The Birth of Tragedy

Yogilates - The Birth of TragedyOne of my favorite thinkers from classical times is Epictetus, a Greek philosopher from the first century AD. I discovered him when I was quite young and I was very impressed by what he was teaching, even though I did not understand much.

Over the years I kept coming back to his writings and every time I did I discovered new things. I was reading him again recently and I was struck by something he said. Epictetus was not the nice/sweet guy type; he was born a slave—although later in his life he was liberated—and he was badly treated by his master, so badly that, apparently, at a certain point he became lame because of the beatings he received. He was a rough man and this is clearly reflected in his writings*.

This is the quote that struck me: “Behold the birth of tragedy, when idiots are confronted with the vicissitudes of life”.

A tragedy can be something big, significant, but can also be something quite small. We can replace the word ‘idiot’ with ‘ignorant’ or ‘unwise’. By that I don’t mean somebody who cannot read or write. A person can be very intelligent, like a Harvard professor, and at the same time be very ‘ignorant’ when it comes to dealing with life. Being wise, from my point of view, has no relation with knowledge or degrees, but with our ability to deal with life. So the quote could be translated like this: “Suffering is born when unwise/ignorant people are confronted with the changing world”.

The fact that we don’t know or understand that the world changes all the time makes us unwise. The vicissitudes of life can be many, large or minor. We may get sick, we may be cold or too hot, we may lose our jobs, we may be late for an appointment or somebody may be late for an appointment with us, lovers may leave us, our parents may get divorce, friends may deceive us, family members may die. These and many more things could happen anytime to anybody. Nobody is free from the changing world. Why? Because the world is never fixed, it constantly changes. Even our bodies are made of molecules that are continuously being born and dying, they are changing all the time. It’s the same with everything else. Nothing remains the same. But the unwise/ignorant people—the idiots—expect the world to be as they wish it to be. We are all unwise/ignorant/idiots when we get stuck on our ideas about how the world is supposed to be and cannot see the way things really are.

Nobody likes sickness, and we all should do our best not to get sick, to really take care of ourselves. But even if we do that (and sadly many people don’t) there are so many things happening in our body, there are billions of processes going on every second that we have absolutely no idea of. We may be able to control four or five out of a million, but our body is really not under our control. So sickness could appear, but it is our choice to make a tragedy out if it, or not. If we get sick we could complain about everything and feel bad about ourselves, or we could deal with it as wise people, doing our best to get better, but not complaining. Epictetus was really confronted by the vicissitudes of life, but he was famous for not complaining.

We cannot change a fact—being sick, losing a job, being left by one’s girlfriend or whatever—, but we have a choice about what we do with that fact. Anything that happens to us can be made into a tragedy or not, according to the choice we make. This is why I like this quote so much. I keep repeating it in my head, like a little mantra or prayer: “Behold the birth of tragedy, when idiots are confronted with the vicissitudes of life”. Then, when I make a tragedy out of something, I try to remember it.

Epictetus explains that our tragedies—our problems—are nothing but a thought. It is only when we call something a tragedy that it becomes a tragedy, but there is nothing that we actually have to call a tragedy. There are facts, some are pleasant and some are unpleasant. But an unpleasant fact does not need to become a tragedy—a problem—unless we choose it to be so. For example, for us death is a tragedy, but it wasn’t like that for Socrates. He didn’t see it as a problem but as a duty. For him death was just something that needed to happen. It’s up to each of us to see whatever life throws at us as a problem or as a situation to be resolved. The difference between the two is only a thought, a point of view.

When something unpleasant happens there may be difficult moments, we may feel uncomfortable, and we may even have pain, but whether we make it into a tragedy or not depends on the way we think about it.

But to be able to think clearly, for a quote like Epictetus’ to have any weight, we need to have a clear mind. If our mind is too busy, if it is too lost on problems, on worries, on the past or the future, then it will create tragedy. In our modern, fast-paced world it is more common to create tragedy than to be wise. We are all ‘idiots’, but have the possibility to become wise. But this requires effort, it requires practice, it requires attention, it requires presence.

I believe that this is something that should be taught, it should be part of our education. But we are not taught these kinds of things. In schools and universities we learn about how to make a living, but we are rarely taught how to live.


* Epictetus did not actually write anything, but, as it is with Socrates, his two books—The Enchiridion and Discourses—are transcripts of his talks done by one of his disciples. A selection from his book The Enchiridion (the title means The Manual for Living) can be found here, on Yogilates website.

Categories: Reflections

There are 5 comments

  1. Miruna

    Dear Carlos, thank you for this timeless reminder!
    It’s a peace-bringing practice to remind ourselves that things are taking place and we’re the ones assigning value to them (good/bad, miracle/tragedy).
    Please keep this good work going and know that people are reading your words.

  2. Alex

    very good and pretty ‘manly considerations on the quieting of the mind, attention and presence. these are probably very good words to always keep in mind.
    but why then I have again this feeling that this road leads to de-humanising somehow, anti-life. it teaches somehow an inner disconnection from what you are. Ok no, from what happends in our life. is it not about getting cold and immovable and being a stone? do we want to be like a stone?

    1. Carlos

      Nice questions Alex.
      Do we want to be like a stone? No of course not. But I believe we are very accustom to cry, to complain, to feel unhappy, to be depressed for what is happening to us, and when we feel like that we say we are doing something about it, or at least that we are feeling something about our situation.
      You say that ‘it teaches somehow an inner disconnection from what you are’. Quite the opposite. It teaches that what we are is not jealousy, nor suffering nor unhappiness, but that these emotions may be there because we don’t really know who we are. What are we? We are light, we are love, we are joy…

      Continuing in the same tone as this note, this is an excerpt from Epictetus:
      “…What do we value? Externals. What do we look after? Externals. Faced with external circumstances that we don’t like, we cannot help but feel frightened and worried and so we may say: ‘Please God, relieve me of my anxiety’. But I say, you have hands, God gave them to you himself. You might as well get on your knees and pray that your nose won’t run. But a better idea would be to wipe your nose yourself and forget the prayer. The point is, isn’t there anything God gave you for your present problem? You have the gifts of courage, strength and endurance. With ‘hands’ like these, do you still need somebody to help wipe your nose?…”

      As I say in the beginning of the note, Epictetus was not the nice\sweet guy. I don’t personally use this rough kind of talk, but I still like it.
      It is true that compared to cry over our problems, courage, strength and endurance (to name just a few) may seem to be stone cold…but to me they seem one solution to our unhappiness problem. We are so busy getting things form the outside, trying desperately to cover our inner unhappiness, that we forget to look inside and see what is in there.

      No, it is not about being cold. It is about open our hearts to the full, but before we can do that, we may have to close our hearts to some of its mistaken ideas. And we have many of those…

    2. Alex

      courage strenght endurance . . . beautiful.
      I’ll just have to match these with your say “make yourself soft”.. philosophy is so very tricky 🙂
      I thank you Carlos, to me, it is a lot

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