Figs in winter and the idea of an art of living
Epictetus teaches us how to enjoy people and things while they are with us, rather than regret them when they are no longer
“So if you long for your son or your friend at a time when they aren’t given to you, you’re longing for a fig in winter, believe me.” (Epictetus, Discourses, III.24.87)
Figs are one of my favorite fruits. The common edible fig’s scientific name is Ficus carica, a plant native of the Mediterranean and western Asia. Figs are in season twice a year: during the first few weeks in June, and then again between August and October. That’s it. Which means that if I crave fresh figs in December or January I’m a bit of a fool. I’m even more of a fool if I don’t take advantage of the right season and manage to have my fill of figs when they are actually around.
This is the metaphor that the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus uses to explain to his students why they should not regret their loved ones when they are longer around, but should very much pay attention to them when they are. The idea applies to everything in life: relatives, partners, friends, but also the stages of our own life — from childhood to old age — and of course for everything we think we possess, in terms of material objects.
Indeed, Epictetus tells us that nothing is really ours. Not things, and certainly not other human beings. Speaking of the flamboyant Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, he says:
That’s why [Diogenes] used to say, ‘Slavery became a thing of the past for me after Antisthenes set me free.’ How did Antisthenes set him free? Listen to what he says: ‘He taught me what’s mine and what isn’t. Possessions aren’t mine. Relatives, family, friends, fame, familiar places, familiar patterns of life — he taught me that none of these are mine.’ ‘What is yours, then?’ ‘The use of impressions. He showed me that this is something I have that’s unimpeded and unconstrained. No one can obstruct me and no one can compel me to use impressions except as I wish.” (III.24.67–69)
What on earth are “impressions”? In Stoic psychology — which happens to agree with much modern cognitive science — an impression (phantasia, in Greek) is a pre-cognitive…