Monday, May 20, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.14 - Miscellaneous

As the title states, there are various brief thoughts Epictetus teaches in this chapter.

The first one could be summed up as: stand on your own two feet!  Epictetus notes that bad singers are masked when they are in a choir.  But if they were to sing by themselves, it would be apparent they are a bad singer.  Therefore, "sing" by yourself; "stand" on your own without any help to see what you lack.  And by identifying your weak points, you may take action to become stronger.

"If you're anyone at all, man, walk around on your own ... Put up with being laughed at on occasion; look around you, and give yourself a good shaking to find out who you really are" (v. 1-3, p. 170).

Marcus Aurelius shared a similar sentiment when he said, "Your duty is to stand straight - not held straight." (Meditations 3.5)

The next thought regards performing some act which has benefit to you ... and so you do it for the sake of the benefit.  Other people might perform the same act not only for the benefit, but also to brag.  Today's modern example might be people who brag and talk about being vegan all the time, instead of simply being vegan and letting the results speak for themselves.

"When someone drinks water alone, or adopts some other ascetic practice, he seizes every opportunity to tell everyone, 'I drink nothing but water.' ... Man, if it brings you any benefit to drink it, then drink it; otherwise you're acting in a ridiculous fashion" (v. 4-5, p. 170).

The third thought: two things need to "be rooted out from human beings: presumption and lack of confidence" (v. 8, p. 171).

Don't presume that you know everything and that there is nothing else to learn.  Rather, you should embrace a learning mindset.  Look for ways to improve your character and grow your knowledge.  Be humble in your quest of self-knowledge and learning.

Secondly, don't take the perspective that since there is so much chaos and adversity in the world, it's useless to try to change it.  Rather, take the perspective of "growing where you're planted" and try to make your spot-of-the-world a better place.  Fight the apathy and the mindset that you can't make a difference.

The last thought from this chapter deals with what you ought to focus on as a human being.  Thinking yourself better than others because of your title or your lot in life is not "right thinking."  This would be similar to horses bragging about the food they get or the place they sleep.  The only thing that matters in the world of race horses is the result of the race - that is the ultimate measure of a horse.

For humans, the ultimate measure is virtue.  If you have courage, justice, temperance and wisdom, then you are succeeding.  What your lot in life is, the condition of your health or size of your bank account mean nothing if you don't have a good soul - a good character.  "Show yourself to be better in these [virtues] so that you may be better as a human being" (v. 14, p. 171).

Friday, May 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.13 - What desolation means, and the nature of one who is desolate

In Scott Adams' God's Debris in the chapter entitled "God's Motivation" the avatar claims there is only one challenge for God: “the challenge of destroying himself" and attempting to learn what happens afterwards.

It is an interesting thought experiment, one which Adams fleshes out in the book.

Epictetus touches on a similar concept; one of desolation and the conflagration of the universe.  If you're like me, you might wonder what the definition of "conflagration" is.  It's defined as, "an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property."  So, the conflagration of the universe seems to hit at the Big Bang Theory, which also sounds similar to how we possibly exist according to the thought experiment in God's debris.

Epictetus talks of desolation in the human condition as well as in Zeus' condition.  Humans might be considered desolate when they are "bereft of help" (v. 1, p. 167).  The worst kind of desolation isn't just lack of people around you, but lack of people who are "trustworthy, honest and helpful" (v. 3, p. 168).  Whereas in Zeus' condition, he is able to live with himself and "is at peace with himself, and reflects on the nature of his own rule, and occupies himself with thoughts that are worthy of him" (v. 7, p. 168).  However, I wonder if ever at some point in his long, endless life, he arrived at the idea that the Avatar proposes in God's Debris?  All of that is fascinating to discuss, but lets get back to solving the human condition first!

Epictetus teaches, "we too should be able to converse with ourselves, and know how to do without others, and not be at a loss about how to occupy ourselves; we should reflect on the divine governing order, and the nature of our relationship with all other things, and consider how we have responded to events up until now, and how we are doing so at present, and what are the things that afflict us, and how these too can be remedied; and if any of these things need perfecting" (v. 7-8, p. 168).

In other words, we ought to find time and space for self-reflection and how we plan to improve ourselves.

Indeed, Caesar and other powerful leaders of the world can sue and guarantee peace from war and piracy, but they would not be able to guarantee their people peace from sorrow or envy or natural disasters.  Only "the teaching of the philosophers promises to provide us with peace from all such things" (v. 11, p. 169).  We learn from the philosophers "by God through the voice of reason ... how nothing bad can possible happen to me; there can be no robber for me, no earthquake; everything is full of peace, full of tranquility; and every road, every city, every fellow traveler, neighbour, companion, all are harmless" (v. 13, p. 169).  And when our time is up and God calls us to return, we return from whence we came: the elements.

Later in the chapter, Epictetus advises us to practice to learn to live like the Gods, who need nothing.  "Take no food, drink water alone; abstain from every desire at one time so as to be able, one day, to exercise your desires in a reasonable way" (v. 21, p. 170).  And when you want to help others, you will be able to do so, since you have conquered yourself.  You can only help others conquer themselves when you have already done it (see. v. 22-23, p. 170).

This advice is very similar to quotes from the following:

Diogenes Laertius quotes Diogenes of Sinope as saying, "It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing and of godlike men to want little."

Crates who said, "practice being in need of only a few things, for this is the closest thing to god. for the gods need nothing. but, so that you may learn more exactly what is involved in having few needs ... reflect that children have more needs than adults, women than men, invalids than the healthy, and, in general, the inferior everywhere has more needs than the superior. therefore the gods have need of nothing and those nearest to them have the fewest needs." source

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.12 - On training

We should train and practice for real events.

