The General Condition of Man

“It is not sufficiently considered how much [a person] assumes who dares to claim the privilege of complaining…. why does he imagine that exemptions should be granted him from the general condition of man?”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 50

At the end of a long day, when tiresome laments bubble again to the surface, I try (with greater or lesser success) to keep things in perspective. In returning to the theme of gratitude, I glean the following advice from my reading of the Stoic Epictetus:

He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living, but he who bears that in a noble spirit, and makes reasonable use of all that comes from it, deserves to be regarded as a good man.

Or in another passage

When we’re invited to a banquet, we take whatever is served, and if anyone should ask his host to serve him with fish or cakes, he would be thought eccentric, and yet in the wider world, we ask the gods for things that they don’t give us, irrespective of the many things that they actually have given us.

It is a fact of human psychology that the more contented we are with what we have, the less we notice what seems to be lacking, while those who are always pinning their hopes and happiness on some new acquisition are never satisfied, no matter how much comes their way.

As for the apparently fatalistic attitude on the part of the Greek philosopher (implied by his reference to “fortune”), this would hardly be consoling, except that he must be understood as speaking colloquially. Epictetus says that “all things obey and serve the universe” and our lives are part of its “governing order.” More specifically, in discussing our moral choices, he advises us to “be of one mind with God.”

The foregoing passages are taken from the “Fragments” of Epictetus in the Oxford edition of his works. For related commentary, see my earlier post.

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