Enchiridion of Epictetus – Chapter 12

In Education, Enchiridion of Epictetus, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

If you want to make progress, drop reflections like: “I will end up destitute if I don’t take better care of my affairs,” or, “Unless I discipline my slave, he’ll wind up good for nothing.” It is better to die of hunger free of grief and apprehension than to live affluent and uneasy. Better that your slave should be bad than that you should be unhappy. For that reason, starting with things of little value – bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine, repeat to yourself: “For such a small price I buy tranquillity and peace of mind.” But nothing is completely free. So when you call your slave, be prepared for the possibility that he might ignore you, or if he does answer, that he won’t do what he’s told. He is not worth entrusting with your peace of mind.

For me, this is one of the most important chapter in the entire Enchiridion. It deals with one of the core aspects of Stoicism: gaining tranquility. In other words, how to live a life that is devoid of negative emotions.

I mentioned back in my analysis of Chapter 4, small things are not worth sweating over, and the wiser we become, the more we will understand that even the big things are not worth sweating over.

In this chapter Epictetus gives us a really simple approach to being to stop worrying about things, and also a great reason why we should stop.

Think about it, how much would most people pay to achieve tranquility. People take on careers they don’t really enjoy, to earn enough money to eventually be able to retire to a tranquil life. We can actually achieve tranquility without too much effort, but it’s more about changing ourselves than changing the outside world.

Here is a great joke that sums up the strange way that many of us live:

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.
The American complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The fisherman replied that it only took a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor.”
The American scoffed. “I am a Wharton MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution.
You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then L.A., and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “Fifteen or 20 years.”
“But what then?”
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”
“Millions? Then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”

Apart from the fact that’s it is genuinely funny, this joke (or should that be parable?) is very interesting precisely because it hit a raw nerve in the back of the minds of anyone who lives and works in the Rat Race. Clearly it also has holes in it, as subsistence farming can be a really tough existence.

To gain tranquility, we do all the things that move us away from being tranquil. We get ourselves stressed out, we don’t spend enough time with the people we like and love, we stop appreciating the simple things, just to spend the majority of our time chasing the almighty dollar.

Now I think money, like many things in life, is indifferent. I’m currently fairly well for a young man, and so I can’t complain, but if things were to go pear shaped in my life and my income was to dramatically drop, I think I would simply carry on. Sure, I’d have to move out of my fancy apartment, stop eating in fancy places, and probably walk more and take less taxis. And I know as a fact that I would be just as happy, and perhaps even happier, than I am now, because that is exactly how I lived two years ago, and I don’t remember being particularly upset about it.

The best way to approach luxuries in life is to be indifferent to them, to the point of being somewhat hostile to them, and always keeping in the back of our minds the though that all this stuff could disappear overnight.

It is better to die of hunger free of grief and apprehension than to live affluent and uneasy.

So getting back on point, if we want to gain tranquility, the approach given in this chapter is a great start. By using small things as test to keep our calm, we can being to develop the virtues that will enable us later in life to deal with bigger problems.

It’s actually pretty damn obvious. If you can’t respond calmly to a glass being broken, what chance do you have with more serious challenges like losing your job, or going bankrupt, or having a fire render your home and all your possessions to ashes?

So actively start catching yourself complaining or getting worked up over the small things, the spilled oil, the stolen wine, and repeat these wise words from Epictetus:

For such a small price I buy tranquillity and peace of mind.

Because it is a much cheaper price to pay for tranquillity than to hope that you’ll be able to achieve tranquility later in life when you retire.

Ricardo Semler, in his awesome TED Talk, discussed how it is a much better strategy to take mini retirements throughout our lives, like every Wednesday!

Additionally, if we consider all the challenges of old age, such as declining physical health, the loss of loved ones, alienation with society, it can be a difficult time to start practicing tranquility. If you’ve got twenty or thirty or forty years of practice, then this stuff will be dead easy for you to handle.