Do basketball players practice hockey in order to get better at basketball?  Most likely not.  True, some athletes might practice in other disciplines in order for them to improve in their craft, but they never lose sight of the goal.

Every individual should practice in the area where they are weak.

Sometimes life - the Universe - Zeus - God - will choose what we ought to practice.  Other times, we should self-reflect on where we ought to divert our attention for focused practice.

Epictetus says, "in our training we shouldn't resort to unnatural and extraordinary practices, or otherwise we who profess to be philosophers will be no better than showmen.  For it is difficult also to walk along a tightrope, and not only difficult, but dangerous too.  For that reason, should we too practice walking along a tightrope, or setting up palms*, or embracing statues?  In no way.  For not everything that is difficult or dangerous is suitable for training, but only what will contribute to our achieving the object of our strivings.  And what is the object of our strivings?  To pass our lives without suffering any hindrance in our desires and aversions" (v. 1-4, p. 166).

"When [and where] impressions are most inclined to make us slip, there we must apply our training as a counteracting force" (v. 6, p. 166).

"For who is a man in training?  One who practices not exercising his desire, and practices exercising his aversion only in relation to things that lie within the sphere of choice, practicing especially hard in matters that are difficult to master.  So different people will practice hardest with regard to different things" (v. 8, p. 166).

An oft-cited practice many ancients did, was to hug cold statues, with no clothes on.  They wanted to increase their endurance of the cold.  Epictetus seems to suggest this practice is unnatural and extreme.  I imagine what started as a simple exercise of sleeping without a blanket, on the floor, was used by a person who perhaps was afraid of going cold.  And to break that fear, perhaps they decided to sleep on the floor with no blanket.  Then, perhaps, their fear of the cold was broken and they may have shared this insight with others.  Then, others might have laughed at this practice and to show how easy it is to sleep on the cold floor with no blanket, they may have decided to sleep naked on the floor and then tell others of their feat.  Seeing how humans like to one-up each other, some people, then, may have resorted to hugging statues with no clothes on - to show off their lack of fear of the cold.  In all this, the goal was lost.  The goal, for the first person, was to break their fear of the cold - nothing more.  Once they no longer feared the cold, the practice was irrelevant.

Therefore what?

We ought to practice precisely in the areas where our desires and aversions are greatest.  And each of us will have different desires and aversions to break.

For some, cold showers will be useful (they fear losing hot water).

For some, living a week without a smartphone might be a worthwhile exercise.  For others, it might be fasting.  And for others, it might be lifting weights or doing manual labor for several days in a row.

To begin, you have to think about what you desire and are averse to.  The answers tells you where you ought to practice, so as to break your desire and aversion for something.

If you have big desires and aversions to break, then start small.  If you fear losing your home, then practice overcoming your fear of losing small possessions, then work your way up.

After you've broken your desires and aversions, "the second area of study is concerned with your motives to act or not to act, so that they may be obedient to reason" (v. 13, p. 167).  Are you acting with virtue as your sole motivation?  If not, then practice til you can.

"The third area of study is concerned with assent, and with what is plausible and attractive ... we shouldn't accept any impression without subjecting it to examination, but should say to it, 'Wait, let me see who you are, and where you've come from' (v. 14-15, p. 166).

Lastly, "all the practices that are applied to the body by those who are giving it exercise may also be useful here if they're directed in some way towards desire and aversion; but if they're directed towards display, that is the sign of someone who has turned towards external things and is hunting for other prey, of one who is seeking for spectators to exclaim, 'Oh what a great man!'" (v. 16, p. 166).  This is where modern sports (collegiate and professional) have fled.  What was once a practice perhaps for war or for exercising the body, has now blossomed into a multi-billion dollar "look-at-me" industry.

"'If you want to train for your own sake, take a little cold water into your mouth when you're thirsty in hot weather and then spit it out again, without telling a soul'" (v. 17, p. 166).

* "setting up palms" could refer to climbing up a pole with only hands and feet

Monday, May 13, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.11 - Miscellaneous

Although the title is Miscellaneous, the chapter really is a repetition about the dichotomy of control as well as being kind to all; having a kindred feeling for all - bringing all into your circle of love.

If you regard "things in your control" as the ultimate good, then you will be in control of your mental resiliency.  But if you view "things not in your control" as the ultimate good, then you will have envy and uncontrolled desires; you'll have a troubled mind, you'll grieve, lament and be unhappy (see v. 1-3, p. 165).

Have a kindred feeling for all.  For strangers, because they too are the offspring of Zeus or the Universe or God.  Honor your father and mother, since you came from them.  Honor your brothers and sisters, since you and they share a common heritage.  Zeus or God oversees all (see v. 4-5, p. 165).

Similar commentary on this subject can be found on Meditations 4:4.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.10 - How ought we to bear our illnesses?

Premeditatio malorum - the practice of anticipating "bad things" ... in that "bad things" are what non-philosophers view as bad for the person; such as death, illness, thirst or hunger.  To the Stoic, these things are external to the ruling center and therefore are neither good nor bad.  But because many of us humans have been trained to think that death, disease, illness, bad health, loss of property, loss of employment and loss of reputation are bad things, the Stoic practice of premeditatio malorum is used to break us of our desire to avoid these things.  It is a form of the Discipline of Assent.

Epictetus teaches, "we should have each judgement ready at hand for when we have need of it; at table, such as relate to the table, at the baths, such as relate to baths, and in bed, such as relate to bed" (v. 1, p. 163).

We see his own personal examples of this.

Table (eating)
Keep in mind that you should always behave as you would do at a banquet.  Something comes around to you; stretch out your hand and politely take a portion.  It passes on; don't try to stop it.  It has not come yet; don't let your appetite run ahead, but wait till the portion reaches you. (Encheiridion 15)

Baths (public pool)
Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like.  If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse - the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things.  In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: "I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature." (Encheiridion 4)

Bed (or before you complete your day and go to sleep)
Let not sleep descend on your weary eyes
Before having reviewed every action of the day.

