Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 10
What we should devote our time to is an important question. Our time is precious and we need to aim it at the proper goal Is there a difference between how we spend our time when we are young and when we get older? This discourse of Epictetus gives us a quick look into how we should devote our time. Moreover, it gives us an accurate depiction of how we tend to spend it even now, some two thousand years after Arrian took these notes. The reflection on this discourse will go over Epictetus’s teachings and add some personal experiences to it as well.
The title in my edition of book 1.10 is To Those Who Have Devoted Their Efforts to Advancement At Rome. When we bring that back to our modern day, Rome stands for the entire world. It shows our ambitions to climb the corporate ladder and reach the next level in society. Here we will explore what devoting all our time and energy to these goals means. This discourse is another great reminder that the lessons by Epictetus still ring true in our present day.
“If we had applied ourselves as heartily to our own work as the old men at Rome do to their schemes, perhaps we too might have achieved something.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 10.1
An accusation of laziness
There is a lot to unpack in the first sentence given to us by Epictetus. It feels like an accusation of laziness and slacking on our duty. Not only to us but to himself as well. This is interesting as it tells us that he sets the bar high for himself to keep making progress. But on the other hand, it displays some kind of reverence to those who devote so much of their time and effort to advancements in Rome. They know what their goal is and work towards it with all that they’ve got. What if we did the same and applied ourselves in such a manner to our own disposition? The only difference required is setting the right goal. Which one we will come back to later in the article.
It is necessary to reflect on the energy and time we spend doing a job for others. Or for objectives that don’t add a lot to our lives. They can add to our fulfillment of things, but not to our intrinsic improvement of who we are. That’s where Epictetus tries to guide us and he uses an example of a former government employee who was exiled. They had a brief conversation where this person told the philosopher that he wouldn’t go back to his previous life. However, he had not even arrived in Rome or he was already back in his old ways. That is something that happens to us as well. For whatever reason, we tend to fall back into what we’ve known for so long.
Career or Virtue
Then we see the comparison and the question we’ve been waiting for.
“Is there any similarity, then, between receiving and reading a little petition from somebody such as this: ‘I beg you to allow me to export a little corn’; and this, ‘I beg you to learn from Chrysippus what the administration of the universe is, and what place a rational creature holds in it; and learn, too, who you are, and where your good and evil lies.’”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 10.10
What is the greater good we should devote our time to? One clue we can get is from the detailed description of the second part of this comparison. We see the reference to Chrysippus and a short summary of the major tenets of Stoicism. Furthermore, Epictetus asks us:
“Are these things alike? Do they require an equal degree of application? And is it shameful to neglect the one as the other?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 10.11-12
We cannot say that these two are the same. Our place in the universe, who we are, and what our good and evil aspects are, are serious explorations. They require our attention at all times. While the petitions from our work or office are on a different level. They still require our attention and we should perform our duty as well as we can. But the main efforts lie in being a virtuous person. That’s what philosophy aims at and what we should hold as our main objectives.
What decisions do we make?
How does that translate into what we do now and the decisions we make? At the end of the day, we do have jobs to do and money to make. At least in the current society we live in. But we do get to decide how we do this. It doesn’t always seem this way, but we do have this choice to a certain extent. Unfortunately, it is usually the externals we chase that determine more and more for us. They hold us in our grip. Yet, the more we work on our own character, the more we will see that we don’t need all the things we now covet.
Devoting our time to improving ourselves and learning to live more virtuously will pay off in many ways. This doesn’t mean that it is an easy journey. It will require us to make some difficult decisions. And some can seem to go against the conventional way of living. But if we look at it through the eyes of the Stoics, then this is the only way. Let us learn from them and assume the energy and devotion with which they live their philosophy.
Devote your time to right action
“For, indeed, we old men, when we see young ones at play, are keen to join in that play ourselves. Far more so, then, if I saw them wide awake and keen to join us in our studies, should I be eager myself to join with them in serious work.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 10.13
The last step is to act. To see those around us and to apply the lessons. We can find the inspiration we need all around us from those who live it. Epictetus mentions the young ones here. We can use their energy and enthusiasm to get to work. But we should also make sure that they make the right decisions. As their teachers, it is our duty to make sure that the time they have, they devote to the improvement of their character. To learn the lessons from the ancients, as those we’ve seen from Chrysippus earlier. Not only by instruction but most importantly by example. Choose what you spent your time on, and make sure it is aimed at what matters most: your soul.