The Enchiridion: Chapter Nine by Epictetus

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 Nine…

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

That is what Epictetus said. Here is what I say.

Epictetus was lame in one leg. He may have been born lame, or been made lame by his master during his many years as a slave. Therefore, when Epictetus spoke of sickness and slavery he spoke from experience. His philosophy was not to curse nature for bringing about sickness, but to devote the abilities one has to happiness. Happiness to the Stoics comes through accepting what is and not pining for what is not. To the Stoics, nature has given us the faculties to avoid unnecessary pain and to bear necessary pain, through the use of reason. Epictetus was neither proud nor ashamed of his lame leg, and was neither impressed by nor pitying of the disability in others. A philosopher can be sick, but a philosopher will be sick in agreement with nature and in harmony with the gods if he will so choose.

How have you recently exercised and strengthened your ability to choose?

In The Discourses, Epictetus has this to say about sickness.

Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so. But show me at least one who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic.

Always remember what is your own, and what belongs to another; and you will not be disturbed. [If] I knew that it was fated for me to be sick, I would even move toward it; for the foot also, if it had intelligence, would move to go into the mud. [We speak of] “circumstances.” What kind of circumstances, man? If you give the name of circumstances to the things which are around you, all things are circumstances; but if you call hardships by this name, what hardship is there in the dying of that which has been produced? That which destroys is either a sword, or a wheel, or the sea, or a tile, or a tyrant. Why do you care about the way of going down to Hades? All ways are equal. But if you will listen to the truth, the way which the tyrant sends you is shorter. A tyrant never killed a man in six months: but a fever is often a year about it. All these things are only sound and the noise of empty names.

Why do you mingle things which have been accidentally united in a men? [If] Plato was handsome and strong, ought I also to endeavor to become handsome and strong, as if this was necessary for philosophy, because a certain philosopher was at the same time handsome and a philosopher? Choose to see and to distinguish in respect to what men become philosophers, and what things belong to belong to them in other respects. [If] I were a philosopher, ought you also to be made lame? What then? [If] you ask me what is the good of man, I cannot mention to you anything else than that it is a certain disposition of the will with respect to appearances.

If there are no gods, how is it our proper end to follow them? And if they exist, but take no care of anything, in this case also how will it be right to follow them? But if indeed they do exist and look after things, still if there is nothing communicated from them to men, nor in fact to myself, how even so is it right? The wise and good man, then, after considering all these things, submits his own mind to Him who administers the whole, as good citizens do to the law of the state. He who is receiving instruction ought to come to the instructed with this intention: “How shall I follow the gods in all things, how shall I be contented with the divine administration, and how can I become free?” For he is free to whom everything happens according, to his will, and whom no man can hinder. “What then, is freedom madness?” Certainly not. For madness and freedom do not agree. “But,” you say, “I would have everything happen just as I like, and in whatever way I like.” You are mad, you are beside yourself. Do you not know that freedom is a noble and valuable thing? But for me to inconsiderately wish for things to happen as I inconsiderately like, this appears to be not only not noble, but even most base.

Will you not act like a sick man and call in the physician? “I am sick, master, help me; consider what I must do: it is my duty to obey you.” So it is here also: “I know not what I ought to do, but I am come to learn.”

I show myself to you: faithful, modest, noble, free from perturbation. “What, and immortal too, exempt from old age, and from sickness?” No, but dying as becomes a god, sickening as becomes a god. This power I possess. This I can do. But the rest I do not possess, nor can I possess. I will show the nerves of a philosopher. “What nerves are these?” A desire never disappointed, an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid, a proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. These you shall see.

“Great is God, who has given us such implements with which we shall cultivate the earth: great is God who has given us hands, the power of swallowing, a stomach, imperceptible growth, and the power of breathing while we sleep.” This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and to sing the greatest and most divine hymn for giving us the faculty of comprehending these things and using a proper way. […] For what else can I do, a lame old man, than sing hymns to Nature? If then I was a nightingale, I would do the part of a nightingale. If I were a swan, I would do like a swan. But now I am a rational creature, and I ought to praise God. This is my work. I do it, nor will I desert this post, so long as I am allowed to keep it. And I exhort you to join in this same song.

Be as a lion bred in the mountains, relying on his own strength. Relying on what? Not on reputation nor on wealth nor on the power of a magistrate, but on his own strength, that is, on his opinions about the things which are in our power and those which are not. For these are the only things which make men free, which make men escape from hindrance, which raise the head of those who are depressed, which make men look with steady eyes on the rich and on tyrants. And this was the gift given to the philosopher. But you will not come forth bold, instead you go trembling about your trifling garments and silver vessels. Unhappy man, you have thus wasted your time till now. “What, then, if I shall be sick?” You will be sick in such a way as you ought to be. “Who will take care of me?” God, or your friends. “I shall lie down on a hard bed.” But you will lie down like a man. “I shall not have a convenient chamber.” Then you will be sick in an inconvenient chamber. “Who will provide for me the necessary food?” Those who provide for others also. You will be sick like the spirits of the dead. And what, also, will be the end of the sickness? Any other than death? Do you then consider that death is the chief of all evils to man? The chief mark of a mean spirit and of cowardice is not death, but rather the fear of death. Against this fear then I advise you to exercise yourself: to this let all your reasoning tend, your exercises, and reading; and you will know that thus only are men made free.

Here again is Part Nine of The Enchiridion

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

Thank you for listening. For more information about the words I have read and the music to follow, please visit A Man of Letters.

Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.

Cliff Edwards – You (Are a Human Animal) (1955)

Episode 1609