The Enchiridion Part Seventeen

Remember that you are an actor in a play the character of which is determine by the author – if short, of a short one; if long, of a long one.

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 Seventeen…

BODY

Remember that you are an actor in a play the character of which is determine by the author – if short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should enact a poor man, see that you act it well; or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen. For this is your business, to act well the given part; but to choose it, belongs to God.

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

The Stoics claimed that the Gods exist, and that the Gods make men according to a design set by the Gods. Stoicism claimed that there is a natural order to the natural universe, and further that men have a natural way about them. But Stoicism also said that our knowledge of the Gods and their design, our knowledge of Nature and its order, is limited. In our ignorance, we have something like free will. We make choices, or act as if we make choices, and we do not always know the outcome of those choices. Therefore Stoicism says that we should attend to the Gods and Nature, but that these are outside our control and we have no choice about them. We have choice about our own actions and attitudes, and it is these choices we must attend to with our full attention. The Gods and Nature may have a role for us to play, but we improvise our time upon this stage.

Have you heaped blame or praise upon the Gods or nature for things that are more rightly your own?

In “The Discourses,” Epictetus has this to say about free will.

When is a horse wretched? When he is deprived of his natural faculties. Not when he cannot crow like a cock, but when he cannot run. When is a dog wretched? Not when he cannot fly, but when he cannot track his game. Should a man be unhappy because he cannot strangle lions or embrace statues? He did not come into the world in the possession of those powers from nature. […] I mean the things which belong to him as a man, the marks in his mind with which he came into the world, such as we see also on coins. If we find them, we approve of the coins, and if we do not find the marks, we reject them.

If these things [I say] are true, and if we are not silly, and are not hypocrites when we say that the good of man is in the will, and the evil too, and that everything else does not concern us – why are we still disturbed, why are we still afraid? The things about which we have been busied are in no man’s power: and the things which are in the power of others, we care not for. What kind of trouble have we still? […]

Keep by every means what is your own. Do not desire what belongs to others. Fidelity is your own, virtuous shame is your own. Who then can take these things from you, who else than yourself will hinder you from using them? [When] you seek what is not your own, you lose that which is your own. […]

[Is there smoke in your house?] If the smoke is moderate, I will stay. If it is excessive, I go out. […] If I admire my poor body, I have given myself up to be a slave. If I admire my little possessions, I also make myself a slave for I immediately make it plain with what I may be caught. […]

“But I want to sit where the senators do.”

Do not you see, that by this you inconvenience and torment yourself?

“Why, how else shall I see the show in the Amphitheater advantageously?”

Do not insist on seeing it, oh man! and you will not be inconvenienced. Why do you torment yourself? Or wait a little while; and when the show is over, go sit in the senators’ places and sun yourself. For remember, that this holds universally – we inconvenience and torment ourselves; that is, our own preconceived notions do it for us. What is it to be reviled, for instance? Stand by a stone and revile it, and what will you get by it? If you, therefore, would listen only as a stone, what would your reviler gain? But if the reviler has the weakness of the reviled for a vantage-ground, then he carries his point.

If a man thinks that his good and his interest be in these things only which are free from hindrance and in his own power, he will be free, prosperous, happy, safe, forgiving, pious, thankful to Nature for all things, finding no fault with any of the things which have not been put in his power, nor blaming any of them. But if he thinks that his good and his interest are in externals and in things which are not in the power of his will, he must of necessity be hindered, be impeded, be a slave to those who have the power over things which he admires and fears. He must of necessity be impious because he thinks that he is harmed by Nature, and he must be unjust because he always claims more than belongs to him. He must of necessity be abject and mean.

What do we admire? Externals. About what things are we busy? Externals. Do not have any doubt, then, why we fear or why we are anxious. What happens when we think the things which are coming to be evil? We think it is not in our power not to be afraid, it is not in our power not to be anxious. We say, “how can I not be anxious?” Fool, have you not hands, did not Nature make them for you? Sit down now and pray that your nose may not run. Then wipe yourself, and do not blame Nature. What hands has nature given you? Nature has given you endurance. Nature has given you generosity. Nature has given to you manliness. When you have such hands, do not look for someone else who will wipe you nose for you.

The philosophers say well, that if the good man had foreknowledge of what would happen, he would cooperate toward his own sickness and death and mutilation, since he knows that these things are assigned to him according to the universal arrangement, and that the whole is superior to the part and the state to the citizen. But now, because we do not know the future, it is our duty to stick to the things which are in their nature more suitable for our choice. For we were made, among other things, for this.

CHORUS
Here again is Part Seventeen of The Enchiridion.

Remember that you are an actor in a play the character of which is determine by the author – if short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should enact a poor man, see that you act it well; or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen. For this is your business, to act well the given part; but to choose it, belongs to God.

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 – All of the Time (Columbia 1514D 1928)

Episode 1617