Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.6 - To those who are distressed at being pitied

Pity: the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.

"'It annoys me', someone says, 'to be pitied.'" (v. 1, p. 249)

Do you ever feel the pity of others?  If so, this is a symptom that you still care deeply what other people think of you.  You will be glad to know that you can do something about this, but it may not exactly be what you think it is.

What could be some reasons an aspiring Stoic might feel the pity of others?  It may be because the aspiring Stoic is in poverty, or doesn't hold public office or doesn't have a prestigious career, or perhaps he is ill or in poor health (see v. 2, p. 249).

And what should an aspiring Stoic be prepared to do about this feeling of pity from others?

Option 1: "convince the mass of people that none of these [poverty, prestige, poor health] are in fact [good or] bad, but that one can be happy even when one is poor, and holds no office, and enjoys no honor." (v. 3, p. 249)

Option 2: remedy the situation by getting out of poverty, gaining office and securing perfect health.

If you pursue "option 2", then you may need to uphold considerable pretense and conceal who you really are (what you really think).  You will need to make a show and make others believe you are something you are not and you may even need to "resort to mean tricks to appear better looking and of higher birth than you really are." (see v. 4, p. 249)

But if you pursue "option 1" you will soon learn "it is both impracticable and long to attempt that very thing that Zeus has been unable to achieve, to convince everyone about what things are good and what are bad." (v. 5, p. 250)

But what about a third option?  Does an alternative exist?  Indeed, it does.  It is the Stoic course of action and it is entirely within your control.  You must "give up things that lie outside the sphere of choice, and turn away from them and acknowledge that they are not your own." (v. 9, p. 250)  More precisely, you must "let other people be and become your own teacher and your own pupil." (v. 11, p. 250)

Instead of worrying about something out of your control - in this case, the pity of other people toward you - you should rather focus on worrying about how you are coming along in developing your own character and how you deal with impressions that present themselves to you.

As an example, let's say your "head is perfectly well [yet] everyone thinks that [you] have a headache" when in fact you don't even have the slightest of headaches.  What does it matter to you that everyone else thinks you have a headache?  You don't have a single ache or fever, yet everyone is acting as though you did!  What do you do?  Perhaps you "assume a doleful expression and say, 'Yes, to be sure, it is quite some time that I've been unwell' ... and at the same time, [you] secretly [laugh] at those who are taking pity on [you]." (v. 21, p. 251)

Do the same for all the externals in your life - think nothing of them, but if people who are uneducated and who place high value (who think these things are good) on a prestigious career, wealth, health and fame, pity you for not having these things, perhaps you say, "oh, thank you!  I'll do my best to bear my lot in life well" while inwardly laughing at the dolts who probably don't have a clue.  There is no reason whatsoever to "get worked up about what other people think of [you]." (v. 24, p. 252)  While "they've devoted their efforts to obtaining public posts, you [have devoted your efforts] to your judgements.  They to riches, you to the proper use of your impressions." (v. 25, p. 252)

As for you - you must focus on "how to make right use of your impressions" and to help you do so, "you should ask yourself as soon as you get up in the morning,

  • What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion?
  • To achieve peace of mind?
  • Who am I?  Surely not a mere body?  Or possessions, or reputation?  None of these things.
  • But what?  I'm a rational living being.
  • What is required, then, of such a being?
  • Go over your actions in your mind
    • Where have I gone wrong? with regard to achieving happiness?
    • What did I do? that was unfriendly, or unsocialable, or inconsiderate?
    • What have I not done that I ought to have done? with regard to these matters?" (v. 34-35, p. 253)
In this way, you will be less concerned for the pity you are receiving from others, and more focused on making yourself a wise and just person.

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