Exercise Your Will!

"Yes, but my nose runs." For what purpose then, slave, have you hands? Is it not that you may wipe your nose? "Is it, then, consistent with reason that there should be running of noses in the world?" Nay, how much better it is to wipe your nose than to find fault. What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out? And what would he have been doing if there had been nothing of the kind? Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and have slept? In the first place, then he would not have been a Hercules, when he was dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease. Even if he had been great in mind and body what would have been the use of him? What would have been the use of his arms, and his endurance, and noble spirit, if such circumstances and occasions had not roused and exercised him?

"Well, then, must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and to introduce a lion from some other place into his country, and a boar and a hydra?" This would be folly and madness. But as they did exist, and were found, they were useful for showing what Hercules was and for exercising him. Come then, having observed these things look to the faculties which you have, and when you have looked at them, say, "Bring now, O Zeus, any difficulty that Thou may please, for I have means given to me by Thee and powers for honoring myself through the things which happen." You do not do so, but you sit still, trembling for fear that some things will happen. You weep and lament and groan for what does happen, and then you blame the gods. For what is the consequence of such meanness of spirit but impiety? God has not only given us the faculties by which we shall be able to bear everything that happens without being depressed or broken by it, but like a good king and a true father, He has given us these faculties free from hindrance, subject to no compulsion unimpeded, and has put them entirely in our own power, without even having reserved to Himself any power of hindering or impeding. You, who have received these powers free and as your own don't use them. You do not even see what you have received, and from whom you have received them. Some of you are blinded to the giver, and do not even acknowledge your benefactor. Others of you, through meanness of spirit, betake yourselves to fault finding and making charges against God. Yet I will show to you that you have powers and means for greatness of soul and manliness, but what powers you have for finding fault and making accusations you have already shown me.

Epictetus is somewhat of a comedian. In using a running nose as an example, he uses an earthy example to illustrate a vital concept: we have been given the means by God to act. If we have a running nose, what would be the point of complaining about it? It takes very little contemplation to see that the solution is to wipe the nose.

This is one of the things that our faculty of understanding does for us. It allows us to see the solution to problems. Our physical body and our facility for communication give us the means to this solution. But, as always, there are factors beyond our solution, inclement weather, a declining investment or the death of a loved one. Yet these are factors we take into account and work around. There is little use in lamenting them; for lamenting is not a productive activity.

Here is a place where Christians and Epictetus might diverge somewhat. It is appropriate within the Christian belief system to grieve for a loved one who has died. A stoic such as Epictetus would see death as a tragedy, but he would not want us to grieve about it, at least not for long. The answer assuredly lies in the middle ground. It is right to feel sorrow at the passing of a loved one, but by the same token, we cannot allow it to also destroy our own life. It is a simple fact that life goes on. A Christian must be consoled by the fact that their loved one has gone on to their own reward.

It is here that Epictetus answers that age old question: in modern terms, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" For Epictetus it is a simple matter. It is so that we might exercise our God given faculties. It is to prove our worth. Epictetus uses the example of Hercules, but we might use the example of one of the great figures of American History, George Washington, who was somewhat of a stoical figure. He was faced with considerable trials from the French and Indian War through the Revolution and even to the end of his second term as President. He faced each one with honor and dignity, using his mind and physical resources to make the best of every situation. Ultimately, he emerged a better person for the trials he had faced. Like, Hercules in the example above, without the struggles he faced, Washington would likely have remained obscure and untempered by the fire, if well-rested.

We, like Hercules, without some challenges in life, never even have reason to rise from bed in the morning. Indeed, those who are pampered all the days of their lives lose the luster of living. The quality of their life is lessened unless they seek out challenges, unless they impose discipline upon themselves.

For this reason, Epictetus tells us, we should welcome challenges and face them with the confidence that God has given us the faculties with which to deal with them.

Chapter 6:

  1. On Providence
  2. The Workman (6a)
  3. The Rational Facility (6b)
  4. Backyard Magnificence (6c)
  5. Exercise Your Will! (6d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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