Monday, July 22, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.8 - To those who hastily adopt the outward appearance of philosophers

Epictetus has a tooth to pick with some phonies!  He wants people to avoid this scenario: they see someone who looks like a philosopher (dresses like one, acts like one, etc.) but the person really isn't a philosopher, and therefore the observer discounts philosophy altogether!  I can almost see Epictetus do a face palm!

"When one sees someone making clumsy use of an axe, one doesn't say, 'What is the use of the carpenter's art?  Look at how badly carpenters work,' but one says instead, 'That man is surely no carpenter, because he is so bad at handling an axe.'" (v. 7, p. 259)

He further notes that people generally appreciate and understand the carpenter's work, the musician's skill and the artist's work, but when it comes to philosophy, people are confused, and jump immediately to looking at outward appearances to judge philosophy.

We ought to look at "the subject matter" of philosophy, when judging whether a person is a good philosopher or not.  Therefore, we don't judge the philosopher by what kind of cloak he wears, but by his reason and principles (see v. 12, p. 260).

He advises that when people attempt to become a philosopher, they should "conceal the fact" knowing that whatever they did, they were doing it for their own sake and not for show (see v. 17, p. 260-261).  The only way a person should show others they were attempting to be a philosopher was through their actions.
See how I eat, how I drink, how I sleep, how I endure things, how I abstain from them, how I cooperate with others, how I exercise my desires and aversions, how I maintain my social relationships, whether natural or acquired, without becoming confused or obstructed; and judge me by all of this, if you can. (v. 20, p. 261)
Furthermore, the success of a philosopher is judged by asking yourself some questions.  "If anyone can harm me, I'm not achieving anything; if I'm waiting for someone else to help me, I myself am nothing.  If I want something and it is not accomplished, then I'm miserable." (v. 25, p. 261)

Lastly, he uses an analogy for learning and practicing Stoicism:
First of all, you must undertake hard winter training, examine your impulses, and see whether they aren't those of a dyspeptic, of a woman seized with cravings during her pregnancy.  Take care at first that you're not recognized for what you are; practice philosophy for yourself alone for a short period.  For this is the way in which fruit is produced; the seed must be buried for a time, and lie hidden, and grow little by little to come to maturity.  ... Allow the root to grow, allow it next to bring forth its first joint, and then the second, and then the third; and in this way, the fruit will naturally force its way out, whether I wish it or not. (v. 35-36, 40, p. 262-263)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.7 - On freedom from fear

it's about the game, not about owning more dice
My journey into Stoicism began over a decade ago.  After graduating high school, and after living in a foreign country for two years serving a church mission and after graduating from college and getting married and starting a family and working full time, I began to feel like something wasn't right.  I suffered from bouts of depression - especially on the weekends.  Between 2007 and 2014, the bouts got worse and worse, until my reasoning got to the point where I thought ending my life was more bearable than continuing to live.  Those were dark days.  It was like looking over a vast chasm that was pitch black and contemplating jumping into it.  There was real fear in my soul.

Instead of jumping, I reached out for help.  First to my wife, then to some others and eventually to a trusted therapist.  My therapist was able to help me correct some faulty internal thinking using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  After I learned what CBT is, I then learned that it had strong similarities with Stoicism.  From there, I learned of Donald Robertson, Ryan Holiday, then Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.  The dark days, as I call them, have never returned and I doubt they ever will.  I can return to that vast, dark chasm and look down, but now I experience no fear whatsoever.  This is the freedom Stoicism offers.

Epictetus talks of a similar situation - that of staring at death in the form of a tyrant.
if someone who has no particular desire either to die or to live, but is happy to accept whatever is granted, comes into the presence of the tyrant, what is to prevent him from approaching him without fear? - 'Nothing.' - If someone feels the same, then, about his property, and his children, as that man feels about his body, and in short, he has been brought into such a state by some madness or despair that he doesn't care whether he has them or not, but as children playing with bits of pottery (dice) compete with one another in the game without caring about the bits of pottery, so he too has come to set no value on material things, but merely takes pleasure in the game and its moves, what tyrant could still inspire him with fear, or what guards, or what swords of theirs? (v 4-5, p. 254)
If someone who is mad (crazy) or someone who is in despair can achieve this state of mind, then surely "reason and demonstration [can] teach people that God has made all that is in the universe, and the universe itself as a whole, to be free from hindrance, and self-sufficient, and has made all the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole?" (v. 6, p. 254)  When that person has come to an understanding of this logic, there is nothing that can prevent them "from living with a light heart and easy mind, calmly awaiting whatever may happen, and putting up with what has already happened." (v. 12, p. 255).  That is the true Stoic mental state.

There is an old movie, based on an old book, which has an interesting scene in it.  It is from A River Runs Through It and it is about how the young Maclean is learning how to write well.  His father makes him write the same paper over and over again until it has been written well.  Once he accomplishes it, his father tells him to throw it away!  If you are like me, you might gasp a bit about all that work, only to be crumpled and tossed into the trash.  But, the ends have been achieved!  The young Norman Maclean learned what his father wanted him to learn.  The goal was not to write a perfect paper to be framed and published.  The goal was to have gone through the learning.  You can see this scene here:

Similarly, we must approach life and even our life itself.  The goal is not to hold onto wealth, health, possessions, fame, wife, children.  The goal is to go through the experience and to exercise what is truly yours: your use of judgement, impressions and virtues.

If the universe or God wishes you to be poor, then "bring it on" and demonstrate the part of "a good actor to play the part."  If the universe or fate wishes you to "hold office," then "bring it on."  If you should no longer hold office?  Bring it on.  If you should suffer hardships; bring it on.  To go into exile; bring it on.  You must learn to embrace this attitude: "Wherever I go, all will be well with me ... not because of the place [in time or space] but because of my judgements." (see v. 13-14, p. 255)

Your judgements are: you hold wealth, possessions, fame, health, relationships as externals and indifferents.  These things are the clay of life and inherently have no value.  The value is in what you do with the clay - what your unique judgement and virtue demonstrates.  "Let others be afraid [of losing or gaining] such things!  For my part I've enquired into them, and no one holds any power over me.  I've been set free by God, I know his commands, no one has the power any longer to enslave me, I have the right emancipator, I have the right judges." (v. 16-17, p. 256)

As for the tyrant, "I have no fear" of him or the way he can treat me.  "Why should I admire him any longer, why should I be in awe of him, why should I be afraid of his guards?  Why should I rejoice if he speaks kindly to me and offers me a welcome, and why should I tell others how he spoke to me?  Is he Socrates, by any chance, or Diogenes, that his praise should provide proof of what I am?" (v. 28-29, p. 257)

Don't be like those people whose concern is for living in "marble halls" or having hundred of people working for them ("slaves") or who are concerned about wearing "eye-catching clothes" or having many possessions, listening to the latest music, seeing the newest movies or getting the newest tech (see v. 37, p. 258).  As long as they "devote [their] concern to external things, [they'll] own more of those than anyone else" but their "ruling part" of them will be "filthy and neglected." (v. 41, p. 259)

But rather, be like a child, whose goal is to play the dice game.  They want to roll the dice and enjoy the game.  They value the game more than owning the dice!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.6 - To those who are distressed at being pitied

Pity: the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.

"'It annoys me', someone says, 'to be pitied.'" (v. 1, p. 249)

Do you ever feel the pity of others?  If so, this is a symptom that you still care deeply what other people think of you.  You will be glad to know that you can do something about this, but it may not exactly be what you think it is.

What could be some reasons an aspiring Stoic might feel the pity of others?  It may be because the aspiring Stoic is in poverty, or doesn't hold public office or doesn't have a prestigious career, or perhaps he is ill or in poor health (see v. 2, p. 249).

And what should an aspiring Stoic be prepared to do about this feeling of pity from others?

Option 1: "convince the mass of people that none of these [poverty, prestige, poor health] are in fact [good or] bad, but that one can be happy even when one is poor, and holds no office, and enjoys no honor." (v. 3, p. 249)

Option 2: remedy the situation by getting out of poverty, gaining office and securing perfect health.

If you pursue "option 2", then you may need to uphold considerable pretense and conceal who you really are (what you really think).  You will need to make a show and make others believe you are something you are not and you may even need to "resort to mean tricks to appear better looking and of higher birth than you really are." (see v. 4, p. 249)

But if you pursue "option 1" you will soon learn "it is both impracticable and long to attempt that very thing that Zeus has been unable to achieve, to convince everyone about what things are good and what are bad." (v. 5, p. 250)

But what about a third option?  Does an alternative exist?  Indeed, it does.  It is the Stoic course of action and it is entirely within your control.  You must "give up things that lie outside the sphere of choice, and turn away from them and acknowledge that they are not your own." (v. 9, p. 250)  More precisely, you must "let other people be and become your own teacher and your own pupil." (v. 11, p. 250)

Instead of worrying about something out of your control - in this case, the pity of other people toward you - you should rather focus on worrying about how you are coming along in developing your own character and how you deal with impressions that present themselves to you.

