Words of Wisdom #51

“Remember that you are an actor who interprets a part in a drama that is like the playwright wants it to be. A short part, if he wants it to be short, long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to interpret the part of a beggar, try to interpret this role with skill: or that of a lame, or of a magistrate, or of a private citizen. Indeed this is your task: to interpret well the role that has been assigned to you. But the choice of this role is up to someone else”.

-Epictetus

Maybe it will be useful to remember that the “playwright” to which Epictetus refers is nothing else than the Logos, the Universal Law, the divine essence that flows through all matter in the Universe, the reason, order, logic, necessity and harmony that govern the Cosmos (from Greek “kósmos”, “order”, in reference to an orderly and harmonic system). There is no randomness, everything is in its right place, as in heaven so on earth, as in the macrocosm so in the microcosm, though apparently it may seem the opposite is true. It is not the first time that I propose such a vision of destiny, according to which literally everything that happens during our individual lives has been predisposed and “sewn” for us, without there being any real free will and any real possibility of forging our own destiny in the meaning that we usually give to this potentiality. However, even if we assume that this is the truth, i.e. predestination, we can not but acknowledge that we live inside a sort of illusion, of such a power that we can’t live even a day without acting and thinking as if we were the real masters of our destiny. In this perspective the best thing to do would be to see our being (our external appearance and the way in which we tend to think and act) as the result of our previous lives, of our conduct in a previous existence. So we start with a basis, a form that comes from the past, but we can choose in which way we should live our lives and act accordingly, affecting in this way – for better or for worse – what will be our future existence.

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Other posts about Epictetus: About Stoicism, Words of Wisdom #32

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Words of Wisdom #44, #45 & #46

“The fortune, is Zeus who distributes it to men, to the good and the wicked, as he wants, to each one. To you he gave this fate, you must bear it”.

-Nausicaa to Odysseus in the Odyssey

“It is easy for the gods, that possess the vast sky, to do splendid or miserable a mortal man”.

-Odysseus to Telemachus in the Odyssey

“Not even you despise them, the gifts of the glorious gods, those that they offer us: we can’t choose them by ourselves”.

-Paris to Hector in the Iliad

In this consists Stoicism: in understanding what is beyond our control, accepting it as well as it’s destined to us, in any way it will affect our lives, and then act accordingly!

Bhagavadgītā (Part 1 of 2)

The Bhagavadgītā is a Hindu sacred text, a part of the Mahābhārata, the Hindu epic poem. It is a dialogue between the prince of the Pandava, Arjuna, a hero son of the god Indra, and his charioteer Krishna, an incarnation of the divine principle.

The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is imminent and the dialogue takes place in the centre of the battlefield, right before the beginning of the Kurukshetra’s battle: Arjuna is confused and torn by moral dilemmas after noticing that among the enemy army there are his relatives, teachers and friends: he seeks advice from Krishna, which reminds him his duties as a kshatriya (i.e. as a warrior) through the exposition of philosophical and religious concepts.

Krishna assists Arjuna:
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In this first part I quote verses that reveal mainly the doctrine concerning the immortality of the spirit, but also concepts in relation with Stoicism and the thught of Parmenides.

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 Second Chant:

12.”In truth, there has never been a time when I was not, nor you, nor these chiefs of peoples; and, in the future, will not come that in which we will not be”.

13.”The soul incarnated in the body experiments childhood, youth and the old age; then it takes another body. The man that knows this doesn’t suffer [any] bewilderment”.

The verses 12./13. begin to expose the doctrine concerning the immortality of the individual spirit and its eternal rebirth (governed by karma, an automatic and inescapable metaphysical law according to which what we are today on one side is the direct result of what we have been in our previous existences, on the other will contribute to determine what we will be in our future existences) through the piṭryāna (“way of the fathers”).

14.”Son of Kunti, the impressions of the senses [born] from contact with material things produces hot and cold, pain and pleasure, they come and go and are impermanent. Endure them, Bhārata”.

Krishna calls Arjuna with many epithets in the Bhagavadgītā: Bhārata, Mahabahu, Pārtha, Kaunteya and Paramtāpa in the verses that I quote here.

15.”Best of men, one who from them [impressions] is not disturbed, [that remains] equanimous and firm in pleasure and pain is worthy of immortality”.

The verses 14./15. express a concept that we find in Stoicism: men must understand that the things that doesn’t depend on us (like the sensations of hot and cold, pain and pleasure) must be endured firmly/indifferently, without being disturbed or fascinated by them.

16.”What doesn’t exist can’t come into being, of the being there is no cessation of existence. This ultimate truth has been unveiled by those who have seen the essence of things”.

This verse expresses a knowledge identical to that of Parmenides: nothing is created from nothing and nothing can be destroyed into nothing.

18.”These bodies of the eternal ātman, indestructible, immeasurable, are called perishable. Fight, then, Bhārata”.

The ātman is the intimate essence of every being, the principle of life (i.e. the individual spirit).

