February 3, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Train to Deal with Illness
Key ideas of this discourse
- The purpose of training is to prepare you to face hardships, including illness.
- Illness is a part of life. We should have our judgements ready and available to us when we need them – as when we get sick.
- You should always keep two principles ready at hand:
- There is nothing good or bad, if it is outside your choice; and
- We should follow events rather than guide them.
Review every day at bedtime
We should have our judgements ready and available to us when we need them: at lunch, our judgments about lunch; at the bath, our judgments about a bath; in bed, our judgments about a bed.
Let not sleep descend your weary eyes,
Before having reviewed every action of the day
Where did I go wrong? What did I do? What duty leave undone?
Starting here, review your actions, and afterwards,
Blame yourself for what is badly done and rejoice in the good.
[The Golden Verses, attributed to Pythagoras. Translation by Robin Hard]
We should keep these verses handy and put them to practical use and not as simple exclamations.
What to do when illness strikes
When fever strikes, we should have the judgments at hand and apply them. When you fall ill, don’t forget and don’t give up, saying, “If I ever study philosophy again, let things happen as they will. I will have to go somewhere and take care of my poor body.” Yes indeed – if the fever doesn’t go there with you!
But what does training in philosophy mean? Is it not to prepare yourself for the challenges to come? Don’t you understand then, that what you are saying amounts to this: ‘If I ever again prepare to bear quietly the things that happen to me, then let things happen as they will’? It is like someone withdrawing from the sports regimen because he has received some injuries. The only difference is that with sports regimen one may stop it to avoid further injuries. But if we stop training in philosophy, what good would it do? What should a philosopher say when facing any hardship in life? “It is for this hardship I have been training myself. It is for this I have been practicing.”
The purpose of training is to bear hardships well
God tells you: “Give me proof that you have competed according to the rules, followed the proper diet, exercised, and paid attention to your trainer.” And then when the time for action comes, do you weaken? Now is the time for your fever. Bear it well. Thirsty? Bear it well. Hungry? Bear it well. Isn’t this within your power? Who can stop you? Yes, your doctor may ask you not to drink, but he can’t stop you from bearing thirst well. He can ask you not to eat, but he can’t stop you from bearing hunger well.
“But, am I not a scholar.”
“What are you studying for? Isn’t it to be happy, idiot? Isn’t it to be secure? Isn’t it to live your life in conformity with nature? What prevents you, then, when you fall sick, from keeping your judgements in conformity with nature?”
Illness is a part of life
Here is the proof, the test for a philosopher. Fever is a part of life, just like a walk, a voyage, or a journey is. You don’t read while taking a stroll, do you? No, no more than when you have a fever. But if you walk the right way, you are fulfilling your role as a walker. Similarly, if you bear your fever the right way then you are fulfilling your role as a patient.
“What does it mean to bear your fever, ‘the right way’?”
“It is not to blame God or humans. It is not to be overwhelmed by what is happening. It is to await death courageously and in a becoming way. It is to do what you are instructed to do.”
The universe will not be upset when you die
When your doctor comes, don’t be worried about what he might say. Don’t get carried away with joy if says, “You are doing very well.” What is good about it? When you were well, what good was it to you? Similarly, don’t be downhearted if he says, “You are in a bad way.” What does it mean to be in a bad way? That your body and soul will separate soon? What is terrible about that? If you are not close to it now, will you not be close to it sometime in the future?
Is the universe going to be upset when you die? Why do you flatter your doctor, then? Why do say, “If you so wish, doctor, I will get well.” Why do you give him an opportunity to exhibit his vanity? Why not just pay him his due – just as you would pay a shoemaker regarding your feet, a builder with regard to your house? Your body is not yours – it is something dead by nature. These are the things required of someone suffering from fever. If you fulfil these, you have what rightly belongs to you.
“It isn’t your job as a philosopher to safeguard the external things – not your wine, or oil, or your poor body.”
“Your governing principle.”
“How about external things?”
“Only to the extent that you don’t act thoughtlessly about them.”
What occasion is left to be fearful, then? What occasion is left to be angry? Or to be afraid of things that are not your concern – worthless external things?
Two basic principles
These then are the two principles that you should always have ready at hand:
There is nothing good or bad, if it is outside your choice; and
We should follow events as they happen rather than guide them.
“My brother shouldn’t have treated me this way.”
“Quite so. But it is for him to see to that. No matter how he treats you, you need to conduct yourself the right way towards him. This is your business and not the rest. This no one can stop you from doing, while the other is open to hindrance.
Think about this
What occasion is there for fear? What occasion for anger, about things that are not our own and are of no value? Discourses III.10.17. Epictetus [CG/RH]