Where did I go wrong?  What did I do?  What duty leave undone?
Starting here, review your actions, and afterwards,

Blame yourself for what is badly done, and rejoice in the good.  (Discourses 3.10.2-3)

The concept of premeditatio malorum gives us the idea to anticipate every scenario, and perhaps write down what the right action is to each event and then "keep these verses at hand to put them to practical use" (v. 4, p. 163).  The title Encheiridion means hand-book.  It is a book or manual that Epictetus used; it is the result of his extensive premeditatio malorum, exercises which guided him and reminded him of how to live and anticipate every event.

Reviewing our actions at the end of each day, could be the seeds of our own personal handbook that we keep at hand.  Many of us literally keep a type of handbook with us at all time in the form of a smartphone.  Could we not use it to facilitate our daily review, which then could be used to produce our own personal handbook?

"To practice philosophy ... [is] to prepare oneself to face every eventuality" (v. 6, p. 163) and then face those eventualities as prepared ... and not back out and revert to old habits when that eventuality occurs.

Just as when one trains in pancration, one practices to use it.  And further, the practice is like real life.

What should a philosopher say, then, in the face of each of the hardships of life? ‘It is for this that I’ve been training myself; it is for this that I was practising.’ God says to you, ‘Give me proof of whether you’ve competed in accordance with the rules, whether you’ve followed the proper diet, carried out the proper exercises, and have obeyed your trainer.’ And then, when the time comes for you to act, will you quail? Now is the moment to suffer a fever; may it proceed as it should; to undergo thirst, may you undergo it in the right spirit; to undergo hunger, may you undergo it in the right spirit. Isn’t that within your power? Who can prevent you? Yes, a doctor may prevent you from drinking, but he can’t prevent you from bearing thirst in the right way; he may prevent you from eating, but he can’t prevent you from facing hunger in the right way. (v. 7-9, p. 163-164)

Why do we study and practice philosophy?  It is so we may be happy and "achieve constancy of mind" and to "be in accord with nature and pass ... life" as so (v. 10, p. 164).

And so when God tests you with a fever, "what does it mean to undergo a fever in the right way?  It is to find fault with neither God nor man; it is to refuse to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by what is happening, and to await death bravely and in the right way" (v. 13, p. 164).  It means to not get excited by "good news" nor be dejected by bad (see. 13-14, p. 164).

Furthermore, it is not the duty of a philosopher to keep his external things safe, such as his wine-store or his poor carcass (v. 16, p. 165).  Rather, it is his duty to safeguard his own ruling center, keeping it pure and in accord with nature.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.9 - To an orator who was going to Rome in connection with a lawsuit

There is a part of me who wonders what it would be like, especially in today's post-modern society,  to be an Epictetus or Diogenes or a student of one of them.  It seems they would sit in their school all day long and lecture and have conversations with visitors and teach them where their thinking ought to be fixed.  Poverty was nothing to them; their needs were met and they had either a small family or no family at all to care for.  I wonder if I would be up to the challenge of living a poor philosopher's life.

We get a glimpse into the comparison between the life of a busy, ambitious orator and a philosopher in book 3, chapter 9.

After explaining to Epictetus why he was going to Rome, the orator asked Epictetus what he thought of the matter.  Epictetus could provide no answer as to whether the orator would win his case or not, but Epictetus could inform the orator if his judgements were right or not (v. 2, p. 160).

Our actions are based on our judgement; and as long as our judgement is good, then our actions will be good.

Epictetus observes that both the orator and his opposition think they have sound judgement, yet they both disagree with each other.  How is that?  Therefore, the criteria for good or bad judgement must be something else (see. v. 5, p. 160-161).

To know whether he is good or bad judgement, he orator must subject his judements to examination.  Furthermore, Epictetus demonstrates to the orator they he has never subjected his judgements to examination ... not when he was a child, a teenager or a young man (v. 6-10, p. 161).

Epictetus informs the orator that the central rule of a philosopher is "ensuring that whatever comes about, our ruling centre is and forever continues to be in accord with nature" (v. 11, p. 161).

Epictetus chides the orator for wanting to visit Epictetus only for show and that he (the orator) only came to see Epictetus and not to really come to know and learn of him.  The only real way to know a person is to "become acquainted with his judgements, and show him one's own judgements in one's turn."  Epictetus tells him, "Learn to know my judgements, show me your own, and then you can say that you've met me.  Let's cross-examine one another; and if I'm harbouring any bad judgement, root it out, or if you're harbouring any, bring it to light.  That is what meeting a philosopher is all about" (v. 13, p. 162).

Some might complain that by focusing time and effort on these matters (discussing good vs. bad judgement, talking to a philospher), they will lose their land or their "silver goblets" and cattle.  To which Epictetus would say, "But I have no need of such things, and even if you come to acquire many possessions, you'll need more again, and whether you wish it or not, you're more poverty-stricken than I am" (v. 16, p. 162).

Someone who is focused on acquiring wealth and protecting it, sacrifices "stability, a mind in accord with nature, and freedom from agitation" (v. 17, p. 162).  They are focused on things that perish and will turn to dust.  They are distracted by all these things, so much so, that they "go to the theatre to kill time" (v. 20, p. 162).  This mental disease is exactly what afflicts post-modern society today.  People want kill time on their phones, flipping through social media, playing games and streaming content such as TV shows and movies.

