March 15, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

You can endure anything; act your best. (Discourses in Plain English I.2.)

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.

We can put up with anything (like an athlete enduring hard training) if we have a reason for it.

What you would endure depends on your character; what you value in life.

But, once you start placing a value on external things, you come close to a person who has lost all sense of their character.

Don’t stop trying to act your best, even if you think you will never be as good as someone else.

We can endure anything if we have a reason

A rational person can endure anything except things that are against reason. Take, for example, blows to the body. By nature they are endurable.
“How so?”
“See how an athlete going through a rigorous training program endures punishment for not following the program, because he believes it is rational.”
“What if I face capital punishment? Is that not unendurable?”
“Even when the punishment is very severe, if a person thinks it is reasonable under the circumstances, he would willingly subject himself to it.”

We can observe that rational beings are drawn to what is rational and distressed by what is irrational.

We all have different ideas about what is rational

However, everyone has a different idea of what is rational and irrational, what is advantageous and disadvantageous, what is good and bad. This is why we need an education to tell us how to correctly identify what is rational and what is not rational according to nature;, so we can apply it to every situation we come across. To do this we must consider two things: the value a person places on external things and the nature of the person involved. For one person, being a bathroom attendant to avoid pain and hardship could be rational; for another, doing such work under any condition could be irrational, even if he is beaten and denied food. Such a person may not even be able to tolerate another person submitting himself to such work.

The trade-off depends on your character

If you ask me which is the better of the two, I would say that it depends on what is important to you: Security that comes with accepting demeaning work, or insecurity that might follow if you reject it? What you would do depends on your answer to this question. If security is more important, then go and do the demeaning job. Did you say it is beneath you? It is for you to decide, not for me. It is you who know yourself, the value you place on yourself, and the price at which you would sell yourself. Different people sell themselves at different prices.

Florus was debating whether to enter and contribute to the emperor Nero’s festival. Agrippinus told him

“If you are considering it, go and perform.”
“Why don’t you go to the shows yourself?”
“Because, I wouldn’t even consider it.”

Once you start placing a value on external things, you come close to a person who has lost all sense of their character. If you ask me “Is death preferred or life?” I say, “Life.” If you ask “Pain or pleasure?” I say, “Pleasure.”

“But if I don’t take a part, I could be killed.”
“Then go and take a part. But I will not take a part.”
“Because you consider yourself as just another thread in a garment. So, you should give thought to acting like all the others. But I consider myself that small shiny purple band in that garment that gives beauty and luster to others. Don’t tell me to be just another thread in the garment. If I did that, then how can I be the purple band? ”

This is how another Stoic philosopher, Helvidius Priscus, chose to be different from others: [On a particular issue, he had views contrary to that of Vespasian. The Emperor approached Senator Helividius and asked him not to go into the Senate.]

“If you don’t want me to go in, fire me. But as long I am a Senator, I must go in.”
“Go in then, but don’t give your opinion.”
“I won’t, if you don’t ask me.”
“But I must ask you.”
“Then I must give my opinion.”
“Do that, and I will put you to death.”
“Did I ever tell you I was immortal? You do your part and I will do mine. It is your job to kill me, it is mine to die without fear. Yours to banish me, mine to go without grieving.”

So what did Helvidius achieve by this, he being just a single individual standing up to the emperor? The same thing that the single purple band did to the garment: set a fine example to others. Another person may have given in to the request of the Emperor, but the Emperor would not have tried to prevent such a spineless person anyway. The Emperor knows that such a senator would just go in and sit like a jug or simply say what the emperor wanted him to say, making it sound even more emphatic.

An athlete had to choose between his private parts amputated and dying. His brother, a philosopher, asked him what was it going to be. The athlete declined to be amputated and chose to die with dignity. Someone asked whether he died like an athlete or as a philosopher. Epictetus said that the athlete died like a man. As someone who has participated in the Olympics and won. But another person could have chosen to have his head cut off even, as long as he could live. People do what is in line with their character.

“Come on, Epictetus, shave off your beard.”
“I am a philosopher, I refuse.”
“I will behead you then.”
“Go ahead, if it will do you any good.”

How do we know what is in line with our character? The same way a bull knows that it can stand up to a lion, when the herd is attacked. Don’t you see that, if you have the power, you will be aware of it too? But no bull reaches maturity instantly. Nobility is not achieved overnight. We must endure a winter training and take care not to rush into situations without preparation.

If you decide to sell your choice for security, decide at what price you will sell it, so you may not sell it too cheap. What is noble and exceptional perhaps belongs to others, people such as Socrates.

“Why don’t we all act like Socrates then?”
“Are all horses swift? Do all dogs follow the scent?”

We should not stop trying because we are not the best

Should I neglect caring for myself because I am not naturally gifted? I may not be better than Socrates, but if I am not too bad, that’s good enough for me. I may not be an Olympic champion like Milo, but that’s is no reason why I should neglect my body. I may not be renowned for my wealth like (the Emperor of Lydia) Croesus, but that’s no reason why I should neglect taking care of my modest property. Of course, we continue to take care of things even when we know that we may never reach the highest degree of perfection in doing so.

Think about this

As soon as a person considers comparing and calculating the value of external things, he comes close to those who have lost all sense of their proper character. Epictetus

I shall never be a Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body. Nor will be a Croseus, and yet I do not neglect my property. Epictetus