“Don’t pride yourself on any assets but your own. We could put up with a horse if it bragged of its beauty. But don’t you see that when you boast of having a beautiful horse, you are taking credit for the horse’s traits? What quality belongs to you? The intelligent use of impressions. If you use impressions as nature prescribes, go ahead and indulge your pride, because then you will be celebrating a quality distinctly your own.”
As with most of Epictetus’s writings, this chapter of the Enchiridion deals with what we can and cannot control. I’ve dealt with this topic before in detail, but this chapter takes a distinct approach in that it deals with pride.
When we start to think about, what should we be proud of?
- How of much money we have in the bank?
- How recognised we are amongst our community?
- In how many people work underneath us?
- In our physical appearance?
Well, considering the way most people think, the answer would be yes, you should be proud of those above points and more.
I can’t blame this type of thinking, if you happen to work hard and you also happen to make a large paycheck each month, perhaps you should be proud. If you workout at the gym everyday and after a couple of years you’ve got killer abs, well, why shouldn’t you be proud of that?
So was Epictetus being too severe? Are his teachings perhaps too old fashioned? After all, this is advice from over two thousand years ago, the world must have been a very different place back then.
Or perhaps, human nature hasn’t changed much in two thousand years and he is spot on.
The first sentence of this paragraph, “Don’t pride yourself on any assets but your own” is, in my opinion, advice that is as useful today as it was back in the day.
Using everyman’s logic, one’s money is an asset that you own, and so surely you can be proud of the size of your bank account. Also, if you’re a big shot in a large corporation, that is also something to be proud about because the job title is yours.
Epictetus would see it rather differently. He would say that the only assets that we truly own are the ones that cannot be taken away from us, except via death. So that money in the bank account that you “own” may well be frozen by government, or the bank may collapse, or you may face a huge lawsuit which quickly removes you of that economic wealth.
In the same way that your money may disappear from one day to the next, your job is also not secure. Companies go bust everyday.
So Epictetus would tell us not to be proud of those things, because they are not truly our own assets.
So the follow question quickly arises, what assets do we own?
The intelligent use of impressions.
Think about it, nobody can take that away from you. Nobody can force you to think about something in a way that you don’t deeply want to. Of course, most people don’t use their power of impression, often called reason, intelligently, and that is why they are susceptible to advertising, political trickery and can generally be easily fooled.
But hold on a second, surely we own our bodies! So perhaps we should be proud of our physical appearance, if we deem ourselves to be “beautiful” by the standards of the society we live in. There are a couple of problems with this logical step:
1. Different societies have different standards of beauty.
This became really apparent when I moved to Asia last year. In many countries in Asia being pale is regarded an attractive quality, which is exactly the opposite of Europe and America, where many people strive to have the perfect tan. This may have something to do with the fact that if you are dark, it may symbolize that you worked long hours in the rice fields and so are of a “good class”.
A more extreme example of different standards of beauty is Africa. There in many communities you are attractive if you carry a lot of extra weight, something which is the exact polar opposite of most of the rest of the world. Again, this has a class element, if you are overweight, this meant that you had enough money to buy more food than you actually needed.
Let’s not even get started on the ridiculous standards of beauty that the media, all over the world, upholds nowadays but the point is this, you will never look like a magazine cover model, because even they don’t look like that.
2. You are you, you are not your body.
If I were to cut off your finger, would you still be you? Of course.
What about if I removed your hand? Or a leg? Or your eyes?
The experience would of course change you, but you would fundamentally be the same person, thinking the same thoughts. If you lost a hand, you might gain a greater appreciation for your other hand but you wouldn’t lose the ability to feel compassion, or anger, or fear, or regret, or happiness, etc etc.
The two above points lead to some fairly interesting conclusions, such as the fact that we shouldn’t judge someone by the way they look, but by the way they act. Now I am as guilty of not doing this as anyone. Whenever I see a grossly obese person walking down the street, I immediately have negative thoughts about them. There is quite a large pinch of irony here, considering that only a few short years ago I was that fat person walking down the street. Yet, for some reason, that doesn’t seem to stop me from judging. It’s almost as if leaving the club gives one the right to persecute the people still in it.
It’s not all bad, I do try and remind myself that I do not know that person walking down the street. I don’t know their past, I don’t know their problems, and I don’t know what they have achieved. On top of that, I don’t know where they are headed in their lives, which is perhaps the most important consideration of all. We should care where people are right now in their lives, only where they are heading.
How to be proud.
So, getting back on track, I don’t think we should have anywhere near as much as pride in the way we look as in the way we think and act, and that’s the main point of the sixth chapter of Epictetus. Celebrate qualities that are distinctly your own, be fiercely proud of them.
So don’t be proud of your horse: of your bank account, of your job, of your body. Be proud of the mental strength and tenacity required to achieve these things. But we can actually take it a step further, if we realise that these things are actually relatively unimportant in life, especially compared to thinking and acting in the correct manner.
So what you should really be proud of is this: behaving in a virtuous manner, and if you managed to achieve riches instead of poverty, health instead of illness, then give yourself an inner smile, but keep it all under the hat.