As an example, let's say your "head is perfectly well [yet] everyone thinks that [you] have a headache" when in fact you don't even have the slightest of headaches.  What does it matter to you that everyone else thinks you have a headache?  You don't have a single ache or fever, yet everyone is acting as though you did!  What do you do?  Perhaps you "assume a doleful expression and say, 'Yes, to be sure, it is quite some time that I've been unwell' ... and at the same time, [you] secretly [laugh] at those who are taking pity on [you]." (v. 21, p. 251)

Do the same for all the externals in your life - think nothing of them, but if people who are uneducated and who place high value (who think these things are good) on a prestigious career, wealth, health and fame, pity you for not having these things, perhaps you say, "oh, thank you!  I'll do my best to bear my lot in life well" while inwardly laughing at the dolts who probably don't have a clue.  There is no reason whatsoever to "get worked up about what other people think of [you]." (v. 24, p. 252)  While "they've devoted their efforts to obtaining public posts, you [have devoted your efforts] to your judgements.  They to riches, you to the proper use of your impressions." (v. 25, p. 252)

As for you - you must focus on "how to make right use of your impressions" and to help you do so, "you should ask yourself as soon as you get up in the morning,

  • What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion?
  • To achieve peace of mind?
  • Who am I?  Surely not a mere body?  Or possessions, or reputation?  None of these things.
  • But what?  I'm a rational living being.
  • What is required, then, of such a being?
  • Go over your actions in your mind
    • Where have I gone wrong? with regard to achieving happiness?
    • What did I do? that was unfriendly, or unsocialable, or inconsiderate?
    • What have I not done that I ought to have done? with regard to these matters?" (v. 34-35, p. 253)
In this way, you will be less concerned for the pity you are receiving from others, and more focused on making yourself a wise and just person.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.5 - Against those who are quarrelsome and brutal

"A virtuous and good person neither quarrels with anyone, nor, so far as he can, does he allow anyone else to quarrel." (v. 1, p. 245)

Epictetus points to Socrates as the exemplar as he settled many quarrels and how patient he was in dealing with other people, including his wife and son. (see v. 3, p. 245)  He was able to do this because "he kept the thought firmly fixed in his mind that no one can exert control over another person's ruling centre." (v. 4, p. 245)  He knew he could never change other people, but rather he focused on "attending to his own business alone in such a way that others too" would see his example and want to also act according to nature (v. 5, p. 245)  And for a person "in this state of mind" there is no "room left for contention." (v. 8, p. 245)

You can keep the peace and minimize quarreling by putting things in the proper context.

EVENT: "That man abused you"

RESPONSE: "I'm most grateful that he didn't hit me"

EVENT: "But he has gone on to hit you"

RESPONSE: "I'm most grateful that he didn't kill me"

This line of thinking is not unlike the teaching of Jesus when he instructed his disciples to "turn the other cheek" (see Matthew 5:38-40).

Some may think this reasoning is a bit extreme by today's standards.  Indeed, if someone hits you, there are avenues to pursue to seek justice and these avenues allow people to pursue justice dispassionately and Stoicly.

What ought to matter to the individual human?  Certainly not possessions and fame and distinguished appointments and careers.  Bur rather, it ought to be how the individual manages her impressions and "imprints" that are borne in her mind. (v. 15, p. 246)  And what imprints do her judgments carry?  "Gentleness, sociability, patience, love of her neighbor" and not "quick to anger" or "prone to rage" nor being "discontented with her lot." (v. 17-18, p. 246-247)

There is no need to worry about what other people think of you.  For their part, they are focused on wealth, health, prestige and fame.  But your craft is to focus on being a good human being - someone who is concerned about exercising the appropriate virtue (wisdom, justice, courage, self-discipline) in any given circumstance.  Beyond that, nothing else should matter to you.  So, "why worry about them?  Any more than a craftsman worries about people who have no knowledge of his craft." (v. 22, p. 247)  In this way, you can settle quarrels and not start them.

And when people try to read your mind or try to "trigger" a reaction in you, then you should "come forward to proclaim that you're especially amused by [them] who imagine that they're able to harm you." (v. 24, p. 247)  Similarly, "inhabitants of a well-fortified city laugh at those who are besieging them: 'Why are those men going to all that trouble to no purpose?  Our walls are secure; we have provisions that will last for a very long time, as will all the rest of our supplies.'  That is what renders a city secure and impregnable, and in the case of a human mind, it is nothing other than it's judgements." (v. 25, p. 247)

In a word, focus on strengthening your mind - on becoming mentally tough - and don't let possessions, wealth, health and fame drive your life.  These are the "puppet strings" you must cut.

"It is a person's judgement alone about each thing that harms him, and upsets him, and this is what gives rise to dissension, and civil strife, and war." (v. 28, p. 248)

This is your task: "to adopt an attitude" that "no tyrant can hinder [you] ... nor can any master, nor can the crowd hinder [you], nor can the stronger hinder the weaker, because this has been granted to us by God free from all hindrance.  These are the judgements that bring love into a household, and concord into a state, and peace among nations; and cause a person to be grateful to God, and confident at all times." (v. 34-35, p. p. 248-249)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.4 - To those who have set their hearts on living at peace

You are travelling during the summer, on vacation.  After a long day of travel, you arrive at the hotel, check-in and then take your luggage to the room.  Immediately you love the room.  It's clean and cool; the beds are made and the window shows a great view to the beach.  Your thoughts and desires drift towards, "wow, wouldn't it be nice to wake up in this room, to this view every day!"  But then another thought wrings you back into reality; "Well, we will only be here a week, so I'll enjoy it while I can, and we check-out at the end of the week, I'll do so with gratitude and good memories in my heart."

It is this attitude of not wanting to hold on - this reserve clause of acceptance - that we need to embrace with regard to everything that is outside the sphere of our control.  And not only can this be applied to things that we desire, but it can and ought to be applied to things we may want to avoid.  And in this way, we can keep a constant, steady attitude in life.

"Remember that it is not only desire for office and wealth that debases men and makes them subservient to others, but also desire for quiet, and leisure, and travel, and learning ... what difference does it make, then, whether you set your desire on becoming a senator, or on not becoming one?" (v. 1-2, p. 239)  "Someone else is afraid that he won't gain office, while you're afraid that you will.  In no way should you be afraid, man!" (v. 19, p. 241)

"Nothing characterizes happiness better than the fact that it isn't subject to interruption or obstruction." (v. 6, p. 239)

No matter what happens, you should be steady; and even content with events.  "If this is what God pleases, so be it!" (v. 21, p. 241).  Your task is to "be happy, and be free from hindrance and obstruction." (v. 22, p. 241)

And, "if you attach value to anything at all that lies outside the sphere of choice, you've destroyed your choice.  Not only is [the appointment to] office outside that sphere, but also freedom from office; and not only want of leisure, but also leisure itself." (v. 23, p. 242)

If you are thrust into the commotion of every day life, it is in your power to change your attitude about the situation.  You can "think of it as a festival" if you wish, but "don't be irritable, don't be oversensitive about what comes to pass." (v. 24-25, p. 242).

Or, "if things turn out in such a way that you find yourself living alone, or with few companions, call that peace and quiet, and make use of those circumstances as you ought; converse with yourself, work on your impressions, perfect your preconceptions.  But if you get caught in a crowd, call it the games, call it a public gathering, call it a festival and join in the festival with everyone else." (v. 26, p. 242)

What is in your power?  The "ability to deal with impressions." (v. 28, p. 242)

"Haven't you heard it repeatedly stated that you must completely eradicate desire, and direct your aversion solely towards things that lie within the sphere of choice, and that you must give up everything, your body, possessions, reputation, and books or commotion, and office or freedom from office?  For if you turn aside from this course, you've become a slave, you're subject to others, you're liable to hindrance and constraint, you're entirely in the power of others.  No, you should keep the saying of Cleanthes at hand, 'Guide me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny'.  Is it your wish that I should go to Rome?  To Rome I go.  To Gyara?  Then to Gyara.  To Athens?  Then to Athens.  Into prison?  Then into prison." (v. 33, p. 243)

But who is Zeus, God and Destiny?  What if there is some person who claims they know the will of Zeus or God and they are telling me what to do?  Should I do so without thought?  I've made a note in my book on page 243.  "I'm ok with this if the 'divinity within me' is the part of the God who is directing the Universe and Destiny.  I don't want another man speaking for God, to me."  And to be clear, I believe there is a part of God that resides in me - the divinity within.  Marcus Aurelius references this several times in Meditations Book 2.13, 2.17, 3.4, 3.7, 3.15-16, 5.10, 12.1.  Practically speaking, this is hard work - trying to understand what God wants you specifically to do in this world.  Some might call it a personal calling.  Some might say that we were fated to do something.  Being true to this is what I think of as 'the divinity within.'  It is 'the god particle' if you have read God's Debris.

