February 24, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Train on Your Principles Before Venturing Out

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Either you influence your friends, or they influence you.
  2. The stronger will influence the weaker. If those who talk nonsense have stronger convictions, they will influence you.
  3. Therefore, until you train yourself strongly in your principles, be careful who you associate yourself with.


Either you influence others or others influence you

If you associate with others on a regular basis – for small talk, for parties, or for friendship – you will necessarily grow up to be like them, unless you get them to be like you. If you place a dead coal by a live one, either the live coal will set fire to the dead one or the dead coal will put out the live one. Since the stakes are high, you should be careful about socializing with lay people. Remember, it is impossible to rub against someone covered with dirt and avoid getting dirty yourself. What will you do if they talk about gladiators, horses, and sport heroes? Or worse, gossip about others – “So-and-so is good, and so-and-so is bad; this is well done and that’s done poorly”? Or if they taunt you, ridicule you, or even be of an ill-nature?

If you are not strong, it is others who will influence you

Do any of you have the ability of the musician who can pick up an instrument, identify right away which strings are out of tune, and so bring the whole instrument into tune? Or the ability of Socrates, who could win over the company to his side in every conversation? How could you? Most likely, you are going to adopt their mentality.

Why are they stronger than you? Because they talk their nonsense with conviction while your fine points come out of your lips. Your talk has no vigour, no life. It will turn people’s stomachs to hear you go on and on about your miserable “virtue.” So, they get the better of you. Conviction is all-powerful and irresistible. So, until these fine points take firm root in you and you can start relying on them safely, I advise you to be careful in associating with such people. Otherwise, whatever you write down here will melt away like wax in the sun. So long as your opinions are merely like wax, keep well out of the sun.

Fix your principles and put them into practice

Philosophers even advise us to leave our country because bad habits pull us back and make it harder for us to develop new ones. Besides, we can’t stand running into people who say, “Oh, look, this so-and-so has turned into a philosopher!” It is for such reasons doctors send their most chronic patients to a different place and a different climate. And rightly so.

Adopt new habits yourself. Fix your principles and put them into practice.

Keep the right company until your principles take firm roots

No. Instead you go from here to the theatre, to the gladiators, to the circus. Back here again, back there again. And you remain the same all the time. No sign of better habits, no attention to yourself. You don’t watch yourself carefully and ask:

“How do I deal with impressions that come my way? In accordance with nature or against it? Do I respond to them as I should, or don’t I? Do I tell external things that they are nothing to me?”

If you are not at this stage [of understanding], and yet hope to become somebody, give up your old habits and stay away from lay people.

Think about this

Keep well out of the sun, then, as long as your principles are as pliant as wax. Discourses III.16.10. Epictetus [RD]