March 31, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Train to Confront the Fear of Death

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. There is no shame in anything that is not of your making.
  2. You should never fear the future. You will always have resources to cope with whatever happens.
  3. The worst thing that can happen is death. But the source of all evils is not death, but the fear of death.
  4. Train yourself to face the fear of death.

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

Aren’t you ashamed to be more cowardly and dishonourable than a runaway slave? When they run off, how do they leave their masters? On what estate or servants can they rely? Don’t they steal just a little to last them for the first few days, and then make their way around by land and sea, devising one plan after another to keep themselves fed? And which of them ever died of hunger?

But you tremble and lie awake at night for fear that you may lack the necessities of life. Miserable man, are you too blind to see where such lack of necessities will lead? Just to the same place as a fever or a stone that drops on your head – to death. Haven’t you often said so to your friends, read or written things of this nature? How often have you boasted that you are fairly confident at least as far as death is concerned?

“Yes, but family will too starve.”

“What of it? Will their hunger take them in any other direction than yours?”

Is it not the same road that leads below? Isn’t the world below the same? Aren’t you willing to look at that place, with courage sufficient to face every necessity and want, where even the wealthiest, holders of high offices including kings and tyrants must finally go? It may well be that you will go there hungry while they will go with indigestion and drunkenness.

There is no shame in anything that is not of your making

Is it easy to find a beggar who is not old? One who is not extremely old? But although they are cold by night and by day, and lie outside on the ground, and have no food beyond the bare essentials, they have reached a state where it is almost impossible for them to die. And yet, here you are physically fit and have hands and feet – are you so very afraid of starving? Can’t you fetch water, or write, or take children to school or be somebody’s doorkeeper?

“But it is shameful to be reduced to that level.”

“Learn therefore what is shameful. Call yourself a philosopher only after that. At present you shouldn’t even allow anyone to call you a philosopher.”

Is anything shameful to you, if it is not your own doing, for which you are not responsible, which has come to you uninvited, like a headache or fever? If your parents were poor, or if they were rich but left their property to others, gave you no help during their lifetime, is there anything shameful for you in that? Is that what you learned from philosophers? Have you not learned that what is shameful is blameworthy and only what is blameworthy deserves blame? And whom do you blame for something that’s not your own doing, and which you did not bring upon yourself?

Well, did you bring about this situation? Did you make your father what he is? Is it in your power to reform him? Is this power given to you? What then? Wish for what is not given to you and be ashamed if you don’t get it? Is this what you learned while studying philosophy – to look to other people but hope for nothing from yourself? Well then, weep and whimper and eat in fear that you may have no food tomorrow. Tremble with regard to your helpers fearing that they will steal from you, run away, or die. Live this way and never stop doing it. You have come to philosophy in name only. You have discredited its principles by showing them to be useless and good for nothing for those who practice them!

Your objectives should be stability, serenity, and peace of mind

Never have you desired stability, serenity, peace of mind. Never have you approached anyone for that purpose, but only learn about syllogisms. You never tested an impression for yourself, “Am I able to bear it or not? What can I expect next?” As if everything is safe and sound for you, you’ve been devoting your attention to a topic that should actually come at the end – immutability or you how you may be unassailable. Unassailable in what? [In your case,] your cowardice, your meanness of spirit, your admiration of the rich, your failure to get what you desire and your failure to avoid what you want to avoid. These are the things that you have been so anxious to secure!

Shouldn’t you have started by getting something from reason, and then try to make that secure? Have you seen anyone building a cornice without having a wall to build it around? What kind of doorkeeper can you place on guard where there isn’t any door? You practice the power to demonstrate. Demonstrate what? You practice to avoid being shaken by sophistic arguments. Shaken from what? Show me first what you are saving, what you are measuring and what you are weighing. Then show me, accordingly, your scales and measure. How long will you keep measuring ashes? [Ashes here refer to externals, which are considered worthless.]

Don’t get carried away by well-crafted arguments

Shouldn’t you be measuring these – what makes people happy, what makes their affairs prosper for them as they wish, what makes it possible for them to blame no one, fault no one, and submit to the governing order of the universe? Show me that.

“Look, I will show you. I am going to analyse some syllogisms for you.”

“That’s the measuring instrument, idiot, it is not the thing that’s measured.”