Focusing on acquisition and the upkeep of material possessions leads to "insatiable" desire, while the philosopher has his or her desires "already fulfilled" (v. 21, p. 162).  Malcontents are like monkeys or children who "push their hand into a narrow-necked jar and try to extract nuts and figs; if they fill their hand, they can't get it out again, and then burst into tears.  Drop a few of them and you'll get it out (v. 22, p. 162-163).

So too, to us post-moderns: "let your desire drop; don't hanker after so many things, and you'll get what you want" (v. 22, p. 163).

Monday, May 6, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.8 - How we should train ourselves to deal with impressions

The Discipline of Assent is a very important discipline to develop.  It is mental work.  It is looking at things from a very rudimentary level.  The goal is for you to observe "things" and "events" without consciously forming an opinion of them.  This allows you to then think about what is an appropriate response in the context of "what virtue can I exercise given this thing or event?"  You have to give yourself a change to re-act reasonably, which means developing a "pause" between observing a thing or event and your reasoned reaction to it.

Epictetus gives examples.

Observing that someone has died and that that event is out of their control.

Observing that someone has lost their inheritance and that that event is out of their control.  Similarly, if it were you who lost your inheritance and then recognizing that that event is out of your control, is all you should do when exercising the discipline of assent.

Observing that someone has been condemned by Caesar or some authority figure and acknowledging that this event is out of their control ... full stop: that is the discipline of assent.

If, however, these events happen to someone or you, and that someone or you is disturbed by them - being disturbed by this is in your control and by being disturbed by them is failure on their part or your part.

However, if someone endures or you endure those events nobly and undisturbed - this is also in your control and is a success on their part or your part.  In this case, you have exercised a virtue as a reaction to some event or thing out of your control.  This is what Marcus meant when he said, "So in all future events which might induce sadness remember to call on this principle: 'this is no misfortune, but to bear it true to yourself is good fortune.'" (Meditations 4.49).

"If we adopt this habit, we'll make progress," says Epictetus (v. 4, p. 159).

The Universe/Zeus/God has given each of us "the ability to endure things, and has made [us] noble-minded, because he has prevented these things from being evils, because he has made it possible for [us] to suffer them and still be happy" (v. 6, p. 160).

Truly, we can choose the best, most virtuous reaction in any circumstance, but it takes mental toughness and discipline.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.7 - To the inspector of the free cities, who was an Epicurean

Adapted from Donald Robertson's analysis found here: Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

Epictetus took advantage of a visit from an inspector who was Epicurean.  Getting right to the point, Epictetus asked him "what is the best thing in the world" / "which is best" (v. 1-2, p. 156).

Both Epictetus and the Epicurean agreed that the flesh - the body is not the best good (v. 3, p. 156).

The next agreed that the best good lies within the mind (v. 4, p. 156) and specifically what lies within our "sphere of choice" (v. 5. p. 156).

Continuing, "does the pleasure of the mind lie within the sphere of choice?" to which the Epicurean said "it does" (v. 6. p. 156).

Epictetus then asks what is the cause of this pleasure of the mind.  Can the mind just create the pleasure by itself, or is there some cause of it?  The Epicurean agreed that there must be some cause before the pleasure ensues (v. 7, p. 156).

And on this point Epictetus begins to instruct the Epicurean.  In essence the question is: can something 'not good' cause pleasure which is 'good'?  On this, they both agree.  If your pleasure is to be good, the thing on which it is based must also be good ... they both agree with this concept.  I wish to quote Robertson on this particular part, as he does a great job explaining this specific passage:

He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.
However, this goes against the Epicurean philosophy of "the pleasure of the mind is pleasure in bodily things, and these [external] pleasures thus come to be what is of primary value, and the essence of the good" (v. 8, p. 156).

The next point Epictetus makes is to show the Epicurean that although they teach that to obtain the Good, they ought to seek pleasure by stealing, while not getting caught, they still do not steal.  Why is that?  Because "it is impossible to give our assent to what appears to be false" (v. 15, p. 157).  The same can be said of securing massive amounts of wealth, seducing your neighbor's wife and even killing her husband (v. 15-16, p. 157).

The Epicureans preach "shameful doctrines" while "acting nobly" and the Stoics preach "what is fine and noble, but do what is shameful" (v. 18, p. 157).

The next folly of Epicureanism that Epictetus points out has to deal with the discipline of action.  Whereas the Stoics adhere to a cosmopolitan view of the world, in that we each have a duty to those closest to us which then expands to the community and the whole world, the Epicureans have a more selfish motive and one that is unsustainable as a community.  To maximize pleasure and minimize pain, people would choose to not marry, nor have children, nor perform civic duties.  Consequently, society would cease to exist if everyone adhered to Epicureanism (see v. 19-20, p. 157).

And if the Epicurean city official could not fully understand Epictetus' point, Epictetus makes it crystal clear what one ought to do with regard to the community: "keep your hands off other people's property, regard no woman as beautiful apart from your own wife, and regard no boy as beautiful, nor any piece of silverware or goldware.  You should seek out doctrines that are consistent with that pattern of behavior" (v. 21-22, p. 158).

He further emphasizes this when he says our actions should be "fulfilling one's role as a citizen, marrying, having children, honouring God, taking care of one's parents, and, in a word, having our desires and aversions, and our motives to act and or not to act, as each of them ought to be, in accordance with our nature.  And what is our nature?  To be people who are free, noble-minded, and self-respecting" (v. 26-27, p. 158).

And just because Caesar signed a piece of paper certifying that this Epicurean is a judge, does not make him a good judge anymore than if Caesar had given him credentials that he's a judge of music (v. 30, p. 158).  No, what makes a good judge is someone who will govern people "as rational beings by showing [them] what is in their interest" and that he must earn their respect by being a good person himself.  The judge should act in a way so that people would admire him and want to emulate him (see v. 34, p. 159).

