Saturday, December 31, 2005

Be a good actor

Just as a good actor must perform admirably [ kalos] whatever role the playwright assigns him, so too must a good man must perform whatever fortune assigns. For fortune is like a poetess, say Bion, sometimes assigning a leading role and sometimes a supporting role, sometimes the role of a king and sometimes that of a beggar. Do not, then, desire the leading role, when you are a supporting actor. Otherwise you will be creating discord.

Those of you familiar with the Encheiridion may think I have found the source passage for Encheiridion 17 ( “Remember you are only an actor…”). But in fact these remarks belong to Bion of Borysthenes, a very colorful character and sometimes follower of Crates the Cynic. They were quoted mid-3rd century BCE by Teles, whom Stobaeus excerpts. Thus the passage I quote antedates Arrian’s composition by at least 350 years.

I introduce Bion and Teles here because I wish to point out again how strongly Epictetus was influenced by the Cynics. The lives of Diogenes and Crates were a kind of moral ideal to which Epictetus aspired, as we’ve seen. It is no accident that Encheiridion 17 sounds like Bion. Indeed, as we will see, at least two other chapters of the Encheiridion ( 5, 43) could be easily thought to be lifted from the very same text of Bion and Teles. I am not of course saying Arrian was reading Teles and Bion, but the striking similiarities show how imbued Epictetus was with the ideas and ideals of Cynic forebearers.

A little later in the same passage we just quoted Bion imagines himself in a conversation with Poverty personified. To his complaints she replies,

Why do you fight against me? You aren’t being deprived of anything good because of me, are you? Not of wisdom or of justice or of courage? And neither are you wanting necessities, are you?...

If Poverty were to speak thus to you, how would you reply? As for me, I think I would be silent. Indeed, we blame everything but our own difficult character and unhappiness. We blame old age, poverty, an accidental meeting, the day, the hour, the place… Truly, many misguided men lay the blame [ for their unhappiness ], not on themselves, but upon their circumstances.

Bion expands upon the point.

Just as in the seizing of wild beasts you are liable to be bitten: if, for example, you grab a snake in the middle, you’ll be bitten, but if you grab it by the neck, you will suffer no harm, so too with circumstances. If you grab them with a false assumption [ hypolesin ], you will be distressed, but if you have the same grasp of then as Socrates, you will not be distressed. But in any other fashion, you will suffer, not at the hands of circumstances [pragmata], but because of your own character and your false beliefs.

Reading this passage we cannot but recall Encheiridion 5: “ It is not the pragmata distress men, but their beliefs about the.” And remember the metaphor of Encheiridion 43 that says everything may be taken hold of by two handles, the right handle and the wrong handle?

The most important part of the passage from Bion and Teles comes next. It gives us an argument that I think also lies at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy. From the fact that it is our beliefs about our circumstances, not our circumstances, that control our emotions, the Cynics make this deduction.

Therefore we should not try to change our circumstances, but prepare ourselves for them as they are, just as sailors do. For they do not try to change the wind and the sea, but instead prepare themselves to be able to cope with them. If there is fair weather and a calm sea, they row. If there is wind, they hoist sail. If the wind blows against them, they furl sail and give way. And so you too, in your present situation, should use it appropriately. If you have become old, do not seek the things of a young man. If you have weak, do not seek to carry the burden of a strong man…And if poor, do not seek the wealthy man’s life.

Before I comment upon this argument for acceptance ( shall we call it), I think I will you a chance to reflect upon its mix of analogies and assumptions. Acceptance of our lot, as I discussed in our last post, is at the core of Epictetus’ philosophy. Here is an argument for that view that at least is unburdened by Stoic cosmolgy.

( I take my text of Bion/Teles in Stobaeus from Ed O'Neil's 1977 minor edition, which mostly follows Hense. In O'Neil, the reference is "On Self-sufficiency ", 1-85. Hense, rev. ed., pp 5-12 )


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