That’s why you are now being punished for what you neglected. You tremble, lie awake, consult everyone and if you don’t meet with everyone’s approval, you think you have been ill-advised.

Then you are afraid of going hungry, or so you think. You are not afraid of going hungry but of not having someone to cook for you, no servant to do the shopping, no one to put your shoes on, no one to dress you; no one to give you a massage, no one to follow after you so when you have undressed and stretched in a bath like someone crucified, he may massage you on this side and that. The masseurs then stand over you and say, “Move over, give me his side and you take over his head and give me his shoulder.” Then, when you have returned home, you may shout out, “Is no one bringing me something to eat?” And then, “Clear the tables. Wipe them with a sponge.”

You should not fear that you’ll go hungry

What you are afraid of is this: that you may not be able to live the life of an invalid. To learn how healthy people live you need only look at how servants, labourers, and genuine philosophers live. Or how Socrates lived even when he had a wife and children, how Diogenes lived, and Cleanthes lived while having to study and draw water at the same time. [Cleanthes was the second scholarch or head of the Stoic school. He was so poor that he attended Zeno’s school during the day and worked as a gardener at night to support himself.] If this is what you want, you’ll find it everywhere and you can live with complete confidence. Confidence in what? In the only things in which we can have confidence – that which is reliable, free from hindrance, and cannot be taken away; in short your own moral choice.

Why have you made yourself so useless and good for nothing that no one is willing to take you into his home, no one is willing to take care of you? When an undamaged and useful tool is thrown out, anyone who finds it will take it with him and count it a gain. But not when he picks you up. Everyone will count you a loss. You are not even as useful as a dog or a cock. Why do you care to go on living, if that’s the kind of person you are?

Does any good person fear that he will go hungry?

Neither the blind nor the lame go hungry. Will a good person?

A good soldier doesn’t fail to find someone to employ him and pay him. Neither do good workers and shoemakers. Will a good person?

The worst thing that can happen is death

Does God neglect his own creatures, his own servants, his witnesses, the only people he uses as examples to the uneducated to prove that he exists and governs the universe well, does not neglect human affairs, and nothing bad ever happens to a good person, either in life or in death?

“Yes, but what if he fails to provide me with food?”

“What else? Like a good general, he is signalling you to withdraw.”

I came into this world when it pleased him and leave it again at his pleasure. While I lived, it was my job to sing hymns of his praise to myself or to others, one or many. He has not given me much, nothing in abundance. He doesn’t want me to live luxuriously. He didn’t grant that to his own son Heracles either. Someone else ruled over Argos and Mycenae, while Heracles just followed orders, worked hard, and completed his work.  Eurystheus, who had the title of king, did not rule over Argos and Mycenae either, since he didn’t even rule over himself, while Heracles was ruler and governor of all land and sea. He purged the world of lawlessness and injustice and introduced reverence and justice. And this he achieved naked and alone.

Again when Odysseus was shipwrecked and cast ashore, did his helpless condition make him miserable? Was his spirit broken? No. How did he approach the young girls to ask for food – something that is thought to be shameful for one person ask of another? “Like a mountain-bred lion.”[Homer, Odyssey]

In what did he trust? Not reputation, nor money, nor offices, but in his own strength – his judgements about which things are under our control and which aren’t. These are the only things that make us free, that make us free from hindrance, that raise up the head of those who are humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich and of the tyrants with level eyes. This is what philosophy can offer. But you will not leave here with confidence, but with trembling about such insignificant things like clothes and silver plate. Miserable man! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?

“But what if I get sick?”

“You will bear it well.”

“Who will care for me?”

“God and your friends.”

“My bed is hard.”

“Lie on it like a human being.”

“I won’t have a suitable house.”

“Then you’ll fall ill in an unsuitable house.”

“Who will prepare my food?”

“Those who prepare for others. You will be ill like Manes.” [Likely, the name of a slave.]

“How will my illness end?”

“What else but death?”

The source of all evils is not death, but the fear of death

Why don’t you realize then that the source of all human evils, mean-spiritedness, and cowardice is not death itself but the fear of death? Train yourself to face this. You should direct all your reasoning, all your studies and all your exercises towards this end. Then you will know that it is the only way for you to achieve freedom.

Think about this

[The] source of all human evils, and of mean-spiritedness and cowardice is not death, but rather the fear of death. Discourses III.26.38. Epictetus [CH/RH]