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Exploring Enchiridion 13 – Episode 52


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If you want to make progress, don’t mind appearing foolish and silly where outward things are concerned, and don’t wish to appear an expert. Even if some people think you are somebody, distrust yourself. It is not easy, you can be sure, to keep your own will in harmony with nature and simultaneously secure outward things. If you care about the one, you are completely bound to neglect the other. (Ench 13) After a short break from the Encheiridion, I start again with chapter 13. I will continue to work through the Encheiridion, chapter by chapter. However, I will take breaks from it occasionally to cover other topics or conduct interviews as I did recently with the authors of two new Stoic books. Epictetus opens Encheiridion 13 with a familiar refrain, “If you want to make progress,” and then lists what a prokopton must do to progress along the Stoic path. So, what is Epictetus prescribing for us to make progress? He lists two things in this lesson: First, don’t mind appearing foolish and silly where outward things are concerned. Why? Because it’s difficult to keep our will (prohairesis)—that which is within our power and up to us—in harmony with Nature while simultaneously desiring and seeking externals—those things not within our power and therefore not up to us. Second, don’t wish to appear as an expert. Why? Again, if we desire to appear as an expert, we seek something not up to us. Before we consider these two specific things Epictetus lists in this passage, let’s look at the overarching message. Some things are up to us, and others are not up to us. We learned that in Encheiridion 1. As a refresher, the things that are not up to us are external to us, like our health, financial status, other people’s opinion of us, etc. Obviously, our behavior can influence these externals; nevertheless, they are not entirely within our power. We can live a healthy lifestyle and still get cancer; we can work hard and save money and still end up broke and destitute during a widespread economic crisis; we can be kind, helpful, and act appropriately, and some people will still have a low opinion of us. On the other hand, our reasoning faculty (prohairesis) is entirely within our power; it is up to us. So much so, as Epictetus teaches in Discourses3.3, not even Zeus can override this power granted to us by Nature. Therefore, once again, Epictetus confronts us with the distinction between what is up to us and not up to us. We will continue to see this theme in the Encheiridion because it is central to Epictetus’ teaching and critically important for developing our moral excellence and progress toward well-being. Now, let’s look at these two things not up to us Epictetus chose to highlight in this lesson. I will tackle the second item first because this episode will focus on the first. Epictetus warns us not to wish to appear an expert. If some people have that opinion of us, that’s fine, but it’s not up to us. Because it’s not up to us, desiring that others think of us as an expert is not in accordance with the nature of things. As Keith Seddon points out in his commentary, this passage could have two different meanings. When Epictetus warns against not wishing to appear knowledgeable about anything, he may mean this in a wholly general way – to have knowledge is one thing, but to have a desire to show it off and be regarded as a knowledgeable person is altogether something else, and is inappropriate for the Stoic prokoptôn – for placing one’s well-being (to however small a degree) on the satisfaction of this desire is to rely on something that is not in one’s power, something external and indifferent, and risks undermining one’s ‘good flow’ (euroia). But I suspect Epictetus means ‘knowledgeable’ to refer only to knowledge of good and bad, moral excellence, the indifferent and external things, and of Stoic ethics as a whole. However advanced our progress, it is unlikely ever to be complete,

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