Epictetus
Epictetus


CHAPTER 21: The Desire to Be Admired

When a person achieves his proper place in life, he does not desire anything beyond it. You should be satisfied if your desires are conformable to your better nature. You should be satisfied if you act according to your better nature. Why then do you strut before us as if you had swallowed a ramrod? You say, "My wish has always been that those who meet me should admire me, and those who follow me should exclaim, 'Oh, the great philosopher." Who are they by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not those whom you call mad? Well then do you wish to be admired by madmen?

This is the shortest chapter in the Discourses. Perhaps Epictetus thought that the evil nature of craving admiration was self-evident. Yet he could have expanded somewhat on the problem.

Epictetus speaks of swallowing a ramrod. It is an interesting metaphor. It implies arrogance. There is a fine line between being aloof from worldly things and placing one's-self above all humanity. The idea of placing "above" implies a person putting himself in a position where he can be viewed by everyone. So being above does not just make him "better", but more in a position to be admired. The problem with being in such a position is that it blinds a person to reality; he no longer sees himself in a proper relation to others. He also denies the egalitarian nature of Christianity. God sees us all as equals, leveling the rich and the poor, the bold and the meek. In Ephesians (6:9), Paul reminds us, "The Master in heaven judges everyone by the same standard."

The "madmen" at the end of this passage is a reference to the mass of humanity who act according to the whims of their body rather than the dictates of intelligent forethought (informed by Stoic philosophy). The danger of wishing to be admired by these "madmen" is that it will influence behavior. This could be viewed as an admonition against peer pressure or even the desire to follow the crowd. Government leaders are especially subject to this failing. Before making policy decisions they often "poll" to find out what the people want at the moment. The problem with making decisions in this way is that people are generally ill-informed on a particular matter of state at the time they are polled. They are asked to give an instant response to a question that requires incredible insight and a considerable amount of information. Thus weighty issues might be acted upon without real forethought. This was one of the reasons that political philosophers determined that pure democracy was a disastrous way to run a government; and why such noted philosophers as Montesquieu developed theories about a republican form of government that heavily influenced the modern U.S. Constitution. For this reason instant polls regarding what the government ought to do in a certain situation should be taken with a grain of salt.

Thus we see that the craving for admiration has a pernicious effect at both the personal and the political level.

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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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