Monday, May 21, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 23 - the greatest gift

Indeed, we have been given many gifts: speech, writing, sight, hearing.  We should not "be ungrateful for these gifts, but at the same time, [we should not] forget that there are others superior to them" (verse 5).  The greatest gift is "the faculty of using impressions" (verse 7).  This gift is also known as "the will" - our ability to choose and perceive and form opinions.

"Only the will is discerning enough to look after [the other gifts], in proportion to value, and supervise itself at the same time" (verse 11).  We may be gifted in speech and writing, but choosing how to employ those gifts - that is a better, even the best gift.  Learning to use the will in the best way, is the ultimate goal or objective.

Now, this does not mean we should abandon our other gifts.  We must take great care of our other faculties, but not at the risk of abandoning our best gift.  "Simply put - ignore it (the will) and unhappiness results, give it your attention and your happiness is assured" (verse 29).

And learning how to use the will is the ultimate objective.  "Your objective, my friend, was to see to it that you make natural use of whatever impressions come your way; that you do not fail in your desires, or have experiences you don't want; that you never be unfortunate or unhappy, but free, unrestricted and unrestrained; in sympathy with God's rule, which you submit cheerfully; at odds with no one, no one's accuser; able in all sincerity to speak Cleanthes' line: 'lead me, Zeus, lead me, Destiny.' (verse 42)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 22 - real friendship and love

Epictetus describes what ails so many of us - why we are not wise.  The reason: "you are frequently dazed or disturbed by certain sense impressions whose appearance of truth gets the better of you.  Sometimes you think that some things are good, then you consider the same things bad, and later you decide that they're indifferent.  In other words, you're subject to sorrow, fear, jealousy, anger and inconsistency" (verse 6).

People can have similar views of their friends or family.  One minute they may be kind and loving, the next moment there may be raging jealousy and hate.  How can this be true friendship and love?  It can't, because the people involved have placed their self-interest in externals.  History and literature are scattered with examples of people acting badly towards each other because of self-interest in externals.

HOWEVER, "if you identify self-interest with piety, honesty, country, parents, and friends, then you are all secure" (verse 18).  "Only if [you] identify with [your] will can [you] be someone's friend - or son, or father - in the true sense, because only then will [your] self-interest be served by remaining loyal, honest, patient, tolerant and supportive, and by maintaining [your] social relations" (verse 20).

The simple test of true friendship: "ask whether they put their self-interest in externals or moral choice" (verse 26).

"If any of you are serious about being a friend, rid yourself of such attitudes, condemn them and drive them out of your mind" (verse 34).  Examples of "such attitudes" are: placing your happiness and self-interest in material things and externals - putting health, wealth, beauty, status, etc. above and before virtue.

Epictetus reminds us to be gentle with those who still may hold externals above virtue.  "Never be harsh, remember Plato's dictum: 'Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will'" (verse 36).  This attitude and approach is a very forgiving (also a virtue) outlook on life and people.  It gives others the benefit of the doubt and assumes the best of others as a default.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 19 - show me

Epictetus calls out he fake philosophers - the ones who read books and then quote them, but don't actually demonstrate they've thought about and applied what they've read.

The real test of a Stoic is in the acts.

"Let's see how you handle a storm while on board ship.  Do you still maintain these distractions when the sails are flapping madly and you're crying out to heaven?" (verse 15)

"If the emperor summons you to answer a charge, do you remember these same distractions when you show up pale and shaking?" (verse 17)

For a true Stoic, virtue is the sole good.  If you are a hypocrite, or show cowardice or pretend to be Stoic but are not, you are "dressed up in borrowed colors." (verse 19)

A real Stoic is "someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation." (verse 24)

The soul of a real Stoic is "willing to work with, and never criticize[s], either God or a fellow human being."  A real Stoic is "one who will never fail, or have experiences he does not want; who will never give into anger, jealousy or desire[s] to dominate others."  A real Stoic is "someone set on becoming a god rather than a man."  (verses 26-27)

Epictetus desired to make proof out of his students that "nothing ... is within our power except [the correct use of] impressions." (verse 32)

Showing ... being ... demonstrating ... is Stoic; discussing to learn is good, but then you should get "down to business" and show what you've learned.  Otherwise it's all pointless.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 18 - impressions and habits

The entire chapter deals with the discipline of assent, which should be managed by logic.