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.6 - Miscellaneous

Just a few thoughts stand out from this passage.

Where effort is applied, progress is made.  If you apply effort to "solving syllogisms" then you will solve them.  If you apply effort "to keeping [your] ruling centre in accord with nature," you'll make progress.  He further contends, if you focus on one, you will fail in the other. (see v. 1-4, p. 154-155)

Invincible is another term used to describe the goal of Stoicism.  Says Epictetus, "The good person is invincible because he never engages in any contest in which he is not superior.  'If you want to take my land, take it; take my servants; take my public position, take my poor body.  But you won't cause my desires to fail to attain their end, or my aversions to fall into what they want to avoid.'  This is the only contest that he enters into, the one that is concerned with things that lie within the sphere of choice; so how can he be anything other than invincible?" (v. 5-7, p. 155)

Lastly, every person can convert to philosophy - it's as easy as snagging "soft cheese on a hook" and therefore to find the one who are truly going to embrace philosophy, Musonius Rufus (Epictetus' teacher) would turn students away.  Those who refused to be turned away and kept coming back were the gifted ones.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.5 - To those who leave because of illness

One of Epictetus' students is ill and wants to go home; Epictetus teaches him an important lesson: "if your ruling centre can't be kept in accord with nature, your little piece of land at least could be.  You'll add to your small store of cash, look after your father in his old age, hang around in the marketplace, hold public office; and being of bad character, you'll do everything else badly" (v. 3, p. 153).  His point being, if the student (us) cannot first control our ruling center, then we won't do anything else, no matter what we focus on, well.

While some want to die in the act of enjoying something they love (i.e. racing, travelling, etc), Epictetus wants to die in the act of improving his character.

He wants to be:

If he falls ill, he will do so without complaining.

He will always have a smile on his face; ready to accept any fate assigned to him; being full of gratitude; willing to see and appreciate all of God's works and accept God's "governing order" (see v. 9-10, p. 154).

Socrates said, "As one person rejoices in improving his land, and another his horse, so I rejoice day by day in observing that I myself am becoming better" ... never finding "fault with anyone, whether god or human being, and never [reproaching] anyone, and always [having] the same expression on [my] face (v. 14-16, p. 154).

"Who of you sets this as his purpose, then?  Because if you did, you'd willingly undergo illness, hunger, and death" (v. 18, p. 154).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.4 - To one who took sides in the theatre in an undignified manner

In our last local Stoic meetup, the topic of sports came up - playing sports, as well as rooting for the home team or for your favorite team.  Many people are competitive and have the drive and motivation to win.  Some want it more than others and in some cases, those people may cheat or use every possible method under the rules, to win.  And when some people lose (or if the team they are cheering on loses), they get into the foulest of moods.  I used to be this way.

Eventually, I learned what Epictetus taught the governor.  The governor went to the theater and was wildly cheering on "Sophron" (whoever that is ... I don't know the full context of this; perhaps it was a gladiator or some stand-up comic).  And when the people under his rule started yelling at the governor and verbally abusing him, he got all upset!

Epictetus explains to him that since the people saw him acting all wildly at the contest, they figured they could do the same.  But the governor was being selfish and basically could not take what he was willing to dish out.  He was so upset, he was contemplating punishing them.  Epictetus tell him it would be absurd to punish the people for acting as they did.  If Zeus punished people every time they verbally abused him, "he would have nobody left to rule!" (v. 8, p. 152).

No, the solution is not punishment or silencing people you disagree with.  Rather, when it comes to sports, either as a participant or an observer, you should remember to "keep [your] faculty of choice in accord with nature." And you should say to yourself, "No one is dearer to me than myself; it would be absurd that I should do harm to myself to enable another man to win a victory." (v. 10, p. 152).

I've learned, when it comes to playing and watching basketball, to do as Epictetus taught those going to the public bath.

When you're about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is.  If you're going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at baths, that people will splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you.  And you'll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, 'I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.'  And follow the same course in every action that you embark on.  So if anything gets in your way while you're taking a bath, you'll be ready to tell yourself, 'Well, this wasn't the only think that I wanted to do [bathe], but I also wanted to keep my choice in harmony with nature; and I won't keep it if I get annoyed at what is happening.'"  (Handbook Chapter 4, p. 288)

And so when I am on my way to play basketball, I tell myself that I will miss shots, make bad passes and my team will lose.  But I am honestly there to exercise, not to win a championship.  I will be successful if I try hard, stay in the game mentally, and be a good team player.  I will also accomplish burning calories and get a temporary high from the social aspects of the game.  Ever since I started doing this (for the last 3-4 years), almost 100% of the time, I leave the gym very happy and content.

I apply the same line of thinking when I'm cheering for "my team" whether they be the Texans, Astros, Rockets or Cougars or the Mustangs.  I know, that the odds are stacked against most teams I root for.  Out of all the teams I have cheered for over the last 30 years, only three teams have won a championship.  Despite winning seasons, I know that almost all the time, 'my team' will ultimately lose.  It is a fact that the odds of winning for most teams, is really low.  Most of the time, we are all cheering on losers.

And so I've shifted my mindset from "wanting, really badly, my team to WIN!" to "oh, wow, this game (or season), has been really entertaining for me to watch.  And no matter who wins, I recognize that watching my team play has been a nice distraction.  Win or lose, it's been fun!"  And of course, if my team is doing horribly, I always reserve the right to turn the TV off or stop watching.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.3 - What is the material that the good person works upon, and what should be the main object of our training?

Artists work with paint; sculptors with marble - the good man works with his mind.

"The material that the good and virtuous person works upon is his own ruling centre" (v. 1, p. 149).

