Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 2
How to respect your character and stand up for who you are? This is an important topic for the Stoics and so it should be for us. Arrian thought it was vital enough to add it as the second chapter in the discourses of Epictetus. The way we can distinguish our character is by our reasoning power and the choices we make based on our nature. The problem is that we are more often than not influenced by our desires and wants. If they require externals to be satisfied, then our character will have to pay the price for it.
This discourse of Epictetus and the topic of respecting one’s character is a big part of my journey to becoming a better person. Most people know me as an easygoing person. This works well for the people around me and in most situations, I don’t see the need to upset or go against the grain. Yet, I realize I haven’t always respected my character. At least not the way I should have.
My own character at stake
Lady Fortune has been kind to me that this has not led to disastrous results. But I can’t keep hoping that this will remain the same in the future. It is time to be true to who I am and what I stand for. Accept difficult situations and not avoid confrontation. This doesn’t mean that I will go looking for it, or will be making drastic changes from now on. But if I make sure I know what my character is, then I’ll be able to act in the right manner when the moment calls for it.
“Only consider at what price you sell your own will and choice, man: if for nothing else, that you may not sell it cheap.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 2.33
To know what the right price is, we need to know the merchandise. What is our character worth to us? If we are here in this life to survive and do nothing less, then there are many ways to sell it for. And let’s be honest, there are plenty of people out there who do this. Me included. Although I am trying to change this to live a good life, not only to be alive. A set of good values and ways of living are important to have. The next step then, one we discuss in many of these posts here, is the execution. We can talk all we want, but it is in practice that our ideas are put to the test. In his discourse, Epictetus gives us some examples of people who face a choice.
What price for your character?
In one of these examples, a person finds it reasonable to hold up a chamber pot for another man. Because I’d he doesn’t he’ll get beaten and will lose his dinner. While another person thinks it’s insupportable to even hold it up for himself. These two people are choosing how much respect they have for their character. Or at least at what price they value themselves. This is something we should determine for ourselves. If it is part of our duty. The one that we have accepted and will help the common good or the people around us, then we should make sure that we do our best. But if it is to chase clout, fall in favor of others, or fear the beating, then you need to ask yourself whether your character is given away too cheap. Epictetus continues to say that this is an individual question.
“It starts with knowing yourself, and what value you set upon yourself.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 2.11
If we bring it to the present day, we can look at our workplace or our personal lives. How much of ourselves are we sacrificing for a goal or status that we don’t need? It’s time to analyze how often we say yes to things that we don’t agree with. There are different ways to approach this and let’s start with the one of respect. In any relationship, we can get asked a task that we otherwise judge as beneath us. But because of mutual respect and when the request is sincere, we can choose to perform this task or service. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us that if it is good for the community, then it is also good for us.
“And with that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 10.6
What are the motives?
There are times when we are asked to do certain things or wish to be part of a group when we shouldn’t do so. If it is to do something for others to gain power over us, then this is a sign. It shows us that this is an individual stepping out of the whole with ulterior motives. Or if we are chasing some type of status or fame, which requires us to perform certain actions we don’t feel comfortable with. These go against our nature and that’s impossible for a part of Nature. It is then up to us to decide what is more important. To fall in favor of these factors that wish to control us, or to stand up for ourselves and remain true to who we are.
We can see how Agrippinus answered Florus when he asked him to go and play a part in Nero’s show. Agrippinus told Florus to go because he was considering it. On why Agrippinus didn’t wish to go, he replied that he wasn’t even thinking about it. Epictetus continues on Agrippinus’ reasoning:
“For as soon as a person even considers such questions, comparing and calculating the values of external things, he draws close to those who have lost all sense of their proper character.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 2.12
Can we say ‘no’?
Sometimes when we already know the answer to certain questions, but yet we consider them because of external factors. It is in these moments that we need to be clear about who we are and what value our character has.
This is easier said than done. But one word can help us improve on this aspect. That word is ‘no’. When we learn to see ‘no’ as an option, a new world will open up for us. Some are better at it than others, but what we need to understand is that there is no problem with saying ‘no’. If we respect our character, then we need to know what to assent to and what not. Besides this, ‘no’ is a clear answer. It will tell the opposite party what the situation is and they can then take the necessary action.
It is our fear of letting people down and the possibility of them abandoning us that makes ‘no’ so scary. Yet, this will not only lead us to knowing ourselves better, but it will also show the community who we are. Clear communication is important in a community. As said before, if it is part of our duty, then our reasoning faculty will show us that complying is the best option. There is then in fact no choice between yes or no, but between doing what is moral. Which is to follow one’s nature and Virtue.
How far do we go?
The question of this topic touches on the preferred indifferences. Which sets Stoicism apart from the Cynics, for whom Virtue is the only good. The Stoics agree, but add that there are certain things we prefer. As Epictetus continues in this chapter, he asks whether death or life is preferred, or pain or pleasure. We prefer life and pleasure, but only if we can remain virtuous and act in accordance with Nature. To go back to the earlier example of Florus who went to act in Nero’s show, he said that it was either to act or off with his head. He chose to play and stay alive but forfeited his character.
In an opposite example, Emperor Vespasian asked a Helvidius Priscus not to attend the Senate. The emperor knew that he would have to ask his senator for his opinion. He also knew that Helvidius Priscus would answer with the truth, something Vespasian couldn’t allow. He would have to sentence him to death if he did so. Helvidius Priscus chose to play his part because it was the moral thing to do as a Senator and went to the Senate with his character intact.
Helvidius told Vespasian:
“You will do your part, and I mine: It is yours to kill, and mine to die without trembling.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book one, Chapter 2.19
The rational creature
Nowadays our choices don’t tend to have such drastic possible outcomes as death. However, we can find ourselves in situations where we have to decide between something we prefer and something that goes against our moral duty. I wished I could say I was brave enough that I always picked the virtuous choice, but I can’t. That’s why this topic is an important part of my journey to becoming a better person. This is a personal matter to examine as only we know what it means to respect our character and to remain true to it. The choices vary but we should remain steadfast in that equation and answer it with sincerity and honesty. We do have a tool to help us, our reasoning power.
Arrian starts this discourse where we will end ours, with an examination of the rational creature.
“To a rational creature, only what is contrary to reason is unendurable: but everything rational he can endure.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book one, Chapter 2.1
The irrational is what disturbs us, it causes us anxiety and stress. This can be felt when we have to consider the irrational. We are torn between what we know is right and with our desires and wants or with that which we wish to avoid. But if we are able to look at the present situation with objective eyes, we can see what the right decision is. It doesn’t help us that everyone makes different decisions. Nor knowing that no one does wrong willingly. It’s a matter of ignorance that people go against Nature and the community. That’s why, in this discourse, Epictetus stresses the importance of education. Which is a task that falls upon us all. Instead of judging people’s decisions, it is our duty to correct them or at least show them the right example.
The foundation for one’s character
The foundation to respecting one’s character, starts with knowing ourselves and our place in society. We can aim at being as good as Socrates or Marcus Aurelius, but that might not be possible. We are who we are and we do have it ourselves to improve on the areas in life which lack Virtue. A reminder to myself about why I started writing these posts. These are all my lessons and homework to keep myself sharp in bettering myself. I’ve taken on the journey and I hope you will too. Please also read the discourse that inspired this writing, as Arrian wrote the lessons from Epictetus in The Discourses, book one, chapter 2