Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Cause Of All Our Troubles

And so remember that if you wrongly consider the things which are by nature slavish to be free and consider what belongs to others to be your own, you will be hampered, you will grieve, you will be troubled, you will cast blame upon gods and men alike.  But if you consider the things which actually belong to you to be your own, and consider what belongs to another  to in fact belong to another, nobody will ever be able to compel you in anything, nobody will hinder you, you will never cast blame upon anybody or bring a charge against anybody, you will not do a single thing ever against your will, and you will have no enemy.  Nobody will be able to harm you, for neither is there any harm you can suffer. 

                                         - Encheiridion 1

     Epictetus here explains the cause of our grief, our troubles, our blame-casting (or, better said, blame-shifting).  He explains why we are sometimes hindered in our own purposes and do things against our will, why we think we have enemies other than our own selves, why we imagine that we have been harmed by others, or harmed by anything at all.   The cause of all this, he would say, is that we are confused regarding what belongs to us and what does not. 
     Most circumstances are not our own; they are ruled by forces outside of ourselves.  Epictetus, a former slave who understood slavery all too well, calls our life circumstances naturally "slavish".  Thus, our liberty cannot lie in our external circumstances, but in our reactions to them, and this is the one realm in which we are always able to exercise complete freedom. 
     No doubt many would raise objections.  "But a thief stole from me!"  No, he took something that was not truly your own to begin with. Circumstance allowed you to have it, and now circumstance has taken it away. "But somebody flew into a rage and insulted me without cause."  And he harms himself, not you, by his own Vice.  "But I'm going to die before my time."  When did God ever promise you a long life?  Take care, lest in addition to dying young, you also speak impiously or blasphemously!  "But a storm destroyed my house!"  Oh! You wish to control the weather now? 
     If these above examples are too harsh, then we need only to think of the hundreds of thousands who are troubled by the traffic when they want to get home five minutes earlier or grieved at the rain when they had planned a sunny day picnic.  The streets and the sunshine are not theirs, but they behave as though they were.