Epictetus part 29: Rewards and Sacrifices

Do you want to be an athlete? Or a leader? Do you wish you were a popstar or a famous actor? Do you want to become a philosopher? Whatever you want: think carefully about what it takes to get there and what benefits it will give. Think about the sacrifices and about the rewards. This is the main message of paragraph 29 of the Encheiridion. This is one of the longest paragraphs of Epictetus’ Handbook and almost a literal transcription of one of his discourses (3.15). Because it is longer, Epictetus had the opportunity to present vivid images and elaborate examples. But the core message is this: before you do something, consider what it takes to do it and what benefits it brings.

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For each action, look at what preceeds it and what results from it, and in that way proceed to the action itself. If you don’t do this, then you will first come to it eagerly, without even thinking about what follows, but later, when difficulties show up, you will give up in shame because of them. You want to win the Olympic Games? By God, me too, because it is wonderful. But look at what preceeds it and what results from it, and in that way take on the action. You must have discipline, eat by a diet, stay away from sweets, exercise when required, at designated times, in burning heat and in cold; you must not drink cold water, nor wine carelessly; you must plainly hand over yourself to your trainer as you do to your physician, and then compete in the games. And sometimes you will strain your arm, twist your ankle and eat dust. Sometimes you will be flogged and after all this, be defeated. If you considere this, and still want it, then compete in the games.

This is not a happy, positive image. It does not represent the dream of being an Olympic athlete that some people have. In a true Stoic fashion, it keeps our feet on the ground. It sketches the hardships an athlete has to endure before he may or may not claim a victory. It is not at all easy, but in fact very difficult. And most important: it requires continuous commitment.

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If you don’t consider this, then you behave like children, who now play as a wrestler, then as a gladiator, afterwards as a musician and at another time as an actor: so you will also be an athlete now, and then a gladiator, next a public speaker, then a philosopher, but in your life as a whole nothing at all. But like a monkey, you imitate every image that you see, and one after another amuses you. For you have not done anything with consideration and diligence, but carelessly and with cold commitment. In this way, some people who have seen a philosopher and heard somebody speak like Euphrates – and indeed, who can speak as he does? – want to be philosophers themselves as well.

What is true for the path of an athlete, is also true for that of a philosopher (although the precise training and sacrifices are of course different). If you want to be a philosopher, prepare to be ridiculed. Prepare to detach yourself from possessions and relationships. And commit yourself unconditionally. If you are willing to do that, then you can follow the path of a philosopher. If not: then try something else.

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Man, first look at what kind of action it is. And then examine your own nature: if you can endure it. Do you wish to be a pentathlete or a wrestler? See and examine your arms, your thighs and your loins. Because different people are built for different things. Do you think you can do these things while eating the same and drinking the same, while yearning for the same things and rejecting the same things? You must sleep little and work hard, go away from home, be scorned by a slave and by ridiculed by all. You must be inferior in everything: in honour, in power, in rights, in every little matter. Consider these things: if you want to exchange for them freedom from passions, liberty and tranquility. If you don’t want to, don’t move forwards. Don’t be like children, now a philosopher, then a farmer, later a public speaker and then an imperial governor. These things are not consistent. You must be one person, either good or bad. You must either work at your mind or at external things, and train what is inside or what is outside: you must either hold the position of a philosopher or of a layman.

So: are you a child that changes from character at every moment, or are you a man or woman with a steady character and a strong mind? Do you desire fun and variety or do you work towards a clear and noble goal? Are you more like a child, a layman or a monkey, or are you an educated person, prepared to give up some things to reach what is really important: happiness, tranquility and meaning. Choose your path wisely and consider what it takes to follow it. To reach great heights, you must climb steep paths. Following a Stoic Journey takes sacrificies, but can give great rewards.

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday. Be sure you don’t miss any of them by subscribing here. Thanks!

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