One of my favorite thinkers from classical times is Epictetus, a Greek philosopher from the first century AD. I discovered him when I was quite young and I was very impressed by what he was teaching, even though I did not understand much.
Over the years I kept coming back to his writings and every time I did I discovered new things. I was reading him again recently and I was struck by something he said. Epictetus was not the nice/sweet guy type; he was born a slave—although later in his life he was liberated—and he was badly treated by his master, so badly that, apparently, at a certain point he became lame because of the beatings he received. He was a rough man and this is clearly reflected in his writings*.
This is the quote that struck me: “Behold the birth of tragedy, when idiots are confronted with the vicissitudes of life”.
A tragedy can be something big, significant, but can also be something quite small. We can replace the word ‘idiot’ with ‘ignorant’ or ‘unwise’. By that I don’t mean somebody who cannot read or write. A person can be very intelligent, like a Harvard professor, and at the same time be very ‘ignorant’ when it comes to dealing with life. Being wise, from my point of view, has no relation with knowledge or degrees, but with our ability to deal with life. So the quote could be translated like this: “Suffering is born when unwise/ignorant people are confronted with the changing world”.
The fact that we don’t know or understand that the world changes all the time makes us unwise. The vicissitudes of life can be many, large or minor. We may get sick, we may be cold or too hot, we may lose our jobs, we may be late for an appointment or somebody may be late for an appointment with us, lovers may leave us, our parents may get divorce, friends may deceive us, family members may die. These and many more things could happen anytime to anybody. Nobody is free from the changing world. Why? Because the world is never fixed, it constantly changes. Even our bodies are made of molecules that are continuously being born and dying, they are changing all the time. It’s the same with everything else. Nothing remains the same. But the unwise/ignorant people—the idiots—expect the world to be as they wish it to be. We are all unwise/ignorant/idiots when we get stuck on our ideas about how the world is supposed to be and cannot see the way things really are.
Nobody likes sickness, and we all should do our best not to get sick, to really take care of ourselves. But even if we do that (and sadly many people don’t) there are so many things happening in our body, there are billions of processes going on every second that we have absolutely no idea of. We may be able to control four or five out of a million, but our body is really not under our control. So sickness could appear, but it is our choice to make a tragedy out if it, or not. If we get sick we could complain about everything and feel bad about ourselves, or we could deal with it as wise people, doing our best to get better, but not complaining. Epictetus was really confronted by the vicissitudes of life, but he was famous for not complaining.
We cannot change a fact—being sick, losing a job, being left by one’s girlfriend or whatever—, but we have a choice about what we do with that fact. Anything that happens to us can be made into a tragedy or not, according to the choice we make. This is why I like this quote so much. I keep repeating it in my head, like a little mantra or prayer: “Behold the birth of tragedy, when idiots are confronted with the vicissitudes of life”. Then, when I make a tragedy out of something, I try to remember it.
Epictetus explains that our tragedies—our problems—are nothing but a thought. It is only when we call something a tragedy that it becomes a tragedy, but there is nothing that we actually have to call a tragedy. There are facts, some are pleasant and some are unpleasant. But an unpleasant fact does not need to become a tragedy—a problem—unless we choose it to be so. For example, for us death is a tragedy, but it wasn’t like that for Socrates. He didn’t see it as a problem but as a duty. For him death was just something that needed to happen. It’s up to each of us to see whatever life throws at us as a problem or as a situation to be resolved. The difference between the two is only a thought, a point of view.
When something unpleasant happens there may be difficult moments, we may feel uncomfortable, and we may even have pain, but whether we make it into a tragedy or not depends on the way we think about it.
But to be able to think clearly, for a quote like Epictetus’ to have any weight, we need to have a clear mind. If our mind is too busy, if it is too lost on problems, on worries, on the past or the future, then it will create tragedy. In our modern, fast-paced world it is more common to create tragedy than to be wise. We are all ‘idiots’, but have the possibility to become wise. But this requires effort, it requires practice, it requires attention, it requires presence.
I believe that this is something that should be taught, it should be part of our education. But we are not taught these kinds of things. In schools and universities we learn about how to make a living, but we are rarely taught how to live.
* Epictetus did not actually write anything, but, as it is with Socrates, his two books—The Enchiridion and Discourses—are transcripts of his talks done by one of his disciples. A selection from his book The Enchiridion (the title means The Manual for Living) can be found here, on Yogilates website.