"There is one path alone that leads to happiness - and keep this thought at hand morning, noon and night - it is to renounce any claim to anything that lies outside the sphere of choice, to regard nothing as being your own, to surrender everything to deity, to fortune, to consign the administration of everything to those whom Zeus himself has appointed to carry out that task, and to devote yourself to one thing alone, that which is your own, that which is free from all hindrance." (v. 39, p. 244)

Live your life - go about what you think you should be doing.  But don't set your heart on things that are outside your control.  Go to school, get a job, marry, raise a family, go to work and contribute to society, but don't ever lose sight of the fact that all that you gain (health, wealth, fame, etc) can be lost and that if you lose it, you should view it as leaving a hotel room with a nice view.  Furthermore, events will conspire to "call you" to do something.  You may be called to lead an effort, or project at work or for the government or for your family.  You can choose to refuse, but you must look inside your heart - to the divinity within - to see what God has to say about it.  At some point, we have to act and not act.  We can't simply just drift in life aimlessly - or have others tell us what to do or not do.  So act!  Understand what the divinity within you says, find your unique calling and don't hold onto desires so harshly and don't avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

The happy and industrious person "refers all his efforts to his own ruling centre, as he strives to bring it into accord with nature and to keep it so." (v. 43, p. 244)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.3 - What things should be exchanged for what?

"This is the thought that you should keep at hand to apply whenever you lose any external thing: what are you acquiring in exchange for it?" (v. 1, p. 238)

The way he stats this is a bit cryptic, but further on, he makes that point that you wouldn't feel you've lost out if you exchanged a donkey in return for a horse or a sheep in return for an ox.  And when applied to losing external things (things outside our control), you would be worse off if you got upset by this loss, while on the other hand, if you keep your cool, you will have gained in virtue (wisdom, courage, self-control, justice).

And if he wasn't clear enough in this point, he makes it clearer when he says, "if you nod off just for a moment, all that you've amassed up until then, is lost and gone.  Pay careful attention, then, to your impressions; watch over them unceasingly.  For it is not something of little importance that you're trying to preserve, but self-respect, fidelity, impassibility, freedom from distress, fear, and anxiety, and in a word, freedom.  At what price will you sell that?  Consider how much it is worth." (v. 6-8, p. 238)

"Safeguard your own good in all that you do; and as for the rest, simply take what is granted to you in so far as you can make reasonable use of it, and be satisfied with that alone." (v. 11, p. 239)

Practically speaking, you have to do the math all the time.  If you want the serenity and you want to maximize it, and when something out of your control happens or some external possession is lost to you, will being anxious or complaining about it fix the situation?  Most likely not.  And in fact, by giving in to those emotions, you begin to lose all momentum you've previously gained.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.2 - On association with others

Recovering alcoholics often face a decision about their "old" friends or drinking buddies.  How can someone who is trying to stay sober, be hanging out with old drinking buddies at bars, while at the same time avoiding the temptation to have a drink?  It's nigh impossible.  Often, the best solution is to avoid the old friends.

This same concept is applied in many other areas of our life.  It is fleshed out in an excellent article I read recently called Catching Desires: Can you stop yourself being infected with other people's desires? by Bence Nanay.  So while we learned from Epictetus, in the last blog post, about how to go about minimizing our desires, we still are tasked, as Stoics, to interact with society every day.  As we do so, we need to be mindful about with whom we frequently associate.

"Never become so intimately associated with any of your former friends or acquaintances that you sink down to the same level as them; for otherwise, you'll destroy yourself." (v. 1, p. 327)

But what if I'm accused of being stand-offish or conceited by my old friends?

"Choose, then, which you prefer: to be held in the same affection as before by your former friends by remaining as you used to be, or else become better than you were and no longer meet with the same affection." (v. 3, p. 237)

A term I often hear these days, that applies this same idea, is "drawing boundaries."  The Stoics might even call it "circumscribing the self."  You can be kind and respectful to people, but you don't have adopt their choices or live like they do.  You be who you decide to be and let others decide how they should be.

Epictetus uses drinking alcohol as another example about how we need to choose with whom we are going to associate.  "Choose, then, whether you want to be a heavy drinker and pleasing to them [your drinking buddies], or a sober man and unpleasing to them." (v. 7, p. 237)

But decide, you must!  If you waffle and are "caught between two paths, you'll incur a double penalty, since you'll neither make progress as you ought nor acquire the things that you used to enjoy." (v. 5, p. 237)  You have to choose a philosophy and live it.  And some philosophies are like oil and water which don't mix - you have to choose between one of them.  "Roles as different as these don't mix." (v. 10, p. 238).

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.1 - On freedom

July 4th is the celebration of the United States of America's independence from England.  One of the well-know revolutionary cries comes from Patrick Henry, who passionately argued, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

The American revolutionaries were pursuing governmental freedom and justly achieved their cause.  Epictetus argues there is a higher, more difficult freedom to attain.  And in this post-modern America in 2019, when so many desires are easily and effortlessly obtained, the freedom Epictetus describes is much more difficult to achieve.  While our Founding Fathers gave us freedom from tyranny, we are left with the task of throwing off the shackles of desire and ease.

I suggest you read the entire chapter (here if you don't have a copy).  For my own benefit (and yours), I have shared the more impactful parts of the chapter below (from the Robert Dobbin's translation).

"That person is free who lives as he wishes, who can neither be constrained, nor hindered, nor compelled, whose motives are unimpeded, and who achieves his desires and doesn’t fall into what he wants to avoid." (v. 1, p. 217)

So far, so good!  I mean, who doesn't want that?  But there is much more to it!

Epictetus gives some examples of real slavery and real freedom.

"'A little wench’, he says, has enslaved me, a cheap one too.  Me whom no enemy has ever enslaved.'
Poor wretch, to be the slave of a young girl, and a cheap one at that!  Why do you still call yourself a free man, then?"  This passage is in reference to a mighty military leader, whose enemies cannot conquer him, but rather, he is conquered by a cheap prostitute.  Until this man can learn to "escape from desire and fear, how could he be a free man?" (v. 21-23, p. 218-219)

When we look at animals in the zoo or birds in a cage, a part of us feels sorry for them.  They are not free!  Others might say, "but the animal is safe; gets its food delivered to it; has a place to sleep!"  Indeed, the animal is living a "soft life" like many humans do.  But "the softer the life, the more it is a slave."  (v. 24, p. 219)  It cannot really do what it wants to do.  It must do what the zookeeper demands.  Indeed, "that is why we call free only those animals that won't put up with captivity, but escape through death as soon as they're captured." (v. 29, p. 219)
Diogenes remarks accordingly somewhere that the only sure means to secure one’s freedom is to be happy to die, and he writes to the king of the Persians, ‘You cannot enslave the Athenian state,’ so he says, ‘any more than you can enslave the fishes.’  —‘How so? Can’t I capture them?’—‘If you do,’ he replies, ‘they’ll immediately leave you and be gone like fish. For as soon as you catch one of those, it dies; and if the Athenians come to die when they’re caught, what good will you gain from your armed force?’  This is the language of a free man who has examined the question in all seriousness and, as might be expected, has found the right answer. But if you look elsewhere than where it is to be found, why be surprised that you never find it? (v. 30-32, p. 219)

We see that the American revolutionary sentiment is radically similar to fish and Athenians.  Freedom is so precious, death is the only alternative.  There is another example of a revolutionary who wanted freedom.  April 2019 was the 100th anniversary of his assassination.  Emiliano Zapata relentlessly pursued his dream of freedom and land, rallying Mexican peasants: "Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas [I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees]"

Returning to Epictetus; beginning in verse 33, he describes the life of a slave and the desire for freedom.  When granted his freedom, the slave leaps from the boiling water of servitude and into the frying pan of other "masters" such as making a living, paying taxes, working at a marriage, giving military service, and eventually into living in servitude again - this time as a senator in the government.  The point of this example is that this slave thinks he can find happiness in externals.  And so he spends time, effort and anxiety trying to be free of slavery, then of making a living, then of raising a family, then of military service and finally governmental service ... and he never is content; never gets what he desires.

