Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.26 - To those who are afraid of want

"You tremble for fear that you may run out of the necessities of life, and you lie awake at night." (v. 1, p. 212)

Stoicism would have you think about "memento mori" - that you will die someday; and that death is nothing to be feared.  If you can be comfortable with the idea that you will die at any moment, either to "a fever or a stone falling down on your head" (v. 3, p. 212), then why should you fear or worry about running out of the necessities of life?  Or why should you fear that your "family too will go hungry"? (v. 4, p. 212)

Rather, you should choose to exercise the virtue of courage and "confront every lack and want" realizing that we are reduced to death at some point.  And as part of the self-confrontation, to ask yourself if it is better to die hungry while being a good human being or to die "torn apart by indigestion and drunkenness" (v. 5, p. 212) while living a life of vice?  The Stoics would say, virtue is the sole good and it is better to die hungry, maintaining virtue, than to die of indigestion and drunkenness living a life of vice.

As for the shame of being reduced to such dire straights (being so poor that you don't even have food to eat), Epictetus responds, "you should learn first of all what is shameful." (v. 7, p. 213)  If something is out of your control, then it is not shameful.

He then scolds his students a bit for having such thoughts, "you've embarked on philosophy in name alone ... never have you desired firmness of mind, serenity, impassibility; never have you attended any teacher with that purpose of mind, but many a teacher o learn about syllogisms.  Never have you tested out any of these impressions for yourself, asking yourself, 'Am I capable of bearing this or not?'" (v. 13-14, p. 213)

He further scolds them for putting the cart before the horse, only he uses a different analogy.  "And what kind of doorkeeper can one place on guard where there is no door for him to watch over? ... Or how long will you keep measuring worthless ashes?" (v. 15-18, p. 214)  His students are more concerned for the body than they are for the soul or mind within the body.  They want to protect the body, but there is nothing in the body worth protecting.  They want to measure and care for something (the body) that will be reduced to ashes, rather than spend the time improving the object (the soul / mind) that is encased by the body.

Instead of spending time, anxiety, fear and effort on maintaining the body, you should spend time, anxiety, fear and effort on improving your mind - finding a philosophy that lasts; that "makes people [truly] happy" that "makes their affairs prosper as they would wish, and what makes it possible for them never to blame anyone, never to find fault with anyone, and to submit to the governing order of the universe." (v. 18, p. 214).  In summary, you should be concerned about improving "your own moral choice." (v. 24, p. 215)

The sooner you realize that the body is not more important than the mind or soul - and that you can prove to yourself that death means nothing, then you will begin to improve as a human being.

"Why don't you reflect, then, that for man the source of all evils, and of his meanness of spirit and cowardice, is not death itself, but rather the fear of death?  It is to confront this that you must train yourself, and it is towards that end that all your reasonings, all your studies, and all your readings should be directed, and then you'll recognize that it is in this way alone that human beings can attain freedom." (v. 38-39, p. 216)

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