Today, Epictetus addresses the fact that “rational” and “irrational” can mean different things to different people, depending on what you value and what you consider your ultimate aim. He also talks about what it means to stay true to your character, and just how much weight that can have once you decide to adhere to it. Let’s get started.
A quick bit of background information (historical and cultural bits), in order for the next selection to make sense:
1.2 How to keep your “proper character” in every situation
For a rational person, only the things that are irrational cannot be endured, but anything that is rational can be endured. If you think about it, being punched is not naturally intolerable.—“How so?”—Look at it this way: Spartans will put up with a beating when they know that it is a rational punishment.—“But to be hanged as a death penalty, isn’t that unbearable?”—But remember that when someone thinks it’s reasonable, he’ll go and hang himself. In a nutshell, if we consider these situations carefully, we realize that nothing distresses a rational person more than things that go against reason, and that, conversely, there is nothing more attractive to a rational person than that which is reasonable.
The issue is, these concepts of “rational” and “irrational” mean different things to different people, just as people have different ideas of what is good and what is bad, and what is profitable and what is unprofitable. This is precisely why we must be educated, so that we can apply our assumptions of what is rational and irrational to specific cases in a manner that is in accordance with nature. Now, in order to distinguish between what is rational and what is irrational, not only do we have to form a judgment about the value of things that are outside of our power, but we must also judge what is appropriate to each person in his own specific character.
One person might hold the chamber pot to avoid a beating; the other might refuse to hold it because he believes he’s too good to do that. Different people sell themselves at different prices.
For example, for one person, it may be reasonable to hold out a chamber pot for another, simply because he considers that if he does not do this, he’ll be beaten and have his food taken away. But if he does hold the chamber pot, he won’t suffer any rough or painful treatment at all. Whereas, for another person he might believe it to be completely intolerable to hold out a pot himself, and even to allow someone else to do the task for him. So if you were to ask me, “Should I hold out the chamber pot or not?,” I’ll reply that it’s better to get food than to not get food, and it’s better to not be beaten than to be beaten, and so if you measure your interests and goals by these standards, you should go and hold the pot. “Yes, but that would be beneath me. I could never stoop so low.” That is for you to take into your own consideration, not me, since you know yourself best, and you know the value you set on yourself, and at what price you will sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices.
That’s exactly why, when Florus was considering whether he should attend Nero’s dramatic festival to perform some part in it himself, Agrippinus, the same conspiring senator who cheerfully went into exile, said to Florus, “You should perform in the festival.” When Florus asked him, “Then why aren’t you yourself going?,” Agrippinus replied, “Because I never even considered going.” For as soon as you begin to consider such questions, assessing and comparing the values of external things, you come one step closer to joining the rest of those who have forgotten their own character.
“Why did you tell me to go ahead with this demeaning activity, but you yourself aren’t going?”—Because I would never even consider it, but you have. That’s the difference between you and me.
Why do you ask me questions then? “Which one is more preferable: death or life?” I answer: Life. “Pain or pleasure, then?” I answer: Pleasure. “But if I don’t agree to act in Nero’s tragedy, he’ll have my head cut off.” Go and play the role then, but I will not take part. “Why not?” Because you consider yourself as being just one thread among the rest in the tunic. “What does that mean?” You should think about how you can be like other people, just as one thread doesn’t want to stand out from all the other threads. But for myself, I want to be the purple stripe on the tunic of senators—the small gleaming band that makes the rest of the tunic appear splendid and beautiful. Why do you tell me to be like everyone else? And if I were like everyone else, how should I still be the purple stripe?
Helvidius Priscus, the magistrate who challenged the authority of Emperor Vespasian, saw this too, and he acted accordingly.
It’s in your power to take away my title, but as long as I have my title, I must fulfill my role and duties. It’s the right thing to do.
When Vespasian sent word to tell him not to attend the meeting at the Senate, Priscus replied, “It’s true it lies within your power to take away my position as a senator, but as long as I remain a senator, I must attend the meetings.”—“Fine, but if you attend the meeting, you must keep quiet and hold your tongue.”—“If you don’t ask for my opinion, I will hold my tongue.”—“But I’ll have to ask for your opinion.”—“And I must fulfill my role and reply as I think fit.”—“But if you do, I’ll have you executed.”—“When did I ever claim to be immortal? You do your job, and I’ll do mine. Your job is to have me killed, and my job is to die bravely without a tremble; your job is to send me into exile, and my job is to go into exile without complaint.”
So you ask, “What good did Priscus achieve being just one person? What good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else would it need to achieve, other than standing out as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest? Imagine if another man had been told by Caesar to stay away from the Senate in a situation like this. He would have simply said, “Thank you for excusing me.” But Caesar would not have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place.
“Caesar would not have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place.” Obstacles can be a sign that you are putting up a substantial force against someone else’s attempt at injustice, or vice.
Caesar would know that the man would either sit there like a jug, or else, if he did speak, would say exactly what he knew Caesar would want him to say, adding even more to his words just to appease him.
There is an athlete who took a similar approach to Priscus, when he was faced with the option of having his genitals cut off, or dying. His brother came to him and said, “Well brother, what are you planning to do? Are you to have this part of your body cut off and then go to the gymnasium as usual?” But the athlete would not agree to that, and so he set his mind against this option and he died. When someone asked Epictetus, “How did he die? Was it as an athlete, or as a philosopher?,”
Both the athlete and Epictetus had something integral to their roles and identities.
Epictetus replied: He died as a man. He died as a man who had been proclaimed as a victor at Olympia, and had helped up a fight there, and had passed his life in such places, rather than merely having oil smeared over him at Baton’s training school.
Maybe modern thought views testicles and beards differently, but the principle remains the same: We must hold onto our integrity.
But there is also the type of person who would be willing to have even his head cut off, if it were possible for him to live without a head.
This is what it means to act according to your character, and as you can see, the consideration carries a great weight for those who deliberate about these things. “Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard.” If I am a philosopher, I’ll reply: I won’t shave it off. “Then I’ll have you beheaded.” If it pleases you to do so, have me beheaded.
Someone asked, “How will each of us recognize what is appropriate to our own individual characters?” Epictetus replied, “When the lion attacks, how does the bull know its own strength, and hurls itself forward to fight the lion back on behalf of the entire herd?
How does a bull know it is capable of fighting back? Strength comes with an awareness. But the bull has spent many years working on being a bull, and you will need to spend some time developing into the rational being you were meant to be.
Clearly the possession of such power is accompanied by an awareness of that power. It’s the same in our case: if someone possesses such power, he will certainly be aware of it. And yet a bull doesn’t become a bull suddenly and unexpectedly, any more than a person acquires nobility of mind all at once. No, a person must undergo hard winter training to make himself ready, rather than hurl himself without properly considering what is inappropriate for him.
Consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure that you don’t sell it cheap. But what is great and exceptional is perhaps the territory of others, of Socrates and people of that caliber.
“But if we are fitted by nature to act in such a way, why is it that most of us don’t behave like that?”
Do all horses become fast runners, or do all dogs follow scents well? On that note, since I’m not “naturally gifted,” should I abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates, but even if I don’t turn out better than Socrates, that’s still good enough for me. I will never be an athlete like Milo, either, yet I don’t give up on my body and neglect it. I will never be as wealthy as Croesus, and yet I don’t neglect my property. I don’t stop trying just because I’m afraid that I won’t reach perfection.
(Epictetus, Discourses 1.2)