August 23, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Our Choices Give Rise To Good And Evil (Epictetus Discourses in Plain English II.16)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

All good and evil arise out of the choices we make.

You will stop being fearful once you understand the nature of praise and blame.

We are given the gift of endurance, nobility, and courage. Let’s use them to solve our problems and stop complaining.

Always remember: Protect what is yours. Don’t go after what is not yours.

Use what you have and do not be concerned about what you don’t have.

When something is taken away from you, be willing to let it go.

Put your house in order. Get rid of sorrow, fear, lust, envy, and joy at others’ misfortunes, as well as greed, petulance, and over-indulgence.

All good and evil are based on our choices

“Where lies the good?”
“In our choice.”
“Where lies the evil?”
“In our choice.”
“And things that are neither good nor evil?”
“Outside our choice.”
“So, how many of you remember this outside class? Do you practise this on your own – applying this to your life as readily as you answer questions like, “Is it day?” Yes. “Is it night then?” No. “Are the stars even in number?” I can’t say.”

What about money? Are you trained to give the right response “It is not a good”? Have you trained yourself to give right responses or are you simply practicing clever responses? Why should it come as a surprise to you that, when you practice, you excel yourself? Or, that you get nowhere where you don’t?

Understand the nature of praise and blame

A public speaker is confident that he has written a good speech, memorized it, in addition to having a pleasing voice. Why is he still anxious? Because he is not content with being a good speaker, he wants the approval of the audience. He may be well trained in public speaking, but he has no training in dealing with approval and disapproval by others. When did anyone ever tell him about the nature of praise and blame? Or, what kind of praise he should go after and what kind of blame he should avoid? Did he ever receive training in these things? Why are you then surprised that he is good at public speaking for which he received training? Or that he is like everyone else in understanding praise and blame for which he has received no training?

He is like a musician who knows how to play an instrument, sing well, dress elegantly and yet feels nervous as he comes on stage. He may know music, but he does know what an audience is, what its applause or mockery amounts to. Nor does he understand his own anxiety: Is he responsible for it? Is someone else responsible? Can it be managed or not? As a result, if he wins a standing ovation, he returns home full of pride; but if he is booed, his bubble is burst and he is deflated.

Use the gifts you are given to solve all your problems

We experience something similar as well. What do we value? Externals. What are we serious about? Externals. Naturally, we are going to experience fear and anxiety. What else do you expect when you judge an external thing as “bad?” We cannot but be fearful and anxious.

“Please God, let my anxiety go away!”
“Listen, idiot, don’t you have the hands that God gave you? Don’t complain that your nose is running. Use the hands God gave you to wipe your nose.”

Hasn’t he given anything that’s of help to you here? Has he not given you endurance, nobility, and courage? When you have “hands” like these, do you still expect someone to wipe your nose? We don’t pay attention to such things and we don’t care. Show me a single person who cares how they do what they do – one who is interested more in the way they behave than in results. Who is concerned with their own action, even while walking around? Who is more concerned about one’s plan itself than about the end result? If the plan works, the person gets excited and says, “Wow, how well we planned! With a plan like ours, how could we possibly fail?” But if the plan fails, the person is devastated and has nothing more to say on what happened.

None of us consults a seer or spends time praying to understand how one should act. If you know a single person like that, show them to me! I have been looking for a long time for such a noble and gifted person. I don’t care if they are young or old, show them to me!

You have been spending all your attention on material things. Then why are you surprised that you end up behaving in a way that is mean, shameful, worthless, cowardly, and weak – a total failure? We don’t seem to be concerned about these things and we don’t care to practice.

It is your judgements that scare you

Instead of being afraid of death and deportation, if we feared fear itself we would practice avoiding things that we believe are bad. As it stands, we are spirited, fluent, and ready to answer classroom questions and draw the right conclusion. In real life though, we are miserably lost in sea. Let a disturbing thought arise, then we will see what we really practiced and trained for. Because we don’t practice, we keep piling up worries, believing that our problems are worse than they are.

For example, when I am on a cruise I look around and see nothing but water. I am gripped by fear. What if I drown? I have to drink all this sea! It doesn’t occur to me that swallowing just three pints of water will do me in. Is it the sea that scares me? No, it is my own judgment that scares me. Or, consider the earthquake. I imagine that the whole city is going to fall on me, even though a little brick will knock my brain out.

