The Enchiridion: Chapter Thirty-Eight 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 Thirty-Eight…

When you are walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot. So likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. If we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake every action with the greater safety.

In The Discourses, Epictetus has this to say about safety and danger.

We ought not to exercise in ways contrary to nature or in ways designed to cause admiration. If we do so, we, who call ourselves philosophers, are no different from jugglers. It is difficult and dangerous to walk on a rope. Ought we for this reason to practice walking on a rope, or climb trees, or lift rocks? By no means. Not everything which is difficult and dangerous is suitable for practice. What is suitable is to live with desire and aversion while free from restraint. What is suitable is never to be disappointed in what you desire and never to fall into anything which you would avoid. Toward this object, then, you must exercise.

Over the course of a long time, many kinds of things must happen. Some men will be overcome with fever, some men will be robbed, and some will suffer under a tyrant. Such is the condition of things around us, such are those who live with us in the world. There will be cold and heat, and unsuitable ways of living, and journeys by land, and voyages by sea, and winds, and various circumstances which surround us. Some men will be destroyed, some banished, some elevated and some will be soldiers. Now, please, sit down in a flutter at all these things, lament, be unhappy, call yourself unfortunate and above all render yourself dependent on outside forces for your happiness; dependent not on one or two things, but on ten thousands upon ten thousands of forces outside yourself.

Is this what philosophers teach? No. Know that human life is a warfare. One man must keep watch, another must go out as a spy, and a third must fight. It is not possible that all men should be in one place, nor would it better if it be so. But you, you neglect to follow the commands of the general. You complain when anything harder than usual is imposed on you, and you do not observe what you do to your fellow warriors by neglecting what is in your power. If other men imitate you, no man will dig a trench, no man will put a rampart round, nor keep watch, nor expose himself to danger. You will make your army useless. In a vessel, if you go as a sailor, keep to one place and stick to it. If you are ordered to climb the mast and refuse, if you are ordered to run to the head of the ship and refuse, what captain will endure you? He will pitch you overboard as a useless thing, as a burden and a bad example to the other sailors.

Consider Socrates. He had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own. He had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit. He had friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary. In war he unsparingly exposed himself to danger […] what difference did danger make to him? He intended to preserve not his poor flesh, but his fidelity, his honorable character. […] When he was made to speak in defense of his life, did he behave like a man who had children, who had a wife? No, but he behaved like a man who has neither. He was condemned to drink poison, but when given the chance to escape he did not even consider it. He considered only what was fit and proper. He did not choose to save his poor body, but to save that which is increased and saved by doing what is just, and is impaired and destroyed by doing what is unjust. Socrates did not save his life by a base act.

Those who occupy a strong city mock the besiegers. “What trouble these men are now taking for nothing: our wall is secure, we have food for a very long time, and all other resources.” These are the things which make a city strong and impregnable. The right opinions makes a man’s soul impregnable. No wall is so strong, no body is so hard, no possession is so safe, and no honor is free from assault. All things everywhere are perishable, easily taken by assault if a man is attached to them. If a man is attached to things outside himself he must be disturbed, he must expect what is bad, he must fear and lament, he must find his desires disappointed, and he must fall into things which he would avoid. We fail when we fail make secure the only means of safety which are offered to us. We fail when we do not withdraw ourselves from that which is perishable and servile. We fail when we do we not remember that no man either hurts another or does good to another, but that a man’s opinion about each thing is that which hurts him. When we fail we bring about fighting, civil discord, and war.

Do not expect to have great things for nothing. How can you? These are opposites in contradiction. You can care for external things or your own ruling faculty: if you want one, give up the other. If you do not, you will have neither while you are drawn to both. For example, perhaps the oil will be spilled and the household vessels will perish, but I will be free from passions. Perhaps there will be a fire when I am not present, and my books will be destroyed, but I will still treat appearances according to nature. Perhaps I will have nothing to eat. If I am so unlucky, I still have the same harbor and place of safe refuge available to all, and that is death. […] Do not be anxious, do not loose sleep. Instead considering your good and your evil, and say “Both of them are in my power. Neither can any man deprive me of the good, nor involve me in the bad against my will.” Lie down and get some rest, for all that is yours is safe. As to the things which belong to others, others will look after them as they are distributed by Him who has the power. Who am I who wish to have things outside myself happen in any particular way? The power of selecting is not given to me. I am not the dispenser of them. What I have power over is enough for me and I ought to manage them as well as I can. All the rest, let others choose.

Things in themselves are indifferent, but the use of things is not indifferent. How then shall a man preserve firmness and tranquillity, and at the same time be careful and neither rash nor negligent? Try to those who play dice. The dice are indifferent. No one may know what the cast will be. But to know when and how to cast the dice, this is my business. Thus in life also the chief business is this: distinguish and separate things, and say, “Externals are not in my power, will is in my power. Where shall I seek the good and the bad? Within, in the things which are my own.” In what does not belong to you call nothing either good or bad, or profit or damage or anything of the kind.

Here again is Part Thirty-Eight of The Enchiridion

When you are walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot. So likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. If we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake every action with the greater safety.

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 – My Old Girl’s My New Girl Now (Columbia 1639D 1928)

Episode 1638