"Never will the mind refuse a clear impressions of the good, any more than a man, will refuse Caesar's coinage.  On this hangs every action of both man and god" (v. 4-5, p. 149-150).   In other words, the good is as easy to distinguish as a minted coin.  If someone pays you a quarter, it should be rather easy and quick to determine if they are giving you $0.25 or not.  Likewise, if you see someone act with wisdom, justice, courage or discipline, it should be quite apparent that they are acting according to the good.

And although your father or brother may waste your inheritance, you must ask if they will take "your decency ... loyalty ... or ... your brotherly love" (v. 9, p. 150).  It's absurd to think they can take these things from you!  Therein lies the answer to "what is good?"  Virtue is the sole good!  And you can get this from yourself!  You don't have to compete with others for it.  You don't have to wait on it; you don't have to pay for it - rather, you simply have to make it your 'guiding star' - the center of your world-view and paradigm.  Your undeniable, unalterable "currency" is virtue -  it's what makes you tick.

Others' currency can be found by 'flashing' it in front of them.  If he is guided by money, then he can be paid off with coins.  If it is food, then delicious food.  It is the god he worships.

"It is in accordance with this plan of action above all that one should train oneself. As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away.  What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you.  If we acted in such a way and practised this exercise from morning until night, we would then have achieved something, by the gods." (v. 14-16, p. 150-151)

We must watch for, what Epictetus calls, "vicious judgements" and that we should do all that we can to root them out (v. 18, p. 151).  They are insidious because they erode the most sovereign and absolute philosophical concepts: virtue is the sole good and it can be found from within by the working of our own will.

Some examples of vicious judgements: you see a person mourning and you think "she's crushed."  Rather think, it is nothing to me - it's indifferent and this person could be content if they did not desire to find happiness in others.  You see a rich man or woman and you think "There goes one lucky man!"  Rather think, money does not make one happy nor lucky!  You see a poor beggar and you think "poor guy, he doesn't even have money enough for food."  Rather think, this beggar, despite his predicament, could find contentment.  Indeed, this is hard for some to accept or live by.  But as long as people, like these, try to find contentment in things that lie outside themselves (externals), they will be frustrated and experience fear and anxiety.

A similar exercise, applied in today's modern social media environment, is to observe your reactions as you scroll through Facebook or Instagram.  Do you feel a twinge of envy or jealousy when you see "that perfect family, on the perfect vacation"?  Pause.  Think about what it is you are wanting.  Do you want those externals or do you want virtue more?  You must question these value judgements; you must question the premise of impression.  If it is in your control and is virtuous, then seek it; desire it.  But if it is an external and out of your control, forget it.  It means nothing.

He finishes the chapter with an allegory.  "The mind is rather like a bowl filled with water, and impressions are like a ray of light that falls on that water.  When the water is disturbed, the ray of light gives the appearance of being disturbed, but that isn’t really the case.  So accordingly, whenever someone suffers an attack of vertigo, it isn’t the arts and virtues that are thrown into confusion, but the spirit in which they’re contained; and when the spirit comes to rest again, so will they too." (v. 20-22, p. 151)

Monday, April 22, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.2 - What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important

Below are the first few verses of chapter 2 from book 3.  I've formatted it slightly differently.

"There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained:

  1. that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid;
  2. that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly;
  3. and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.

"Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.

"The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.

"The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard."

Furthermore, you know you are making progress when a "bit of money is involved" and you can avoid the deception of it making you happy.  Or when "you see a pretty girl" and you can "resist the impression" she bears on your mind.  Or when your "neighbor receives an inheritance" and you don't feel the bite of envy.  Or when you lack nothing but "unshakable judgement" (see v. 7-8, p. 148).

Further along, he offers this insightful thought; "when one has shown what his judgements are, then one has shown what he is as a human being" (v. 12, p. 148).

And some parting advice:

"Put aside these things that don't concern you"

Don't give in to "anger, distress or envy; [be] free from hindrance and constraint"

Friday, April 19, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.1 - On personal adornment

Is keeping your hair combed and wearing nice clothes important to a Stoic?

Epictetus answers this question from a student "whose hair was arranged in a rather too fussy manner, and whose clothing was in general very showy" (v. 1, p. 142).

He begins by observing that dogs, horses and birds are beautiful for what they are - for how they are suited to their nature.  "It wouldn't be absurd for one to declare overall that each of them is beautiful precisely in so far as it best fulfills its own nature; and since each is different in nature, it would seem to me that each of them is beautiful in a different way" (v. 3, p. 142).  He further explains that "what makes a dog beautiful will make a horse ugly, and what makes a horse beautiful will make a dog ugly" (v. 4, p. 142).

Subsequently, you must ask yourself: what makes a human beautiful?  Epictetus teaches, "if you want to be beautiful for your own part, you should strive to achieves this, the excellence that characterizes a human being" (v. 7, p. 142).

What is excellence in a human being?  Excellence is defined as being just, temperate and self-controlled (see v. 8-9, p. 142-143) or as the Stoics would say, you should live according to nature by seeking the good.  And virtue is the sole good.

The next section gets into the topic of duties, namely the duty of a philosopher.  In this specific instance, Epictetus wonders if by saying more, he would offend the student.  But also, if he doesn't saying something to instruct the student, then Epictetus has done the student a greater disservice ("how could it be anything other than cruel for me to leave you unreformed?" v. 11, p. 143).  He eventually discusses Socrates and his duty towards the human race.  "Did Socrates succeed in persuading all who approached him to take proper care of themselves?  Not even one in a thousand.  But all the same, since he had been appointed to this post by the deity [and] he never abandoned it" (v. 19, p. 144).

His duty, as he saw it was to "interrogate [his] fellow citizens, because [they were] most closely related to [him]" (v. 20, p. 144).  He readily recognized he was not like the vast majority of people, and he viewed himself as the purple stripe in a robe - unlike the rest of the stripes, but nonetheless important (see v. 23, p. 144).

