Enchiridion XII


If you would improve, lay aside such reasonings as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I shall not have a maintenance; if I do not punish my servant, he will be good for nothing.” For it were better to die of hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better that your servant should be bad than you unhappy.

Begin therefore with little things. Is a little oil spilled or a little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for peace and tranquility; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” And when you call your servant, consider that it is possible he may not come at your call; or, if he does, that he may not do what you wish. But it is not at all desirable for him, and very undesirable for you, that it should be in his power to cause you any disturbance.

Philosophy is often a pursuit of those with leisure -- Aristotle argues that it is necessarily so -- and thus usually when one runs into philosophers' advice on what to do about servants it is offensive more often than not.  Epictetus, though, was a slave for most of his life: when he speaks of how little the servant wishes to be a cause of disturbance to the master, he speaks as one who knows. 

When I first began making mead, it was a great disturbance to me that so much of it was wasted in the process of racking (that is, removing the yeast and sediment from the product at various stages of finishing). But he is right: once you learn to accept that a certain amount of it is going to be lost, it becomes something that is not bothersome after all. (I am told that distillers run into a similar issue with evaporation of the finished product: they call this 'the Angels' share' of the whiskey.) 

The least plausible of this section's aphorisms is the suggestion that one ought better to neglect one's affairs than be disturbed by them. Duty seems to be crosswise from that: if they are indeed one's own affairs, then by neglecting them one is doing disservice to one's children or heirs; if another is maintaining you in return for service, to them. Sometimes people make movies about those who lay aside arduous careers in order to assume peaceful and fulfilling modes of life, however; and maybe some people really do that, even. Perhaps they are wise.


james said...

If Epictetus' servant were stealing from someone else, would he likewise regard that as the price paid for peace and tranquility?
True, in that case the servant's acts might be construed as representing Epictetus' will, and he has to "control his will", but it isn't obvious that "my servant is a thief" isn't the fundamental problem in both cases and that his duty in each case might not be similar.

Grim said...

Obviously he doesn't consider that scenario, and I'm not sure what he would say about it. Hopefully the sense of moral duty -- which the Stoics take to be always obligatory -- would require him to post some sort of action, at least to compensate for the theft.

(Here's another strange parallel with the Bible. It's interesting how many of the parables are from the perspective of a master with servants, and generally not from the perspective of the servants deserving better treatment. I think of the parable of the workers who worked all day for a wage, and then later-arriving workers worked only half a day for the same wage; and the master says, "Look, you got what you agreed to take for the work you agreed to provide. It's my money and my business if I give equal pay to somebody who did half as much, and doesn't concern you at all." Or Matthew 24:14-30, which ends on a pretty ugly note for a servant who took pains neither to steal nor to lose what was entrusted to him. Jesus was neither a slave nor a master, that we know of; but his parables have a structure that is very friendly to masters.)

No, what I think of when I think of the stolen wine -- perhaps the servant is stealing some, or a child, or someone else -- is these verses from "The Ballad of the White Horse," lionizing Eldred the Good as a lord similar to the one Epictetus describes.

'I was a fool and wasted ale—
My slaves found it sweet;
I was a fool and wasted bread,
And the birds had bread to eat.

'The kings go up and the kings go down,
And who knows who shall rule;
Next night a king may starve or sleep,
But men and birds and beasts shall weep
At the burial of a fool.

'O, drunkards in my cellar,
Boys in my apple tree,
The world grows stern and strange and new,
And wise men shall govern you,
And you shall weep for me.'

james said...

Chesterton was great.

J Melcher said...

Again I find myself concerned over a lack of balance in the philosophy.

On the one hand, we have Luke 12:18 -- the fool feels impelled to tear down his existing barns and build new barns to store all his excess grain, and only AFTERWARDS does he imagine he will be able to be able to relax, "eat, drink, and be merry." Foolish in a half-dozen ways.

Yet we have Aesop's fable of the ants and the grasshopper. To play and be merry, wholly instead of filling the stores with grain, is foolish too! No one can know his day and hour, and one might have the -- nice problem to have! -- difficulty of living long enough to face a foreseeable winter.

I guess that any preacher must read his audience and tailor his teachings to the current imbalance he finds there. A bunch of stoics and cynics who neglect their music and arts in pursuit of material things hears one sermon. The epicures and dionysians who love their parties and orgies while neglecting their fields and barns hear another. So, assuming this sort of targeted preaching, who was Epictetus arguing with?

Grim said...

That's an interesting objection. The usual objection runs the other way: 'the Bible conflicts with itself, it is incoherent, it advocates for all sides of many questions.' Your objection is that this proves that the Bible is a humane philosophy, which is going to need to advocate for (because against the alternative) all sides at various points as they become imbalanced.

Epictetus lived during the reign of Nero, who committed suicide at 30 after being overthrown by his Senate, and then the Year of the Four Emperors, the entire Flavian Dynasty, and into the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (whose first five emperors were 'The Five Good Emperors'). This latter began in AD 96 and ran through and well past Epictetus' death in 135.

Perhaps he was arguing against the things that gave rise to the chaos of his youth; perhaps he was arguing for a life that would keep you out of political chaos in general. Perhaps the chaos was sufficiently sustained during his formative years that he did not feel the need to ask what to do about too much stability (which can, nevertheless, be a problem at times).

Christopher B said...

Epictetus says straight way in this passage "lay aside such reasonings". Though structured in way that makes them sound like practical advice, I don't think that's what he is aim towards.

"If I neglect my affairs, I shall not have a maintenance..." reminded me of another Biblical passage “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

This is an approach to thinking about problems. Do your duty for the day. Make reasonable preparations for the future but understand you can't cover every contingency (I can see someone who has lived through real chaos making this statement).

Similarly with an employee. Don't approach them with the attitude they are being deliberately careless or looking to cheat you, and make your response proportional to the offense.