Our souls or unique minds or our true inner identity is sovereign.  But the body and senses will take over our purest freedom, if we are not careful.  Therefore, it is imperative we exercise the discipline of assent in all matters that are external to the soul; else we slip into a type of bondage.

I'll follow Epictetus' examples.

If you choose to be angry, it is because you've abdicated your responsibility to choose your attitude.  You've left the choice with your base instincts and with others who would trigger you.

The same goes for sex or other pleasures.  "It is inevitable that continuous behavior of any one kind is going to instill new habits and tendencies while steadily confirming old ones" (verse 6).

If you see something you want (greed) but counter the first impression with reason "to alert you to the danger" then "the passion will abate and the mind will be restored to its former balance" (verse 8).  And I think that word is very important: balance.  We can all become imbalanced and if we don't restore our harmony, and instead yield to passion, the next time we are 'tipped' we will fall more easily and quickly.  Then we lose control.

He gives an excellent visual: vice (the opposite of virtue, with virtue in the center and vice to the extreme on the left and the right) is like a blister or scar.  The more you agitate it, the longer it will take to heal.  You must allow them to heal well if you would not have the wounds open again.

Another excellent piece of advice from Epictetus: "Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don't get mad" (verse 12, emphasis added).  I remember Jerry Seinfeld giving some advice about becoming successful.  He described a "don't break the chain" habit, wherein he hangs up a big year-view calendar on his wall.  And every day he created new material, he could put a big red "X" on that day.  Then his goal was simply not to break the chain of red "X's" (link here).  Whether building a habit of doing something or a habit of not doing something, the idea is useful.

On a related note, Seneca advises a daily review at the end of the day; whereby you become the judge and the judged (see On Anger Book 3, 36).  This is a good habit to develop.

Epictetus gives other related advice on developing habits

  • "socialize with men of good character, in order to model your life on theirs."
  • "don't let the force of the impression, when first it hits you, knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who are you and what you represent.  Let me put you to the test."
The challenge of challenging impressions is perhaps the greatest "sport" - that of "training to face off against the most formidable of impressions" (verse 27).  "It's a fight for autonomy, freedom, happiness and peace" (verse 28).  But it is a worthy fight and challenge.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 17

The quotes ...

"Why do you get what you do not want, and don't get what you do?  This is categorical proof of inner confusion and unhappiness.  I want something to happen, and it fails to happen, or I don't want something to happen, and it does - and can any creature be more miserable than I?"  (verses 17-18)

"Don't want anything except what God wants, and no one will stop or stay you, any more than they can stand in the way of God.  When you have him as your leader, and conform your will and desire to his, what fear of failure can you have?" (verses 22-23)

As long as "you still experience envy, pity, jealousy and fear ... hardly a day passes that you don't whine to the gods about your life." (verse 26)

"Begin to fashion your future in such a way that nothing happens contrary to your desire and nothing that you desire fails to materialize." (verse 28).

Three Stages of a True Philospher

"It's enough if one day I can live without sorrow or frustration, if I can lift up my head like a free person in the face of circumstance and look to heaven as a friend of God without fear of anything that might happen." (verse 29)

"I want to be free from fear and emotion, but at the same time I want to be a concerned citizen and philosopher, and attentive to my other duties, toward God, my parents, my siblings, my country, and my guests." (verse 31)

"I want to be faultless, and unshakable, not just when I am awake, but even when I'm sleeping, even when I'm drunk or delirious."  (verse 49)

Having attained stage 3, "you are a god ... headed for the stars."