Indeed, we all want "To live in peace, to be happy, to do all that one wants without being subject to hindrance or constraint."  (v. 46, p. 221)  And we attain that peace, not by seeking freedom in externals, but by focusing on things that are in our absolute control.  And this can be proven: Viktor Frankl found meaning in life despite the most unbearable circumstances; and we can all think of uber-rich celebrities, tycoons and politicians, who despite having everything are still malcontent.  These malcontents are true slaves.
if you hear him say ‘master’ from his heart and with true feeling, even if the twelve fasces are being carried in front of him, then call him a slave; and if you hear him exclaiming, ‘Wretch that I am, what things I have to suffer!’, call him a slave too. In a word, if you see him wailing, complaining, and living unhappily, call him a slave in a purple-bordered robe.  If he does nothing of that kind, however, don’t yet declare that he is free, but get acquainted with his judgements, and see whether they’re in any way subject to constraint, or hindrance, or unhappiness; and if you find that to be the case, call him a slave on holiday at the Saturnalia.  Say that his master is away from home; but he’ll be back soon, and then you’ll see what this man suffers!  Whoever holds control over anything that the man desires, and can procure it or take it away [is that man's master].—‘Do we have so many masters, then?’—Yes, so many. For even before these human masters, we have circumstances as our masters, and there are any number of those.  Because in truth, it is not Caesar himself whom people stand in fear of, but death, banishment, confiscation of their property, imprisonment, loss of civil rights. Nor does anyone love Caesar himself, unless Caesar happens to be a man of great worth, but it is riches that we love, or a post as tribune, praetor, or consul. As long as we love, hate, or fear these things, it necessarily follows that those who have power over them will be our masters. For that reason, we even worship such people as though they were gods, because we suppose that anyone who has the power to confer the greatest advantages on us is divine. And then we wrongly lay down this minor premise, ‘This man has the power to confer the greatest advantages.’ It is bound to follow that the conclusion drawn from these premises must be false too. (v. 57-61, p. 222-223)
You may be reading this and saying to yourself, "who is free then?  The way Epictetus describes things, makes it sound like we are all slaves!"  Now we are ready to learn!

Epictetus asks, "do we have nothing that is exclusively within our power, or is that the case with everything, or are there some things that are within our power while others are within the power of other people?" (v. 65, p. 223)  This is how we have to view everything in our life!  What is under our absolute control and what is not.  Then and only then will we begin to understand where true freedom lies.  This is "the dichotomy of control" or as William Irvine more succinctly puts it, the "trichotomy of control" (see links: here, here, and here)
  1. Things entirely, 100% in our control
  2. Things completely, 100% out of our control
  3. Things in-between, partially in our control, and partially out of out control
Do you have power over your body to perform perfectly anytime you want?  NO.  But you can control what you eat and how your exercise.

Can you have as much land as you want? NO.  But you can control some actions to gain land.

Can you have as many clothes, houses, horses, cars, family, friends as you want?  NO.  But you can control some actions to acquire these things.

It sounds like we don't have complete control over anything.  What do we have control over?

"Can anyone make you give your assent to what is false? - 'No one can.' ... Can anyone force you to direct your impulses towards anything you don't want? 'Indeed he can.  For when he threatens me with death or imprisonment, he can force me to it.'  If you were to despise death, however, or  chains, would you still pay any heed to him? - 'No.'"  (v. 69-71, p. 224)  Therefore, if you can control your attitude about death and prison, you can control your attitude about anything!

The point: "that which is not in your power to procure or keep as you wish is not your own.  Keep not only your hands well away from it, but first and foremost your desire; otherwise you've delivered yourself into slavery, you've put your head under the yoke, if you attach value to anything that isn't your own, if you conceive a desire for anything that is subject to anyone else and is perishable." (v. 77, p. 225)

Practice and be prepared to distinguish everything into two categories:

  1. what belongs to you, what you can control
  2. what does not belong to you, what you cannot control

And for those things partially in your control, be prepared to have a "reserve clause" and keep your eyes wide open to recognize that things may not go as you'd expect.

After time, and much practice, you will will be able to "distinguish those things that are not your own from those that are ... [and you will be able to] keep your desire fixed on [those things that are in your control] ... [there will be no one] left whom you need fear." (see v. 81, p. 225)

Marcus Aurelius spoke of a "fortress" when speaking of our will and attitude.  He said, "Remember that your directing mind becomes invincible when it withdraws into its own self-sufficiency, not doing anything it does not wish to do, even if its position is unreasonable. How much more, then, when the judgement it forms is reasoned and deliberate? That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress" (see Meditations Book 8.48).

Epictetus draws a similar comparison and how that fortress is not demolished from the outside, but rather from the inside.

"How is a citadel destroyed, then?  Neither by iron, nor by fire, by by judgements.  For if we pull down the citadel in the city, have we also pulled down the citadel of fever, the citadel of pretty girls, or, in a word, the citadel within us, and shall we have driven out the tyrants whom we have inside us, who we have exercising their sway over us day after day, sometime the same ones, sometimes different?  But this is where we must begin; this is where we must set out from to destroy the citadel and drive out the tyrants: we must give up our poor body, and it various parts and faculties, and our property, reputation, public posts, honours, children, brothers, and friends, and regard all of that as being not our own.  And if the tyrants are driven out from there, what need do I have to raze the citadel?" (v. 86-88, p. 226)

Epictetus more succinctly describes this process:
I have submitted my impulses to God. It is his will that I should have a fever? That is my will too. It is his will that I should direct my impulses towards a certain thing? That is my will too. It is his will that I should desire something? That is what I want too. It is his will that I should get something? That is what I want too. He doesn’t want that? Nor do I.  And so it is my will that I should die, my will that I should be tortured. Who can still hinder me, then, contrary to my own judgements; who can constrain me? No more than that would be possible with Zeus. (v. 89-90, p. 226)
We learn and gain this trust by "observing the wishes of God and his governing order." (v. 100, p. 227)

He continues with this line of reasoning and how God sent us to earth "with a small portion of flesh" to "observe his governing order, and accompany him in his procession and take part in his festival for a short period of time ... then, after having beheld his pagaent and festival for the time that is granted to you, to take your leave when he conducts you away, after having first paid obeisance to him and having thanked him for all that you've heard and seen." (v. 104-105, p. 228)  Then we depart this life, "grateful and reverent" to "make room for others." (v. 106, p. 228)

But while you are here, if the conditions "don't suit you, go away.  He has no need of a spectator who is always complaining about his lot.  He needs people to join in his festival and dances, so that they may, on the contrary, greet them with applause, and view them with reverence, and sing hymns in praise of the assembly.  As for the grumblers and cowards, he won't be sorry to see them gone from the assembly; for even while they were present, they didn't behave as though they were at a festival, and didn't fill their proper place, but lamented instead and found fault with the deity, their lot, and their companions, unconscious of what had been granted to them, and the powers that they had received for the opposite use - greatness of soul, nobility of mind, courage, and the very freedom that we are now investigating." (v. 108-109, p. 229)

And as for the externals God has given us (our body, and possessions, etc) use them!  But "don't get attached to them."  And to succeed in not getting attached to them, Epictetus says that we should reflect morning and night that these externals are dispensable.  "Begin with the smallest and most fragile things, a pot, or a cup, and then pass on to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a scrap of land; and from there, pass on to yourself, to your body, and the parts of your body, and to your children, your wife, your brothers.  Look around you in every direction, and cast these things far away from you.  Train yourself in this way, day after day ... [as a] slave on the way to emancipation.  For this is the way to true freedom." (v. 111-115, p. 229)

And then, if God or fate calls upon you to lose all these things, and you are tortured, flogged, jailed or beheaded, then you may be called "a noble spirit [who] comes off with added profit and advantage, while the person who is truly harmed, and suffers the most pitiful and shameful fate, is the one who, instead of being human, turns into a wolf, a viper, or a wasp."  (v. 127, p. 231)  In other words, you who suffer at the hands of others, are the ones who profit and show the true qualities of a human being.  While the ones who do the torturing, flogging, jailing and beheading are wolves, vipers and wasps.