19.”The one who believes to be killed and the one who thinks of killing are both in error. That one [the ātman] can’t kill nor be killed”.

20.”It is never born and never dies. Having always been, it can’t cease to be. Unborn, permanent, imperishable, ancient, it is not killed even when the body is killed”.

22.”Like a man deposing the old clothes takes new ones, so the embodied soul (dehi) deposes the worn-out bodies and enters in other new”.

23.”The weapons doesn’t pierce [the ātman], nor fire burns it, nor is bathed by waters, nor wind dries it”.

26.”If you believe that it is born and dies continuously, likewise, Mahabahu, you must not afflict yourself,”

27.”because, in truth, sure is death for he that is born and sure is rebirth for he that is dead. Therefore, for an inescapable fact, you should not feel pity”.

The verses 19./20./22./23./26./27. continue to expose the doctrine concerning the immortality of the individual spirit and its eternal rebirth, in very explicit terms.

38.”Equally impartial in pleasure and pain, in gain and loss, in victory and defeat, prepare therefore to fight; in this way you will not be able to commit error”.

55.”When, Pārtha, a man eradicates from his mind all desires and finds his satisfaction in the ātman and for the ātman, he is said to have a stable intelligence”.

57.”The one who has given up all attachment, that is not flattered by praises nor offended by reprimand: that person owns a stable intelligence”.

The verses 38./55./57. continue to praise the man who treats the things that doesn’t depend on him as they must be treated: in a detached way and without subjective reactions.

Third Chant:

34.”The attraction and the repulsion for the objects are inherent to the corresponding sense: nobody should submit to these two for they represent the two enemies”.

39.”Knowledge is [so] wrapped by this constant enemy, Kaunteya, insatiable fire that takes the form of desire”.

The verses 34./39. express an explicit critique of materialism, seen as opposed to the pursuit of knowledge.

Fourth Chant:

5.”Numerous are my past lives and yours too, Arjuna. Just that I know them all, while you don’t know them, Paramtāpa”.

Also this verse refers to the eternal rebirth of the individual spirit.

Sixth Chant:

40.”Pārtha, nor in this nor in the other world such a man is lost, because there is no author of beautiful and good deeds that incurs in a bad destiny”.

The content of this verse can be compared to that expressed by this maxim: “there is no death for the honourable, only an eternal rebirth”.

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Words of Wisdom #32

“These reasonings are not conclusive: <<I am richer than you, so I am better than you>>, <<I am more eloquent than you, so I am better than you>>. These are more conclusive: <<I am richer than you, so my possessions are superior to yours>>, <<I am more eloquent than you, so my way of speaking is better than your>>. But you are neither a possession, nor a way of speaking”.

-Epictetus

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Related post: About Stoicism

Words of Wisdom #31

“The Ancients considered happy who can no longer increase his happiness and not, like today, who owns carriage and dignitary cap. The carriage and the dignitary cap belong to the person; they belong neither to the nature of man, nor to his destiny. If these goods fall out of the sky on him, it’s only at provisory title: he can neither protect himself against their coming, nor prevent them from going away. We must not exalt ourselves because we possess carriage and dignitary cap. We must not get in tow of the common people, because we find ourselves in a miserable situation. He who finds his happiness both in misery and in the carriage and in the dignitary cap, will be without worries. If the deprivation of provisional goods destroys happiness, it is because this was vain”.

-Zhuangzi

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Related post: About Stoicism

About Stoicism

Stoicism is one of the most interesting European philosphies, and has as prominent representatives Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. It is often misunderstood due to the fact that it has not, apparently, a specific “technical” language concerning its doctrine. The consequence is that while the texts about Stoicism that we have today are quite easy to read and understand superficially, even for the casual reader, a deep and authenic understanding of them is often nonexistent.

The essence of Stoicism consists in distinguish between the things that depend on us and the things that don’t depend on us:

Depend on us:

-Desire or aversion (for something).

-Impulse to action or to non-action.

-Judgment (positive or negative) of our desires and aversions, of our impulses to action or to non-action.

These things depend exclusively and totally on us, we have power over them, and they can correspond morally to good or evil whether they are compliant or non-compliant to Nature.

Don’t depend on us:

-Things external to us, on which our will has no power, or in need of fortune to be obtained: wealth, health, fame, work, family, poverty, disease, death, etc.

All the things that don’t depend on us are neither a good nor an evil, but something indifferent that must be accepted as it stands, in any way it will affect our lives: they should be seen as the work of Fate. However, Stoicism doesn’t say that we should not worry, or that we should give up obtaining or avoiding this sort of things: we should only remember that they don’t depend on us, and then act accordingly whatever happens in relation to them.

“Among the things that exist, some depend on us, the other don’t depend on us. Depend on us: value judgment, impusle to act, desire, aversion, and in one word, all those that are properly our affairs. Don’t depend on us the body, our possessions, the opinions that the others have of us, the public positions, and in one word all those that aren’t properly our affairs”.

