Monday, June 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.24 - That we should not become attached to things that are not within our power

Attachment is real.  Another word for attachment is dependency.  An even more forceful word could be slavery.

If you consider the opposites of attachment, dependency and slavery, you will arrive at detachment, in-dependency and freedom.

When weighed on a value scale, I would wager most people would place more value on detachment, in-dependency and freedom.  The Stoics' goal was to help people become free of the mental chains we've wrapped ourselves in.

Assume you have some sort of relationship with another person; be it a spouse, a friend, a neighbor or co-worker.  They are independent from you and therefore they do their own thinking and you do your own thinking.  Does it make sense, then, to carry their mental baggage for them?  Or do you have enough of your own to deal with?  As Epictetus says, "If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.  He has provided them with the resources to achieve this" (v. 2, p. 198).  In other words, for those people who have matured enough and have enough mental ability to reason on their own, they can enjoy happiness and peace of mind - this is in their control.  Both the other person and you can enjoy independence (mentally speaking) from each other.

You might say that the other person, after you have left them for some reason, is now "inconsolable."  I think of a child leaving home to go to college and their mother is inconsolable.  In this case, we might say the mother has become too attached to her child; and she needs to cut the proverbial umbilical cord!  She ought to have reflected upon the thought that the day her child would leave home would eventually come.  Did she expect the child to live with her forever?  This does not sound like freedom for either the mother or the child.  Doing the mental work of anticipating someone leaving you is work you ought to do.  So that when the day comes, when someone leaves you through a separation or death, you won't become inconsolable.  This is a form of premeditato malorum or negative visualization.

We are not supposed to "pass our lives in perpetual misery and lamentation" and we must "wean ourselves once and for all" of this notion that separation is bad (see. v. 9, p. 199).  If we take the view from above - to look at the world and universe and one big whole - we will begin to appreciate the fleeting nature of time and space.  The Stoics view the universe as "a single city" of which "the substance ... is single too, and that there must be a periodic revolution when one thing gives way to another, and when some things are dissolved while others come into being" (v. 10, p. 199).  Indeed, we are cosmopolitans of time and space.

If we take this view, we will see "that everything is full of friends" both the gods and humans "who by nature form one family" and "that we should take delight in those with whom we live, without being upset to see others go away."  Furthermore, we ought to recognize that humans are not like trees and forced to be planted in one spot for hundreds of years.  Rather, we are "able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle" (v. 11-12, p. 199).

And if that is not consolation enough, for those who have separation anxiety, then it may serve them well to also think that "no human being is an orphan, but that all have a father who takes care of them constantly and forever" and that you are free to look to god without an intermediary separating you, your loved ones and him (see. v. 15, p. 199).

Indeed, Stoicism aims to make the human free and happy.  And for someone to be free and happy, they must possess all that they want (see. v. 17, p. 200).  The question and challenge becomes, "what do you want?"  Do you want unlimited power, fame, health, possessions?  If so, then those are out of your control and you will fail.  But if you want to live a life of virtue, then you can be free and happy if you seek a virtuous life - this can be obtained independently from external factors, people and events.

As noted earlier in Discourses, Epictetus envisions a conversation with Zeus, in which Zeus tells him, "I've given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the power to make proper use of impressions; if you pay good heed to this, and entrust all that you have to its keeping, you'll never be hindered, never obstructed, and you'll never groan, never find fault, and never flatter anyone at all." (link)

And so the point of the two preceding paragraphs is that we have already been given everything to make ourselves free and happy which is the goal Zeus had in mind when he created and ordered the universe.  "Truly this is an ill-governed universe if Zeus doesn't set out to ensure that his own fellow citizens should be happy like himself" (v. 19, p. 200).

The good and virtuous human is the human who knows herself and himself (i.e. "know thyself").  Epictetus says, "how can someone be good if he doesn't know who he is?" (v. 20, p. 200).  Part of knowing who you are includes knowing what is in your control and what is not in your control.  And to desire something out of your control is foolish.  "To desire the impossible is the mark of a slave and a fool; it is the behavior of one who is a stranger to the world, and is fighting against God through the only means that is available to him, through his own judgements" (v. 21, p. 200).

