I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, The Enchiridion by Epictetus. Part Eighteen…
When a raven happens to croak unluckily, be not overcome by appearances, but discriminate, and say: ‘None of these portents are for me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all portents are lucky, if I will it. For whatsoever happens, it belongs to me to derive advantage therefrom.’
That is what Epictetus said. Here is what I say.
The future, like the past, will take care of itself. The present is also largely not your responsibility. But those things that are your responsibility, these must be first in your thoughts. If you do well, the future may also be well or it may not, but it will remain that you did well. Whether your thoughts on the future are based on evidence or divination, you cannot use the future as an excuse to shirk living well today.
What would your day be like, this very day, if you did not worry about the future?
In The Discourses, Epictetus has this to say about omens.
Through an unreasonable regard to divination many of us omit many duties. For what more can the diviner see than death or danger or disease, generally things of that kind? If then I must expose myself to danger for a friend, and if it is my duty even to die for him, what need have I then for divination? […] What need have I then to consult the viscera of victims or the flight of birds, and why do I submit when he says, “It is for your interest”? Does he know what is for my interest, does he know what is good? He has learned the signs of the viscera, but has he also learned the signs of good and evil? For if he knows the signs of these, he knows the signs both of the beautiful and of the ugly, and of the just and of the unjust. Tell me, man, what is the thing which is signified for me: is it life or death, poverty or wealth? But whether these things are for my interest or whether they are not, I do not intend to ask you. […]
What leads us to frequent use of divination? Cowardice, the dread of what will happen. This is the reason why we flatter the diviners. “Pray, master, shall I succeed to the property of my father?” “Let us see: let us sacrifice on the occasion.” “Yes, master, as fortune chooses.” When he has said, “You shall succeed to the inheritance,” we thank him as if we received the inheritance from him. The consequence is that they prey upon us. […]
What then should we do? We ought to come to the diviner without desire or aversion, as the wayfarer asks of the man whom he meets which of two roads leads to his journey’s end, without any desire for that which leads to the right rather than to the left. […] In the same way ought we to come to Nature also as a guide. We ought we to come as we use our eyes, not asking them to show us such things as we wish, but such as the eyes present them to us.
In the first place you must make your ruling faculty pure, and this mode of life also. To me, the matter to work on is my understanding, as wood is to the carpenter, as leather to the shoemaker. My business is the right use of appearances. The body is nothing to me, the parts of it are nothing to me. Death? Let it come when it chooses, either death of the whole or of a part. Run away, you say? But where? Can any man eject me out of the world? He cannot. But wherever I go, there is the sun, there is the moon, there are the stars, dreams, omens, and the conversation with the Gods.
No one says the day is good and the night is bad. No one says the greatest evil is the opinion that three equals four. But what do men say? They say that knowledge is good, and that error is bad. Thus, in falsehood there is a good, the knowledge that it is falsehood. So it ought to be in life also. “Is health a good thing, and is sickness a bad thing” No, man. “But what is it?” To be healthy, and healthy in a right way, is good. To be healthy in a bad way is bad. I declare it is possible to gain advantage even from sickness. […] “Can advantage then be derived from all things?” From all. Including from him who abuses you. Does exercises before combat profit the fighter? Very greatly. A man who abuses me is my exercise master before the combat. He exercises me in my endurance, in keeping my temper, in my resolve. You say no, but he who lays hold of my neck does me good. [If] a man exercises me in keeping my temper, he does good. You must know how to gain an advantage from all men. Is my neighbor bad? Bad to himself, but good to me because he exercises my good disposition, my moderation. Is my father bad? Bad to himself, but to me good. […] “What will you do with death?” Why, death will do me honor. I will show you by act through it, what a man is who follows the will of Nature. “What will you do with disease?” I will show its nature, I will be conspicuous in it, I will be firm, I will be happy, I will not flatter the physician, I will not wish to die. […] Whatever you shall give me, I will make it happy, fortunate, an honor, a thing which a man should seek. […]
You say no, take care that you do not fall sick: it is a bad thing. This is the same as if you say, “Take care that you never think three equals four: it is a bad thing.” Man, how is it bad? If I think about things as I ought, how can anything do me damage? If I think about things as I ought, it will even do me good. If I think about poverty as I ought to do, about disease, about not having office, that is enough for me. It will all be to my advantage. Why must I any longer to see evil and good in what happens outside myself?
We do not need a diviner on his own account, but because we think that through him we shall know the future and understand the signs given by the gods. Nor do we need the viscera of animals for their own sake, but because through them signs are given. Nor do we look with wonder on the crow or raven, but on Nature, who through them gives signs.
You no not call a dog fortunate who neither pursues game nor labors. You call a dog fortunate when you see him sweating, when you see him in pain and panting violently after running.
When the faculty of the will is set right, a man who is not good becomes good. But when it fails, a man becomes bad. It is through this that we are unfortunate, that we are fortunate, that we blame one another, are pleased with one another. In a word, it is this which if neglected makes unhappiness, and if we carefully look after it makes happiness.
Here again is Part Eighteen of The Enchiridion…
When a raven happens to croak unluckily, be not overcome by appearances, but discriminate, and say: ‘None of these portents are for me; but either to my paultry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all portents are lucky, if I will it. For whatsoever happens, it belongs to me to derive advantage therefrom.’
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Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.
Cliff Edwards – I’m A Bear In A Ladies’ Boudoir (1930)