A Stoic on Stupidity and Plumbing

4 Min read

Epictetus – Greek stoic philosopher and former slave (b: AD 50)

On theory versus conduct

On leaky, wet shower walls

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AVAILABLE ON PODCAST

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There are some things which men confess with ease, and others with difficulty. No one, for instance, will confess himself a fool or a blockhead; but on the contrary, you will hear some persons say,— “I wish my fortune were in proportion to my abilities.” Epictetus*

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Epictetus, were he alive, may be surprised that I am No One. That No One who played the part of the fool and blockhead–as in the quote–and figured you may benefit from my stupidity.

The shower walls in my bathroom remained wet long after use. My husband and I consulted the digital Gods in chat forums and email threads, figuring it was most likely a grout issue with weep holes or poor drainage.

We opted to deal with the problem through a complete overhaul of the bathroom. Bite the bullet and do a remodel. That would cure the leaky, wet walls as well as cracked floor tiles, a sticky shower door, and worn fixtures. It was time. We’ve lived in the house 16 years.

BUT. I still didn’t know what was causing the leaking and constantly wet areas on the walls.

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We were hosting a party with family and friends at the end of May. Various maintenance in the house was underway from sealing the driveway and pressure washing, changing carpet and resurfacing floors. Contractors came to the bathroom to take tile measurements for the remodel. One man looked at the wet walls, surmising as we had. Grout issue, drainage.

This did wonders for my false confidence.

But the contractor had different motives. He was not a plumber and he was not there to fix the shower problem. He was there to win the remodel bid.

A week later. Maybe two weeks. I was reading in the sun room and noticed movement, something dripping by the rocker. I got up to look at the pillow on the seat. It was sopping wet and full of water. I looked up.

No one had been in the room for a while to notice that the ceiling had several feet of water damage. The music room adjacent had water damage beginning to show. My bedroom ceiling paint was bubbling along the wall by the shower.

It was the weekend, of course. Emergency rates applied and plumbers were scarce. We turned off the water to the house and waited till Monday.

The plumber came and found multiple leaks in the copper piping above the shower. He took out a large section of tile by the shower ceiling. He replaced leaking pipes and joints.

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What’s the price of being a fool?

It took two weeks for painters to repair the water damage.

The paint repairs cost more than the plumbing repairs.

I am not surprised to read Epictetus and see myself so clearly, in this passage and in others. My copy has sat on the shelf for years, worn with age and used as a coaster with a dried condensation ring on the cover. There’s a curious book plate with coat of arms and a pencil mark noting, 5- , on the flyleaf–likely what I paid for it.

John Bonforte’s 1955 translation of Epictetus is no longer in print. The epigraph is from Chapter XXIII, which is included in full below.

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Epictetus helped me recognize the error I made and set down worries about what others think, to see clearly the issue at hand and take appropriate action.

How then do I conduct myself?

In this case, I acted like a blockhead. I did not fix the shower problem when I should have and through stupidity the problem grew into a much bigger problem.

I opted to address a water leak in the shower by focusing on remodeling the bathroom.

I am sharing this, because grand schemes do not address the issue at hand.

What I have learned in theory is another thing altogether to learn in life.

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Of note. Tile samples are strewn about the bedroom and the large hole in the shower is covered in drywall with duct tape, still awaiting a remodel. The good news is I no longer have to trudge down to the guest bath.

I have, since this incident and since reading Epictetus, tackled household problems with relative ease.

Epictetus’s lesson in this chapter offers a broad view of human folly and how we confuse ideas of human traits as voluntary and involuntary.

Better said, faults we make and attribute to some “involuntary” trait we are willing to confess. In an example Epictetus explains that we confess to a fault which may result from an all-too-human bias of being compassionate, but not toward being stupid, because compassion is viewed as well-meaning and stupidity is simply inexcusable.

Yet, to be human is to act in a kind or stupid manner at various moments and situations. Writing this letter is a kindness for you, dear reader, to share a self-recognition of a stupid and costly mistake.