Verses 130 and 131 summarize it all:
The person who isn't subject to hindrances is free ... who desires nothing that is not his own ... those [things] that are not within our power, either to have or not to have ... our body ... our property ... this is the road that leads to freedom, this is the only deliverance from slavery, to be able to say one day with your whole heart, 
Guide me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
To wheresoever you have assigned me.
Diogenes was the perfect example of a person renouncing externals.  "Diogenes was free.  He had cast off everything that could allow slavery to gain hold of him to enslave him.  Everything that he had he could easily let go; everything was only loosely attached to him." (v. 153, p. 234)

"His true ancestors, the gods, and his true country ... the universe." (v. 154, p. 234)

Socrates is another excellent example of a man focused on the right things.  We can wave our hands and say Diogenes had it easy - he had no wife or children to care for.  Fair enough - so lets look at Socrates, "who had a wife and young children, but didn't regard them as being his own." (v. 159, p. 235)  He was drafted to serve in the military.  He served and "exposed himself to the dangers of war without sparing himself in the least." (v. 160, p. 235)  When "he was sent by the Thirty Tyrants to arrest Leon; being sure in his mind that such a deed would be shameful, he never even contemplated it, although he was well aware that he might meet his death as a result, if things turned out that way.  But what did that matter to him?  For there was something else that he wanted to preserve other than his body, namely his character as a trustworthy man, as a man of honour." (v. 161, p. 235)

"And when he had to drink the poison, how did he behave then?  When he could have saved himself and Crito said to him, 'Make your escape for the sake of your children,' and what did he reply?  Did he regard that opportunity as a godsend?  Not at all, he thought only about what would be proper for him to do; the rest he didn't even consider or take into account.  For he didn't want, so he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which finds growth and is preserved through right action, and is diminished and destroyed through wrong action." (v. 163, p. 235)

While many of us may have rationalized, when confronted with death, that if our life were spared, we would be able to help many people, but that if we are dead, we are of no use to anyone.  But if we look to Socrates, we know that "now that Socrates is dead, the memory of him is no less useful to the human race, or even much more useful than all that he did and said while still alive." (v. 169, p. 236)

Epictetus pleads to us to "reflect on these things, these judgements, these arguments, and look at these examples, if you want to be free, if you desire freedom in accordance with its true value." (v. 170, p. 236)

"For the sake of true freedom, which is secure against all treachery and is inviolable, won't you return that which God has given you when he demands it back?  Won't you not only, as Plato says, practise to die, but even to suffer torture, to go into exile, to be flogged, and in a word, give up everything that is not your own?  Otherwise, you'll be a slave among slaves." (v. 172-173, p. 236)

See for yourself - experiment if you must.  Once you have gained what you desire (health, wealth, fame, fortune, ease, the next gadget, etc), you will only be met again with a new desire for "what [you don't] have.  For freedom is not attained through the satisfaction of desires, but through the suppression of desires." (v. 174-175, p. 236)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.26 - To those who are afraid of want

"You tremble for fear that you may run out of the necessities of life, and you lie awake at night." (v. 1, p. 212)

Stoicism would have you think about "memento mori" - that you will die someday; and that death is nothing to be feared.  If you can be comfortable with the idea that you will die at any moment, either to "a fever or a stone falling down on your head" (v. 3, p. 212), then why should you fear or worry about running out of the necessities of life?  Or why should you fear that your "family too will go hungry"? (v. 4, p. 212)

Rather, you should choose to exercise the virtue of courage and "confront every lack and want" realizing that we are reduced to death at some point.  And as part of the self-confrontation, to ask yourself if it is better to die hungry while being a good human being or to die "torn apart by indigestion and drunkenness" (v. 5, p. 212) while living a life of vice?  The Stoics would say, virtue is the sole good and it is better to die hungry, maintaining virtue, than to die of indigestion and drunkenness living a life of vice.

As for the shame of being reduced to such dire straights (being so poor that you don't even have food to eat), Epictetus responds, "you should learn first of all what is shameful." (v. 7, p. 213)  If something is out of your control, then it is not shameful.

He then scolds his students a bit for having such thoughts, "you've embarked on philosophy in name alone ... never have you desired firmness of mind, serenity, impassibility; never have you attended any teacher with that purpose of mind, but many a teacher o learn about syllogisms.  Never have you tested out any of these impressions for yourself, asking yourself, 'Am I capable of bearing this or not?'" (v. 13-14, p. 213)

He further scolds them for putting the cart before the horse, only he uses a different analogy.  "And what kind of doorkeeper can one place on guard where there is no door for him to watch over? ... Or how long will you keep measuring worthless ashes?" (v. 15-18, p. 214)  His students are more concerned for the body than they are for the soul or mind within the body.  They want to protect the body, but there is nothing in the body worth protecting.  They want to measure and care for something (the body) that will be reduced to ashes, rather than spend the time improving the object (the soul / mind) that is encased by the body.

Instead of spending time, anxiety, fear and effort on maintaining the body, you should spend time, anxiety, fear and effort on improving your mind - finding a philosophy that lasts; that "makes people [truly] happy" that "makes their affairs prosper as they would wish, and what makes it possible for them never to blame anyone, never to find fault with anyone, and to submit to the governing order of the universe." (v. 18, p. 214).  In summary, you should be concerned about improving "your own moral choice." (v. 24, p. 215)

The sooner you realize that the body is not more important than the mind or soul - and that you can prove to yourself that death means nothing, then you will begin to improve as a human being.

"Why don't you reflect, then, that for man the source of all evils, and of his meanness of spirit and cowardice, is not death itself, but rather the fear of death?  It is to confront this that you must train yourself, and it is towards that end that all your reasonings, all your studies, and all your readings should be directed, and then you'll recognize that it is in this way alone that human beings can attain freedom." (v. 38-39, p. 216)

Monday, July 1, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.25 - To those who fail to achieve what they have proposed for themselves

Epictetus reminds us that we will fail in our quest for living a virtuous life and that we can use those failures to our benefit.  Indeed, for "those who are engaged in the greatest of contests shouldn't flinch, but must be prepared also to take blows" (v. 2, p. 211).  What is this contest?  It is a contest "for good fortune and happiness itself" (v. 3, p. 211).

As Bruce Wayne's dad tells Bruce when he fall, "why do we fall Bruce?  So we can learn to pick ourselves up!"  Epictetus similarly teaches, "even if we should falter for a while, no one can prevent us from resuming the fight ... as soon as one has recovered and regained one's strength, and can muster the same zeal as before, one can enter the fight; and if one should fail again, one can enter one again, and if one should carry off the victory one fine day, it will be as if one had never given in" (v. 4, p. 211).

Then he gives a warning.  We must be wary of falling into the bad habit of being content to repeat the same mistakes.  "Don't begin, through force of habit, to be glad to repeat the process all over again, so that you end up like a bad athlete" (v. 5, p. 211).

Rather to repeating mistakes, "you ought to have remembered them ... in the same way as slaves remember the blows that they've received, to avoid repeating the same mistakes" (v. 9, p. 212).

Become the victor - the conqueror.  If you make a mistake, review them at the end of each day and think, if you were given the opportunity to live the moment again, what you would do differently.  Commit to change your thinking and attitude and when presented with the same test again, grasp the victory firmly in your hand!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.24 - That we should not become attached to things that are not within our power

Attachment is real.  Another word for attachment is dependency.  An even more forceful word could be slavery.

If you consider the opposites of attachment, dependency and slavery, you will arrive at detachment, in-dependency and freedom.

When weighed on a value scale, I would wager most people would place more value on detachment, in-dependency and freedom.  The Stoics' goal was to help people become free of the mental chains we've wrapped ourselves in.

Assume you have some sort of relationship with another person; be it a spouse, a friend, a neighbor or co-worker.  They are independent from you and therefore they do their own thinking and you do your own thinking.  Does it make sense, then, to carry their mental baggage for them?  Or do you have enough of your own to deal with?  As Epictetus says, "If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.  He has provided them with the resources to achieve this" (v. 2, p. 198).  In other words, for those people who have matured enough and have enough mental ability to reason on their own, they can enjoy happiness and peace of mind - this is in their control.  Both the other person and you can enjoy independence (mentally speaking) from each other.

You might say that the other person, after you have left them for some reason, is now "inconsolable."  I think of a child leaving home to go to college and their mother is inconsolable.  In this case, we might say the mother has become too attached to her child; and she needs to cut the proverbial umbilical cord!  She ought to have reflected upon the thought that the day her child would leave home would eventually come.  Did she expect the child to live with her forever?  This does not sound like freedom for either the mother or the child.  Doing the mental work of anticipating someone leaving you is work you ought to do.  So that when the day comes, when someone leaves you through a separation or death, you won't become inconsolable.  This is a form of premeditato malorum or negative visualization.

We are not supposed to "pass our lives in perpetual misery and lamentation" and we must "wean ourselves once and for all" of this notion that separation is bad (see. v. 9, p. 199).  If we take the view from above - to look at the world and universe and one big whole - we will begin to appreciate the fleeting nature of time and space.  The Stoics view the universe as "a single city" of which "the substance ... is single too, and that there must be a periodic revolution when one thing gives way to another, and when some things are dissolved while others come into being" (v. 10, p. 199).  Indeed, we are cosmopolitans of time and space.

