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

Train to be at Home Wherever You Are

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. When we leave our place or the people we love, we long for them
  2. But all things are impermanent. To wish them to stay the same is irrational.
  3. If someone is upset because we leave, it is because they are irrational. It is not in our power to change it.
  4. Do what needs to done and don’t be chained to a place or to the people who you are used to.
  5. Don’t get attached to things that can be taken away from you.
  6. Make the best use of the place you are in, with the people you are with.

The following is an excerpt from the book Stoic Training, Book 3 of Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English. The complete book is available in online and print editions from Amazon and other online bookstores.

We are involved in the greatest of contests

If someone acts contrary to nature, don’t think of it as an evil for you. You were not born to share in the humiliations and misfortunes of others, only in their good fortune. If someone is unhappy, remember, they are responsible for it. God made us humans to be happy and serene and, for this purpose, he gave us the resources we need, some our own, others not our own.

Whatever is subject to hindrance, removal or compulsion is not our own, while all that is free of hindrance is. He has placed the true nature of good and bad among the things that are our own, as was fitting for one who watches over us and protects us like a father.

“But I just left so-and-so and she is heartbroken.”

“Why did she consider what is not her own to be her own?”

Why did she not reflect, when she enjoyed the pleasure of your company, that you are mortal and likely to move to another place? So she is simply paying the penalty for her foolishness. But why are you unhappy? For what purpose? Have you also failed to learn these things and, like people of no value, enjoy all that you did – the places, the people, and the way of life – as though they will last forever? Now you sit here and cry because you can no longer be with the same people and be in the same places. Yes, you deserve to be more miserable than crows and ravens, which can fly wherever they like, build their nests in different places, cross the seas, without groaning or longing for their former home.

“Yes, but they feel this way because they are not rational.”

“Has God given us any reason for our misfortune and unhappiness, so we can spend our lives in perpetual misery and mourning? Or is everyone immortal, never having to leave home, but staying in one place like a plant? If anyone we know leaves home, shall we sit down and cry? If she comes back, should we dance and clap our hands like children?”

Shouldn’t we, once and for all, wean ourselves and remember what we learned from philosophers, unless we listened to them merely as story-tellers? They said that this universe is just a single city; it is made of a single thing. There must be a change from time to time when one thing gives way to another, some things disappear and other things come into being, somethings remain and other things are moved somewhere else.

Things are impermanent

The world is full of friends, first the gods and then human beings, who by nature are endeared to each other. Some must remain with one another and others leave. We should take delight in those who live with us and not be upset by those who leave. Human beings are noble minded by nature and despise things that are outside their realm of choice.

They have one additional quality: They are not rooted down or attached to the earth, but are able to move from place to place, sometimes because of necessity, sometimes merely for the sake of looking around. Something like this happened to Odysseus, “Cities of men he saw, and learned their ways.” Before him, Heracles travelled around the entire inhabited world, “Viewing the wickedness of men he saw, and learned their ways,” clearing away one and while introducing the other in its place. [Quotes as translated by Robin Hard.]

Yet how many friends do you suppose he had in Thebes, Argos, or Athens? How many new friends he made while travelling around, considering that, at the right time, he would even marry and father children? And considering that he left these children as orphans without lamentation and regret? He knew that no human being is an orphan but there’s a father who constantly cares for them all. Because for him it was not just idle talk that Zeus is the father of human beings, but he always thought of him as his own father, and called him so, and looked to him in all that he did. That’s why he could live happily wherever he was. But it is impossible to be happy and yet crave what one doesn’t have.  Happiness must already have all it wants. It must resemble a person who has achieved their fill, feeling neither hungry nor thirsty.

“But Odysseus longed for his wife. He sat on a rock crying.”

“Why do you always take Homer and his tales as authority for everything? If Odysseus had really cried, what was he – except an unhappy man? But what good and virtuous person is unhappy?”

