Enchiridion VI


Be not elated at any excellence not your own. If a horse should be elated, and say, “I am handsome,” it might be endurable. But when you are elated and say, “I have a handsome horse,” know that you are elated only on the merit of the horse. What then is your own? The use of the phenomena of existence. So that when you are in harmony with nature in this respect, you will be elated with some reason; for you will be elated at some good of your own.

Eventually the first principle invoked there is going to encompass things like 'being hansdome' as well. It might be endurable for your horse to glory in being handsome because he is an irrational beast, but you ought not to do so:  you didn't earn it. 

Here the argument is that you should only be elated about internal accomplishments. For example, perhaps you successfully did a hard and virtuous thing instead of the pleasant thing you'd have rather done. That is something to feel good about, an honest accomplishment. Feeling good because you happen to have a pretty face -- which is only a semblance, after all -- is a mistake. That doesn't belong to you properly because it is not an accomplishment of your own.

Later we will find that this extends to not feeling bad about losing the things you didn't earn. Age robs many of beauty, and this is a source of great consternation to many. Epictetus is going to argue that they should not think it so; fate gave them beauty, not their own actions. Just as they have no cause to glory in what they did not earn neither should they mourn for having a thing they never earned taken away. 

Whereas no one can take away your proper pride in a just and virtuous action. This is a point that Aristotle also makes in his writings on the capstone virtue of magnanimity (called 'pride' in that translation, but it is properly the quality of having a 'great soul'). The magnanimous man does what is right because it is worthy of honor, but he does not care if people of little honor praise him or condemn him. Should they condemn him, he knows internally that he has done the honorable thing; their attempt to pile dishonor on him does not attach to his own sense of honor, as he knows it is unjust. "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on." 


J Melcher said...

It's difficult to trust the temptation to get too much into the weeds over a translation, but I go there anyhow.

"Elated" is (in English at least) a very different mental or emotional state than "contented" or "happy" or "sanguine" or "pleased" ...

It does seem obviously disproportionate and irrational to be "elated" over the appearance of a horse. Yet I'm not sure it's unwise, unreasonable, or inappropriate to take some pleasure or joy in visual beauty where ever one finds it. A healthy animal on a sunny day in a lush meadow displaying a graceful gait. How much joy over the setting, none of which I might have created or be able to change, is TOO much? Isn't ignoring the scene ungrateful or churlish or selfish? "Not my horse, not my meadow, not my day..." I think, then, this is not Epictetus's meaning. He's not dictating we take no pleasure from random things. He's advising us not to get carried away.

It's perhaps silly to be "elated" because the horse runs fast - but it's fairly common to be silly-prideful if one happened to be among the few who recognized a horse's hidden strengths, bet a few bucks at high odds on the "handsome" horse, and watched it race to victory. Elation follows from pride in one's OWN abilities as a judge of horseflesh, rather than from vicarious pleasure in being a fast horse --or skillful jockey. Yet pride in winning such a bet is misdirected if one doesn't do so consistently. When one's handsome horse elates you rarely, due to luck more than skill, the elation is false and a lure not unlike a heroin high. ANd luck is by definition a factor beyond our control.

Grim said...

Today’s reading of authority to that argument. When one is not on duty at the ship, one might take pleasure in a wife or child — or a horse. There’s nothing wrong with that, providing one remembers that one may be recalled to duty at any moment: and when called, must go at once.

There’s a lot to say here about honor as a diagnostic rather than a proper consideration; perhaps I’ll remember to say it tomorrow.

Grim said...

*reading _gives_ authority...

I swear these smartphones think they're so smart. Half these 'corrections' don't even make sense, and I often don't notice them until later.

Tom said...

I had the same thought as J. Elation seems to make little sense here. 'Pride' would; that pride in having a handsome horse is misplaced would make sense.

(I have slowly come to the conclusion that English translations are the biggest obstacle to my understanding the ancients. Sadly, I don't know the classical languages so they are also my only way to read the ancients.)

I often take pleasure in others' excellence out of sheer admiration. It is a joy to witness excellence. I don't take pride in the excellence of others, though. If I see a particular display of excellence, it improves my day, but not seeing any display of excellence doesn't worsen the day. I just feel lucky when I get to witness it.

Of course, could a teacher or coach feel justified pride in the excellence of his students?