“In every act observe the things which come first, and those which follow it; and so proceed to the act,” writes Epictetus in his famous manual Enchiridion. “If you do not, at first you will approach it with alacrity, without having thought of the things which will follow; but afterward, when certain base (ugly) things have shown themselves, you will be ashamed.”
Speaking of making wise decisions, isn’t it strange that at some point in our lives we come to the most unexpected realization — that everything we’ve done up to this point was unconscious. All that we’ve done, thought or been seems like a series of submissions, either to the false self that we thought belonged to us because we expressed ourselves through it to the outside, or to the weight of circumstances that we supposed was the air we breathed.
In this moment of seeing, we suddenly find ourselves estranged and isolated, exiles where we thought we were citizens. We realize we were all error and deviation, that we never lived, that we existed only in so far as we filled time with constant doing and achieving. So how can we learn to do better? How can we avoid this sarcastic terror of life and wake up to a better way of doing things? This is what ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus takes up in one of the passages of his timeless manual of ethical advice Enchiridion.
Unconscious living, irrational thinking, and impulsive behavior were as much an issue in ancient times as they are now. So it’s not surprising that many philosophers tried to address the matter in their own unique way. Epictetus starts by noting that it’s great if you want to win and come first in a competition. But in every affair consider what precedes and what follows. Epictetus writes:
A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first and the things that follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold, you must not drink cold water, nor wine as you choose; in a word, you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest. And sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated.
Furthermore, Epictetus maintains that we have to be consistent in everything we do. In order to make wise decisions, we need to consider all angles, otherwise, we’ll “behave like children, who at one time play at wrestlers, another time as flute players, again as gladiators, then as trumpeters, then as tragic actors.” Epictetus writes:
So you will be at one time an athlete, at another a gladiator, then a rhetorician, then a philosopher, but with your whole soul you will be nothing at all; but like an ape you imitate everything that you see, and one thing after another pleases you. For you have not undertaken anything with consideration, nor have you surveyed it well; but carelessly and with cold desire. … These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty, or external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external; that is you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common person.
Complement this particular portion of Enchiridion, an ancient treasure trove of Stoic ethical advice, with Aristotle’s teaching on how small things make all the difference in cultivating virtues as habits.