“The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not lie,’ into practice.” ~ Epictetus
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I find it kind of serendipitous that I have been getting back into this book, The Art of Living, by Epictetus in a time when the world is rapidly going through the birth pangs. It has sat on my bookshelf for years – too important to get rid of. It speaks to me at a time when I am growing in my own self-awareness of my shortcomings and strengths.
I am changing. It should be of no surprise if only because I am part of this life, and this life we call the world is ever changing, always evolving, and constantly taking what once was and transforming it into what is, or what can be.
The question that I have been asking myself recently is “what’s happening in my own self that is helping me to grow beyond myself for the betterment and benefit of society?”
In one particular group, I spoke to this idea of guilt that we were all feeling as “privileged, white people.” Although we knew the term, we are only uncovering what it means to us as individuals. I shared a conversation I had the night before with my brother in law, whose political points of view differ from my own. While I allowed him to do most of the talking, he eventually asked a great question that required me to answer truthfully and honestly. He wanted to know, “What are you going to do to help make a difference?”
My answer went something like this:
First of all, I can only do what I can do. I can acknowledge the problem of racism in me. I can find my story in the problem. And I can accept my responsibility for it. I can also promise myself and commit to setting a new course of life that bends towards justice. It will be a course that I know I can handle in this moment, with small achievements to keep me moving forwards towards growth. I can do this understanding that I can and I will grow over time. I can and will apply that growth for the good. A I can be a living example to my children, my family, my neighbors, and friends, strangers, and the systems which governs us that such behavior as racism, sexism, and injustice are no longer acceptable.
In short, I can and will commit to this way of life, accepting the complexities, hardships and sacrifices that come with it, hoping that something better will come of it. It feels someone stoic in principle. And it’s not too far off from what I believe Jesus is calling us to in imitation of him.
Epictetus wrote, “The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not lie,’ into practice.” I would argue that this begins by looking inward, within the self, beyond the ego, and taking inventory of the things that define me. What are my principles? Where do I stand? And how will I create a new map or blueprint for living them out on a daily basis?
In what little work I have done so far, I have learned that it is a long, and sometimes difficult process. It requires me to be honest and truthful to myself before I can be honest and truthful to someone else. It’s looking into a mirror and trying to remind myself of who I really am. I am more than scars, age spots, and sagging skin. I have to look beyond my insecurities that block the deep seated fears, anxieties and yes, love, that is hidden in me.
Jesus also had something to say about this inward inventory. He constantly reminded his followers and his detractors to look within their own hearts. “For it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out” (Matthew 15:11). It’s in the heart where the thoughts of our head form into words. Thus, looking inward at our principles is the best place to start, especially if we are going to speak or place our opinion on the shoulders of someone else.
The next step seems almost natural. Epictetus writes, “The second step is to demonstrate the truth of the principles, such as why it is that we ought not lie.” Put your words to action. Taking his example on lying, we know the whole web of problems such an action can produce, from hurting others to harming yourself. The same is true when applying this step to racism, even if it’s not that obvious. But we can’t demonstrate the truth of our principles honestly or authentically if we are not first honest and authentic with ourselves.
Like Jesus taught, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no" (Matthew 5:33-37). In other words be sure of who you are, what you stand for and believe in before you give testimony or voice an opinion.
The third step that Epictetus writes about connects the first two, which “is to indicate why the explanations suffice to justify the principles.” The way I see this is simply, “back your shit up or back up.” It’s why so many people who have been oppressed and choked to death by the promises of justice are still demanding proof. “Don’t just show me your wisdom. Prove it to me by doing something with it.” If you haven’t done the work inside first, then how will you truly and honorably convince anyone, including yourself, that you are genuine, real, or wise.
The old stoic finished his thought by stating, “Although the second and third steps are valuable, it is the first step that matters most. For it is all too easy and common to lie while cleverly demonstrating that lying is wrong.” Jesus told his disciples, who were being sent out to heal and care for people, that they were going out to be sheep among wolves. And trust me, those wolves will be able to know when you’re not true to your word.
In Hamlet, William Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
Polonius spoke these words as a token of advice to his son, Laertes, at the time of his departure to Paris. Scholars believe Shakespeare is writing of himself as he argues a person can be harmless and good to others once he is financially sound. That he must be loyal to his best interests first before he can take care of others. As Epictetus has argued, one must first know one’s self before one can know or help another.
Today, Shakespeare’s words have an entirely different meaning, connoting “the ideas of truth, self-ownership, and individuality.” I wonder how Epictetus would read this. In keeping with the Stoic mindset, I would argue that if you choose to put yourself above others, by any means, then how honest and wise will your counsel be to yourself, especially when putting your principles into practice?
I am not sure I have a great answer yet, because I am still looking in my own mirror and taking inventory of what I am reflecting. Yet it is hard for me to imagine Jesus putting himself above others. In fact, if the biblical and historical stories are accurate, Jesus gave himself up willingly so that others could live freely. Thus, he often reminded his own followers that he did not come to be served, but to serve others.
Jesus lived this principle out; practicing what he preached. We are invited to do the same. But will we rise to meet the challenge?
“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. Once you have determined the spiritual principles you wish to exemplify, abide by these rules as if they were laws, as if it were indeed sinful to compromise them. Don’t mind if others don’t share your convictions. How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Put your principles into practice now. Stop the excuses and the procrastinations. This is your life! You are not a child anymore. The sooner you set yourself to your spiritual program, the happier you will be. The longer you wait, the more you will be vulnerable to mediocrity and feel filled with shame and regret, because you know you are capable of better. From this instant on, vow to stop disappointing yourself. Separate yourself from the mob. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do – now!”