Returning to the topic at hand - someone else is grieving; must you grieve too?  Epictetus asks why this other person hasn't made the effort to learn these principals.  Indeed we can "strive to put an end to it [their grief and suffering], but [we] won't strive to do so at all costs" (v. 23, p. 200).  Are we expected to not only be responsible for our own actions, thoughts and emotions, but also those of all those around us, plus the people on the other side of town or the country or even the other hemisphere? (see v. 26, p. 201).  It has to end somewhere.  This is why individuals are given free will - it is given to the individual - there is clearly a delineation between me and you.  And so, we can do our part to help alleviate others' suffering, but not at the expense of my own.

The topic then turns from grief over the physical and spatial separation between two individuals, to the permanent separation of people due to death.  Death is the ultimate separation of us and our loved ones.  But to expect that the separation will never come is to expect the impossible.  Old age comes; people die.  "Such is the nature of the world around us, such is the nature of the people with whom we share it; heat or cold, an unsuitable diet, a journey by land or by sea, the winds of the air, dangers of every kind, will cause one person to perish, another to be driven into exile, another to be dispatched on an embassy, and another to be sent out on a campaign" (v. 29, p. 201).

And if this separation causes you perpetual grief, you will quickly learn it happens to everyone, all the time, everywhere.  Are we then to "get upset by all of these things, and grieve, and be unfortunate and miserable, and be at the mercy of any external event, and not just of one or two, but of thousands and thousands"? (v. 30, p. 201).  The proposition is: we are made to be free and happy and to be so is in our control.  Therefore, grief or happiness is a choice.  Can this be proven time and time again?  The Stoics say, yes.

"The life of every one of us is a [war] campaign, and a long one subject to varying circumstances.  You must fulfil the role of a soldier and carry out every deed as your general bids" (v. 34, p. 201-202).  Freedom is not free, and must be fought for.

Epictetus would argue that real freedom is the aim of Stoicism, whereas, pleasure was the aim of Epicuranism (see. v. 37-38, p. 202).  "What else do these people desire than to sleep without hindrance or compulsion, and when they've risen from bed, to yawn at their leisure, and wash their faces, and then read and write as the fancy takes them, and then talk some nonsense or other, winning applause from their friends whatever it might be, and then go out for a walk and having taken a short stroll, take their bath, eat, and go to bed" (v. 39, p. 202).  If you do these very things, with your goal in life being pleasure, "why do you call yourself a Stoic, then?" (v. 41, p. 202).

No, rather what you should do, is what "reason demands ... for the sake of your country, of your family, of humanity" (v. 44, p. 203).  The Stoics believed we had a social duty to those with whom we lived.  And if reason demanded we helped others, we ought to - this is the Discipline of Action.  You ought to recognize those duties you should do "as a citizen, a brother, a friend" (v. 47, p. 203).

Some might be critical of you if you are not a successful citizen, brother, friend or neighbor - they might think you didn't put any effort into it (see. v. 50, p. 203).  "Don't you know that someone who is virtuous and good never acts for the sake of appearances, but only for the sake of having acted rightly?" The reward for acting rightly is having acted rightly (see v. 50-51, p. 203).  This is your sole purpose, as a human being, in life: to be virtuous, good and happy.  Otherwise you will simply be behaving as a little child (see v. 52-53, p. 204).

"When you've come to despise external things and all that lies outside the sphere of choice, and have come to regard none of that as being your own, but to consider one thing alone to be yours, to judge and think rightly, and to exercise your motives, desires, and aversions rightly, what room is left for flattery or self-debasement?" (v. 56, p. 204).