-Epictetus

“Suppress therefore the aversion that you can feel for all the things that don’t depend on you and transfer it to the things that, among those that depend on us, are contrary to nature”.

-Epictetus

“Impassibility in front of the events that come from external causes, justice in the works generated by a cause that comes from you; impulse and action only in view of a common good: this is for man to act according to nature”.

-Marcus Aurelius

“I am a mixture of body and soul: for the body the sensible things are neither good nor bad, because matter has no power to grasp the difference between them; for the mind, instead, are indifferent the activities not falling within its sphere of action, while those that depend on it are all under its dominion. Even these, however, affect the mind only in relation to the present, because those related to the future and to the past are, in that moment, indifferent for it”.

-Marcus Aurelius

According to Stoicism we must have aversion exclusively for what depend on us but isn’t compliant to Nature (it is not virtuous, moral, honourable…). To distinguish the things that depend on us from those that don’t depend on us we have to look at every object, person or event for what it really is, removing the represenations of the mind, the instinctive judgments that these objects, persons or events project upon us: “The stormy sea upsets my mind. It is the stormy sea that upsets me? No, it is my judgment on it. It is not something that depends on me, therefore it is neither a good nor an evil. The stormy sea is only the stormy sea”.

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The judgments in relation to things or events that don’t depend on us are hard if not impossible to remove immediatly but yes, we can remove them after asking ourselves if what we are judging depends on us or not, and if our judgment in relation to that particular thing or event is nothing else than a representation of the mind: at this point we can see that particular thing or event for what it really is. Therein lies Stoicism, in seeing things and events for what they really are, without mental representations.

“Therefore train yourself to immediately add to every painful representation: <<you are only a representation, you are not at all what you represent>>. Then examine this representation, and put it to test with the help of the rules at your disposal, in first place and above all of this rule: we have to count it among the things that depend on us or among those that don’t depend on us? And if it is part of the things that don’t depend on us, keep in mind that it doesn’t concern you”.

-Epictetus

“What disturbs men are not the things, but the judges that they formulate on the things. For example, death has nothing terrible, otherwise it would have seemed like that also to Socrates. But it’s the judgment we formulate about death, namely that it is terrible, to be fearsome in death. Therefore when we encounter difficulties or are troubled or sad, we should not ascribe the responsibility to another, but to ourselves, that is to our judgments: it is indicative of who has not yet been educated to ascribe to others the responsibility of his evils; it is indicative of who is at the beginning of his education to ascribe the responsibility to himself; it is indicative of who has completed his education to not ascribe the responsibility nor to others nor to himself”.

-Epictetus

“Look at things as they are, in themselves, distinguishing matter, cause and purpose”.

-Marcus Aurelius

“Therefore don’t go beyond what you see and don’t add anything personal to the immediate impressions you receive from things or facts, and nothing bad will come to you”.

-Marcus Aurelius

“Many are the superfluous and annoying things that you can eliminate, because they exist only in the opinion that you create about them”.

-Marcus Aurelius

“Throw away the opinion, and you will be safe! Who prevents you to get rid of it?”.

-Marcus Aurelius

Whereby, what disturbs men are not the things or events but the judges that they formulate about these things or events. The proof of this is the fact that not all men express the same opinion about the things that don’t depend on us. Not all men are distraught by the stormy sea. Not all men are distraught by poverty. Not all men are happy of their wealth. Not all men are happy of their fame. Not all men are distraught by their disease. Not all men are distraught by the premature and/or accidental death of their son, daughter or wife. Not all men are distraught by the approaching of their death (so the ancient European warrior had a stoic attitude towards death), etc.

It means that the things and events can’t be the real cause of our reactions, that instead must be searched inside us: our reactions depend on the individual structure of our minds, although it may seem that it’s the thing or event itself to determine our positive or negative reaction towards it.

These examples and all the other countless things and events that don’t depend on us should be considered by the stoic man, as he was intended to be, neither a good nor an evil, but indifferently: what is not under our control should be seen as something that is not under our control.

On the other hand, concerning the things that depend on us, there is no man that would do something that depends on him, but that is not compliant to Nature, without having the same awareness of having done something wrong, whether he likes it or not. If you think about it, it’s indeed impossible for that to happen.

A man must judge the situation he faces and act accordingly using his skills, he must survive doing everything in his power (this depends on him), but this doesn’t mean that he should blame something that doesn’t depend on him, or project personal opinions on a certain thing or event in relation to his situation: for example, he shouldn’t judge the stormy sea differently only because HE is on a boat in the middle of it, the stormy sea doesn’t change in relation to this…it doesn’t become good or bad in relation to its role in a man’s vicissitudes. The stormy sea doesn’t depend on us and it remains always and exclusively only a stormy sea, both for the pilot and the observer who risks nothing.

If you keep in mind these stoic precepts you’ll find new meanings, profundity and rigidity in the texts of the philosophers cited above. Stoicism, as it was intended to be, was much more challenging, demanding and even extreme compared to how it’s commonly perceived, but remains in any case among the most important and suited classical philosophies for the European man!