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Exploring Encheiridion 15 – Episode 54


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Keep in mind that you should always behave as you would do at a banquet. Something comes around to you; stretch out your hand and politely take a portion. It passes on; don’t try to stop it. It has not come yet; don’t let your appetite run ahead, but wait till the portion reaches you. If you act like this toward your children, your wife, your public positions, and your wealth, you will be worthy one day to dine with the gods. And if you don’t even take things, when they are put before you, but pass them by, you will not only dine with the gods but also share their rule. It was by acting like that that Diogenes and Heracles and others like them were deservedly divine and called so. (Ench. 15) Epictetus uses a banquet as a metaphor in this lesson. However, this banquet appears different from anything we moderns would attend. The Greek word Epictetus used is συμποσίῳ. The title of Plato’s famous Symposium is derived from that same Greek word, and it provides a model for this metaphor. To make his point in this lesson, Epictetus asks us to imagine we are guests at such a banquet. However, to apply this lesson in our life, we must first understand the metaphor. A Greek banquet or symposium during the time of Plato was slightly different from those of Roman times. Epictetus’s students would have been familiar with the latter. However, those distinctions don’t affect the metaphor or the lesson. Let’s set the scene for such a banquet to help us understand this lesson. The host, a person you know, has invited you to a banquet. When you arrive, you’re led to a room filled with pillow-covered sofas. Participants are reclined on those sofas eating food, drinking wine, talking about important topics, and possibly delivering speeches. The room has a predetermined seating arrangement, so you recline on your assigned sofa and engage in conversation with others you know at the banquet. Occasionally, someone might deliver a speech, read a poem, or bring up a topic of political concern for discussion. While this is going on, servers enter the room with platters of food and pitchers of wine. The servers approach each reclined guest in a predetermined order and offer them a portion of what they are serving. You know the proper etiquette for a banquet, and that means you must wait for each server to come to you to take your portion. The preceding lessons in the Encheiridion focus on the distinction between what is up to us and not up to us. As a banquet guest, many things are not within your power—they are not up to us. So, let’s begin by determining what is and is not in our power in this banquet metaphor. Guests don’t choose the date or time of the banquet. Guests don’t choose who is invited. Guests don’t choose their seating location. Guests don’t choose what, if any, entertainment is provided. Guests don’t choose what food and wine are served. Guests don’t choose the portions of the dishes being served. Guests don’t choose the order in which the dishes and drinks are served, Guests don’t choose the order in which they will be served. The host makes all of those decisions. Therefore, Epictetus is reminding us of the only thing within our power. As guests at the banquet of life, the only thing up to us is the choice to reach out and take a portion of each item as it is offered. Interestingly, even though the items served at a banquet are indifferents, Epictetus encourages us to reach out and take a portion of those items offered to us. We are beginning to see why Epictetus chose an ancient banquet as a metaphor for this lesson—many of the circumstances and events in life are not in our power. Moreover, one of the essential aspects of Epictetus’ training program is understanding what is in our power and choosing only those things which are up to us. Nevertheless, there is an interesting change in Epictetus’ training program in Encheiridion 15. Chapters one through fourteen directed our attention away from...

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