In the beginning of the original “Conan the Barbarian” movie, the title character’s father is discussing what you can trust and what you can’t trust in life. In one of my favorite lines in movie history, he quips, “You must learn its discipline. For no one, no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts” – and then he points to the sword he has just forged – “this you can trust.”
I agree with Conan’s father in that I feel the same way about philosophy (and I feel the same way about lifting weights – the iron is always the same; it never lies). To follow Epictetus’s way – and the way of the other Stoics – is to follow a path that can be trusted. The ways of the world are folly, but the way of philosophy is a sure path – not to success, or power, or many of the other things that humankind too often puts its faith in – but to peace of mind.
Let us return again to Epictetus’ Enchiridion, and see what other wisdom we can gain from its pages.
Epictetus on Maintaining Equanimity and Accepting Life as It is:
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the char-actor assigned you; to choose it is another’s.
You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, there-fore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.
We spend too much of our lives wishing it was different than it is. Many people seem to live in their minds, worrying about the future, or wallowing in the past. They wish that their lives were different, that they could be other people, or live in an entirely different matter than they do. But the truth is that if they had those lives, they would not be content either. The true secret to peace and tranquility is to accept your life as it is and detach from the need for it to be different. This is true with working out the same as it is with other aspects of life. You have been given the body that you have – you cannot change your genetic structure (which often determines just how big and strong you get). So stop worrying about things outside of your control.
You are “an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it.” The author is God – he gives us our role to play. We should not complain about what role we are given – the same way that an actor in a play doesn’t complain if he is given the lead role or a minor character. Whatever role he is given, he simply performs it to the best of his ability.
What God decides to give to me or take away from me, what He decides to do to others whether they are my family or whether they are strangers, that is His business, not mine. Mine is simply to live my life to the best of my ability.
Epictetus on Death and That Which We View to be Terrible:
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.
A few years ago I decided to focus all of my meditation – over the course of a few months – to death meditation. It is considered a venerable practice within the Buddhist tradition. You generally meditate on all the different ways that people get ill, or the different ways in which people die. You meditate on the fact that everyone in the world will die. (Of course, it’s much more in depth than this, but that’s enough of the gist of it for this article.)
Something odd happened while I was practicing these meditations. While my most people find these things to be morbid subjects – we live in a very death-denying culture, after all – I found that I was happier and in better spirits than I have just about ever been in my life. Keeping death always before me, and constantly in my mind, it no longer held any kind of “grip” on me. It ceased to be an issue, but rather just a natural process that happens to all people.
Now, what does this have to do with lifting weights? On the surface, not much, I admit, but I find that keeping death, illness, and aging “daily before your eyes” actually makes lifting weights more enjoyable too. You realize that one day you will not be able to lift weights, one day you may get sick or injured, and you may not be capable of lifting weights. And this makes training all the more enjoyable because you recognize it is (ultimately) fleeting, temporal, and impermanent.
Epictetus on Behaving as if You Know More Than You Do:
If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.
Many people, when they first start training, or after they have been training for a brief period of time, behave as if they know more about training than they actually do. Or, perhaps even worse, they think they actually know more about training than they do. But the truth is that it takes years to acquire knowledge of training. And you don’t gain this knowledge by just acquiring information. You gain this knowledge by training, and using different programs for extended periods of time. If you just acquire “knowledge” through reading or talking about training, then it could be that you will also decide that certain forms of training aren’t any good. But this could be one of the worst mistakes you could ever make with your training. What doesn’t work for others might be just the thing you need to grow larger and stronger than ever before.
Part Three – which I hope to post next week – will include our final discussions of Epictetus. Until then, I would like to close our second part with this passage from The Enchiridion which I think will stand better without my commentary:
“Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them as existing and as governing the universe with goodness and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is not possible for this to be effected any other way than by with-drawing yourself from things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son, when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children, revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.”