One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be able to look back on your life. When you do so, you do not want to feel that it was wasted merely because you were too timid and afraid to embrace it. Have courage, these slogans implore – reach the fullest potential of a happy and fulfilling life.
In what follows, I want to articulate a different way to understand this expression.
This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:
“Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.”
The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that Epictetus is reminding us that everything in life has opportunity costs. In order to get something of value, one always forgoes something. The man who gets to go to the party paid for it by having to sell his praise. Epictetus then tells the reader, “But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead.”