Saturday, December 29, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.12 - on contentment

Even though the title of this chapter is called, "on contentment" or "satisfaction" in some translations, it is more about learning one of the most important lessons of life.

Epictetus starts off with describing various groups of people who believe or don't believe in the gods.  Inserted is a picture that represents these groups.  But it matters very little what kind of God or gods you believe in.  Maybe you don't even believe in a God or gods.  Fine.  What follows is relevant to those who believe or not.

"One who has achieved virtue and excellence, after having examined all these questions, submits his will to the one who governs the universe just as good citizens submit to the law of their city" (v. 7, p. 31).  And for those who have not attained virtue and excellence and are still learning he says they, "should approach his education with this aim in view: 'How may I follow the gods in everything, and how can I act in a way that is acceptable to the divine administration, and how may I become free?'  For someone is free if all that happens to him comes about in accordance with his choice and no one else is able to impede him" (v. 8-9, p. 31).  Whether you believe in the gods or not, the statement above gets to the heart of this matter: coming to accept your lot in life (being content or satisfied).  If you believe in the gods, then your philosophical education aims to teach you how to accept the gods' will for you.  If you don't believe in the gods, then philosophy would still aim to help you accept your fate - the complex turn of events that has brought you to this point in your life at this very instant.  He later expounds on this education: "true education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does" (v. 15, p. 31).

When your lot in life says you must be alone, what should your attitude be?  "You should call that peace and freedom, and view yourself as being like the gods."  And when you are in a large group of people, such as a party, you should think of yourself as a guest at "a feast or public festival" and learn to enjoy it (v. 21, p.32).

And when it comes to physical impairment, such as a bum or crippled leg, will you complain about your lot in life?  Epictetus seems to slap us in the face while saying, "Slave, you're going to cast reproaches against the universe?" (v. 24, p. 32).  I would recommend the reader learn about Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking.  Don't know who they are?  Look 'em up!  They had a lot worse lot in life than a bum leg.  What impediment do you have and how does it compare?

No matter our lot in life, we have complete control over one thing: our attitude toward our fate.  Indeed we must always keep in mind our position and minuteness relative to the universe, but also we must know we are equal with the gods because our our ability to choose our attitude and response.  As Epictetus put it, "the greatness of reason is measured not by height or length, but by the quality of its judgements" (v. 26, p. 33).

If you have eyesight and at the very moment a great work of art is presented to you, it would seem very odd and irrational to shut your eyes!  The same applies to our faculty for reason and choosing our attitude and reaction.  At the very time your capacity to reason and choice of attitude is needed, you should give "thanks to the gods for having enabled you to rise above everything that they have placed within your power" (v. 32, p. 33).

You do not have to choose a miserable life.  It is all in your head.  How long will it take for you to finally learn this lesson?  If you are disappointed, it is very likely you've placed your desires in something out of your control.  Now, quickly realize you have the power to change your attitude; and soon, you will be able to thank the gods for any obstacles or adversities placed before you.

If you truly want to be satisfied in life, you must learn that you are not held accountable for your parents or your siblings or any impediment to your body or what happens to your possessions or even for death or for life itself.  What you are accountable for is your response to all those things - what will your attitude and reaction be? The gods have made you responsible only for what is in your power - the proper use of impressions.

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