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 16 - how to gain tranquility and freedom (be Stoic)

I'm simply going to quote some moneyball quotes from this chapter - no need for commentary.

"what oppresses and scares us?  It is our own thoughts.  What overwhelms people when they are about to leave friends, family, old haunts and their accustomed way of life?  Thoughts"  (verse 24).

"leave everything that isn't yours alone.  Make use of what material advantages you have, don't regret the ones you were not allowed.  If any of them are recalled, let go of them willingly, grateful for the time you had to enjoy them" (verse 28).

"Can you hope for any better vision than the sun, the moon, the stars, all the land and sea?  And if you appreciate how God governs them, and carry him around inside you, what attraction can mere marble or fine masonry still have for you? (verses 32-33).

"But by leaving them [friends, family] I make them unhappy.

"You think you are the cause of their unhappiness?  No; the cause of their disturbance is the same as yours: judgments.  Overhaul your judgments and, if they're smart, they will overhaul theirs.  Otherwise, their unhappiness will be of their own making" (verse 40).

"Listen, as the saying goes, it's crisis time: make a last desperate effort to gain freedom and tranquility - to be Stoic" (verse 41).

Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery.  Dare to face God and say, 'From now on, use me as you like.  I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.'  Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it.  You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas.  They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man, by showing just how little circumstances amount to" (verses 42-43).

"It was obedience to [Zeus] that [Hercules] went around wiping out crime and injustice" (verse 44).

"Cast out of your mind ... sorrow, fear, lust, envy, spite, greed, petulance and over-indulgence.  Getting rid of these, too, requires looking to God for help, trusting in him alone, and submitting to his direction.  Then if you're not willing to do this - all tears and agitation - you will serve someone physically more powerful than you, and continue to look outside yourself for happiness, fated never to find it.  And that is because you look for it in the wrong place, forgetting to look where it really lies" (verses 46-47).

This last quote reminds me of another quote I recently read: "If you will not have rules, you will have rulers. (link to tweet)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 15 - clinging vs. sound reasoning

"But we must stick with a decision."

Substitute the word 'decision' with words such as: culture, tradition, the way things ought to be.

So many people don't challenge their assumptions - including me!  We must challenge our assumptions with sound reason.

Epictetus responds to the person who says, "we must stick with a decision."

"For heaven's sake, man, that rule only applies to sound decisions.  I suppose next you will decide that it is night now, and refuse to change your mind because you don't want to.  You will repeat, 'We must stick with a decision.'  Begin with a firm foundation; evaluate your decision to see if it is valid - then there will be a basis for this rigid resolve of yours.  If your foundation is rotten or crumbling, not a thing should be built on it, and the bigger and grander you make it, the sooner it will collapse."

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 14 - a philosopher's goal

I had a manager a few years ago, who loved to use the "sausage machine" analogy.  We assembled several reports and stewarded several groups.  Our reports were intended to be used by upper management.  My manager would always talk about the goal of the end product - a nicely assembled, easy to read and informative report.  All the work that went into it, was boring, tedious and time-heavy.  All that work was the bloody sausage machine while the end product was the sausage.

Epictetus, similarly, teaches that the practice of any skill is boring to the uninitiated.  Similarly, learning and discussing philosophy and "good" and "bad" things can be tedious and boring.  But the end product is amazing.

He defines the goal of the philosopher: "bring the will in line with events, so that nothing happens contrary to our wishes and, conversely, nothing fails to happen that we want to happen" (see verse 7).  In other words, the goal of a philosopher is to exactly align his or her own desires and aversions with the desires and aversions of the universe/god(s).

