The Call of the Captain

Epictetus gives an elaborate metaphor of life, comparing it to a voyage in which a ship enters a port and a traveler goes ashore but must constantly be on the alert to hear the captain’s signal so that he is not left behind. So also in life, we must drop everything at the call of the captain. What does all this mean? What does the attempt to get water and gather shellfish, etc. represent? Do they represent distractions in life? Things outside our control? Epictetus clearly connects them with one’s children and wife. Who is the captain? What does the call of the captain symbolize? Is it a call to things within our control? Why will one be bound and thrown into the ship? Will one be forced to accept things as they happen, not as one wishes (see the next chapter)? Does the captain represent the Stoic god?

Epictetus likes this metaphor of life’s journey. Our sojourn through life is looked upon as temporary, just as a stop-over in a port or at an inn (see ch. 11). We share this journey with a wife, children, friends, etc., but this is not a permanent condition. Just as travellers will part and go their separate ways, so we will leave behind (die) or be left behind by our wife, etc. Thus, when you are called, you must drop everything and focus on what is in your control or go to your death. While this seems harsh, one notes that in chapter 11, Epictetus tells us to take care of what is entrusted to us (e.g., a child), until the time of parting or death comes.