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Exploring Encheiridion 4 – Episode 34


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Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like. If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: “I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.” Make this your practice in every activity. Then, if anything happens, that gets in the way of your bathing, you will have the following response available: “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted; I also wanted to keep my will in harmony with nature. I shall not do that if I get angry about what is happening.” The meaning of this profoundly important passage may be more relevant and applicable to us in modern times than it was to the young students of Epictetus almost two thousand years ago. Nevertheless, to fully appreciate and apply this passage to our modern lives, we must overcome one cultural hurdle to understand and appreciate its meaning entirely. Epictetus relies on the experiences of a Roman bathhouse to drive this lesson home for his students. However, few moderns have ever been to anything like a Roman bathhouse to bathe. Therefore, when Epictetus begins his list of things that occur at a Roman bathhouse—splashing, jostling, rude talk, stealing of clothing—we might be inclined to think of a modern public pool setting and consider it similar. However, that is not a good comparison, and it leaves us with an inadequate appreciation of the point Epictetus is making. Let’s take a closer look at Roman bathhouses and the types of activities that occurred there. In Encheiridion 4, Epictetus is relatively brief with his description of a Roman bathhouse because he did not need to elaborate further. His students related to his example immediately because these bathhouses were a standard part of Greek and Roman life. On the other hand, Seneca provides a more detailed picture of these bathhouses in a Letter to Lucilius. He writes: Call to mind every sort of awful noise that grates on the ears. When the stronger men do their exercises, swinging their hand weights about and straining with the effort (or pretending to), I hear the grunts each time they exhale, their rasping and gasping for breath. When I get some idle fellow who’s happy with an ordinary man’s massage, I hear the hands slapping his shoulders and the change of sound when they strike with the cupped hand or with the palm. Then if a ballplayer shows up and starts counting how many he catches, I’m done for! Now add the quarrelsome type—and the one caught stealing—and the one who likes to hear himself sing in the bath chamber—and also the ones who jump into the swimming pool with a great splash. Besides all these, who are at least using their normal voices, imagine the tweezer man screeching over and over in his shrill falsetto, just to attract attention: he is never silent unless he is plucking someone’s armpits and making him cry out instead. Now add the cries of the drink man, the sausage man, the bakery man, and all the different sellers of cooked foods, singing out their wares in their distinctive tones. (Letters 56.1-2) It’s hard to imagine a similar combination of distractions today. We would have to combine a Florida beach during spring break with an outdoor gym, some people playing catch, a bar full of quarrelsome drinkers, an open-air hot wax station, and food vendors shouting over the crowd to sell hotdogs and beer. Then, we might have a similar experience. If you do not relate to that, imagine a crowded shopping mall during the holiday season, a “Black Friday” sale at an electronics store, etc. You get the idea. Epictetus is trying to get his students and us to imagine environments where we typically get frustrated and angry with people and events. Why should we imagine these? Because this type of active imagination in advance of an event (...

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