[Here Epictetus is suggesting that Homer misrepresented Odysseus, since he is a good and virtuous man and so, by definition, could not have been unhappy.]

To tell the truth, the universe will be a badly managed place if Zeus doesn’t take care of his citizens, making them happy like himself. No, these thoughts are unlawful and unholy. If Odysseus sat and wept, then he was not a good man. How can someone be good if he doesn’t know who he is?  And who can know that, if he has forgotten that things that come into being must perish, and it isn’t possible for one human being to live always with another? Then what? To desire the impossible is slavish and foolish. It is the behaviour of a stranger in the world who is fighting with God with the only means available to him: his judgments.

The grief of another is not in our power

“But my mother feels sad at not seeing me.”

“So why hasn’t she learned these principles? I am not saying that you shouldn’t make an effort to stop her from being sad, but you should not wish for something that is not absolutely in your power.”

The grief of another is not in our power. But your own grief is. You will try to help others to overcome their grief as far as you are able, but not totally. Otherwise you will be fighting against nature, opposing it, and fighting against the way the universe works. The penalty for this will not be paid by your children’s children, but by you personally, day and night; you’ll be startled out of your dreams, when you are disturbed, fearing every message, when your peace of mind depends on the letters of others.

Someone arrives from another city. “I only hope he is not bringing bad news.” Why, what harm can come to you when you were not even there? Someone arrives from yet another city. “I only hope she is not bringing bad news.”  Why, at this rate any place can be a source of bad news to you! Isn’t it enough for you to be unhappy where you actually are? Must you be unhappy even beyond the seas and by letter? Is this the way to make everything secure?

“Yes, but if my friends over there should die?”

What does that mean except that humans are mortals and they die? Do you wish to live long and yet not see loved ones die? Don’t you know, over a long period of time, many different things are bound to happen? That one person will get sick, another will get robbed, and yet another will be bullied? Such is the nature of our world and the nature of the people who are with us.

Things like heat and cold, unsuitable diet, a journey by land or sea, winds, and dangers of every kind can destroy some people, drive out some others, or make them seek help in an embassy or in a campaign.

Sit down then, get upset by all these things. Grieve. Be disappointed and be miserable. Be at the mercy of external events, not just one or two but thousands upon thousands!

Is this what you heard philosophers say? Is this what you learned? Don’t you know that this life is like a campaign? One person should guard, another go on a spying mission, and yet another out to fight. All of them cannot be in the same place and it wouldn’t be desirable either. But you neglect to perform the job assigned to you by the general, complain that it is hard, and don’t realize how you are reducing the army to the extent you can. For, if others follow your example, no one will dig a trench, or build a fence, no one will keep watch at night, or expose himself to danger – they will all be useless as soldiers. Again, if you go on a ship as a sailor, settle down in a single spot and stick to it. If it is necessary for you to climb the mast, refuse to do it. If you have to run to the bow, refuse again.  What captain will put up with you? Won’t he throw you overboard like a piece of junk, nothing but a nuisance and bad example for other sailors?

Do what needs doing, don’t complain

So it is here. Everyone’s life is a campaign, long and changeable. You must fulfil the duty of a soldier and do whatever your general orders you to do, sometimes even divining his wishes. For, he is no ordinary general, either in power or excellence of character. You are stationed in an imperial city, not in some miserable little place and you’re a senator for life. Don’t you know that such a person has little time to  spend on his household affairs, but has to spend most of his time away from home giving and receiving orders, serving some official, serving in the field, or sitting as a judge? And then you tell me that you want to remain in one spot like a plant?

“Yes, it is pleasant!”

“Who is denying it? But soup is pleasant too. So is a pretty woman. Do those who go for pleasure say anything else?”

