Thursday, February 21, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.5 - How greatness of mind may coexist with carefulness

Epictetus instructs us that there are things in our control and things out of our control.  The things out of our control are called externals.  These are materials for our use of our reason; they are the platform to demonstrate our virtues and attitude.  Therefore, he states, "materials are indifferent, but the use that one makes of them is by no means indifferent" (v. 1, p. 78)

How are we to interact with externals.  He gives multiple examples of how life is like something and how there are things that are in our control and things out of our control.  He was Forest Gump's mama before there was a Forest Gump!

Life is like a card game or dice ...
The dice and cards fall where they may - they are out of our control.

What is in our control is our reaction to them: "to be attentive and skillful in making use of whatever does fall, that is now my task" (v. 3, p. 78).

Life is like an ocean voyage ...
You can choose the captain, the boat and the day you set sail and even the best time to sail.  "Then a storm descends on us.  Now why should that be of any concern to me?  For my role has been completed.  This is now somebody else's business, that of the helmsman.  But now the ship begins to sink.  So what can I do?  What I can and that alone, namely, to drown without fear, without crying out, without hurling accusations against God, as one who well knows that what is born is also fated to perish.  For I am not everlasting, but a human being, a part of the whole as an hour is part of the day.  Like an hour I must come, and like an hour pass away.  So what difference does it make to me how I pass away, whether it be by drowning or a fever?  For in some way or other, pass away I must" (v. 11-14, p. 79).

Life is like a ball game ...
Ballplayers do not value the ball, but rather focus on the skills needed to excel at the sport.  "If we're anxious or nervous when we make the catch or throw, what will become of the game, and how can one maintain one's composure; how can one see what is coming next?" (v. 17, p. 79)

We don't get to choose the ball, but we do get to choose whether to play the game or not, so too in life, we don't get to choose if we are imprisoned, exiled or executed.  We don't get to choose if our wife dies and our children become orphans.  We may play with one "ball" for twenty years and then the judge takes it away and gives us another.  The excellent athlete keeps his concentration and coolness and keeps playing, despite the change in equipment.  He uses the ball, but he does not grow attached to it - the ball is just a means for demonstrating skill.

Life is like weaving...
The weaver does not make the wool; rather she makes the "best use of whatever wool she's given.  God gives you food and property, and can take them back - your whole body too.  Work with the material you are given."

You are like a foot ...
The foot can only be useful in the context of the full body.  So too, the human can only be useful and understood in the context of community and the whole universe.

It is according to nature for the foot to be cleaned, to tromp through dirt and mud to step on needles.  It is also according to nature for the foot to be amputated, if the need arises.  You want your foot to be there to do those things.  You want your foot amputated if it puts the rest of the body at risk.  You do not want a foot that says, "I cannot walk today, I'd rather soak in a tub" - especially when you need it to run the race!

Similarly, if you view yourself as part of the whole, then "it may be in the interest of the whole that you should now fall ill, now embark on a voyage and be exposed to danger, now suffer poverty, and perhaps even die before your time.  Why do you resent this then?" (v. 26, p. 80).  Humans are part of a community of gods and men - in a community - it a city - in a state - in a nation - in a world - in the universe.

In sum
"For it is impossible, while we are in a body such as ours, and in this universe that contains us, and among such companions as we have, that such things should not happen to us, some to one person and some to another.  It is thus your role to step forward and say what you ought, and to deal with these things as they turn out.  If the judge then proclaims, 'I judge you to be guilty,' you may reply, 'I wish you well.  I have fulfilled my role, it is for you to see whether you have fulfilled yours.'  For he too runs some risk: don't forget that." (v. 27-29, p. 81)

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