He compares this life to a "festival" and as it sounds, it would more aptly be described as a state fair in today's vernacular.  At the festival, the express purpose is to buy and sell cattle.  But there are so many other things going on too.  If you observe the cattle, all they care about is the food.  You could say the same about many people who attend the festival.  Then there are those who "are capable of reflection" and want to figure things out - what is going on, how is it organized, and managed.  Thus they spend their spare time learning as much about the festival before it ends.  Whereas the cattle and some people would simply laugh at the reflective people.

Life, therefore, is full of people who care only about food, pleasures, wealth, status, etc..  Whereas, there are some who are more interested in how life is organized, ruled and administered - what is the purpose of life.  These are the philosophers who simply want to align their will with the organization of the world/universe/'the rule and organizer'.

As said many times before, Nietzsche succinctly summarizes the goals as: amor fati.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 11 - a measuring stick for philosophy

how can we tell which opinions are the correct opinion?

"Here you have philosophy's starting point: we find that people cannot agree among themselves, and we go in search of the source of their disagreement.  In time, we come to scorn and dismiss simple opinion, and look for a way to determine if an opinion is right or wrong.  At last, we focus on finding a standard that we can invoke, just as the scale was invented to measure weights, and the carpenter's rule devised to distinguish straight from crooked. That is the beginning of philosophy."

the idea here, is for us to be able to judge an opinion, we must measure it against something that does not change.  Epictetus gives two examples in the chapter: 1) pleasure and 2) pride.

since both are not constant and can vary, they cannot be used as a measure for philosophy.

i suspect this is why the Stoics arrived at the conclusion that "virtue is the sole good" as virtue does not change.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 8 - the divinity within

how should we spend our time and efforts?  should we spend them like animals - eating, defecating, sleeping, fighting, copulating, lazing?  animals do that, all day long and have no other thought besides the above.  humans must do these things for the body not to perish, but there is so much more to humans.

there is divinity in each of us.  we have a mind that thinks; we possess intelligence and reason.  this is our god-given blessing that is unique to us.  and instead of focusing on what is unique to us, we waste away our efforts and time on the same base things that occupy the attention of mere brutes.

as Epictetus says, we are creatures "placed in charge" and in us lies "a bit of God."

in today's modern world, people are fascinated by the invention of artificial intelligence.  humans can create life, but this is a biological aspect of humans and it is not enough.  we, as a species, are also trying to create a consciousness by our own design - inherent in us is this urge to create something that can exist on it's own.  this idea has been around for hundreds of years, ever since humanity has had the ambition to create something self-conscious, outside of the normal biological means of reproduction.

are we simply not trying to play like God?  God gave us our freedom and in turn, we are attempting to do the same.  "What other work of art comes ready equipped with the very powers the artist displayed in making it?   Do marble statues?  No, nor do bronze, gold or ivory ones.  The Athena of Phidias, once its arm was raised to support the statue of Victory, has maintained that pose for the duration of its long existence.  Zeus' works, on the other hand, are living, breathing creatures, with the power of perception and judgement" (verse 20).

and what are we to do with this unique gift?  we are to live our life according to virtue: integrity, honor, dignity, patience, calmness, poise, trustworthy, noble.  we ought to show others our strength: "a will that never fails to get what it wants, a faculty of aversion that always avoids what it dislikes, proper impulse, careful purpose and discipline assent" (verse 29).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 5 - life is like ...

Epictetus instructs us that there are things in our control and things out of our control.  The things out of our control are called externals.

How are we to interact with externals.  He gives multiple examples of how life is like something and how there are things that are in our control and things out of our control.  He was Forest Gump's mama before there was a Forest Gump!

Life is like a card game ...
The chips and cards fall where they may - they are out of our control.

What is in our control is our reaction to them, by "making careful and skillful use of the deal - that's where [our] responsibility begins.  So in life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control."

Life is like an ocean voyage ...
You can choose the captain, the boat and the day you set sail and even the best time to sail.  "But then a storm hits.  Well, it's no longer my business; I have done everything I could.  It's somebody else's problem now - namely the captain's."  And if the boat begins to sink and my only choice is to drown, then I do it "fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die .... What difference does it make whether I go by drowning or disease.  I have to go somehow."

