Stoic Saturday: You Get What You Pay For

Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don't be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. 
Epictetus' Handbook Ch 25

I was in line to order food a few days ago when I saw a man ahead of me let two friends into the already long queue. This annoyed the patrons around me, though no one said anything directly to the culprits. I wasn't thrown off, partly because of stoicism and partly due to the fact that the first guy could have just ordered for the other two and the situation would have been the same, or so I thought. When the three amigos made it to the front of the line; one, they each paid separately, and two, the new additions weren't even ready to order! So they wasted our time by splitting up and compounded it by being under-prepared. Jerks*, right? Absolutely. They were selfish jerks, but I didn't have to be one too.

If you want the perks that come to line cutting jerks, you have to be a line cutting jerk. That's the deal. What's more, my fellow patrons choose to pay a price by acting affronted by the actions of others. Even though I'm casually tossing around the term jerk, I honestly wasn't invested in the situation. I was enjoying the evening and I continued to enjoy it after the fact. 

Stoicism is an, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," type of philosophy. We're not supposed to build up expectations concerning the world. Instead, we expect things from ourselves. We attempt to take in the world as it presents itself and do our best with what comes our way. As such people, you'd think Stoics wouldn't need the scolding that Epictetus lays out. But no, we do. Here's the last half of the chapter: 

For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don't imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person's entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don't like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

First, I love that the translator uses "blockhead." Man, I hope that's close to the original word in Greek. Anyway, you can see that the students Epictetus addresses are expecting certain things from the world. What's more, these expectations aren't even based in cause and effect. Some Stoic kid is saying no to his pal Galen's free gladiatorial fight tickets because attending would be un-stoic and then that kid feels slighted because Galen didn't invite him to a killer birthday bash. Blockhead!

The example Epictetus uses is a step beyond my line-cutter scenario. While I was in line under the "protection" of queuing convention, I might be excused for expecting people to honor those rules. However, if I want to win a game, but I'm not even playing it, I am truly acting ridiculously. Worse yet, I'm standing around acting like I lost something when I haven't. I've kept the time and energy I would have expended playing the game.

Life confronts us with a series of trade-offs. It's important to go forward knowing where you are trying to go. If I want to stay content, I have to give up my right to indignation. If I want to stand apart from some particular crowd, I can't complain when I don't receive their attention. I have to recognize what I already have in the moment and decide if it's worth trading away. If Stoicism is making an impact, I'll find that consumer goods, social standing, or honorifics, become less and less valuable. I'll seek, instead, the contentment found in a well lived life. The things that truly lead to the good life can't be taken away from me, so they're a sound investment.

 *Jerk is not actually a category of human being in Stoic philosophy unless, I suppose, I were to apply it to my own behavior. Still, it can be fun to call someone that from time to time. What can I say, I'm not a sage.