On Self-Knowledge

Examining Epictetus: Excerpt Two

Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes, with all else that men deem terrible, but more especially Death. Then wilt thou never think a mean thought nor covet anything beyond measure.

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, CLXI, Page 174


Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes, with all else that men deem terrible, but more especially Death.

This portion contains so much. First, it acknowledges the uncertainty of the future. We all will breathe our last breath, but none can be sure when. In the words of Seneca, “Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.” Second, this passage encourages the reader not to be surprised when loss comes. Life is made up by a good deal of suffering, and even the luckiest fellow will run across pain and misfortune. Instead of ignoring the potential tragedies that may arise on any given day, Epictetus encourages us to reflect and dwell on them. This is the path of the courageous and free.


Then thou wilt never thinks a mean thought nor cover anything beyond measure. 


This daily meditation on the painful parts of life allows two things. First, the detachment from fear. When topics like death and exile are never contemplated, they come as a surprise. This only makes them more painful. By examining these difficulties, we gain a clearer perspective. We eventually realize that there is no use in fearing the inevitable. Second, daily meditation allows us to become aware of how precious the life we currently have is. Who would want their final day to be filled with conceit and condemnation? Why waste a moment of what might be your last day? Our time on this earth is so brief. There is no use in filling it with bitterness and malice. Similarly, why covet? If the thing you are coveting could just as easily be lost, or harm you, then there is no use. Realize that these externals are fleeting. This meditation is an essential aspect of the process of becoming free. 

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