Saturday, November 05, 2005

Discourses III. 15

“ Do not act like a child—playing at being a philosopher today, a taxman tomorrow, then a rhetorician, then a judge. These roles do not go together. In the end you must be just one person, either good or bad. You must labor to improve either the part of your mind that directs you or your externals. You must work hard on either the inner man or external things. You must play the role of the philosopher or of the ordinary man.”

Elsewhere Epictetus invokes the striking image of the Janus, asking us how it is possible to make progress trying to face in two directions at the same time. Either we must focus on and attend solely to externals, or we must give our full attention to our inner life. It is impossible to do both. This theme is pervasive in the Discourses.

One problem is that this kind of either/or extremism seems to fly directly in the face of our experience of life. Happiness, many would argue, lies precisely in neglecting neither our external situation nor our inner life, and in making tandem progress in both areas. What could we say to Epictetus to persuade him that our inner and outer lives are not separate mutually exclusive devotions?


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