Don’t you see what kind of men they are whose language you are using? This is the language of Epicurus and perverts. And while you share their opinions, are you going to quote the words of Zeno and Socrates to us? Why you don’t you throw these alien adornments as far away from you as possible as they don’t suit you at all? What else do these fellows [Epicureans] want other than to sleep undisturbed, and when they wake up, yawn at their leisure, and wash their faces; then read and write what they like; then talk some nonsense, to the applause of their friends, no matter what they say; then go out for a walk and, after that, take a bath, eat, and go to bed – the type of bed that you would expect them to sleep in? Why should I say another word? You know what it is like.

Don’t pretend to be a Stoic, if you don’t have Stoic qualities

Come now, you must tell me about your style of life too –  the life you hope to achieve, you who is eager for the truth and an admirer of Diogenes and of Socrates! What do you want to do in Athens? The things that I just described? Not anything different? Why do you call yourself a Stoic, then?

If you try to pass yourself off as a citizen of a country of which you really aren’t, you will be severely punished. Should those who claim a title and a mission as great and dignified as this [being a Stoic] go unpunished? Or is that impossible? Rather, is it an all-powerful and inescapable divine law that punishes those who are guilty of such greatest of all offences? What does this law say? “Let anyone who pretends to have qualities he doesn’t have be boorish and conceited. Let him be a low-life, a slave, let him be miserable, let him envy, let him pity; in a word let him be unhappy and regretful.”

Do the right thing without expectations

[At this point, the conversation changes abruptly.]

“What then? Would you have me pay court to so-and-so and go to his door?”

“Why not –  if reason demands it for the sake your country, your family, or humanity? You are not ashamed go to a shoemaker when you need shoes, or to a vendor of vegetables when you need lettuce. Yet you are ashamed to go to the rich when you need what they have?”

“Yes, but I don’t stand in awe of a shoemaker.”

“Then don’t stand in awe of a rich person either.”

“And I don’t have to flatter the vegetable vendor.”

“Then don’t flatter the rich person either.”

“Then, how will I get what I need [from the rich person]?

“Is this what I’ve been telling you: ‘Go as someone who will get what he wants?’. No, I said, ‘Go and ask because it is the proper thing to do.’”

“Then why should I go at all?”

“You go there to fulfil your role as a citizen, as a brother and as a friend. Besides, remember that you have come to see a shoemaker, or a vegetable vendor. He has no authority over anything great or valuable, even if his prices are high. You’re going there to buy lettuce. It is worth something but not that much. It is so in this case. The matter at hand is worth the trouble of going to his door.  So I will go. It’s worth talking to him. So I will talk. But is it also necessary to kiss his hands, and flatter him singing his praises? No way! That would be like paying way too much for a head of lettuce. It will not benefit me, my country, or my friends. It will destroy the good citizen and friend in me.”

“But if you fail, people will think that you didn’t really care to put much effort into it.”

“What, have you forgotten why you went there? Don’t you know that wise and good people do things because they are right and not because they look good to others? What benefit do you gain by spelling a word like Dion correctly? That of spelling it correctly.”

“No further reward to be gained, then?”

“Why do you seek further rewards for a good person than doing what is wise and right? At the Olympics, you don’t ask for anything further than the Olympic crown. Does it look too small and worthless to you to be good, noble, and happy?

Don’t long for the past

Since you have been introduced to this great world by the gods, it is your duty to do the work of a human being. Do you still crave the nurses and the breast? Does the weeping of poor silly women soften you and make you effeminate? Don’t you realize that when a man acts as a child, the older he is, the more ridiculous he is?

“Did you see anybody in Athens, in their home?’

“Yes, I did. The man I wanted to see.”

“Here as well, make up your mind and you will see him. But don’t go as someone inferior, with desire or aversion, and you will be all right.”

You will not find this result by just going or standing at the door, but being right in your judgment – in thinking, in choosing, in desiring, and in avoiding.  Then, where is the need for flattery or gloom? Why long for the quiet you enjoyed somewhere else, places that are familiar to you? Stay a little longer and these places will become familiar to you as well. Then, if you are mean-spirited, weep and be miserable again when you have to leave these too.

