If you are a sailor on board a ship that makes port, you may decide to go ashore to bring back water. Along the way you may stop to collect shellfish, or pick greens. But you always have to remember the ship and listen for the captain’s signal to return. When he calls, you have to drop everything, otherwise you could be bound and thrown on board like the livestock. So it is in life. If, instead of greens and shellfish, you have taken on a wife and child, so much the better. But when the captain calls, you must be prepared to leave them behind, and not give them another thought. If you are advanced in years, don’t wander too far, or you won’t make it back in time when the summons reaches you.
For me this is one of the hardest chapters of the Enchiridion to fully understand. The principal message is quite clear, but the implications of accepting this message are not.
Essentially Epictetus is telling us not to be too attached to the things we collect in life, whether it’s greens and shellfish, or a wife and child, because inevitably we will have to leave it all behind one day.
A really interesting point to note is that in the first paragraph there is no mention of the possibility of the ship leaving without you. Instead, if you don’t listen for the captain’s return signal, you will be forced to get on the ship regardless. The ship is clearly representing death, and death leaves no one behind. One may be able to temporarily evade the captain’s call, but the inevitable will always happen.
On first reading the advice to prepare to leave your wife and child behind seem almost cruel and heartless, but when it is viewed through the prism of life and death, it is actually quite sound advice. Note that Epictetus is not telling us to leave them behind, but to prepare, just in case the captain calls because your ship is ready to sail. Considering the fact that whether you leave or not is not your choice, preparing to lose everything is in fact the smart thing to do.
The last sentence of this chapter is still somewhat cryptic to me. Obviously you are statistically far more likely to die in the near future if you are “advanced in years” than if you are a healthy 23 year old, but I wonder if somebody who is old, should live like they are old and expect to die reasonably soon. This could mean living a quiet life, without taking too many new things on, without wandering too far.
Is this the right way to live for a older person? Or will this way of living just waste those few precious remaining years. It’s a difficult balance. If you’re seventy five, you could conceivably live another twenty five plus years if you’re in good health. That’s about the length of my life so far.
It seems absurd to me to live twenty five years of one’s life not going to far because one is afraid that one is going to suddenly be gone. After all, we know it’s going to happen anyway, so we might as well try and get the things we want to do done, and then if death interrupts us half way through, then that’s just the way dice rolled. Anyway, you won’t be around to complain.
Seneca expressed a great way to live in his “Letter on Old Age“:
“…if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.”
I think this mindset is great not just for the grey-haired amongst us, but even for the youngest amongst us. There is nothing in the world that guarantees you will make it to the end of the day, so it is not unwise to count our blessings every time we wake up. Think of the billions of people who once were, and now are not.
We are quite privileged to be alive, right now.