March 10, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Understand what is in your power (Discourses in Plain English I.1.)
Key ideas of this discourse
Discourses is a collection of Epictetus’ conversations with his students and visitors, as recorded by his student Flavius Arrian. Discourses forms an excellent introduction to Stoicism and, in this series, The Stoic Gym presents Epictetus’ Discourses in plain English.
Our supreme faculty is reason, because it can judge all other faculties, as well itself. No other faculty can do that.
We are in charge of this supreme faculty of reason, and not of anything else. We are not even in charge of our own body, which may eventually fall ill or die, no matter how well we look after it.
Because reason is the supreme faculty, it is strong enough to lead us to freedom, happiness, and serenity.
The main job of reason is to manage impressions. This means we need to use reason to understand the truth behind our first impressions such as “he is ungrateful,” “she doesn’t like me,” “this is a disaster” and all our snap judgments, assumptions, and unexamined beliefs.
Instead of doing just this one thing that will lead us to freedom, happiness and serenity, we become preoccupied with things such as our body, our friends and relatives, the weather, and the like. We become anxious.
We add misery to what cannot be controlled. When the weather is bad, we become unhappy about it, we add misery to an already “bad” thing. Being unhappy cannot change the weather but it can make you miserable.
Confine your actions to only things that are in your power. Train yourself not to concern yourself about things that are not in your control.
Reason, our best gift
If you are writing a letter to a friend, grammar will tell you how write correctly, but not whether you should write that letter. If you study music, music will tell you whether something is melodious, but not whether it is appropriate to sing now. It is so with all disciplines. They cannot judge themselves. What can? The faculty of reason.
Reason alone can understand and evaluate itself: what it is, what it is capable of, and the power it has. It can also pass judgment on other disciplines. What else tells us that gold is beautiful? What else judges music, grammar and other arts and tells us when and how to use them? Not the gold or the grammar, but the faculty that evaluates such impressions – reason. Reason alone can judge music, grammar and other arts, evaluate their benefits and tell us to use them.
So it is fitting that God has given us control over this excellent faculty – and only this faculty – that rules over all others: the ability to interpret impressions correctly. Why are the other faculties not placed under our power? We would have been given power over other faculties too, but we are on earth and bound to a physical body and material things. Therefore we cannot avoid being limited by external things. Even our bodies are not truly our own, but just cleverly constructed to seem that way. Given these limitations, it is as if the God, because he could not give us control over our body making it free of hindrance, has given us a portion of himself.
Reason gives us the ability to act or not act and to desire something or move away from it by properly judging our perceptions or impressions. If we pay attention to just this one thing, we will never be hindered and we will never complain, flatter, or find fault. Does this seem like a small gift to you? Of course not!
Do not burden yourself with unnecessary concerns
But instead of doing just this one thing right – managing impressions to arrive at the right conclusion – we burden ourselves with many things: Our body, our possessions, our brother, friend, child and the like. We concern ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down. So, when bad weather prevents us from sailing, we become anxious and start fretting about reality:
“What wind is it?”
“When will west wind blow?”
“When it chooses, my good friend. You don’t control winds.”
“What should we do then?”
“Make the best use of what lies within our power and deal with it according to its nature.”
“What is its nature?”
“Whatever God decides it is.”
Don’t add misery to what is happening
“But what if only my life is being threatened? What thoughts would help me then?”
“Do you want everyone’s life threatened too? Remind yourself what is in your power and what is not. I should die; should I die groaning too? I am put in chains; should I be grief stricken too? I am deported; what keeps me from going with a smile on my face?”
Train yourself to face whatever happens
Whatever is within our power, no one can take away.
“Tell me your secrets.”
“I refuse.” This is in my power.
“I will restrain you.”
“Only my legs. Even God cannot take away my choice.”
“I will throw you in prison.”
“Only my body.”
“I will behead you.”
“Did I ever claim that mine is the only neck that cannot be severed?”
That is the attitude you should cultivate if you would like to be a philosopher. This is what you should think, write about, and practice every day. (Roman Senator) Thrasea used to say “I would sooner be killed today than deported tomorrow.” What did (the Stoic philosopher) Musonius tell him? “If you choose death because it is the worse of the two, how foolish! If you choose it as a lesser evil, who put you in charge of that choice?” It is foolish to have a preference when it is not under your control. Instead why don’t you train yourself to be content and deal with whatever happens?
Don’t become an obstacle to yourself
(The Stoic philosopher) Agrippinus said, “I will not become an obstacle to myself.”
On hearing that he was being tried in the Senate, Agrippinus said “Hope it turns out in my favor. But it is five o’clock. Time for my workout and bath.” Off he went to do his workout. When he was done a friend came to inform Agrippinus that he was convicted.
“Death or exile?”
“What about my property?”
“You get to keep it.”
“Let’s go to Aricia and dine there.”
This is how you should train yourself to think. When you think this way, what you desire cannot be restrained and what you want to avoid cannot be forced upon you. “I must die. If now, I will die now. If later, I will dine now because it is dinner time. How? Like a person giving back what is not his own.”
Think about this
I will not become an obstacle to myself. Agrippinus
I must die? If now, I will die now. If in a short time, I will dine first because it is dinner time now. When the time comes, I will die. How? Like a person giving back what was not his own. Epictetus