The Enchiridion Part Forty-Nine

But what do I desire? To understand Nature and follow Her.

OPENING
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 Forty-Nine…

BODY

When anyone boasts of how well he understands and interprets the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, “Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity.”

But what do I desire? To understand Nature and follow Her. Therefore I ask who interprets Nature; finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I do not understand his writings. Therefore I seek one to interpret them. So far there is nothing to value myself upon. When I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing.

But if I admire nothing but the interpretation, I become no more than a grammarian instead of becoming a philosopher. The only difference being that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus.

Therefore when anyone wants me to read Chrysippus to him, I blush when I cannot show my actions to be agreeable and consonant to what he wrote.

COMMENTARY
In “The Discourses,” Epictetus has this to say about reading.

What is the product of virtue? Tranquility. Who is it that makes improvement? Is it he who has read many books by Chrysippus? Does virtue consist in having read many books by Chrysippus? If this is so, progress is clearly nothing else than reading many books by Chrysippus. I say that virtue produces one thing, tranquility. I say that approaching nearer virtue is another thing, namely, progress or improvement.

“Such a person,” says one, “is already able to read Chrysippus by himself.” Indeed, sir, you are making great progress. But what kind of progress? Why do you mock the reader? Why do you draw him away from the perception of his own misfortunes? Instead, show him the effect of virtue that he may learn where to look for improvement. Wretch, seek it there, where your work lies. Your work lies in desire and in aversion, that you may not be disappointed in your desire, and that you may not fall into that which you would avoid. Your work lies in your pursuit and avoiding, that you commit no error. Your work lies in assent and suspension of assent, that you be not deceived. The first things, and the most necessary, are those which I have named. But if you seek not to fall into that which you avoid with trembling and lamentation, tell me how you are improving.

“But Epictetus, have I not read to you, and do you not know what I was doing in my little dissertations?” Show me your progress with respect to desire and aversion; show me if you do not fail in getting what you wish, and if you do not fall into the things which you would avoid. As far these long and labored sentences you read to me, please will you take the page and blot them out.

Consider if you could endure being in prison and having a man ask you if he could read to you. You would say: “Why do you trouble me? do you not know the evils which hold me? Can I endure such circumstances?” And what circumstances are these except that you going to die. As if other men are immortal.

A student said: “I wish to understand what Chrysippus says in his treatise of the Pseudomenos.”

Epictetus said: “Wretched man, with such intentions as yours will you not instead go hang yourself? What good will all that reading do you? You will read the whole with sorrow, and you will speak to others trembling. Yes you will. Then you will say: ‘Do you wish me, brother, to read to you, and you read to me? Oh, you write excellently, my man. You write excellently in the style of Xenophon, and you in the style of Plato, and you in the style of Antisthenes.’

Then, having told your dreams to one another, you return to the same things you did before all that reading. Your desires are the same, your aversions the same, your pursuits are the same, your designs and purposes are the same, you wish for the same things and work for the same things.

You do not even seek someone to give you advice, but instead you are vexed if you hear such things. You hear advice and then complain “what an ill-natured old fellow. When I was going away he did not weep, nor did he say ‘Into what danger you are going: if you come off safe, my child, I will burn lights.’ This is what a good-natured man would do.” It will be a great thing for you if you do return safe, and it will be worthwhile to burn lights for such a person: for you ought to be immortal and exempt from disease.

Cast away, then, this conceit of thinking that we know something useful. We must come to philosophy as we come to geometry and to music. If we do not, we shall not make progress even though we read all the collections and commentaries of Chrysippus and those of Antipater and Archedemus.

I do not say that man is an animal made for doing nothing. Certainly not. So why are we not active? Take myself, for example. As soon as day comes, I remind myself with a few words of what I must read over to my pupils. Then immediately I say to myself, “who cares if they hear me read? The first thing for me is to sleep.”

What resemblance is there between what other people do and what we do? If you observe what other people do, you will understand. What else do they do all day long but make up stories, talk among themselves, give and take advice about some small quantity of grain, a bit of land, and such kind of profits.

Compare two written requests. One says: “I entreat you to permit me to export a small quantity of corn.” The other says: “I entreat you to learn from Chrysippus what is the administration of the world, and what place in it the rational animal holds. Consider also who you are, and what is the nature of your good and your bad.” Are these written requests each like the other, do they require equal care, and is it equally base to neglect them?

Well. I am not the only persons who is lazy and loves sleep. No. Much more so, you young men are lazy and love sleep. For we old men, when we see young men amusing themselves, are eager to play with them. If I saw you active and energetic, I would be eager to join you in your serious pursuits.

One day a man was talking to Epictetus about the priesthood of Augustus. He said to the man: “Man, let the thing alone: you will spend much for no purpose.” But he replies, “Those who draw up agreements will write any name.”

Epictetus mocked the man, saying: “You must then stand beside those who read the agreements, and say to each one ‘It is I whose name is written there.’ Perhaps today you can be present on all such occasions, but what will you do when you are dead?

The man said: “My name will remain.”

Epictetus said: “Write it on a stone, and your name will remain. But come, who will remember you beyond Nicopolis?”

“But I shall wear a crown of gold.”

Epictetus said: “If you desire a crown at all, take a crown of roses and put it on. It will appear more elegant.”

CHORUS
Here again is Part Forty-Nine of The Enchiridion

When anyone boasts of how well he understands and interprets the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, “Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity.”

But what do I desire? To understand Nature and follow Her. Therefore I ask who interprets Nature; finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I do not understand his writings. Therefore I seek one to interpret them. So far there is nothing to value myself upon. When I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing.

But if I admire nothing but the interpretation, I become no more than a grammarian instead of becoming a philosopher. The only difference being that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus.

Therefore when anyone wants me to read Chrysippus to him, I blush when I cannot show my actions to be agreeable and consonant to what he wrote.

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

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

MUSIC
Cliff Edwards – Theme Songs (1931)

Episode 1649