How to Maintain Proper Character
The rational animal finds irrational events intolerable. Yet the reasonable may be borne. Being struck or hit is not naturally intolerable. "How is that?" See how the Spartans endured whipping when they learned that whipping was consistent with reason. To hang yourself is not intolerable when you have the opinion that it is rational. In short, if we observe, we shall find that the animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational, and is, on the contrary, attracted to that which is rational.
The key to this chapter is the epigram, "Everything reasonable may be borne." If we understand our afflictions we know how to deal with them. If we understand our place in the world, we know how to act in it.
During a time of trial in America, the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He understood that it was unreasoning emotion that would wreak havoc on the economy and the world community. Although many of his policies were counter-productive, his ability to instill within Americans a feeling that a rational approach would solve the nation's problems actually went a long way to keeping events from getting entirely out of hand.
Epictetus wants us to understand that even difficult things may be reasonable when viewed in context. The Spartans voluntarily underwent rigorous trials so that when they were faced with adversity on the battlefield they would have the courage and experience to endure. Military training all over the world now incorporates this same notion (however, most do not whip their soldiers). So we see that self-imposed privation might prove beneficial to us. Throughout the centuries Christians have understood the truth of this doctrine, especially as it applies to fasting. Giving up desired things for a season or a lifetime can help to discipline the will and the soul and help us to contemplate spiritual matters. Such "deprivation" then is ultimately "reasonable".
Epictetus presents an even more extreme example to illustrate his point. He discusses the reasonableness of literally killing one's self. He does not recommend taking extreme actions, especially this one. He only wishes to point out how extreme actions occasionally have benefit or are thought to have benefit to those who carry them out. For Christians the highest example of an extreme, but beneficial act is Christ's crucifixion. Christ accepted his fate because He understood the value of his sacrifice. It was a painful act for him to undergo. Yet He had the choice all along not to be crucified. Pilate himself gave Jesus the opportunity to deny that he was "King of the Jews". Had Jesus but spoken the word, He could have walked away from his trial and straight back to the arms of his devoted disciples, or even to heaven.
Had Epictetus known of Christ, he might have used him as an example, but his unfamiliarity with Christianity has him give other examples.
Stoicism and Christianity Index
- How to Maintain Proper Character
- Chamber Pots and Character (2a)
- Examples of Character (2b)
- Philosophers and Beards (2c)
- A Soul's Worth (2d)