I watch my mother lying in the hospital bed and I curse Epictetus. He says we have to be indifferent to indifferent things. He says indifferent things are pain, disease, death, and all that are beyond our control, all that don’t stem from our own actions and deeds. It is useless to fight God’s designs, so all we should do is behave and go with the flow, setting down into a serene resignation toward life’s hardships. We are supposed to think objectively about all that happen in our lives, striving to be just in our actions, performing our duties as rational men, fulfilling our role as divine creatures. In sum, he wants me to not give a fuck about my own mother’s approaching death — and that enrages me.
Yet, I want to understand why he puts forth such preposterous ideas, why he even has the guts to think of such words. Damn you, Epictetus! Show me that you are right. Show me that it is not immoral to be indifferent to the death of our beloved ones. Show me that we must accept like bowing cows everything that is thrown at us from above, without complaining, without affectation. No, do better: show me that you could really do it.
You were a slave who got crippled by the violence of your own master, who in turn had been a slave himself. You were a slave of a slave under the wings of Nero, that worst specimen of all human beings that ever existed, in a time when all but the best were scum. You did what you did because you had no other way out. Either you enlightened yourself or you wouldn’t stand a chance. Either you learned how to take blows and clean other people’s shit without complaint or you would die and be shit yourself. You are a natural-born survivor, I grant you that. But if so, your philosophy is of no use for us. If it is meant for people like you, for whom it is natural to accept, to be contented, to simply carry on and survive, than it is as useless for us as your crippled leg is for you, a burden we have to carry to remind us how weak we are. Because if it weren’t for you and your philosophy, I could be allowed to suffer. I could curse the gods for their injustice and indulge in self-pity. I could make empty vows of rebellion towards nature and its ridiculous rules. I could look for solace in the impersonality of the atoms and accept randomness as the true governor of the world. I could sit down and cry. Yet, I can’t.
I have your words in my pocket, and they sting like hell! I wish I hadn’t memorized them.
“…when you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as with something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled.”
“Do you also remind yourself in like manner, that he whom you love is mortal, and that what you love is nothing of your own.
“What harm is it while you are kissing your child to say with a lisping voice, ‘To-morrow you will die’; and to a friend also, ‘To-morrow you will go away or I shall, and never shall we see one another again’?
How unreal is that? How irritatingly simple it sounds. This is not to be rational. This is to be cold-blooded like an assassin! No, much more that. I am an assassin and my veins are boiling inside.
No, what you demand of us is too much.
This is not even to follow nature like the automata you want us to be. This is to deny our very nature as human beings. We are flawed beings. To pursue reason as virtue might be our duty as God’s children, but perfect reasoning is not ours to attain. Perfection is for gods. Not for men. I am a man! What are you, Epictetus? How can you maneuver with both love and indifference at the same time? Because if we are to watch who we love dying and be indifferent, you expect impossible deeds. Have you really thought your words out? Have you really applied them with any efficacy, or are you only a man of words, a specialist in arm-chair philosophy disconnected from reality, day-dreaming about would-be ideal moral conduct? Are you for real? Or are you a fraud, an optimistic mental construct of the needing minds of men? What I have in my pocket was not even written by your own hands, but it is what a mere student said he has heard from you. Speak up you yourself if you want me to listen — otherwise, be silent and let me be weak.