April 15, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Let Things Unfold As They Do (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English 1.12)

Key ideas of this discourse

There are many views about God. We believe that God exists and cares about what happens to everyone.

You are free if everything that happens to you happens according to your choice and not contrary to it.

Such freedom does not happen randomly. If you want to be free you need to follow some rules.

Everything will happen according to your choice when you learn to wish that things happen as they do.

Thus, when you align your desires with what happens, you will never be disappointed and will always be free.

Different views about God’s existence

There are different views of God:
God doesn’t exist at all.
God exists, but doesn’t care about anything.
God exists and cares, but only about heavenly matters, not about earthly ones.
God exists, and cares about what happens on earth, but not about individuals.
God exists, and cares about everything, including individual welfare.
Socrates accepted the last view, when he said, “Not a move do I make that you do not see.”

Which is the correct view?

Which one of these views is correct? Let’s examine.

If there is no God, or if God exists and does not care about anything, what is point of the commandment, “Follow God?” If God exists, but does not care about what happens on earth and especially to individuals, then again there would be no purpose in following God. Therefore, an intelligent person examines all these arguments and submits his mind to the ruler of the universe, just like good citizens submit to the laws of the state.

If you want to learn, you should come with the following questions:

  • How can I follow God in everything?
  • How can I live in happiness under divine governance?
  • How can I become free?
What it means to be free

You are free if everything that happens to you happens according to your choice and not against it.

“Is freedom madness, then?”
“Freedom and madness are incompatible with each other.”
“But I wish that anything that I desire happens according to my desire.”
“You are crazy. You have lost your senses. Don’t you know that freedom is a good and valuable thing? To wish that unconsidered things happen at random according to your desire is not valuable, it is shameful.”

If you want to write the name Dion, you were taught to choose the right letters in the right order: D-I-O-N. What about music? The same is true. What about other arts and sciences? The same thing. Otherwise, there would be no purpose knowing anything. So how do you expect the greatest and highest matter of all, freedom, be random?

“What is the true instruction, then?”
“Learn to will that things happen as they do.”
“And how do they happen?”
“As God wills.”

He willed there be summer and winter, abundance and famine, virtue and vice, and all such opposites for the sake of harmony in the universe. For us he has given a body and its parts, property, and friends. Knowing all this, you should approach learning not to alter the facts, which is neither possible nor desirable, but to see them as they are, so we may remain harmonious with things as they happen.

Reframe your thinking to be in accord with nature

Avoiding others is not possible. Nor do we have the power to change others. Then how do we deal with them? By understanding people will act as they please, but we will act in accordance with nature.

That’s not what you do though. You gripe and protest. When you are alone you say you are lonely. When you are with people, you find fault with them, even if they are your parents, children, spouse, and neighbors. What you should do instead is, when you are alone call it peace and freedom; when you are in company, instead of calling it a crowd and being annoyed, call it a festival. Learn to enjoy it.

Misery is the penalty for not being in accordance with nature

What is the penalty for not accepting the things the way they are? To be just the way you are: desolate when alone and discontented when with others. There is no need to throw you in prison, you are already in one. Whatever place you are in, if you are there against your will, you are in prison. But even if you are in prison, if it is by your will, then you are free. This is the reason Socrates was not imprisoned, because he was there willingly.

So what if my leg is crippled? It’s just an insignificant leg. Do you want to blame the universe for it? Why not joyfully surrender your entire body to the one who gave it to you? Do you want to be angry and discontented with God, who designed everything at the time of your birth? Don’t you realize your insignificance in the larger scheme of things? That is about the body. But, as far as reason is concerned, you are on par with God. The greatness of reason is not measured by size but by the quality of its judgments. So, would you rather not be equal to God?

You can cope with any situation

Are you discontented because of the parents you have? How would it have been possible for you to exist before your parents’ time and say, “Let such a man have intercourse with such a woman, so I can be born in a certain way.” No, it would not have been possible. It was necessary for your parents to have existed before you were born.

“How so?”
“It’s just the way things are.”
“If so, don’t you have any remedy?”

Well, if you don’t know the purpose of sight, you might close your eyes as a beautiful painting passes by you and feel miserable. Are you less miserable not knowing you have the resources to cope with anything that may happen to you? You are given the faculty to cope with things. But you turn away from it at the very time you need it. Why don’t you give thanks to God, knowing that he made you superior to everything that is not under your control and made you accountable only for things that are?

You are responsible only for the things under your control

You are released from all accountability to your parents, brothers, property, life, and death. What are you accountable for then? Only for things under your power, and the proper use of impressions. Why are you then worried about things not under your power? You are simply creating problems for yourself.

Think about this

When you face problems, you forget the virtues of character you have in reserve, whose help you could use.
You have the resources to cope with anything that might happen to you.
You are responsible for only those things under your control. You are released from all other responsibilities.