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CHAPTER X.: WHAT THINGS WE ARE TO DESPISE, AND WHAT CHIEFLY TO VALUE. - Epictetus, The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments [100 AD]
The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. A Translation from the Greek based on that of Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1865).
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WHAT THINGS WE ARE TO DESPISE, AND WHAT CHIEFLY TO VALUE.
THE doubts and perplexities of all men are concerning externals; — what they shall do, — how it will be, — what will be the event, — whether this thing will happen, or that? All this is the talk of persons engaged in things uncontrollable by will. For who says, How shall I do, not to assent to what is false? How, not to dissent from what is true? If any one is of such a good disposition as to be anxious about these things, I will remind him: “Why are you anxious? It is in your own power. Be assured. Do not hastily give your assent before you have applied those tests prescribed by nature.” Again, if he be anxious, for fear lest he should fail of what he seeks or incur what he shuns, I will first embrace him, because, slighting what others are fluttered and terrified about, he takes care of what is his own, where his very being is; then I will say to him: “If you would not fail of what you seek, or incur what you shun, desire nothing that belongs to others; shun nothing beyond your own power; otherwise you must necessarily be disappointed in what you seek, and incur what you shun.” Where is the doubt here? Where the room for, How will it be? What will be the event? And Will this happen, or that? Is not the event uncontrollable by will? “Yes.” And does not the essence of good and evil consist in what is within the control of will? It is in your power, then, to treat every event conformably to nature? Can any one restrain you? “No one.” Then do not say to me any more, How will it be? For, however it be, you will set it right, and the event to you will be auspicious.
Pray what would Hercules have been, if he had said, “What can be done to prevent a great lion, or a large boar, or savage men, from coming in my way?” Why, what is that to you? If a large boar should come in your way, you will fight the greater combat; if wicked men, you will deliver the world from wicked men. “But then if I should die by this means?” You will die as a good man, in the performance of a gallant action. For since, at all events, one must die, one must necessarily be found doing something, either tilling, or digging, or trading, or serving a consulship, or sick with indigestion or dysentery. At what employment, then, would you have death find you? For my part, I would have it to be some humane, beneficent, public-spirited, noble action. But if I cannot be found doing any such great things, yet, at least, I would be doing what I am incapable of being restrained from, what is given me to do, — correcting myself, improving that faculty which makes use of the phenomena of existence to procure tranquillity, and render to the several relations of life their due; and if I am so fortunate, advancing still further to the security of judging right. If death overtakes me in such a situation, it is enough for me if I can stretch out my hands to God, and say, “The opportunities which I have received from Thee of comprehending and obeying thy administration, I have not neglected. As far as in me lay, I have not dishonored Thee. See how I have used my perceptions; how my convictions. Have I at any time found fault with Thee? Have I been discontented at Thy dispensations; or wished them otherwise? Have I transgressed the relations of life? I thank Thee that Thou hast brought me into being. I am satisfied with the time that I have enjoyed the things which thou hast given me. Receive them back again, and distribute them as thou wilt; for they were all Thine, and Thou gavest them to me.”
Is it not enough to depart in this mood of mind? And what life is better and more becoming than that of such a one? Or what conclusion happier? But in order to attain these advantages, there are no inconsiderable risks to be encountered. You cannot seek a consulship and these things too, nor toil for an estate and these things too, nor take charge of your slaves and yourself too. But if you insist on anything of what belongs to others, then what is your own is lost. This is the nature of the affair. Nothing is to be had for nothing. And where is the wonder? If you would be consul, you must watch, run about, kiss hands, be wearied down with waiting at the doors of others, must say and do many slavish things, send gifts to many, daily presents to some. And for what result? Twelve bundles of rods;* to sit three or four times on the tribunal; to give the games of the circus, and suppers in baskets to all the world; or let any one show me what there is in it more than this. Will you, then, employ no expense and no pains to acquire peace and tranquillity, to sleep sound while you do sleep, to be thoroughly awake while you are awake, to fear nothing, to be anxious for nothing? But if anything belonging to you be lost or idly wasted, while you are thus engaged, or another gets what you ought to have had, will you immediately begin fretting at what has happened? Will you not compare the exchange you have made? How much for how much? But you would have such great things for nothing, I suppose. And how can you? Two trades cannot be combined; you cannot bestow your care both upon externals and your own ruling faculty. But if you would have the former, let the latter alone; or you will succeed in neither, while you are drawn in different ways by the two. On the other hand, if you would have the latter, let the former alone. “The oil will be spilled, the furniture will be spoiled”; — but still I shall be free from passion. “There will be a fire when I am out of the way, and the books will be destroyed”; — but still I shall make a right use of the phenomena of existence. “But I shall have nothing to eat.” If I am so unlucky, dying is a safe harbor. That is the harbor for all, death; that is the refuge; and for that reason there is nothing difficult in life. You may go out of doors when you please, and be troubled with smoke no longer.
Why, then, are you anxious? Why break your rest? Why do you not calculate where your good and evil lie; and say, “They are both in my own power; nor can any deprive me of the one, nor involve me against my will in the other.” Why, then, do not I lay myself down and sleep? What is my own is safe. Let what belongs to others look to itself, who carries it off, how it is distributed by him who hath the disposal of it. Who am I, to will that it should be so and so? For is the option given to me? Has any one made me the dispenser of it? What I have in my own disposal is enough for me. I must make the best I can of this. Other things must be as their master pleases.
Does any one who has these things before his eyes lie sleepless, and shift from side to side? What would he have, or what needs he? Patroclus,* or Antilochus, or Menelaus? Why, did he ever think any one of his friends immortal? When was it not obvious that on the morrow, or the next day, he himself or that friend might die? “Ay, very true,” he says; “but I reckoned that he would survive me, and bring up my son.” Because you were a fool, and reckoned upon uncertainties. Why, then, do you not blame yourself, instead of sitting in tears, like a girl? “But he used to set my dinner before me.” Because he was alive, foolish man; but now he cannot. But Automedon will set it before you; and if he should die, you will find somebody else. What if the vessel in which your meat used to be cooked should happen to be broken; must you die with hunger because you have not your old vessel? Do you not send and buy a new one?
“What greater evil could afflict my breast?”
Is this your evil, then? And, instead of removing it, do you accuse your mother, that she did not foretell it to you, that you might have spent your whole life in grieving from that time forward?
Do you not think now that Homer composed all this on purpose to show us that the noblest, the strongest, the richest, the handsomest of men may nevertheless be the most unfortunate and wretched, if they have not the principles they need?
[* ]The ensigns of the consular office. — C.
[* ]This whole paragraph refers to the lament of Achilles over Patroclus. Iliad, XIX. 315, etc. — H.