Thursday, March 7, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.9 - That although we are unable to fulfill our human calling, we adopt that of a philosopher

There is a phrase used in the scrum world that goes, "nail it before you scale it"  The idea is that you have to master the basics before tackling more complexity.

Epictetus is making a similar point.  Some want to become a philosopher before they can learn how to be a good human.  He begins, "merely to fulfill the role of a human being is no simple matter" (v. 1, p. 87).  We must be rational in all we do, otherwise we are mere beasts and "act for the sake of our belly or genitals, [or] act at random, or in a filthy manner, or without proper care [or] ... when we behave aggressively, and harmfully and angrily, and forcefully" (v. 4-5, p. 88).  Actually, that is a really good list to start with.  If a person can abstain from the above, they are making progress away from becoming a beast and toward becoming a good human.

We continue to make progress toward becoming a good human being when we act according to our nature.  "Each person is strengthened and preserved by actions that are appropriate to his nature" (v. 10, p. 88).  If you want to be a carpenter, do what a carpenter does.  If you want to be a skilled writer, do what skilled writers do.  If you want to be "a modest character" then have "modest actions." Your faithfulness is "preserved by acts of fidelity" (v. 11, p. 88).  You see a pattern here; to live virtuously, have virtuous acts.  And being a good human being requires virtuous acts.

"That is why philosophers recommend that we shouldn't be contented merely to learn, but should add practice too, and then training" (v. 13, p. 88).  And even if we practice and train, we still might slip into bad habits and opinions.  "It is one thing to put bread and wine away in a store-room, and quite another to eat them.  What is eaten is digested and distributed around the body, to become sinews, flesh, bones, blood, and good complexion, sound breathing.  What is stored away is ready at hand, to be sure, to be taken out and displayed whenever you wish, but you derive no benefit from it, except that of having the reputation of possessing it" (v. 18, p. 89).  It is with use that we derive the benefit of philosophy, not simply owning or reading philosophical books.

Learn to be a good human being; learn philosophy.  Then practice being a good human being; instill training into your routine to help you implement what you learn from philosophy.  I don't think it is bad to want to desire to lift the rock of Ajax, even if you can't lift 10 pounds.  But if you consistently apply yourself and learn and train, you may achieve your goal.

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