Epictetus part 32: Looking into the Future

We all wish to know what the future holds for us, right? And sometimes, people believe they can predict the future. For ages, men have visited oracles, fortune-tellers, prophets and diviners for advice and a glimpse of their fortune or misfortune. Aside from the question whether they can actually predict the future, Epictetus teaches us how we should deal with fortune-telling. For modern readers, this paragraph of the Enchiridion might be a bit strange, especially if you don’t believe in fortune-telling (like me). But even if you don’t believe in it, there are still some valuable lessons.

Epictetus seemingly shared the popular opinion of his time and shows no doubt about oracles and fortune-tellers. He starts as follows:

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If you resort to fortune-telling, remember that you do not know how it will turn out, but that you have come to learn that from the fortune-teller. But you arrive while already knowing of what kind it is, if you are indeed a philosopher. Because if it is any of the things that are not in our power, it must certainly be neither good nor bad. So do not bring desire or aversion to the fortune-teller and do not approach him with fear, but recognize that every result is indifferent and is nothing to you, whatever it may be, for it is up to you to use it well and it will hinder no one.

The first sentence is useful for asking and receiving advice in general. If you have already made up your mind, asking advice is useless, and sometimes even degrading to the adviser. On those occasions that you ask for advice – which is usually the smart thing to do – commit yourself at least to listening to your adviser. Epictetus also reminds us that it doesn’t really matter what happens in the future: it is our reaction to it that matters. As he says in paragraph 18: “For me, everything is marked as a good omen, if only I want it”. The future may be fixed, but it is up to you what to do with it.

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Then go with confidence to the Gods as advisers: and afterwards, when any advice has been given to you, remember who you have taken as your adviser and who you disobey if you do not listen.

Epictetus reaffirms the authority of the Gods. Again, this goes for any adviser: if you trust his or her judgement, consider acting on the advice given. And if you don’t, you must be sure that your own judgement is better than your adviser’s. It is only useful to seek advice from a source that you trust. This does not mean that you should always do what your adviser tells you:

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Go to fortune-telling as Socrates thought you should, for the things of which the entire inquiry can be brought back to the outcome and not to reason or any other skill to expose the origin of the inquiry. So, whenever it is required that you share the danger to your friend or to your country, do not ask a fortune-teller if you should share the danger. For even if a fortune-teller tells you that the omens from the sacrifice are bad, and it is clear that he predicts death, or mutilation of some body part, or exile: still reason commands that you stand together with them and share the danger to your friend or country. Accordingly, consider the great Oracle of Delphi, who cast the man out of his temple that did not come to the aid of his friend when he was being murdered.

Ask yourself if the decision you wish to make requires outside counsel. If you want an assessment of risks and rewards, feel free to seek help. But the ultimate decision to act or not to act must not depend on this assessment. It must depend on moral reasoning. Take the risks into account, but do not put them first. Your duty to your friends, country, and fellow men is most important, even if your body is sure to get hurt or mutilated. We should not be persuaded by danger to our body or property, which we don’t control, but should act based on our moral character. To be hurt is indifferent, to be good is a choice we should always make.

This article is part of the Epictetus series. Be sure you don’t miss any new articles by subscribing here. Thanks!

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