Mic Drop By Epictetus: What Should I Prioritize?
I recently meditated on this passage from Epictetus' Discourses 3.14.11-14:
"'I'm superior to you because my father is of consular rank.' Someone else says, 'I've been a tribune and you haven't.' If we were horses, would you say, 'I have lots of barley and fodder' or 'I have have lovely trappings'? What if you spoke in such a way and I replied, 'Be that as it may, let's run a race.' Come, is there nothing in the human realm comparable to running a race in that of horses, by which it can be recognized who is better or who is worse? Is there no such thing as a sense of honour, or fidelity, or justice? Show yourself to be better in these so that you may be better as a human being. But if you tell me. 'I have a powerful kick,' I'll reply in my turn that 'You're priding yourself on what a donkey can do.'"
All I could say when I read this passage was Ouch! I feel like Epictetus reached out from the text and kindly smacked me in the face like in those old cartoons where a character is trying to liberate another character from a dazed state. The Epictetus' advice stems from the commonly misunderstood Stoic idea of living according to Nature. This idea stems from Stoic physics and leads a Stoic to conclude that since we have been equipped with a reasoning capability that is more complex than that of animals, we have a duty to use that unique ability to rise above an animalistic way of life.
In the first two examples of the passage, Epictetus mentions family ties and a high role in society (that of a prominent government official). From a Stoic perspective, these categories clearly provide us with an example of how-not-to-act. The fact that we have family members in elevated places or we have a fancy title do not show the true colors of someone's character. In fact, I've encountered many people who fall under these exact categories and live a life of constant stress and bad judgments.
For me, the true power of this passage is the example of a horse. Epictetus uses barley, fodder, and trappings as materialistic things that are seen as unnecessary for living a fulfilling life. Epictetus, being a former slave himself, can speak with authority from the perspective of someone who did not exactly live a life of luxury. Then, Epictetus implies the entire message of the passage by responding to his hypothetical character: 'Be that as it may, let's run a race.' The reason why this is so impactful is because by running a race, a horse is fulfilling its true purpose by living according to its Nature. By then listing honour, fidelity, and justice, he solidifies what traits we need to develop within ourselves. These are the types of character traits fit for a human being!
But its not over yet! In true, snarky Epictetus fashion, he ends the conversation with a mic drop. When the fictional character brags that he has a powerful kick, Epictetus responds by implying that kicking is not living in accordance with what is required from him. For this reason, the man is not living according to Nature. BOOM!
In looking at that passage, it makes me think about the things we prioritize in life. Some of us would rather cultivate character traits that have no bearing on whether we are living our lives to the absolute best of our ability. We have the capacity for reasoning power for a purpose, and we should not sacrifice that capability in order to make room for inferior traits.