Epictetus returns to the topic at hand - on personal adornment.  He instructs, "Learn first to know who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.  You're a human being; that is to say, a mortal animal who has the capacity to make use of impressions in a rational manner.  And what does it mean, to use them rationally?  To use them in accordance with nature and perfectly.  What is superior in you, then?  The animal in you?  No.  The mortal?  No.  The capacity to make use of impressions?  No.  The rational element in you - that is what is superior in you.  Adorn and beautify that; but as for your hair, leave it to him who made it in accordance with his will" (v. 25-26, p. 144-145, emphasis added).

The next part gets off on a bit of a tangent about the specifics of whether one should shave or not (if you are a man).  His opinion is, if God made it so that you should grow a beard, as a man, then do so.  But if you shave, when in fact you can grow a beard, you might as well cut off your testicles and "turn yourself into a woman fully and completely so that we may no longer be in doubt" (v. 31, p. 145).  Some people may retort to Epictetus that women like smooth-skinned men, to which he replies, "But if they like inverts, I suppose, you'd become one of those?  Is this your business in life, then; is this what you were brought into the world for, to make yourself appealing to licentious women?" (v. 32-33, p. 145).

He concludes, "let a man be a man, a woman be a woman, and one who is beautiful be beautiful as a human being, and one who is ugly be ugly as a human being.  For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful" (v. 39-40, p. 146 emphasis added).  "Beautify your moral choice, and eradicate your bad judgments" (v. 43, p. 146).

And one parting rebuttal to people who think beards are dirty.  "Heaven forbid!"  We ought to keep clean, but we don't shear the lion's mane or the cock's comb to keep it clean!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.26 - What is the distinctive characteristic of error?

"Every error involves a contradiction; for since someone who commits an error doesn’t want to do that, but to act rightly, it is clear that he isn’t doing what he wants.  For what does a thief want to achieve? Something that is to his benefit. If theft, then, is contrary to his benefit, he isn’t doing what he wants.  Now every rational mind is by nature averse to contradiction; but as long as someone fails to realize that he is involved in a contradiction, there is nothing to prevent him from carrying out contradictory actions; when he becomes aware of it, however, he must necessarily turn aside from the contradiction and avoid it, just as harsh necessity forces one to renounce what is false as soon as one realizes that it is false, although one assents to it as long as its falsity remains unapparent." (v. 1-3, p. 140).

"For if anyone can make that clear to him, he'll renounce his error of his own accord, but if you fail to show him, don’t be surprised if he persists in it" (v. 5, p. 140)

"Make the ruling centre aware of a contradiction, and it will renounce it; but if you fail to make it clear, blame yourself rather than the person whom you’re unable to convince." (v. 7, p. 141)

In summary, we must assume people are rational and want to do what is right.  We must also assume that once a person is taught correctly, they will act correctly.  Furthermore, if we attempt to correct others, we must not become shocked if they don't immediately change.  Do your best to teach and correct others, but don't fault yourself if you're unable to change their mind.

Marcus Aurelius prodded himself to always be in the mindset of, not blame, but of helping and teaching others in Book 6.27 and again in Book 5.28.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.25 - One the necessity of logic

No need for any commentary on this one; below is the full passage:

When someone who was attending his school said to him, ‘Convince me of the usefulness of logic,’ he replied: Would you like me to demonstrate it to you?—‘Yes.’ —Then I must employ a demonstrative argument? And when the questioner agreed, he asked:  How will you know, then, whether I’m trying to mislead you with a sophism? The man offered no reply. So do you see, continued Epictetus, how you yourself are conceding that logic is necessary, since without it you can’t even tell whether it is necessary or not?

Friday, April 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.24 - To one of those whom he regarded as unworthy

Who is Epictetus talking to that he regarded as "unworthy"?

He's talking to the person who said, "tell me something!"  This person really is not in a state of mind to learn and Epictetus proceeds to show this person why they are not ready to listen to Epictetus.

Skill is required to speak and to listen.  And when it comes to listening, "a good deal of practice in listening" is required "if one is to listen to philosophers" (v. 10, p. 137).

Epictetus wants his listeners and his students to show some initiative in listening - in wanting to learn.  To them he says, "Show me, then, what I can achieve by entering into a discussion with you.  Excite some desire in me" (v. 15, p. 138).  But if the person just sits around like a bump on a wall, saying "tell me something" then Epictetus wants nothing to do with them.  In fact, he only has one thing to say to people like this:

whoever is ignorant of who he is, and what he was born for, and in what kind of world he finds himself, and with what people he is sharing his life, and what things are good or bad and what are honourable or shameful, and is someone who is incapable of following an argument or proof, and doesn’t know what is true or false, and cannot distinguish between them: such a person will exercise neither his desires, nor his aversions, nor his motives, nor his designs, nor his assent, not his dissent, in accordance with nature, but being altogether deaf and blind, he’ll go around thinking that he is somebody when in reality he is nobody at all.  And do you suppose that there is anything new in this? Isn’t it the case that ever since the human race came into being, it is from this ignorance that all our errors and all our misfortunes have arisen? (v. 19-20, p. 138)

He concludes with, "When you want to know what a philosopher has to say, don't ask, 'Have you nothing to say to me?', but simply show that you're capable of listening to him" (v. 29, p. 139)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.23 - On the faculty of expression

Humans have faculties - abilities to see, hear, taste, touch and to think.  In this chapter, Epictetus makes the point that there is one faculty that is better than all the rest; and this one faculty makes use of the other faculties.  The faculty of choice rules all others.  Indeed, we must be grateful to God for the "gifts bestowed" on us, but the one faculty we must pay most attention to is that of choice.

