May 6, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
No Need To Be Angry. Here’s Why. (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English 1.18)
Key ideas of this discourse
People do what they do because it seems right to them. This is true even of thieves and adulterers. We should not be angry at them. We are angry because we value external things. When we train ourselves not to value externals, we will stop being angry at others.
All our actions come from a single source. We do what appears to us to be right. We don’t do what appears to us to be wrong. When we are not sure, we suspend our judgment.
People who are antisocial such as thieves and adulterers, then, need our pity not our hatred. They were only doing what appeared to them to be right.
We get angry because we value external things. When we lose them we get upset.
If we don’t value external things, we won’t get upset or angry.
We need to train ourselves not to value external things by starting with small things and moving on to bigger things.
Eventually, we need to test ourselves under different conditions to make sure that we don’t value external things anymore.
All actions arise from a single source
If what philosophers say is true, then all our actions arise from a single source – feeling.
- when we agree with something, it is because we feel it must be so;
- when we disagree with something, it is because we feel it is not so; and
- when we suspend judgement, it is because we feel it is uncertain.
When we have an impulse to do a thing, it is because we feel it is to our advantage. It is impossible to consider something is to our advantage and do something else. Or, consider something right and have an urge to do something else. If all this is true, why should we be angry with anyone?
People who are antisocial are misguided
“But there are thieves and robbers.”
“What do you mean by ‘thieves and robbers?’ They are just confused about what is good and what is bad. Should we then be angry with them or pity them? If you show them where they have gone wrong, they will reform. But if they don’t see it, they will continue to rely on their opinion to guide them.”
“Shouldn’t we do away with thieves and adulterers?”
“By no means. Try putting your question this way: ‘Shouldn’t we get rid of people deceived in things that are most important?’ You will realize how inhumane your position is. They are blind, not in vision that distinguishes black from white, but in the moral capacity that distinguishes good from bad. So, it is like saying ‘Shouldn’t we execute this blind man or deaf man?’”
People suffer greatest harm when they lose their greatest asset. Moral capacity is the greatest asset of all. So, if some people lose their moral capacity, why add anger to their greatest loss? If you are affected by them, show them pity, not hatred. Don’t be too ready to hate and take offence. Why use common curses like, ‘away with those abominable idiots,’ and the like? Let them be. Since when have you become so smart as to go around correcting other people’s mistakes as though they are just fools?
We get angry because we value external things
Why then are we angry? Because we admire the things others take from us. Don’t attach too high a value to your clothes and you won’t get angry with the thief who steals them. Don’t place too high a value on your spouse’s attractiveness and you won’t be angry with the adulterer. Remember that the thief and the adulterer cannot take what’s yours, only what is common property, not under your control. If you give up ownership of things that are not yours, who will you be angry with then? As long as you value material things, direct your anger at yourself and not at the thief or adulterer.
Look at it this way. You have beautiful clothes but your neighbour doesn’t. You open your window to give them an airing. You neighbour does not know where human good truly lies and assumes it lies in good clothes. You think so too. Isn’t it certain then that he is going to come along and steal them? When you display and gobble down food all by yourself, aren’t you asking starving people to snatch it away from you? Don’t provoke them. Don’t have a window and don’t air your clothes.
You cannot lose what you don’t own
Something like this happened to me the other day. I had an iron lamp which I keep by my household shrine. I heard a noise from the window, ran down, and found it stolen. I reasoned that the thief had an irresistible impulse to steal it. I said to myself, ‘Tomorrow get a cheaper, earthenware lamp.’ You can only lose what you have. “
“I lost my clothes.”
“Yes, because you had clothes.”
“I have a pain in the head.”
“Did you expect to have a pain in the horns? Loss and sorrow are possible only with respect to what you own.”
“But the tyrant will chain me.”
“What will he chain? Your leg.”
“He will cut it off.”
“What will he cut off? Your head.”
You have the power to choose
What he will never be able to cut off is your power to choose. This is the reason behind the ancient advice, “Know yourself.” We should discipline ourselves in small things, then move on to things of greater value. When you have a headache or earache, practice not cursing. If you complain, don’t do it with your whole being. If your helper does not bring a bandage quickly, don’t pull a face and say, “Everyone hates me!” Who wouldn’t hate such a person? From now on, place your faith in these principles. Walk upright and free. Don’t trust the strength of your body as an athlete does. Don’t just rely on your physical strength as a donkey does.
How to be invincible
You are invincible if nothing outside your will disturbs you. Consider different possibilities as in the case of an athlete who won the first round.
How will he do in the next one?
How will he do if it is unbearably hot?
How will he do at the Olympics?
Likewise, in the present instance. You offered him money, but he treated it with contempt. But,
What if it is a pretty girl whom he meets in the dark?
What if it is a touch of glory?
What if it is a bit of abuse or praise?
What if it is death?
Can he handle all these things? And when it’s really hot, what if he’s drunk? Or delirious or dreaming? If he can come through under all these challenges – then I would call him an invincible athlete.
Think about this
You are invincible if nothing outside the will can disconcert you. Discourses 1.18.21. Epictetus/Robert Dobbin