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FOOTNOTES

*Epictetus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published Tue Dec 23, 2008; substantive revision Tue Jun 15, 2021. A Greek philosopher of 1st and early 2nd centuries C.E., and an exponent of Stoic ethics notable for the consistency and power of his ethical thought and for effective methods of teaching. Epictetus’s chief concerns are with integrity, self-management, and personal freedom, which he advocates by demanding of his students a thorough examination of two central ideas, the capacity he terms ‘volition’ (prohairesis) and the correct use of impressions (chrēsis tōn phantasiōn), Heartfelt and satirical by turns, Epictetus has had significant influence on the popular moralistic tradition, but he is more than a moralizer; his lucid resystematization and challenging application of Stoic ethics qualify him as an important philosopher in his own right.

*The epigraph–opening quote–is from The Philosopy of Epictetus 1955 translation by John Bonforte. Here is the passage in full from the online text of Higginson’s translation. Discourses, Book 2.21:

If you are a student of philosophy, you may enjoy reading the full passage. The format encourages thought and reflection, as well as prompts to action. He writes that we are not going to ‘school’ with books to leave with theorems. Ostentatious display of knowledge Epictetus mocks and suggests that the student who knows her shortcomings wishes to correct and to adjust, to be reformed.

Interesting part of the epigraph was its closing line: “I wish my fortune were in proportion to my abilities.” This reminds me of a saying we had in human resources when dealing with compensation. Pay issues were common and this line is a truism. We said that: No one ever came to say they were paid too much. No one. Ever.

Of inconsistency.

There are some things which men confess with ease, and others with difficulty. No one, for instance, will confess himself a fool or a blockhead; but, on the contrary, you will hear every one say, “I [p. 1196] wish my fortune were in proportion to my abilities.” But they easily confess themselves fearful, and say, “I am somewhat timorous, I confess; but in other respects you will not find me a fool.” No one will easily confess himself intemperate in his desires, upon no account dishonest, nor indeed very envious or meddling; but many confess themselves to have the weakness of being compassionate. What is the reason of all this? The principal reason is an inconsistency and confusion in what relates to good and evil. But different people have different motives, and in general, whatever they imagine to be base, they do not absolutely confess. Fear and compassion they imagine to belong to a well-meaning disposition; but stupidity, to a slave. Offences against society they do not own; but in most faults they are brought to a confession chiefly from imagining that there is something involuntary in them, as in fear and compassion. And though a person should in some measure confess himself intemperate in his desires, he accuses his passion, and expects forgiveness, as for an involuntary fault. But dishonesty is not imagined to be, by any means, involuntary. In jealousy too there is something they suppose involuntary and this likewise, in some degree, they confess.

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Conversing therefore with such men, thus confused, thus ignorant what they say, and what are or are not their ills, whence they have them, and how they may be delivered from them, it is worth while, [p. 1197] I think, to ask one’s self continually, “Am I too one of these? What do I imagine myself to be? How do I conduct myself, – as a prudent, as a temperate man? Do I, too, ever talk at this rate,- that I am sufficiently instructed for what may happen? Have I that persuasion that I know nothing which becomes one who knows nothing? Do I go to a master as to an oracle, prepared to obey; or do I also, like a mere driveller, enter the school only to learn and understand books which I did not understand before, or perhaps to explain them to others?”

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After all this, it is said, nobody is the better for the philosophic school. Why, who comes to the school? [p. 1198] I mean, who comes to be reformed; who, to submit his principles to correction; who, with a sense of his wants? Why do you wonder, then, that you bring back from the school the very thing you carried there? For you do not come to lay aside, or correct, or change, your principles. How should you? Far from it. Rather consider this, therefore, whether you have not what you have come for. You have come to talk about theorems. Well; and are you not more impertinently talkative than you were? Do not these paltry theorems furnish you with matter for ostentation? Do you not solve convertible and hypothetical syllogisms? Why, then, are you still displeased, if you have the very thing for which you came?

Discourses, Epictetus 2.21. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Ed.

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Jun 28, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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