If we take this view, we will see "that everything is full of friends" both the gods and humans "who by nature form one family" and "that we should take delight in those with whom we live, without being upset to see others go away."  Furthermore, we ought to recognize that humans are not like trees and forced to be planted in one spot for hundreds of years.  Rather, we are "able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle" (v. 11-12, p. 199).

And if that is not consolation enough, for those who have separation anxiety, then it may serve them well to also think that "no human being is an orphan, but that all have a father who takes care of them constantly and forever" and that you are free to look to god without an intermediary separating you, your loved ones and him (see. v. 15, p. 199).

Indeed, Stoicism aims to make the human free and happy.  And for someone to be free and happy, they must possess all that they want (see. v. 17, p. 200).  The question and challenge becomes, "what do you want?"  Do you want unlimited power, fame, health, possessions?  If so, then those are out of your control and you will fail.  But if you want to live a life of virtue, then you can be free and happy if you seek a virtuous life - this can be obtained independently from external factors, people and events.

As noted earlier in Discourses, Epictetus envisions a conversation with Zeus, in which Zeus tells him, "I've given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the power to make proper use of impressions; if you pay good heed to this, and entrust all that you have to its keeping, you'll never be hindered, never obstructed, and you'll never groan, never find fault, and never flatter anyone at all." (link)

And so the point of the two preceding paragraphs is that we have already been given everything to make ourselves free and happy which is the goal Zeus had in mind when he created and ordered the universe.  "Truly this is an ill-governed universe if Zeus doesn't set out to ensure that his own fellow citizens should be happy like himself" (v. 19, p. 200).

The good and virtuous human is the human who knows herself and himself (i.e. "know thyself").  Epictetus says, "how can someone be good if he doesn't know who he is?" (v. 20, p. 200).  Part of knowing who you are includes knowing what is in your control and what is not in your control.  And to desire something out of your control is foolish.  "To desire the impossible is the mark of a slave and a fool; it is the behavior of one who is a stranger to the world, and is fighting against God through the only means that is available to him, through his own judgements" (v. 21, p. 200).

Returning to the topic at hand - someone else is grieving; must you grieve too?  Epictetus asks why this other person hasn't made the effort to learn these principals.  Indeed we can "strive to put an end to it [their grief and suffering], but [we] won't strive to do so at all costs" (v. 23, p. 200).  Are we expected to not only be responsible for our own actions, thoughts and emotions, but also those of all those around us, plus the people on the other side of town or the country or even the other hemisphere? (see v. 26, p. 201).  It has to end somewhere.  This is why individuals are given free will - it is given to the individual - there is clearly a delineation between me and you.  And so, we can do our part to help alleviate others' suffering, but not at the expense of my own.

The topic then turns from grief over the physical and spatial separation between two individuals, to the permanent separation of people due to death.  Death is the ultimate separation of us and our loved ones.  But to expect that the separation will never come is to expect the impossible.  Old age comes; people die.  "Such is the nature of the world around us, such is the nature of the people with whom we share it; heat or cold, an unsuitable diet, a journey by land or by sea, the winds of the air, dangers of every kind, will cause one person to perish, another to be driven into exile, another to be dispatched on an embassy, and another to be sent out on a campaign" (v. 29, p. 201).

And if this separation causes you perpetual grief, you will quickly learn it happens to everyone, all the time, everywhere.  Are we then to "get upset by all of these things, and grieve, and be unfortunate and miserable, and be at the mercy of any external event, and not just of one or two, but of thousands and thousands"? (v. 30, p. 201).  The proposition is: we are made to be free and happy and to be so is in our control.  Therefore, grief or happiness is a choice.  Can this be proven time and time again?  The Stoics say, yes.

"The life of every one of us is a [war] campaign, and a long one subject to varying circumstances.  You must fulfil the role of a soldier and carry out every deed as your general bids" (v. 34, p. 201-202).  Freedom is not free, and must be fought for.

Epictetus would argue that real freedom is the aim of Stoicism, whereas, pleasure was the aim of Epicuranism (see. v. 37-38, p. 202).  "What else do these people desire than to sleep without hindrance or compulsion, and when they've risen from bed, to yawn at their leisure, and wash their faces, and then read and write as the fancy takes them, and then talk some nonsense or other, winning applause from their friends whatever it might be, and then go out for a walk and having taken a short stroll, take their bath, eat, and go to bed" (v. 39, p. 202).  If you do these very things, with your goal in life being pleasure, "why do you call yourself a Stoic, then?" (v. 41, p. 202).

No, rather what you should do, is what "reason demands ... for the sake of your country, of your family, of humanity" (v. 44, p. 203).  The Stoics believed we had a social duty to those with whom we lived.  And if reason demanded we helped others, we ought to - this is the Discipline of Action.  You ought to recognize those duties you should do "as a citizen, a brother, a friend" (v. 47, p. 203).

Some might be critical of you if you are not a successful citizen, brother, friend or neighbor - they might think you didn't put any effort into it (see. v. 50, p. 203).  "Don't you know that someone who is virtuous and good never acts for the sake of appearances, but only for the sake of having acted rightly?" The reward for acting rightly is having acted rightly (see v. 50-51, p. 203).  This is your sole purpose, as a human being, in life: to be virtuous, good and happy.  Otherwise you will simply be behaving as a little child (see v. 52-53, p. 204).

"When you've come to despise external things and all that lies outside the sphere of choice, and have come to regard none of that as being your own, but to consider one thing alone to be yours, to judge and think rightly, and to exercise your motives, desires, and aversions rightly, what room is left for flattery or self-debasement?" (v. 56, p. 204).

Furthermore, you are to act "noble-minded" and we should never "be self-abasing or broken-spirited, or should become dependent on another, or should ever find fault with either god or human being."  Indeed, we are to love our children and loved-ones, but our first duty is to be a friend of the gods (see v. 58-60, p. 204).  Again (feels like a broken record), we are not to be unhappy, "but we should instead be happy because of everyone else, and first and foremost because of God, who created us for this end" (v. 63, p. 205).  Diogenes was proof of this counsel.  He acted as a servant for Zeus; he was "full of care for others and obedient to God."  He even "befriended the pirates" who had taken him captive as he "tried to reform them."  And despite being sold into slavery, "he lived ... in just the same way as he had previously lived" when he was free (see. v. 65-66, p. 205).  And so we see an example of someone who proved that they could be free and happy regardless of external events or people.
That is how one acquires freedom. He [Diogenes] used to say accordingly, ‘Ever since Antisthenes set me free, I’ve ceased to be a slave.’ And how did Antisthenes set him free? Listen to what Diogenes says: ‘He taught me what is my own and what isn’t my own. Property isn’t my own; relations, family, friends, reputation, familiar places, conversation with others, none of these are my own.’ What is your own, then? ‘The proper use of impressions. He showed me that I possess that power free from all hindrance and constraint; no one can obstruct me; no one can force me to deal with impressions other than I wish. Who still holds any power over me, then? Philip, Alexander, Perdiccas, or the King of Persia? How could they? For someone who is destined to be overpowered by another human being must first have been overpowered well before by things.’  So accordingly, that person who doesn’t allow himself to be overpowered by pleasure, or by suffering, or by glory, or by wealth, and who is capable, whenever he thinks fit, of spitting his entire miserable body into some tyrant’s face and taking his leave—to what can such a man still be a slave; to whom can he still be subject? (v. 67-71, p. 205)
If you don't think freedom and happiness are the aim of life, then "what reason do you have for living, then?  To pile one sorrow on top of another to make yourself miserable?"  Epictetus boldly states, "I was born for the things that are good for me; I wasn't born for those that are bad" (v. 82-83, p. 207).

Training to Become Free and Happy

Remember you will lose everything and you will eventually turn to dust

"The highest and principal form of training, which stands, so to speak, right at the entrance, that whenever you become attached to anything, don't become attached as though it were something that cannot be taken away, but rather as though it were something like an earthenware pot or crystal goblet, so that if it should be broken, you'll remember what kind of thing it was and not get unduly upset" (v. 84, p. 207).

Do this for everything you have an attachment to.  Start small, with your favorite coffee mug and then proceed to things that are much more valuable to you.  A kitchen table, a nice flatscreen TV, your vehicle, your home, your career, your close & dear friends & neighbors, your relatives, your children, your spouse and then yourself.  A voice should always be whispering in your ear: "you may lose all of this; and someday, indeed, you will."  Whenever Roman generals returned triumphantly from war, they had a slave standing behind them, whispering in their ear, "Remember you are mortal" - memento mori (see v. 85, p. 207).

