We cannot always choose our circumstances, but we can adapt our minds and attitudes to the circumstances we are presented with. Plato, in the Republic (604c5 ff.), famously compared life to a game of dice that was structured at two levels: the throw of the dice (over which we have no control), and the way in which we deal with the results of the throw. This same dice analogy is found in Epictetus (II.5.3). Our attitudes mold our lives. If we do not adapt our attitudes to our circumstances, we will be like the man who carries a hidden sickness wherever he goes. He travels here and there, always seeking a better environment, but he finds himself equally miserable wherever he is. Why is this? It is because the problem lies in his mind.
Why do people often seem to gravitate toward what is negative and offensive, rather than on what is refreshing, healthy, and good? In fact it seems that some people go out of their way to seek out the bad, and ignore the good. The reason for this lies in the minds of such people. When one has a fever or is afflicted by an ailment, everything to him seems bad. Every food he tastes, and every drink he imbibes, seems to him foul-tasting. He is unable to appreciate the good things, and unwilling to emphasize the good over the bad. And what is this fever? It is the disease of covetousness.
It is the greed that comes from not being grateful for what one has, but resenting what one is believed to lack. Instead of blaming his “foul-tasting” food and drink, he should be blaming himself, for this is where the source of his misery truly resides. The disease is inflamed when one darts one’s eyes about to see what “better off” people have. We foolishly compare our flour-sacks with those of richer and more successful people, and always feel inadequate in the comparison. We should avoid this form of self-torture. One can always find people in the world who are richer, smarter, or more successful than we are. It has always been so, and will always be so.
And what makes you think that the wealthy, successful person does not fret about his accounts, is not tortured by sickness, and is not troubled by the very same problems as you are? Are you any different from him? Are you not both made of the same material? If you wish to play the comparison game, compare yourself to those less fortunate than you. Look around you! See how many debilitated people there are; see how many are laid low by physical problems, misfortunes, and crises much worse than your own.
Plutarch has a nice image to make this point (On Contentment, 10.E). In his day, important people could have themselves carried about in a litter by porters. When you see such a notable, he says, and you are tempted to envy him, first look at the men who are propping him up. First look at the slaves who are carrying him about. While you envy the rich man in the sedan chair, you can be sure that these men are in fact envying you. So the issue comes down to perspective. Life is a matter of perspective. Another anecdote illustrating this point is told by Plutarch (Id. 10.F). I like it because of its modern resonance, when everyone likes to complain about how expensive this or that city is:
Socrates once heard one of his acquaintances remarking how expensive Athens was. “A mina for Chian wine, three minae for a purple robe, five drachmae for a kotyle of honey.” Socrates grabbed him and showed him some grain: “An obol for half a hekteus—Athens is cheap”; and then some olives—“Two bronze coins for a choinix—Athens is cheap”; and then some simple cloaks—“Ten drachmae—Athens is cheap.”
What this story means is that “cheap” or “expensive” is relative, and depends on what products were are talking about. The complainer was focusing on the expensive items in Athens, while Socrates picked out products that were not so expensive. Thus the point is made. A glass is seen to be half-empty, or half-full. It is an old and well-worn cliché, but it is true.
But what is the source of this disturbance of the mind, where we are unable to see the positive? Its origin is in a sense of acquisitiveness. And this comes from excessive egotism. Because we exalt our egos at all times, we are blinded by the ceaseless ambition of the ego. This plants the seeds of unreasonable expectations in our lives: we expect to be all things to all people, and to be insulated from the pains of Fate. When this proves impossible—as it always is—disillusion sets in. But the problem was our own perception the entire time.
We must learn to accept man for what he is. We must learn to accept ourselves for what we are. Most men are not capable of scaling the heights of excellence in all things. In fact, their visions are usually far more modest. People typically will choose pleasure over self-improvement. There is an old Greek saying that says:
There are more people who want to bathe than who wish to oil their bodies.
Remember this saying when you see the apparent success of the carnival-barkers. In ancient times, men lubricated their bodies with oil before exercising. And baths were seen as places to experience pleasure. So the point is that most men will seek out simple pleasure than will seek out self-improvement. And this is why great men are in the minority: because when all is said and done, most people are unwilling to spend the time and effort to improve.
But even so, every man has within himself the raw materials to achieve satisfaction. He need not be a great man; he need only be an ordinary man. The key is to align one’s goals with one’s abilities. Only time grants the wisdom needed to evaluate both of these things accurately: goals are elusive and will not be known until one is older, and abilities cannot be assessed until one has lived a long life. So time is the necessary crucible here. One this realization has been made—this alignment of goals and abilities—we become indestructible. We can never be deprived of peace of mind.
When Robinson Crusoe was washed up on shore after the wreck of his ship, he was forced to cling to a projecting piece of rock on the shoreline. He clung there for a long time, battered by the waves. But the storm subsided. And although his fortunes had changed, he himself remained a good man. Ruinous fortune cannot make a good man bad; it can only temporarily change his circumstances. Know, my brother, that we were made for higher things, and created for sacred purposes. I will close this letter with a quote from Plutarch (Id. 20.D), who says:
The world is a temple of the highest sacredness, and nowhere could be more suitable for divinity; and man is introduced into this world by means of his birth not to view manufactured, immobile images, but to gaze on what Plato describes as the perceptible likenesses of intelligible things which divine intelligence has manifested as containers of an inherent principle of life and movement…Life is an initiation into these things and there is no more perfect way to celebrate them; life should be full of contentment and joy.
And as we correct our thinking and our attitudes, we celebrate both life and ourselves.
Read more in the new translation of Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes: