March 27, 2013

Epictetus being pleasant

'While you are kissing your child', Epictetus once said, 'murmur under your breath, tomorrow it may be dead.' 'Ominous words' they told him. 'Not at all' he said 'but only signifying an act of nature. Would it be ominous to speak of the gathering of the ripe corn'.

This comes from Marcus Aurelius's meditations but its a fascinating vignette about Epictetus. I think it demonstrates something about the ancient world: after all his advice was much more practical in the days when infant mortality and young child mortality were much higher. In one of Chinua Achebe's novels about Nigeria the young Nigerian is not reckoned a full human until they have passed 12, before then they might easily die and I think Epictetus is making a similar point. Whereas Achebe's characters think religiously though, Epictetus is using a philosophical comparison to nature- and perhaps this comparison allows us to explain a bit more of the psychology behind Stoicism. Its a theory of acceptance of the world- elsewhere in the Meditations, Aurelius says that the fool experiences the world through sensation, the wise man through action- note he doesn't say that the wise man experiences the world through thinking. What's going on here is a theory of acceptance.