Life is like a ball game ...
Ballplayers do not value the ball, but rather focus on the skills needed to excel at the sport.  "If we are afraid to throw the ball, or nervous about catching it, then the fun is lost; and how can we preserve our composure when we are uncertain about what next to do?"

Just like we don't get to choose the ball, but we do get to choose whether to play the game or not, so too in life, we don't get to choose if we are imprisoned, exiled or executed.  We don't get to choose if our wife dies and our children become orphans.  We may play with one "ball" for 20 years and then the judge takes it away and gives us another.  The excellent athlete keeps his concentration and coolness and keeps playing, despite the change in equipment.  He used the ball, but he does not grow attached to it - the ball is just a means for demonstrating skill.

Life is like a weaving...
The weaver does not make the wool; rather she makes the "best use of whatever wool she's given.  God gives you food and property, and can take them back - your whole body too.  Work with the material you are given."

You are like a foot ...
The foot can only be useful in the context of the full body.  So too, the human can only be useful and understood in the context of community and the whole universe.

It is according to nature for the foot to be cleaned, to tromp through dirt and mud to step on needles.  It is also according to nature for the foot to be amputated, if the need arises.  You want your foot to be there to do those things.  You want your foot amputated if it puts the rest of the body at risk.  You do not want a foot that says, "I cannot walk today, I'd rather soak in a tub" - especially when you need it to play in the NBA finals!

Similarly, if you view yourself as part of the whole, then "for the sake of the whole, circumstances may make it right for you to be sick, go on a dangerous journey, endure poverty, even die before your time.  Don't complain."  Humans are part of a community of gods and men - in a community - it a city - in a state - in a nation - in a world - in the universe.

In sum
"In this body, this universe, this community, it is inevitable that each of us faces some such event [death, exile, being convicted].  Your job, then, is to appear before the court, say what you have to say and make the best of the situation."

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 2 Chapter 1 - confidence, caution and your duty

I'm not going to commentate on this chapter.  I highlighted several parts and they really stand on their own.  I'll simply copy them here.

Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will's control.  For if evil is a matter of the will, then caution is needed there; and if everything beyond the will and not in our control is immaterial to us, then those things can be approached with confidence.


When deer are frightened by the feathers, they seek safety in the hunters' nets.  Confusing ruin with refuge, they come to an ill-timed death.


Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is.  So be confident about death, and caution yourself against the fear of it.


Pain too is just a scary mask: look under it and you will see.  The body sometimes suffers, but relief is never far behind.  And if that isn't good enough for you, the door stands open; otherwise put up with it.


Only educated people are entitled to be called free.  What else is freedom but the power to live our life the way we want?


No one doing wrong is free.  Do you want to live your life in fear, grief, and anxiety?  ... No one in a state of constant fear is free either.  By the same token, whoever has gained relief from grief, fear and anxiety has gained freedom.


What master, I wonder, do you yourself serve?  Money?  Women?  Boys?  The emperor or one of his subordinates?  It has to be one of them, or you wouldn't fret about such things.


I notice your clever phrases, yes - and you can have them.  Show me instead how you practice desire and aversion to get what you want and avoid what you do not want.  As for those treatises of yours, if you have any sense, you will go on and burn them.


[Socrates] would test and examine himself, forever subjecting to scrutiny one assumption or another.  That's the writing of a real philosopher.


Look how I don't fail in my desires, or have experiences I don't want.  I'll prove it to you in the case of death, I'll it to you in the case of physical pain, in the case of prison, of condemnation, and ill repute.  That's the real test of a youth fit to finish school.  ... be content to look like a nobody or know-nothing.


Show them this, though, that you know how not to fail in your desires or experience what you don't desire.


