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Look for the Smooth Handle

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In 1811, a 68-year-old Thomas Jefferson sat down to try to put down some advice that he could pass along to his 12-year-old granddaughter Cornelia. His advice survives to us as “Canons of Conduct,” 12 rules for living. 

Did Jefferson always live up to these rules? No, certainly not. For instance, he often spent money before he had it. He was prideful. And of course, as a slave owner, he quite hypocritically violated his rule to “never trouble another with what you can do yourself.” But still, the rules are all easy to understand and hard to disagree with… except one. 

Rule #10 is “Take things always by their smooth handle.” What does that even mean? 

It’s actually a sly reference to a passage from Epictetus, one that we have talked about many times here before. “Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”

That’s what Jefferson was getting at when he made it one of his rules of life. It’s worth thinking about today. Don’t grab things by the rough or the weak handle. Don’t grab them by the easy one. Grab them by the smooth and study one, the one that will bear weight. 

Think of the good in people. Think about where you are to blame. Think about when you have committed a similar wrong yourself. Think of it as a challenge. Think of it as an opportunity to help someone. Think about how connected we all are to each other. That is the smoothest and sturdiest handle of them all.

And it is the better one to grab, now and always.

P.S. This was originally sent on November 30, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.