June 1, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Placing value on externals creates conflicts (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English I.25)

Key ideas of this discourse

We are anxious because we don’t accept that good and evil arise out of our moral choices, not by external things.

No one can take away what belongs to us.

We create our own problems by choosing to attach value to external things.

We always have the option of choosing what happens, as it happens.

You will not be anxious once you understand that good and evil are your choices

If what we have been discussing so far is true and we are not being stupid or pretending to agree, then we know

  • Good and evil arise out of the choices we make; and
  • All else is nothing to us.

Why are we still anxious? No one has power over things that truly concern us. What they control, we don’t care about. What is there left to worry about?

“I still need specific instructions.”
“What instructions do you want me to give? Has not God already given you the rules?”

Has he not given you what is your own, free from restraint or hindrance? And that what is not your own is subject to both? What other commandments did you arrive with when you came here?

  • Protect what is yours at all costs.
  • Don’t crave for things that belongs to another.
  • Your good faith and sense of shame are your own.
No one can take away what belongs to you

Who can take these away from you? Who can stop you from making use of these except you? Only when you go after what is not yours, you lose what is yours. Why do you need further instructions from me? Am I greater than God and to be trusted more? Follow his commandments and you won’t need others. As proof that he has delivered them to you, bring me your preconceptions, what you have heard from philosophers, what you have said to yourself, and what you have practiced.

“How long should I observe these rules before breaking up the game?”
“As long as the game remains a pleasure. At the Saturnalia game, a king is chosen by lot. He orders others: ‘You drink!’ ‘You sing!’ ‘You go!’ ‘You come!’ I obey because I don’t want to be the one to break up the game.”
“Suppose the king asks you to imagine that you are unhappy.”
“I don’t suppose that, but I refuse. Who is going to force me? Suppose now we agree to play Agamemnon and Achilles. If the person playing Agamemnon says to me, ‘Go get Breisis away from Achilles’. I go. ‘Come’. I come.”

Use hypothetical scenarios to model your behavior

We should use hypothetical arguments as models for how to behave in life.

“Let it be night.”
“OK.”
“Is it day now?”
“No, because that is not consistent with the hypothesis I agreed to.”

The same applies here.

“Suppose you have come upon hard times.”
“All right.”
“Are you unfortunate and unhappy then?”
“Yes.”
“Now you are really in a bad way.”
“No, because that is not consistent with the hypothesis I agreed to. Besides, there is another (here Epictetus referring to God – W.A. Oldfather) who forbids me to think so.”
“How long should we follow the rules of the game?”
“As long as it serves your turn. As long as it is congenial.”

Miserable and inflexible people will say, “I can’t eat at this man’s table if it means listening to his war stories again: “I told you my friend, how I scrambled up the hill; I will start again with the siege.” ” But another person might say, “For me what matters is the meal; let him rattle on as much as likes.” It is for you to compare the value of things. But do not do anything resentfully, as if someone forced it upon you.

You always have options

Is there smoke in the house? If it not suffocating, stay. If it is, get out. Always remember: the door is open.

“Don’t live in Nicopolis.”
“I won’t live there.”
“Don’t live in Athens.”
“OK, I won’t live in Athens either.”
“Live on Gyara.”

But, for me, living on Gyara is like living in a smoky house. So, I go to the one place no one can stop me from going. A place where everyone is welcome. When I remove all my clothing including my skin, then no one can hold me any longer. Thus, Demetrius challenged Nero: “You threaten me with death, but nature threatens you with it.”

If I place value on my body, I make a slave of myself; if I place a value on my property, again I make a slave of myself because I have shown how I may be taken. When a snake pulls its head back, I say “Hit the part it is protecting.” Similarly, whatever you are seen to protect will become the target for your enemy. Remember this, and you will fear or flatter no one.

“But I want to sit along in the senators’ gallery.”
“Don’t you see, you are closing yourself in. You are treading on your own toes.”
“How else can I get a proper view of the stage?”
“Don’t strive for a view and you won’t be crowded. What is the problem? Or wait until the show is over and you can sit in a senator’s seat and sun yourself at leisure.”

We create our own problems

It is generally true that we crush ourselves and create problems for ourselves. That is, our opinions do. For example, what does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a stone and insult it, what response will you get? Likewise, if you listen like a stone, what would the abuser gain by his abuse? However, if you have some weakness, then he has an advantage over you.

“Strip him!”
“What do you mean ‘Strip him? Take my clothes?’”
“I have insulted you.”
“Much good may do it to you.”

That’s what Socrates practiced and that’s why he always had the same expression on his face. But it looks like we would practice anything other than how to remain unrestrained and free.

“Philosophers talk in paradoxes.”

What about other arts? What is more paradoxical than cutting into a person’s eyes to make him see? If you say this to someone who has no knowledge of medicine, would he not laugh at your face? Why are you surprised then if many truths appear paradoxical to the ignorant?

Think about this

Man’s good and man’s evil lies in moral choice, and all other things are nothing to us. Discourses I.25.1. Epictetus (William A. Oldfather)