“How am I to show my affection, then?”

“You show it as a noble-minded person and as a fortunate person.”

Reason will never ask you to humiliate yourself or be broken-hearted, depend on others, or blame God or fellow human beings. Observing these things is how you show your affection. However if, as a result of this affection (however you define it), you become submissive and miserable, it does no good for you to be affectionate.

Besides, what stops you from loving someone who is bound to die, as one may have to leave you? Tell me, didn’t Socrates love his children? He did, but he did so as a free man, as one who was aware that his first duty was to be a friend to the gods. That’s why he succeeded in fulfilling his duties of a good man, both in defending himself and in proposing a penalty for himself, and, at an earlier time, as a member or the council or as a soldier.

But we use every excuse to be mean-spirited – some saying that it is because of a child, others because of their mother and yet others because of their brothers. We should not be unhappy because of someone else, but we should be happy for all, most of all for God, who made us for this purpose.

Be at home wherever you are

What! Was there anyone at all whom Diogenes didn’t love? Was he not so gentle and kind-hearted that he gladly took upon himself so many troubles and physical hardships for the common good of humanity?

“But in what way did he show his love?”

“By taking good care of others while being obedient to God, as a servant of God.”

That’s why the whole world, not any particular place, was his country. When he was taken prisoner, he didn’t long for Athens and for his friends and acquaintances there. Instead, he befriended the pirates and tried to reform them. Later, when he was sold into slavery, he lived in Corinth just as he had previously lived at Athens. If he had gone off to the [remote mountainous region of] Perrhaebians, he would have done exactly the same.

“This is how one achieves freedom. That’s why he used to say “Ever since [the founder of Cynicism] Antisthenes set me free, I stopped being a slave.”

“How did Antisthenes set him free?”

“Listen to Diogenes himself: ‘Antisthenes taught me what is mine and what is not mine. Property isn’t mine; relations, family, friends, reputation, familiar places, conversation with others aren’t mine either.’”

“What, then, is yours?”

“Power to deal with external impressions.”

He showed me that I have this power, free from all compulsion. No one can obstruct me, or force me to deal with impressions in any other the way than I choose to. Who still holds power over me? Philip? Alexander? Perdiccas? Or the King of Persia? How could they? Only when you are first overpowered by things, can you be overpowered by another human being.”

So if you don’t allow yourself to be overpowered by pleasure, or by suffering, or by fame or by wealth; if, at the time of your choice, you are prepared to let go of your body if someone threatens it, how can you ever be a slave? To whom are you subordinate?

But if Diogenes had continued to live pleasantly in Athens, hooked on the way of life there, his life could be controlled by anybody. Anyone who was stronger than him could cause him grief. You can imagine how he would have flattered the pirates to make them sell him to an Athenian so he could see the beautiful Piraeus, the Long Walls, and the Acropolis again.

“And what sort of a person would you be when you see them?”

“A miserable slave.”

“And what good would that do to you?”

“No, not as a slave, but as a free man.”

“Show me in what way you’re free. Someone, whoever he may be, gets hold of you and takes you away from the lifestyle you are accustomed to and says, ‘You are my slave because I have the power to prevent you from living the way you want. I have the power to set you free or humble you. Whenever I choose you may be cheerful again and go off to Athens in good spirits.’ What do you say to this man? What are you going to offer him to set you free? Isn’t it true that you don’t even dare to look at him in the face but, avoiding all arguments, beg him to release you?”

Man, you might as well go to prison happily, hurrying off even before they arrest you to be taken there. Are you reluctant to live in Rome and long for Greece? And, when you have to die, will you come crying to us once more because you’ll never see Athens again? Or that you won’t be able to walk around the Lyceum?

Is it for this that you travelled abroad? Is it for this that you are looking for someone who might do you good? Do good in what way? In analysing syllogisms easily and dealing with hypothetical arguments methodically? Is this the reason why you left your brother, country, friends and family, to be able to go back home with this kind of knowledge?

