September 20, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Make Yourself Worthy (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.24)

Key ideas of this discourse

If you want someone of knowledge to talk to you, you should first arouse an enthusiasm in that person to talk to you.
To excite a teacher to talk to you, you should first demonstrate that you are capable of learning.

Speaking well involves skill and so does listening

Someone said to Epictetus:

“I have come to you many times, wanting to listen to you. But you have never given me an answer. But now, if possible, please say something to me.”

“Do you think that there is an art to speaking with skill? If you don’t possess this skill you will speak unskilfully?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Someone whose speech benefits oneself and others would be speaking with skill, and someone whose speech harms oneself and others would be speaking unskillfully. You would find that some suffer harm and others gain benefit. Do all listeners gain benefit from what they hear, or some gain benefit while others suffer harm?”
“Not all would gain benefit.”
“Skillful listeners benefit and unskilful listeners are harmed?”
“Just as there is a skill in speaking, there is a skill in listening?”
“It would seem so.”
“Consider it from another point of view, if you please. Whose job it is to play a musical instrument according to the rules of music?”
“The musician’s.”
“All right. Whose job is it to make a statue properly?”
“The sculptor’s.”
“Don’t you think that it requires skill also to appreciate the statue properly?”
“Yes, it does.”

Don’t you see then, if speaking properly demands a skilled person, to listen with benefit also demands a skilled person? For the time being, let’s not worry about what will eventually benefit us. After all, both of us are far removed from that question. But here is something that everyone could agree on. To listen to philosophers, it takes a great deal of practice in listening. Is this not true?

“What should I talk to you about, then? Tell me, what are you capable of hearing about? About what is good and evil? The good and evil of what? Maybe a horse?”
“Of an ox?”
“Of a human being?”

You have to kindle the desire in a philosopher to talk to you

Do we know what a human being is? What his nature is? What the concept a human being is? Do we have ears sufficiently open with regard to this? Do you even have an idea of what nature is? Are you, to any extent, capable of following me as I speak? Shall I demonstrate it for you? How can I? Do you understand at all what proof is, what demonstration is, and how a proof is demonstrated? What looks like proof, but is not? Can you tell the difference between what is true and what is false? Do you know what follows from what, what conflicts with what, what opposes what, and what is not in harmony with what? What I can do to get you excited about philosophy? When you don’t even know what contradiction is, how can I show you that most people have conflicting ideas about what is good and evil, and what is beneficial and harmful?

So, show me what I can accomplish by talking to you. Kindle a desire in me. When a sheep sees grass, it kindles a desire in the sheep to eat, but not if you offer it a stone or a loaf of bread. Similarly some of us have a desire to speak if we come across a suitable listener who herself kindles such a desire. But if she sits like a stone, or grass, how can she kindle any such a desire? Does the vine say to the farmer “Look at me?” But it shows by the way it looks that anyone who cares for it will profit from it and so invites them to take care of it.

We get involved when our desire is kindled

Which of us turn down the invitation of charming little children to join in their games, crawl with them, and engage in baby talk? But who wants to play with a donkey and bray like it? Even if it is little, a donkey is a donkey.

“Why don’t you say anything to me then?”

I have only this to say to you. Anyone who is ignorant of who they are, what they are born for, in what kind of world they find themselves in and whom they share it with; who does not know what things are good and bad, what are honorable and shameful; who is unable to follow argument or proof, and cannot tell the difference between what is true and what is false: such a person will exercise neither their desires, nor aversions, nor impulses, nor choices in accordance with nature. Being deaf and blind, they would go around thinking they are somebody, while they are nobody in reality.

Not knowing what is advantageous has created errors and misfortunes

Is there anything new in all this? Hasn’t this been so since the human race began? Isn’t this ignorance the cause of all our errors and misfortunes? Wasn’t this why Agamemnon and Achilles fought each other? Wasn’t it for not knowing what is to one’s advantage and what is not? Did one of them say that it is advantageous to return Chryseis to her father, while the other said that it isn’t? Did one of them say that it is advantageous to take away the other’s prize, while the other said that it isn’t? Did both of them not forget who they were and what they came for?

“What did you come for? To acquire a mistress or to fight?”
“To fight.”
“Against whom? The Torjans or the Greeks?”
“Against the Trojans.”
“Will you then let Hector go and instead fight with your king? [And you, the king] desert your duties as a king, ‘with nations to watch over and having so many cares.’ You exchange blows with the greatest warrior among your allies when you should be treating him with respect and protecting him. And this over a girl. Are you inferior to the elegant high priest who treats noble warriors with every respect?”

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Do you see the effect of not knowing what is advantageous?

“But I too am rich.”
“What, richer than Agamemnon?”
“But I am handsome too.”
“What, more handsome than Achilles?”
“But I have fine hair too.”
“Wasn’t Achilles’ hair finer than yours? Wasn’t it golden too? Didn’t he comb it elegantly and dress it up?”
“But I am strong too.”
“Can you then lift a stone of the size lifted by Hector or Aias?”
“But I am of noble family too.”
“Is your mother a goddess or your father a god? Anyway, what good did it all do to Achilles when he sat crying for a girl?”
“But I am an orator too.”
“Wasn’t Achilles? Don’t you see how he got the better of the most eloquent of the Greeks, Odysseus and Phoenix? How he made them speechless? This is all I have to say to you. And even this, with reluctance.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you haven’t kindled my enthusiasm. What can I see in you that makes me comparable to a rider seeing a thoroughbred horse? Your poor body? You have treated it in a shameful way. Your clothes? Too luxurious. Your bearing and looks? Not worth a second glance.”

When you want to hear a philosopher, don’t say, “Have you nothing to say to me?” Instead, show that you are capable of listening to the philosopher. You will then see then how you excite the speaker to talk to you.

Think about this

Just as there is a skill in speaking, there is also a skill in listening. Discourses. II.24.5. Epictetus [RH]