Leave All Behind

"On a voyage, when the ship is anchored, if you go on shore to get water, you may gather a small shellfish or cuttlefish along the way as a side issue for yourself, but your thoughts must be directed at the ship and you must be constantly watchful if not the captain calls. And if he calls, leave all of it behind, so you won’t be thrown into the ship bound like cattle. It is the same in life: if instead of a small shellfish and cuttlefish, you are given a wife and child, there is nothing against that. But if the captain calls, rush towards the ship and leave all behind without looking back. And if you are old, don’t even go far from the ship, so you won’t default when you are called."  (Epictetus)

Enchiridon 7: Be Prepared

"Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time." (Epictetus, Enchiridon 7)


This strange little metaphor tells a story, a parable of sorts. And as with many metaphors and analogies, sometimes they fail, so there are a couple of head-scratching moments as the story unfolds. We won't take time to discuss these. Instead we will begin to develop two possible interpretations as Epictetus does not define his terms or fully explain the parable.


One intriguing interpretation suggests that Epictetus is talking about one's ruling principle (the ship). Each person has an "unmovable center" that, as one journeys through life, they venture here and there, picking up other ideas (symbolized in onions/truffle or shellfish--"stinking thinking"?). Some ideas may be given and should be received as gifts (symbolized in wife or child). Regardless, do not stray far from what one knows to be uncompromisingly true. That's one idea.

Perhaps the most common interpretation falls along the lines of how one lives in the shadow of death, as it were. The ship (death) is anchored somewhere along your voyage (life), where we are ashore interacting, living. Our thoughts should always be on the ship, that one day our time on shore will end and we can board peacefully, leaving everything behind. Or we can be suddenly and brutally taken. Either way, be ready for the captain to call. As we age, we draw closer the ship.

The last phrase, μή ποτε καλοῦντος ἐλλίπῃς is best translated, "lest you should be missing when  he calls" as "unable to come in time" can become confusing.


Life is short and there's nothing wrong with discovering the world around you, perhaps even picking up a few trifles here and there. But know this: death will find you, prepared or unprepared. Sure, the metaphor is a little rough, but the analogy is to look at life as a whole and this includes death. Be prepared for your end. There's never a reason to "go down" kicking and screaming. But more on that in another post. 

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