So you did not travel abroad to gain firmness of mind; it wasn’t to achieve peace of mind; it wasn’t to become free from harm and thus stop blaming or finding fault with anyone; and it wasn’t to make it impossible for anyone to harm you and be able to keep your social relationships without being obstructed?

A fine trade-off, indeed! To bring back home syllogisms, arguments with hypothetical and equivocal premises!

Yes, if you see fit, you should go sit in the marketplace, put up a sign like medicine peddlers do. Shouldn’t you deny that you know even what you’ve learned, so you don’t bring a bad reputation to the philosophical doctrines? What harm has philosophy ever done to you? What wrong has Chrysippus done that you should try to prove by your actions that his efforts were useless? Weren’t the troubles at home enough to cause you sorrow and distress? Do you have to travel abroad to add to them?

And when you gain new friends and acquaintances, you will find new reasons to be miserable. You will get attached to the new place as well. So, what’s the purpose for your living? To pile sorrow upon sorrow and make yourself miserable? And then you tell me this is affection? What kind of affection is this? If natural affection is good, it cannot result in any evil. If it is evil, I want to have nothing to do with it. I am born for what is good and what belongs to me, not for what is evil.

How to train properly

“How do you train for this properly, then?”

First and foremost, the highest and the principal form of training, which stands at the entrance is this. When you become attached to something, don’t think it cannot be taken away from you. Rather it is like a cup made of glass or ceramics. If it breaks, remember that is its nature and you won’t be troubled. So it is here too. When you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, don’t let your imagination run wild unchecked. Hold it back and restrain it like those who stand behind the generals riding in triumph and keep reminding them that they are mortals. [This refers to the ancient practice of a slave riding behind a victorious general to ward off the evil eye. While the general was being acclaimed, the people would say “Look behind you. Remember that you are a mortal.”] In the same way, you too should remind yourself that what you love is mortal. What you love is not your own. It has been given to you for the time being, not permanently, not forever. Rather it is given to you like fig or a bunch of grapes, for a particular season of the year. If you crave for it in the winter, you are a fool.

So, if you long for your son or friend at a time when they are no longer given to you, know that you are longing for a fig in winter. For as winter is to a fig, so is everything that arises from the general order of things in relation to what is destroyed.

From now on, whenever something delights you, call to mind the opposite impression. What harm is there if you whisper to yourself as you are kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”? Or to your friend, “Tomorrow you’ll go abroad, or I will and we will never see each other again.”?

“But these are words can bring bad luck.”

“Yes, but so are some ritual chants. I don’t mind, as long as they do only good.”

Do you call anything bad luck except what indicates something bad for us? Cowardice, meanness of spirit, sorrow, and shamelessness – all these are words of bad luck.  And yet, we should not avoid using them,  if they will protect us from the things themselves.

Are you telling me that any word that signifies some process of nature is bad luck? Is it bad luck for corn to be harvested because corn is destroyed? Is it bad luck for leaves to fall, or for a fresh fig to turn into a dried one, or for grapes to turn into raisin? All these things involve changes from their former state to a new and different one. It is not destruction but an orderly management and organization. Travelling abroad is like that, a small change. Death is like that, a big change, a change from what is into what it presently is not (rather than what is not).

“So I won’t exist anymore?”

You won’t exist, but something else that the world needs will. You did not come into being when you wanted to, but when the world had a need for you. Therefore, a wise and good person, keeping in mind who she is, and where she came from and who created her, thinks about one thing only: how to fulfil her place in a disciplined manner, remaining obedient to God.

“Is it your will that I continue to live? I’ll live as a free and noble person as you wish me to be. You have made me free from hindrance in all things that are my own. Now you don’t have any further need for me? May all be well with you. I have remained here so far only because of you and no other. Now I obey you and leave.

“How do you leave?”