Additionally, be mindful of "whenever you take delight in anything" and when you do take delight in it, think of the "opposite impression" (v. 88, p. 207).

Be mindful that "you won't exist [forever], but something else will, of which the world then has need.  For indeed, you came into being not when you wanted it, but when the world had need of you.  And so a virtuous and good person, keeping in mind who he is, concentrates on one thing alone: how he may fill his post in a disciplined manner, remaining obedient to God" (v. 94, p. 208).

Keep this idea of impermanence in mind "by night and by day" and "keep these reflections at hand; write them down, read them, make them the subject of your conversation, whether with yourself, or with another" (v. 103, p. 209).

Also be mindful of letting your imagination of desire run wild.  "If your imagination gnaws at you, fight against it with your reason, wrestle it down, don't allow it to gain strength or pass on to the next state, of picturing everything that it wants in the very way it wants to" (v. 108, p. 209).  There is something insidious about Disney movies and catalyzing peoples' imaginations to run wild.  They begin to think they can get things that are out of their control.  And if they allow their desires to get out of control, and they do not obtain what they think they can get, they fall into anguish and at worse, mentally break down.

Furthermore, if it helps, you can replace your desire for external things, with the idea that you can be living proof that things don't make a person happy or content; and that contentment comes only from within.  In this way, you can "provide witness" that the good is found from within and not from without (see. 112, p. 210).

Monday, June 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.23 - To those who read and discuss for mere display

Epictetus was very keen on action - on demonstrating that his students were actually living the philosophy they were learning.  This is another passage where he emphasizes action over rhetoric.

"Tell yourself first of all what kind of person you want to be, and then act accordingly in all that you do" (v. 1, p. 193).  If you start with the end goal in mind, you will know when you have accomplished it or when you are making progress.

"For in all that we do, unless we refer our actions to some end, we'll be acting at random; and if we don't refer them to an appropriate end, we'll go badly wrong" (v. 3, p. 193).  If you don't have a heading, then you'll be heading toward a random point.  You must be clear about what your goal is.

He further clarifies to those who would want to teach others where to head (philosophically speaking).  If you "want to be of benefit to others" you must first bring benefit to yourself.  In other words, in order to be able to teach, you must be able to demonstrate your mastery of the topic.

More specifically about Stoicism, he explains what those milestones in progress are.  "Has he acquired self-restraint?  Has he look in on himself?  Has he become aware of the bad state that he is in?  Has he renounced conceit?" (v. 16, p. 195).

Then there is this interesting passage which reminded me of what many people do in this era of social media.  He says, "While you're in such a wretched state as this, then, and have such a hankering for praise, is it by counting the number of people in your audience that you wish to do good to others?" (v. 19, p. 195).  The admonition strikes near those who pursue the greatest number of Twitter followers or "likes" they get on social media platforms.  The purpose of all teaching is to actually help other people, not to be popular.

The real evidence of being able to have an impact on other peoples' lives is if people naturally follow and listen.  A philosopher does not invite people to come and listen to him, but rather it's "just as the sun draws its nourishment to itself without need for further action, a philosopher likewise draws those whom he can benefit" (v. 27, p. 196).  He also notes that a doctor does not invite people to come to him to be cured, rather people seek him out to be cured.

"A philosopher's school is a doctor's surgery.  You shouldn't leave after having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain" (v. 30, p. 197).

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.22 - On the Cynic calling

Who doesn't love a good dog!  Especially an under-dog!  The greatest dog of all time was Diogenes.

Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, shocked people in the ancient world.  Not that he was a mentally, unstable, unhealthy bum, but rather he was fit, strong, healthy and yet still lived homeless.  To give you a taste for Diogenes ...

"Diogenes was once invited to dinner by a wealthy man. During the evening, one of the guests became so outraged by Diogenes’ general behavior that he began to throw bones at him, calling him a “dog.” Whereupon Diogenes got  up, went to the guest, cocked up his leg and urinated on him."(source)

He lived in a barrel.

He pleasured himself in public.

He begged for food

He only wore a tunic.

And he was called a dog.  The name Cynic comes from ancient Greece, meaning 'dog-like'.


That is the burning question and Epictetus reveals the answer.  Epictetus admired Diogenes and often used Diogenes' as a good example of Stoic behavior.

Epictetus was quick to point out that wearing nothing but a tunic, sleeping on the ground, not shaving, begging - all these behaviors - do not make one a Cynic.  It goes deeper.

Epictetus begins to explain why Diogenes acted the way he did; and in so doing, he teaches us Stoicism too.

"First of all, with regard to what concerns you directly, you must no longer show yourself to be behaving in any respect as you do at present; you must bring no accusation against either god or man; you must suppress your desires wholly and completely; you must direct your aversion only towards things that lie within the sphere of choice; you must harbour neither anger, nor malice, nor envy, nor pity; you mustn’t find any wench beautiful, nor any scrap of reputation, nor any boy, nor a honey-cake. For you must be clear in your mind about this point, that other people have walls and houses and darkness to protect them when they venture on anything of this kind, and have many means by which they can hide it away. A man shuts his door, he stations someone in front of his bedroom, saying, ‘If anyone comes along, say: he’s out, he’s busy.’ But the Cynic, in place of all these defences, must make his own self-respect his source of protection; or else he’ll be disgracing himself while he’s naked and in the open. His self-respect is his house, his door, the watchman in front of his bedroom, and his darkness" (v. 13-15, p. 182-183).

Whereas some will hide behind walls to indulge in pleasure, Diogenes, other the other hand, intends to put as little between him and the rest of the world.  This is extreme transparency.  There is no shame, fear, anxiety.  He bares (and bears) all.  The Cynic man is "the man of the open air."  The only medium, in the Cynic's art, is his mind - nothing else.  The start of the Cynic's duty is to train the mind; and so it is with Stoicism too.

Observers may scoff at the idea of possessing as little as possible and wonder how one can be content with nothing.  Diogenes would reply, "Look at me, I am without a home, without a country, without possessions, without a slave. I sleep on the ground. I have neither wife nor children, nor a governor’s palace, but only the ground and sky and a single rough cloak.  And yet, what do I lack? Isn’t it the case that I’m free from sorrow, free from fear? Am I not free? When did any of you ever see me failing to attain what I desire, or falling into what I want to avoid? When have I ever cast any reproach at god or man? When have I ever accused anyone? Have any of you ever seen me with a sad expression on my face?  How do I treat those who inspire you with fear and awe? Don’t I treat them as though they were slaves? Who, on seeing me, doesn’t think that he’s seeing his king and master?" (v. 45-49, p. 186).

Diogenes contrasted with those who sought contentment and happiness in food, women, possessions or fame.  He further contrasted with people who would be upset and angry when they did not get what they wished or when things did not go their way.

While others sought the thrills of watching athletes compete, Diogenes, who was ill with fever, would yell at them as they passed, "You wretches, aren’t you going to stop? You’ll travel all the way to Olympia to see wrestlers and athletes do battle with one another, and yet you have no wish to see a man fighting it out with a fever?" (v. 58, p. 187).

Later on, Epictetus describes how Diogenes wasn't some ordinary bum; but rather a person with a fit body and an attitude of a gentleman: "It is also necessary, however, that the Cynic should have the right kind of body, because if he comes forward looking like a consumptive, all thin and pale, his witness would no longer carry the same weight.  For he must not only prove to laymen, by displaying the qualities of his mind, that it is possible to be virtuous and good without having the things that they set such store on, but he must also show through his bodily qualities that a plain and simple life lived in the open air has no deleterious effects even on the body.  ‘Look, both I and my body bear witness to that truth.’ That was the way of Diogenes, for he would walk around radiant with health, and would attract the attention of the crowd by the very condition of his body.  But a Cynic who arouses pity passes for being a beggar; everyone turns away from him; he arouses everyone’s disgust. Nor should he look dirty, so as not to scare people away for that reason too, but even in his destitution, he should be clean and attractive" (v. 86-89, p. 191).

Equal to his fit body, should be his wits and sharpness, otherwise he's just a boring windbag (see v. 90, p. 191).

His radical acceptance makes him pure.  "He sees that his every thought is that of a friend and servant of the gods, as one who shares in the government of Zeus, and is ready to say on every occasion, 'Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny' and 'If this is what pleases the gods, so be it,'" (v. 95, p. 192).

