Friday, November 16, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.2

Epictetus' Discourses are not the Meditations. I can let a passage from Marcus simmer in my brain a few minutes and I think I can come to a conclusion as to what he means (along with the help of Hadot).  But for Epictetus, I need to read it a few times to comprehend what he's teaching me.

The subject of Discourses 1.2 is 'how a person can preserve their proper character in any situation.' The Stoics always say, "live according to Nature." I think what Epictetus is trying to say in this chapter is, "live according to your specific nature." Around verse 7, he says, "not only do we have to form a judgment about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character."

From there, once you know what you are, you can settle on what you will and will not do - what integrity means to you. He says in verse 11, "you're the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you'll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices."

This is a timely passage for me personally. Every so often, I seem to go through some sort of existential mini life crisis. When they occur, I seem to really wonder and question myself and if I'm adding any value to the world. They typically begin on a Friday - after a long, slug-fest at work - commuting, meetings ad-nauseum and seemingly not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything. If asked, 'what did you accomplish today or this week?', I think the answer would be 'nothing of importance.' The only, real, valid reason I work day-in and day-out is for my wife and family. For them, I'm willing to sell my time and soul. Maybe other people can't do that. But I've found, speaking for myself, that is the price I'm willing to sell myself for.

Epictetus offers an analogy about the selling price of one's soul. Does one 'fall in line' or does one 'attempt to stand out'? The analogy involves either being a white thread in a robe made mostly of white threads or being a purple thread, which when contrasted with the white threads, stands out. For some, their price is steep - they would not settle or sell their soul to 'be like the crowd.' He proceeds to give examples of some people's integrity at play. They can be threatened, but they will still do their duty to death.

Now that price has been discussed, the question still remains, "what makes you unique? What is your unique nature? What are you not willing to sell your soul for, if ever, in any circumstance?" Epictetus discusses this in verse 30, "Then how will each of us come to recognize what is appropriate to his own character?" Later, he answers, "if someone possesses such power, he won't fail to be aware of it." He also makes a clarifying point that sometimes we don't know what that talent is until after a 'winter training.' He doesn't expound a whole lot on that, but to me, it seems like we all grow into the talents that are unique to us. Perhaps after some difficulty and challenges, our true talents - aspects that are unique to us individually - are revealed.

Let's assume you've found your talent. Now, comes the possibility that you are not the best in whatever makes you unique. To which Epictetus responds we do not "cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because [we] despair of achieving perfection." Indeed, there can be a 'best' but by virtue of there being a 'best', there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of others 'not the best.'  The conclusion: we still try.

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