I had a birthday the other month, and I realized I don’t really want for anything, I don’t need anything more than I have. I want a dress with pockets and some wine that’s better than we usually drink, but that’s about it. And it’s summer, so lots of friends are going on big adventures, but we’re mostly going on smaller adventures, and I’m fine with that. I think I have an ample portion of whatever quality it is that breeds contentment. And why wouldn’t I? I have no excuse not to. And then I was thinking about people who struggle to be content in the face of adversity, Pierre Bezukhov; “The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.” Or Myshkin; the idiot, “And I dreamed of all sorts of things, indeed. But afterwards I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” And there are times we shouldn’t rest in contentment: in the face of injustice or cruelty or any situation that deprives another of the opportunity to be content. And maybe contentment is dangerous sometimes, because if you’re too comfortable you might lose yourself in your own small world.
Around the time I was thinking all of this I encountered Epictetus. He was a stoic teacher, but he lived four hundred years after the original stoics. (Four hundred years.) He said one should be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” And he began life as a slave, his very name means “acquired.” In my ignorance, I’d always thought stoics taught that a person shouldn’t feel anything at all; not sadness or pain or desire or happiness. And yet according to my slight understanding of Epictetus, the whole point is to seek eudaimonia, which is happiness or flourishing or contentment. And to achieve this, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” Life comes at you in impressions, or phantasiai. And you don’t take these at face value, you question them, you talk to them. You say, “Stop, let me see what you are, and where you come from, just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.” And if it’s a harsh impression, you “Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.” And, like Pierre Bezukhov taking comfort in joyful comforting imaginings and memories, you “In the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by [the] intensity [of your impression]: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one.”
For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Not everything that Epictetus writes makes sense to me. I think passion and desire are beautiful and unavoidable emotions, and we should try to live with them rather than without them. But I like the idea of using your mind and your imagination to overcome anxiety and make your way through the world. I like the idea of working to change what you can and understanding that you can’t change everything. I like the idea of living in accord with nature, and with our nature, our name. “Further, we must remember who we are, and by what name we are called, and must try to direct our acts to fit each situation and its possibilities.” The name we are called is sister, mother, brother, father, friend, and when you act according to your name you do so regardless of the situation or the behavior of others. So if, say, your 13-year-old is unaccountably angry and moody and worrisome, you don’t respond with anger, you respond as his mother who loves him and tries to understand him at all times, if mother is one of the names you are called. I like the balance of this idea. I’m done with my ramble, but here are some Epictetus quotes that appealed to me.
Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.
When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”
Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.
These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.
Every habit and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding actions: The habit of walking by walking, the habit of running by running. If you would be a good reader, read; if a writer write.
Here’s When the Saints go Marching In by Barbecue Bob, because I love it!