The Enchiridion Part Thirteen

If you would improve, be content to be thought foolish and dull with regard to externals.

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 Thirteen…

BODY

If you would improve, be content to be thought foolish and dull with regard to externals. Do not wish to be thought to know anything; and though you appear to others to be somebody, distrust yourself. For be assured, it is not easy at once to keep your will in harmony with nature, and to secure externals; but while you are absorbed in the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

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

A stoic philosopher is a practical philosopher. Knowing only a few things but knowing them well, a stoic philosopher uses his knowledge to solve problems. A philosopher should not seek out fame, and a student should not seek out a philosopher based on his fame. To the Stoics nature and the gods are good teachers, because they gave us the ability to attend to what is within our power and let go of what is not in our power. Nature limits us to learning only what we seek to learn, and so we should seek to learn what is worth learning and not seek out to learn what is not worth learning. Fame and drama and trivia, these are not worth knowing. What is strong and true and beautiful, these are worth knowing.

Did you set aside what you must in order to pick up what you must?

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

What is the first business of philosophers? To throw away self-conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows. As to things then which ought to be done and ought not to be done, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, all of us talking of them at random go to the philosophers. On these matters we praise, we censure, we accuse, we blame, we judge and determine the honorable and the dishonorable. But why do we go to the philosophers? Because we wish to learn what we do not think we know. What we do not know are theorems. For we wish to learn what philosophers say. Some wish to learn that they may get profit what they learn. It is ridiculous to think that a person wishes to learn one thing, and will learn another.

When you have such a guide as Zeus, and your wishes and desires are the same as his, do not fear disappointment Feed your desire for wealth and your aversion to poverty, and you will be disappointed in the first, you will fall into the second. Well, feed your desire for health, and you will be sick. Feed your desire for magistracies, honors, country, friends, children, in a word to any of the things which are not in man’s power. Or, feed your desires to Zeus and to the rest of the gods, surrender them to the gods, let the gods govern, let your desire and aversion be ranged on the side of the gods, and you will you no longer be unhappy. But if, lazy wretch, you envy, and complain, and are jealous, and fear, and never cease for a single day complaining both to yourself and to the gods, do not speak of being educated.

If speaking properly is the business of the skillful man, then to listen with benefit is the business of the skillful man. Now as to speaking and hearing perfectly, let us for the present say no more. Both of us are a long way from anything of the kind. But I think that every man will allow this, that he who is going to hear philosophers requires some amount of practice in listening. […] The grass which is suitable to sheep moves its inclination to eat. But if you present a stone to sheep, they will not be moved to eat. So there are in us certain natural inclinations also to speak, when the listener shall appear to be somebody, when he himself shall excite us. But when he sits by us like a stone, how can he excite a man’s desire? Does the vine say to the farmer, “take care of me?” No, but the vine, by showing in itself that it will be profitable to the farmer who take care of it, invites him to exercise care. When children are attractive and lively, they invite all to play with them, and crawl with them, and shout with them. But who is eager to play with an ass or to bray with it? For though it is small, it is still a little ass. “Why then for the present do you say no more?” I can only say this to you. He who does not know who he is, and for what purpose he exists, and what is this world, and with whom he is associated; he who does not know is good and bad, or beautiful and ugly; he who does not know truth or falsehood, and who is not able to distinguish them; he who does not desire according to nature… he will go about dumb and blind, thinking that he is somebody, but being nobody. It is a fact that ever since the human race existed, all errors and misfortunes have arisen through ignorance.

We remember what we have heard from the philosophers, and not listen to them as if they were jugglers. They tell us that this world is one city, and the substance out of which it has been formed is one. They tell us that some things must give way to others, that some must be dissolved, and others come in their place, some to remain in the same place, and others to be moved. They tell us that all things are full of friendship, first of the gods, and then of men who by nature are made to be of one family. They tell us that some must be with one another, and others must be separated, and we should in those who are with us, and not grieve for those who are removed from us. They tell us that man in addition to being by nature of a noble temper and having a contempt of all things which are not in the power of his will, also possesses this property, not to be rooted nor to be naturally fixed to the earth, but to go at different times to different places, sometimes from the urgency of certain occasions, and at others merely for the sake of seeing.

CHORUS
Here again is Part Thirteen of The Enchiridion.

If you would improve, be content to be thought foolish and dull with regard to externals. Do not wish to be thought to know anything; and though you appear to others to be somebody, distrust yourself. For be assured, it is not easy at once to keep your will in harmony with nature, and to secure externals; but while you are absorbed in the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

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 – After the Laughter Came My Tears (Columbia 1254d 1927)

Episode 1613