“So, what weighs us down and scares us?”
“Our own judgments, obviously”
“What scares you when you are about to leave your country – leaving friends, family, familiar places, and familiar people?”
“Again, our own judgements.”
“Children cry when the nanny leaves. Give them a cake and the nanny is forgotten.”
“Are you asking us to model ourselves after children?”
“Of course not. You don’t need a cake, but correct judgments.”
“What are they?”

Practice this all day long

“All day long, you should avoid attachment to externals. Not to your friends or to places or to gyms. Not even to your own body. Remember to keep this divine law and always keep it in sight:
Protect what is yours; don’t claim what is someone else’s;
Use what is given to you. Do not desire what not is given to you; and
When something is taken away from you, give it up readily. Be thankful for the time you had with it. Do not cry like a baby for its mother or nanny.”

All slavery is equal

What does it matter what enslaves you and what you are dependent on? How are you any better than someone pining over a girl when you ache for your familiar places, familiar clubs, and diversions like that? Someone comes along and complains he can’t drink water from the fountain. What is wrong with regular water?

“But I am used to the fountain water.”
“Well, over time, you’ll get used to regular water too. And when you get used to this, you will complain if it is taken away from you. You may poetically describe your misery like the line in Euripides: “The baths of Nero, the water of Marcia!” See how tragedy develops when a foolish person faces life’s challenges.”
“Will I ever see my native city and the city I grew up in?”
“You poor man. Aren’t you happy with where you are? What can you see anywhere that is better than the sun, the moon, the stars, the land, and the sea? If you understand that the God you carry within you governs everything, why would you go looking for marble and fine stones? What will you do when it is time for you leave the sun and moon behind? Will you sit down and cry like a baby?”

What did you do in your school? What did you hear? What did you learn? Why do you call yourself a philosopher when all you did was learn a few elementary things and bit of Chrysippus? You hardly crossed the threshold of philosophy. How can you compare yourself to Socrates, who lived and died the way he did? Or with Diogenes, for that matter? Can you imagine them reduced to tears because they weren’t going to see this man or that woman? Or that they were no longer in one city but in another? If he can quit a party at a time of his choosing, such a person is not going to sit here feeling sorry for himself. He will stay only as long as it is fun, like a child involved in playing a game. Such a man would endure deportation whether it is permanent deportation or deportation until death.

“Why aren’t you willing to be weaned, as children are, and start eating solid food? Will you never stop crying after your mother and your nanny?”
“By going away, I will make them unhappy.”
“You will make them unhappy? No. They will be unhappy because of their judgments. Get rid of your judgments. If they are smart, they would get rid of their judgments. If they don’t they create their own unhappiness.”

Be free

As the saying goes “Man, do something desperate to achieve freedom and tranquility. Lift your head up, like someone released from slavery. Dare to face god and say, “Use me as you like from now on. I am yours and of one mind with you. I refuse nothing that you judge to be good. Lead me where you will. Clothe me in any dress. If it is your will, I will hold any position: officer or citizen, rich or poor, stay here or be banished. No matter what, I will defend you before others. I will show the true nature of things, as they really are.”

That’s not what you do, is it? You sit indoors waiting for your mother to come and feed you. Imagine what would have happened if [the divine hero in Greek mythology] Heracles had simply hung around the house. He would have been [the cowardly king] Eurystheus, not Heracles. Think about the many friends and companions Heracles made, because he traveled the world. None was closer to him than God and so he was believed to be the son of God. In obedience to God, he went around rooting out crime and injustice. You are no Heracles, you cannot root out the crimes and injustice of others. You are not even [the king] ancient Theseus, otherwise you would relieved some trouble in some place.

Put your house in order

Then the least you can do is to get your house in order. Instead of getting rid of robbers, get rid of sorrow, fear, lust, envy, and schadenfreude (joy at others’ misfortunes), greed, petulance, and over-indulgence. But to do this, you need to look up to God and God only and follow His guidance. If you are unwilling to do this you will end up in sighs and tears. You will be forced to serve someone physically stronger than you. You will seek happiness outside yourself, and will never find it. It is because you will be looking for happiness in a place where it is not rather than in a place where it really is.

Think about this

It is crisis time. Make a last desperate effort to gain freedom and tranquility. Discourses II.16.41. Epictetus [RD]