May 24, 2012

On Cynicism

A member of Epictetus's circle with an evident predilection for the Cynic's way of life asked what sort of person was right for it, and how that person should go about taking it up. Epictetus answered, "Your question calls for long contemplation. This much I can tell you, though:

"To embark on so great an undertaking without divine support is to invite divine wrath and public disgrace. When an estate is well run, none of its members fancy, 'I should be overseer here'; the owner would have the pompous malcontent taken out and flogged as soon as he caught him issuing orders behind his back. In the wider world it's no different, for here too a Head of Household puts each detail in its place. 'You are the sun,' he says to one; 'yours is the power to bring forth seasons and rear up crops in your yearly orbit, to stir the winds and calm them, and to keep things warm enough for people's bodies. Up now, onto the curving path with you, to set in motion all things from the greatest to the least great.'

" 'You,' he tells another, 'are a cow. When a lion shows up, you either see yourself through the encounter or die bleating. And you,' he tells another, 'are a bull. Go forth into battle, for so it was lain unto you, as befits your place in the herd and your fighting power.'

" 'You who have what it takes to lead an army against Ilium, be Agamemnon. You who have what it takes to face Hector in single combat, be Achilles.' But if a Thersites were to pretend to wield command, his disgrace in everyone's eyes would be total. As for you, consider it long and hard. The Cynic's life is not the way you picture it."

Discourses III.22.1-9