Feb 23 2022
Exploring Encheiridion 17 – Episode 57
Keep in mind that you are an actor in a play that is just the way the producer wants it to be. It is short, if that is his wish, or long, if he wants it long. If he wants you to act the part of a beggar, see that you play it skillfully; and similarly if the part is to be a cripple, or an official, or a private person. Your job is to put on a splendid performance of the role you have been given, but selecting the role is the job of someone else. (Ench 17)
This chapter runs counter to most modern western thinking. I’m an actor in a play, with an assigned role? No way! “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Of course, we are the masters of our fate and captains of our souls; however, not in the way most people typically interpret those famous lines from Invictus.
We want to believe we control the externals that determine our fate. We want to believe:
If we obtain adequate education and embark on a promising career, we will experience financial prosperity.
If we invest properly, we can ensure our financial security for retirement.
If we pick the right mate, we will be romantically fulfilled and happy.
If we have a nutritious diet, exercise, and get adequate rest, we will be healthy.
Most people hold onto idealistic beliefs like these into their early adult life. However, as time passes, life happens. Events occur that make it quite clear we are not in complete control of our destiny.
Technology replaces the knowledge and skills we acquired in college and developed during a career.
Stock markets and housing markets crash.
Deadly pandemics sweep the world.
Car crashes, street violence, war, and disease unexpectedly take loved ones away from us.
Spouses leave us for others or fall short of our expectations.
With age, we learn we are not in complete control of the events in our life. Sadly, those hard lessons can make us bitter and pessimistic about life, and we end up frustrated, pained, and troubled, and we find fault with gods and men (Encheiridion 1).
So, what is the answer? Are we supposed to stop trying to make our lives and the world better? No! Absolutely not! As I have said before, Stoicism does not teach quietism. However, Encheiridion 17 does teach us to accept that we are not in complete control of events that shape our lives. We choose how well we play our part; however, we do not get to pick the role. Numerous externals constrain us, and our failure to understand and accept that truth leads to psychological distress.
The popular idea that we can be anything we want to be, limited only by our will and effort to achieve our dreams, is a fantasy. It is a lie perpetuated by people who want life to be fair from the human perspective. However, life is not fair in that sense. Human talents are not distributed equally at birth. The socio-economic and political environments people are born into, differ significantly between nations, cities, communities, and families. Whether our role is that of a beggar, cripple, official, or private person is primarily determined by many factors outside our control.
External factors limit us to a far greater degree than we want to admit. Therefore, if we measure the value of our existence by externals, life will never be fair. Genius is frequently overlooked, and ignorance is often exalted. Morally corrupt individuals make it into high office, and those with good character frequently struggle to get elected to a school board. Cheaters regularly win. Lawbreakers repeatedly get away with their crimes. Hard workers sometimes end up destitute, and lazy people win the lottery occasionally.
That is why Stoicism teaches us another way to evaluate our existence. From the perspective of Stoicism, life is fair and perfectly egalitarian. Those born into poverty have an equal opportunity to develop an excellent character and experience well-being as those born into wealth. Likewise,