Examples comparing some faculties and the faculty of choice: "And what else does the eye do, when open, than see?  But as to whether it ought to look at somebody's wife, and in what manner, what tells us that?  The faculty of choice.  As to whether one should place any belief in what one is told, or not believe it, and if one does believe it, whether one should be upset by it or not, what tells us that?  Isn't it the faculty of choice?" (v. 12-13, p. 133).

"What is it that makes use of everything else?  Choice.  What is it that takes charge of everything else?  Choice.  What is that that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff?  Choice.  Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?  And how is it possible that what is subject to hindrance should be more powerful than something that is not subject to hindrance? ... But what is capable by its nature of hindering the faculty of choice?  Nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice, but only choice itself when it has become perverted.  That is why it alone becomes vice and it alone becomes virtue." (v. 17-19, p. 133-134)

Lastly, he gives an analogy of the various faculties, by comparing our use of faculties to a traveler who is trying to get home.  "People behave life a traveler who, when returning to his homeland, passes through a place where there is a very fine inn, and because he finds it pleasant, remains there.  Man, you've forgotten your purpose, you weren't travelling to this place, but passing through it." (v. 36-37, p. 135).  Similarly, we use our faculties of vision, hearing, touching, feeling only as a pit-stop or a means of using our ultimate faculty - that of choice.

"Your purpose [is] to render yourself capable of using the impressions that present themselves to you in conformity with nature, and not to fail to attain what you desire, and not to fall into what you want to avoid, and never to suffer failure or misfortune, but to be free and immune to hindrance or constraint, as one who conforms to the governing order of Zeus, obeying it and finding satisfaction in it, and never finding fault with anyone, and never accusing anyone, being able to recite these verses with your whole heart, 'Guide me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny'" (v. 42, p. 136).  This last part reminds me of what Chris Fisher often quotes in his blog posts and podcasts "Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)"

We get to choose our attitude and reaction to events.  Will we always love our fate and in so doing, will never be frustrated or fearful or sad?  Will we always get what we want because we want things to happen exactly as they do?  Or will we let sights, sounds, smells, and events determine our attitude?  Do you choose freedom or slavery?

Monday, April 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.22 - On friendship

Like many companies these days, my office is going through an agile transformation - changing the way we work.  Part of the Agile Manifesto states, "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."  Epictetus would have similarly said, "friendship over externals."  Let's deconstruct that.

There are people, during Epictetus' time and people today who value things and externals over people and friendships.  He points to the example of two cute, cuddly puppies playing and everyone says, 'awww!  aren't they so cute!'  Then you throw a piece of meat between them and they turn into wolves!

Now, apply that same idea to humans.  He gives examples of a seemingly real friendships which are torn, when it is apparent one or both value the external over the friendship:

  • "small bit of land" is comes between father and son (v. 10, p. 128)
  • a "pretty girl" divides a father and son (v. 11, p. 129)
  • "the throne" comes between two brothers (v. 14, p. 129)
  • "a pretty woman" breaks the friendship of Paris and Menalaus (v. 23, p. 130)
  • "a necklace" breaks apart a marriage (v. 32, p. 131)
"For as a general rule—and one should have no illusions on the matter—there is nothing that a living creature is more strongly attached to than its own benefit. So whatever seems to him to be standing in the way of that benefit, be it a brother, or father, or child, or lover, or beloved, he will proceed to hate, reject, and curse." (v. 15, p. 120)

"For that reason, if one identifies one’s own benefit with piety, honour, one’s country, one’s parents, one’s friends, all of them will be safeguarded; but if one places one’s benefit in one scale and one’s friends, country, and parents, and justice itself, in the other, the latter will all be lost, because they will be outweighed by one’s benefit." (v. 18, p. 129-130)

"It follows that if I am where my moral choice is, in that case alone will I be the friend, the son, the father that I ought to be. For then it will benefit me to preserve my trustworthiness, my sense of shame, my patience, my temperance, my cooperativeness, and to maintain good relations with others." (v. 20, p. 130)

"Whoever among you sincerely wants to be friend to another, or to win the friendship of another, should thus eradicate these judgements, and despise them, and banish them from his mind. And when he has done so, he will, in the first place, be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment; and, furthermore, in his relations with others, he will always be frank and open with one who is like himself, and will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance; and he will never be harsh with anyone because he fully understands the saying of Plato, that ‘no mind is ever willingly deprived of the truth’" (v. 34-36, p. 131-132)

To summarize, if we are to be true friends, husbands, wives, children - we need to value the friendship over externals.  To do so, we ought to come to despise the things over which we have no control.  And instead, we ought to love virtue.  For the virtues we love and adhere to, will benefit ourselves and our friends.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.21 - On inconsistency

The topic of this chapter is how "people are inconsistent and confused in their ideas about matters of good and evil" (v. 4, p. 125).  He notes that people are very reluctant to admit their lack of virtue.  Rather, most will cite some quasi-involuntary short-coming.  Most will not admit they lack justice or self-control.

As such "we should constantly be focusing our attention on the following thoughts:

  • What kind of person do I picture myself as being?
  • How do I conduct myself?
  • Is it really as a wise person, as someone who has control of himself?
  • Can I say for my part that I've been educated to face everything that may come?
  • Is it indeed the case, as is fitting for someone who knows nothing, that I'm aware that I know nothing?
  • Do I go to my teacher as to an oracle, ready to obey?
  • Or do I go to the schoolroom like a sniveling child, wanting only to gain second hand information, and, if the occasion should arise, expound them to others? (v. 8-10, p. 125)
We learn philosophy to submit our judgements to purification.

We learn philosophy to become fully aware of what we stand in need of.

We learn philosophy to change our thoughts.