Saturday, December 03, 2005

You can be invincible if you do not enter any contest in
which victory is not up to you
. [ Encheiridion 19 ]

Epictetus says this several times, referring of course to our struggle to live virtuously, in control of our judgments and desires and choices. You can be undefeated in this arena because these things, and these things alone, are in your hands.
Perhaps, but isn’t our experience that externals are sometimes much easier to master than inner virtues? Aren’t fitness and money and respect easier to claim than a reliable self-discipline & self-control, much less tranquility? It seems to me that I at least have a poor record in the contests for virtue I’ve entered. Maybe I’m 18-30-10, not exactly a contender. My record with externals is quite a bit better.
You can say of any new fighter that he can go undefeated, but name me a champion who did. In the struggle to master some virtues I do not see that victory is “up to us” in any meaningful sense. Will I become courageous enough to face the terrible things I will experience on the battlefield? Maybe and maybe not. If you begin to think "I am courageous enough to face anything ", the world will test you and you will probably not like the result.


Blogger Henry Jones said...

This, I feel, is a complete misreading of Epictetus. My understanding is that the contest he is referring to is the usual run of the mill, everyday business, of winning a contract, getting a book accepted at a publisher, defeating the plans for a motorway to run across the bottom of your back yard ... things like that.

I don't think he views the attainment of virtue as a contest. With whom would one be in competition? Virtue can be attained by simply making the correct evaluative judgements of things, and striving for what is appropriate. The non-Stoic may well get upset at losing the contract. They may even resort to underhand dealings in order to beat the other guy. That is to act viciously, and to fall into the pathê, and lose one's good flow of life.

The Stoic does not get upset, and they certainly do not resort to vice. They act with reservation, contracting with themselves that they will succeed if nothing intervenes. They value the manner of their conduct, not the outcome that their conduct produces. If their project fails, they know that they themselves have not failed.

3:41 PM  

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