Furthermore, you are to act "noble-minded" and we should never "be self-abasing or broken-spirited, or should become dependent on another, or should ever find fault with either god or human being."  Indeed, we are to love our children and loved-ones, but our first duty is to be a friend of the gods (see v. 58-60, p. 204).  Again (feels like a broken record), we are not to be unhappy, "but we should instead be happy because of everyone else, and first and foremost because of God, who created us for this end" (v. 63, p. 205).  Diogenes was proof of this counsel.  He acted as a servant for Zeus; he was "full of care for others and obedient to God."  He even "befriended the pirates" who had taken him captive as he "tried to reform them."  And despite being sold into slavery, "he lived ... in just the same way as he had previously lived" when he was free (see. v. 65-66, p. 205).  And so we see an example of someone who proved that they could be free and happy regardless of external events or people.
That is how one acquires freedom. He [Diogenes] used to say accordingly, ‘Ever since Antisthenes set me free, I’ve ceased to be a slave.’ And how did Antisthenes set him free? Listen to what Diogenes says: ‘He taught me what is my own and what isn’t my own. Property isn’t my own; relations, family, friends, reputation, familiar places, conversation with others, none of these are my own.’ What is your own, then? ‘The proper use of impressions. He showed me that I possess that power free from all hindrance and constraint; no one can obstruct me; no one can force me to deal with impressions other than I wish. Who still holds any power over me, then? Philip, Alexander, Perdiccas, or the King of Persia? How could they? For someone who is destined to be overpowered by another human being must first have been overpowered well before by things.’  So accordingly, that person who doesn’t allow himself to be overpowered by pleasure, or by suffering, or by glory, or by wealth, and who is capable, whenever he thinks fit, of spitting his entire miserable body into some tyrant’s face and taking his leave—to what can such a man still be a slave; to whom can he still be subject? (v. 67-71, p. 205)
If you don't think freedom and happiness are the aim of life, then "what reason do you have for living, then?  To pile one sorrow on top of another to make yourself miserable?"  Epictetus boldly states, "I was born for the things that are good for me; I wasn't born for those that are bad" (v. 82-83, p. 207).

Training to Become Free and Happy

Remember you will lose everything and you will eventually turn to dust

"The highest and principal form of training, which stands, so to speak, right at the entrance, that whenever you become attached to anything, don't become attached as though it were something that cannot be taken away, but rather as though it were something like an earthenware pot or crystal goblet, so that if it should be broken, you'll remember what kind of thing it was and not get unduly upset" (v. 84, p. 207).

Do this for everything you have an attachment to.  Start small, with your favorite coffee mug and then proceed to things that are much more valuable to you.  A kitchen table, a nice flatscreen TV, your vehicle, your home, your career, your close & dear friends & neighbors, your relatives, your children, your spouse and then yourself.  A voice should always be whispering in your ear: "you may lose all of this; and someday, indeed, you will."  Whenever Roman generals returned triumphantly from war, they had a slave standing behind them, whispering in their ear, "Remember you are mortal" - memento mori (see v. 85, p. 207).

Additionally, be mindful of "whenever you take delight in anything" and when you do take delight in it, think of the "opposite impression" (v. 88, p. 207).

Be mindful that "you won't exist [forever], but something else will, of which the world then has need.  For indeed, you came into being not when you wanted it, but when the world had need of you.  And so a virtuous and good person, keeping in mind who he is, concentrates on one thing alone: how he may fill his post in a disciplined manner, remaining obedient to God" (v. 94, p. 208).

Keep this idea of impermanence in mind "by night and by day" and "keep these reflections at hand; write them down, read them, make them the subject of your conversation, whether with yourself, or with another" (v. 103, p. 209).

Also be mindful of letting your imagination of desire run wild.  "If your imagination gnaws at you, fight against it with your reason, wrestle it down, don't allow it to gain strength or pass on to the next state, of picturing everything that it wants in the very way it wants to" (v. 108, p. 209).  There is something insidious about Disney movies and catalyzing peoples' imaginations to run wild.  They begin to think they can get things that are out of their control.  And if they allow their desires to get out of control, and they do not obtain what they think they can get, they fall into anguish and at worse, mentally break down.

Furthermore, if it helps, you can replace your desire for external things, with the idea that you can be living proof that things don't make a person happy or content; and that contentment comes only from within.  In this way, you can "provide witness" that the good is found from within and not from without (see. 112, p. 210).

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