Lastly, his endurance to physical and verbal abuse mush be unmatched.  "A Cynic must have such powers of endurance that he strikes the crowd as being insensible and like a stone. No one can insult him, no one can strike him, no one can assault him; as for his poor body, he himself has handed that over for anyone to deal with as he thinks fit.  For he keeps in mind that what is weaker must necessarily be overcome by what is stronger, in that respect in which it is weaker, and that his body is weaker than the crowd, as what is physically weaker must be to what is stronger.  So he never enters into this contest in which he can be defeated, but renounces once and for all what is not truly his own, laying no claim to what is slavish" (v. 100-102, p. 192).

Marcus Aurelius uses a similar metaphor in the "rocky headland," as an example of unwavering endurance to brutality (see Meditations 4.49).

Indeed, nothing frightens Diogenes.  He cares not for his body, possessions, honors or career.  "When anyone tries to scare him by means of such things, he says, 'Go and look for some children; they're afraid of empty masks, but I know that they're made of clay and have nothing inside them.'" (v. 106, p. 193).

In summary, Epictetus attempted to describe, to his students, the Herculean  effort it would require to embrace the Cynic life.  He even begged them to "take some time to judge [their] aptitude" for becoming a Cynic.  It is not for the faint in heart, rather, it is all out war.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.21 - To those who set out to become lecturers without due thought

In this chapter, Epictetus lays out who should and should not be able to teach philosophy as well as what it takes to make progress.

Philosophical principals ought to be "digested" first.  To me, it seems like he's saying we ought to really think about what we learn from Stoicism and how we can apply it to make progress.  If we simply memorize ideas and phrases, only to vomit it back up, then there is no actual benefit.

The benefit of food is to actually digest it, which is then converted to energy and maintenance of the body.  But if you always vomit the food after eating it, you will never derive the benefit of food.

The same goes for philosophy.  Learn it; think about it; apply it; show what you have learned - "show us some resulting change in your ruling centre" (v. 3, p. 179)

He uses a builder as another analogy.  "A builder doesn't come forward and say, 'Listen to me as I deliver a discourse about the builder's art,' but he acquires a contract to build a house, and shows through actually building it that he has mastered the art" (v. 4, p. 179).

The art that philosophy is focused on, is the art of living.  Therefore, once you have learned philosophy and have thought about how to apply it, then show the world what you have learned.  "Eat as a proper human being, drink as a proper human being, dress, marry, father children, perform your public duties; put up with being abused, put up with an inconsiderate brother, put up with a father, a son, a neighbor, a fellow traveller.  Show us these things to enable us to see that you really have learned something from the philosophers" (v. 5-6, p. 179).

He later provides additional examples of people who are actually living the philosophy.

"people who are patient and helpful towards others, and have minds that are free from passion and agitation, and are furnished with such provisions for their journey through life that they'll be able, by that means, to face up well to everything that comes about, and draw honour from it" (v. 8-9, p. 179).

And if you're going to set up a school for philosophy, then you'll need to be wise, have a special aptitude and predisposition, a particular physique and a vocation from God to fulfill this function (v. 18, p. 181).

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.20 - That advantage may be gained from every external circumstance

This is an important chapter about resilience.

"The good and bad are in ourselves, and not in external things" (v. 1, p. 177).  Your choice, as to how to react to the world and to your body and surroundings, defines everything.  You can either choose to exercise virtue or vice.  If you choose to exercise virtue, it will be to your advantage.

Take the simple understanding "that knowledge is good, and error is bad, so that even in regard to what is false, something good arises: that knowledge that it is indeed false" (v. 3, p. 177).

The same can be applied to health, illness, death, lameness and all externals.

Seek for and draw advantage from illness, death and lameness.  Dig deep and you will gain the advantage - you will improve as a human being.

"Cease to attach such value to what is purely material, and cease to make yourselves slaves of things ... and ... of the men who are able to procure them for you or take them away from you" (v. 8, p. 177).  If you cease to deeply value such things, they will not hold you enslaved.

Just as you can derive advantage from a sparing partner, you can derive advantage from any event in life.

The man who insults you, becomes your training partner.  He trains you in patience; he helps you abstain from anger and he helps you remain gentle (see v. 9, p. 178).

Your neighbor who is a bad man is "bad to himself" but not to you (v. 11, p. 178).

Your attitude toward everything in life should be: "bring me whatever you wish, and I'll turn it into something good.  Bring illness, bring death, bring destitution, bring abuse or a trial for one's life, and ... all of that will become a source of benefit" (v. 12, p. 178).

Confronted with death, "make it something that can bring you honor" (v. 13, p. 178).

Confronted with illness, then remain steadfast and serene and don't even pray for death (v. 15, p. 178).

"Whatever you present to me I'll turn it into something blessed and a source of happiness, into something venerable and enviable" (v. 15, p. 178).

Be sure to check this post out: and watch the video of Johnny Cash's song Sue.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.19 - What is the position of the layman, and what that of the philosopher?

There is not much to this chapter other than a reiteration of: it is not things that disturb me, but my judgement of those things.

In this chapter, he discusses the practical matters - when we complain how we suffer due to a parent, or sibling or boss or some external event.

We should not think or say that these things cause our suffering.

Rather, we should say, "Ah, how I suffer because of myself" (v. 2, p. 176).

We should always "blame ourselves for it and remember that nothing except our own judgement is capable of causing us to become disturbed or confused" and if we do this, then "we've made progress" (v. 3, p. 176).

Friday, May 31, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.18 - That we should not allow news to disturb us

"Whenever any disturbing news is brought to you, you should have this thought ready at hand: that news never relates to anything that lies within the sphere of choice" (v. 1, p. 175).

News falls under the category of "things outside our control" and therefore, since it is outside our control, the thing can't actually hurt us (mentally - from your hegemonikon's perspective).

Epictetus goes on to elaborate this point through the rest of this chapter.

We should "mind the gap" between stimulus (disturbing news) and our response to it.  The more we practice being mindful, the more quickly we are able to determine that news should really not disturb us.  Rather, we ought to view all news objectively.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.17 - On Providence

"Whenever you find fault with providence, just give the matter some thought and you'll recognize that what came about was in accordance with reason" (v. 1, p. 174)

After Epictetus said this, the student's reaction was, "Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better" (v. 2, p. 174).

This part of the dialogue sums up, in my opinion, the vast majority of conversations and misunderstandings about life and events in life.

In my review of Mormonism, Christianity and religion in general, over the past few years, I have lost count the number of times people who got upset because God did or didn't do something.

People will say God answered their prayer when:
- they found their lost keys
- their loved one was healed
- they financially prospered
- their home was protected from weather

People will say God cursed them when:
- they lost their stuff
- their loved one died or had cancer
- they lost money or were poor
- their property was damaged

Yet other people, in those same "unfortunate" circumstances will say that these are trials God has given them to strengthen their faith in God.  A subset of this group will have their faith strengthened if things indeed "turn around" while another subset of these people might exercise faith in God, pray, fast, etc. but when their desires to find something, or to have a loved one healed, aren't realized, they turn bitter.

I've also seen many people complain how God is in the details of our life and helps us find our lost keys, but then God totally ignores the massacred Jews in WWII, the Rwandans in 1994 or people who died in earthquakes or hurricanes or drought.  They say, "if God can intervene in someone's life on such a small scale of lost keys, why could He not intervene on a macro-level?  Is He only powerful on a small scale and powerless when it comes to large-scale events?"

The Stoic philosophy rises above these mis-guided arguments.  The Stoics accept that God/Zeus/Providence/the Universe will proceed the way it wants to proceed.  Try as we might, we humans will not have much of an impact on guiding Cosmic willpower.  Rather than focusing on something entirely out of your control, you ought to focus on what is in your control - which is your reaction to Providential events, while also recognizing that there is still a human element at play in this universe.

Always keep in mind what Marcus Aurelius said in Book 4.1:
Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use
Rather than choosing to look at events with a "blessed/cursed" mindset, we ought to look at them, at all times, as opportunities to exercise some virtue.

Also, when someone "comes off better" you have to ask yourself what you are actually judging - what game is being played.  If the game is "win all the money" and someone sells their soul or body to gain money, then there will be plenty of people who are better at that game than you.

But if you are trying to judge the character of a person and you choose to be "trustworthy and honest," (see v. 3, p. 174) then the person who sold their soul or body for money is not better off than you who have not sold your soul or body for money.

To put a finer point on this, Stoic philosophy says "virtue is the sole good."  This means the only game that matters is: are you winning at exercising virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, etc).  Nothing else matters.

If you play this game, then wealth, health, prestige, honors, power will not matter to you.  If someone is better than you, then they will have more courage; they will be wiser and have more justice; they will be disciplined and self-controlled.  They will adhere to a moral and honest life, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, maimed or strong, powerful or simple.

If you base your judgments about people and events on virtue, then you will see who the real winners and losers are.