Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Am I suited to the calling of an itinerant Cynic?

I think it was one of the disappointments of Epictetus’ life that he did not consider himself fit for the itinerant, ascetic life of a Cynic preacher. The Cynic was supposed to be a kind of living, walking advertisement for the Stoic-Cynic ideal of a virtuous & happy life independent of the “slavery” of all material possessions and conventional roles in society.
That Epictetus thought a Cynic’s calling one of the noblest is evident from his fulsome [sic] praise of that life in passages such as Discourses III. 22. As you read through that long essay, think about why Epictetus considered himself disqualified from that "heroic" calling and settled for the life of a schoolmaster.

I speculate that one of the key considerations was Epictetus’ lameness. The Cynic, he confesses ( 86-89), has need of a body that radiates health & fitness. If he presents as someone struggling with physical problems, his body belies his claim that his lifestyle is healthy & robust. We pity consumptives and emaciated beggars rather than seek to imitate them.
It is interesting that Epictetus concedes that an external like a healthy & fit body is a requirement for the Cynic’s role. Suppose I find myself attracted to the Cynic’s calling, but I am not naturally a picture of robust health & fitness. Yet with a proper diet and training and rigorous exercise I can build myself up and present well. Should I not then earnestly pursue those externals , even though they are not, strictly speaking, something in my power? And is it really in the lap of the gods or chance whether I shall become healthy & very fit?

"But you may fail to achieve health & fitness despite your best efforts, and then you will be frustrated and unhappy." Indeed I may. Any useful role that I wish to assume in society seems to require that I acquire & master externals, and doing so is always a perilous and uncertain course. But what is the alternative? if I wish to fulfill some role in society, how can I avoid pursuing the externals that are requisite? Even the wandering Cynic needs a healthy body.


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