“Again as you wish. As a free person, as your servant, taking note of your commands and your prohibitions. But as long as I remain in your service, what would you like me to be? An official, a private citizen, a general, a teacher, or the head of a household? Whatever place or position you give me, as Socrates says, I’ll die a thousand times rather than abandon it.”

Where do you want me to be? In Rome, Athens, Thebes, or Gyara? Only remember me there. If you send me to a place where it is impossible to live in accordance with nature, I shall depart from this life. Not out of disobedience to you, but in the belief that you are giving me the signal to leave. I’m not abandoning you, heaven forbid! But I realize you have no further need for me. But if you give a life in accordance with nature, I will not look for a place other than where I am or look for company other than who I am with now.

Remember and rehearse these thoughts

Have these thoughts ready at hand, day or night. Write them, read them, and discuss them both with yourself and others and say, “Can you give me some help in this?” Go to different people. If something undesirable should happen, the thought that “this is not unexpected” should lighten the burden. It is no small thing to say on every such occasion, “I knew I fathered a mortal,” [An expression at that time indicating courage while facing an unfortunate condition.] That’s what you’ll say, and furthermore, “I knew that I was mortal,” “I knew I was likely to leave home,” “I knew I could be deported,” or “I knew that I could be thrown in prison.” Then, if you think about these events and where they came from, you will remember that they are all outside your choice and therefore not your own. So what does it matter to you?

Accept reality as it is at any time

Then comes the comes the main question: “Who sent it?” If it was the ruler, the general, the state, or the law of the state,let it be so, because you must obey the law in everything. Later on, if your imagination still bothers you (after all, this is not under your control), fight against it with reason, defeat it, don’t allow it to gain strength. Don’t let it go on to the next stage picturing whatever it wants, in the way it wants it. If you are in Gyara, don’t picture how it was in Rome, what pleasures you enjoyed there and what pleasures await you there if you go back. Since Gyara is where you are now, you should live boldly there, as is proper for someone who lives there. And if you are in Rome, don’t imagine the way of life in Athens, but think only about how best live where you are.

Finally, in place of all other pleasures, think of the ones that come from the awareness that you are obeying God and that you are playing the part of a good and excellent person, not just in words but in deeds as well. How great it would be to be able to tell yourself,

“Now I am actually doing what others only talk about solemnly in their schools, things that appear paradoxical. Others are just sitting and talking about my virtues, enquiring about me, and singing my praises. God wanted me to show proof of all this through my actions. He wanted to know if he has the right kind of soldier, the right kind of citizen in me, so he can present me to others as a witness about things that are outside our choice and say to them: ‘See, your fears and desires are baseless. They are against reason. Don’t look for what is good for you outside yourselves. Look for it within you or you’ll never find it.’ That’s why God brings me here at one time and there at another; shows me to humanity as one who is poor, one with no official position, one who is sick; he sends me off to a remote place and puts me in prison. It’s not because he hates me. Heaven forbid! Who hates the best of his servants? It isn’t because he neglects me either. He does not neglect even the least of his servants. Rather, he is training me and making me his witness in front of others. When he has chosen me for this purpose, do I still care where I am? Or what people say about me? Shouldn’t I be paying full attention to what he says and what he orders me to do?”

Now if you keep such thoughts at hand, and rehearse them over and over again in your mind, and keep them ready for use, you won’t need anyone to encourage you or to strengthen you. You are not disgraced by not having anything to eat but by not having reason that is strong enough to protect you from fear and grief.  If, one day, you achieve freedom from fear and grief, will any bully or his sidekicks or other powerful people be anything you? If someone is awarded a high position, would you be envious? Would you envy people offering sacrifices upon taking office when you’re appointed by God for a very important office?

Just don’t make a display of it and don’t boast about it. Prove it by your conduct. Even if no one notices, be content to live in health and happiness yourself.

Think about this

Dishonour, in truth, doesn’t consist in not having enough to eat, but in not having reason enough to preserve you from fear and distress. Discourses III.24.116. Epictetus