business, not mine.”

Take responsibility for what belongs to you, not for what belongs to others.

Why take responsibility for something that is not up to you? Always remember what belongs to you and what belongs to others and you won’t be disturbed. As Chrysippus said,

“As long as the future is unclear to me, I always hold to those things best adapted to obtaining the things in accordance with nature; for God has created a faculty in me for choosing them. If I knew that my present destiny is to fall ill, I would wish for it. My foot too, if it had intelligence, would choose to get muddy.”

Why do grains grow, if not to ripen? Why do they ripen, if not to be harvested? They don’t grow for their own sake. If they could talk, would they pray that they are never to be harvested? Would they not consider it a curse instead? Even for humans it is a curse not to die. It is like a wheat grain praying not to ripen or be harvested. Because we are the only animals who not only die but also are aware of dying while it happens, we are upset. This is because we don’t know who we are. We don’t know what it means to be a human being, like a horse trainer would know what it means to be horse.

Chrysantas, the warrior, was about to strike an opponent down. Just then he heard the trumpet sound a retreat. He immediately pulled back because it was more important for him to obey the commander than follow his own inclinations. Yet, when necessity calls, none of us is ready and willing to obey it. When we do suffer, we don’t do so willingly.

We cry in protest, and lament “the circumstances.” What do you mean by circumstances? If you mean your personal circumstances, everything is your personal circumstance. If you mean by circumstances your “troubles,” then where is the trouble in something that was born dying? We may be killed by a knife, a torture instrument, the sea, or a tyrant. What difference does it make to us which way we descend into Hades? In truth, no tyrant you fear takes six months to kill you, but a fever you do not fear may kill you over a year. All these things are just noise and empty words.

“My life is at risk when I am with the emperor.”
“Do you think I live in less danger here in Nicopolis where earthquakes are common? Aren’t you risking your life every time you cross the Adriatic?”
“But even one’s opinions can get one into trouble in Rome.”
“Your opinions? No one can compel you to hold an opinion against your will. Other peoples’ opinions? How can the wrong opinions of others create any danger for you?”
“I also face the danger of being exiled.”
“What is exile? Being in a place that is not Rome?”
“Sure. What if I am sent to Gyara?”
“Go to Gyara, if it is worth your while. If not, there is another place you can go to – a place even the person who exiled you is headed, whether he likes it or not.”

So why make such a big deal of going to Rome? What is so great about it? Is it worth all this preparation? A gifted young person might say “It has not been worth my while to have listened to so many talks, written so much, and spent so much time next to an old man who is not worth very much himself.”

Don’t ever lay claim to things that do not belong to you

Just remember the rule that distinguishes what is yours from what is not. Don’t ever lay claim to things that do not belong to you. Court and prison are two places, one high, the other low. But, in either place, your choice is the same, if you so decide. When we thus follow Socrates, we can spend time writing hymns in prison.

But, as it stands now, we would hardly have patience with someone who says, “Let me read some hymns of praise to you.”

“Why do you bother me? Don’t you know the trouble I am in?”
“What trouble?”
“I’m sentenced to die.”
“Aren’t we all?”

Think about this

Don’t ever lay claim to things that do not belong to you. Epictetus