Epictetus part 7: Prepare to leave all behind

Note: this is the seventh part of a weekly series, in which I translate and discuss the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus. New posts will be released every monday morning (GMT).


In the end, we have to leave everything and everyone behind. If we die, we lose everything. At least, that is how most people may experience it. As stoics, we have learned that we don’t really possess anything in our lives and, subsequently, can’t really lose anything in our death. Epictetus uses a comparison with an anchored ship to make this clear:

On a voyage, when the ship is anchored, if you go on shore to get water, you may gather a small shellfish or cuttlefish along the way as a side issue for yourself, but your thoughts must be directed at the ship and you must be constantly watchful if not the captain calls. And if he calls, leave all of it behind, so you won’t be thrown into the ship bound like cattle.

He explicitely calls the fish you gather along the way a side issue: gathering fish is not the main purpose of your journey. Furthermore, it is obvious that your trip on land is a symbol for life, that the ship in the sea is whatever happens before or after our lives, and that the captain is a higher power (God, Nature of Fate) that governs our lives. Rather than being “thrown into the ship bound like cattle”, we should accept our fate, accept our moment of death, and face it with dignity. Epictetus continues to complete the comparison:

It is the same in life: if instead of a small shellfish and cuttlefish, you are given a wife and child, there is nothing against that. But if the captain calls, rush towards the ship and leave all behind without looking back. And if you are old, don’t even go far from the ship, so you won’t default when you are called.

Note that there is nothing wrong with having a wife and child. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with having possessions, power or wealth. This is where stoics disagree with cynics, who state that we should reject all wordly possessions. However, we should always be prepared to leave all behind. This has its roots in the notion that we do not control our property. Everything we use is loaned to us and nothing is truly ours. If only we remember this, then we can give back everything at the end of our lives and accept our death without being disturbed.

3 thoughts on “Epictetus part 7: Prepare to leave all behind

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