Your duty is to prepare for death and imprisonment, torture and exile and all such evils, with confidence, because you have faith in the one who has called on you to face them, having judged you worthy of the role.  When you take on the role, you will show the superiority of reason and the mind over forces unconnected with the will.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 30 - the point of it all

The real chapter title of Book 1 Chapter 30 is: How to prepare for trouble.  After I read the chapter a few times, I would have entitled the chapter: What's the Point of it All?  And by 'it' I mean life.

If you were to be judged by anyone or even by God, the judgement might be like an oral examination - to determine what you have learned.  This would be the first point of life: did you learn something?

One of the first questions of the examination would be about how you judged certain things.  What did you think of: exile, imprisonment, chains, death and disgrace.  In the year 2018, that list seems pretty harsh.  Who of my peers and friends has been sent to exile?  Who has been sent to prison?  Who is in chains?  Who has died ... well, plenty have died, but what did they think about death?  And who, of my peers in 2018, is disgraced?  What do these terms means in a post-modern society?  Let's examine them.

What does exile look like in corporate America?  Perhaps it looks like what happened to Steve Jobs in 1985.  "They basically stripped Jobs of responsibilities and gave him an office that he referred to as 'Siberia.'"  Similarly, today, we could be stripped of authority and the ability to make change in a company - our ranking could be tanked.

What does imprisonment look like?  Well, we still have prisons in 2018, but I think the idea implies being imprisoned unjustly - when you are actually innocent.  Rubin "Hurricane" Carter lived this.  Or perhaps we have been sentenced to a different kind of prison.

Do people actually wear chains in 2018?  Physically - maybe not.  Chains are simply devices that restrict our body.  Perhaps an illness casts a certain sort of chain on our bodies.

Disgrace has lasted well through time - people were disgraced centuries ago and they are still disgraced today.  In fact, the current President of the United States has used 'disgrace' multiple times in his first few years in office - firing cabinet members and staff at a whim.  At my company, I have seen a few examples of people who have fallen from grace.

Now - do any of these things really matter?  Or should we view them as "indifferents"?  If you were to pass the examination by God, you would need to view them as indifferents.  Indifferents are things that should not matter to you or me.  And why do they not matter?  Because these are things that are not in your control or my control.

Therefore, what should matter to you?  Focusing on things that you can control is what should matter to you.  And what can you control?  You can control your will and your impressions (your attitude).

Lastly, God might ask, "what is the goal of life?"  And if you can honestly respond with "to follow God" or "to love my fate", then you may have passed the examination.  And that is the point of it all.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 29 - mental toughness

The common theme from this chapter seems to be "mental toughness."

A person has to be really mentally tough to stand up to a tyrant and bully.  Mental toughness begins with the ability to derive contentment from within.  If you think you will be content by obtaining or avoiding things external to your mind, you will be disappointed.  As Epictetus says, "If you want something good, get it from yourself."

If you are able to gain contentment from yourself, then what can a tyrant do to you?  A tyrant may threaten to put you in chains, but he is not putting you in chains; rather he is putting your hands in chains.  A tyrant may threaten to lop off your head, but he is not killing you, he is killing your body.  Indeed, Epictetus is using some very extreme examples to make a point.  The modern-day equivalent is a saying that kids may say to a bully: "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

A tyrant or bully ultimately wants complete control over you - they want to control your judgments, your opinions, your thoughts.  But this is where the tyrant loses control.  He does not have this power.  He may have power to chain you, imprison you or kill you, but he can never control your thoughts.  But what about mind-altering drugs?  Well, then, that falls under the category of controlling your body (your brain), but the real you is not under his control.

Another aspect of mental toughness is to have patience with those who are not philosophical.  If you, as one who studies philosophy, have decided that true, meaningful happiness cannot be found in the opening of Christmas presents; and if a child comes up to you, to wish you a Merry Christmas, you do not begin to philosophize and say that Christmas is not "good", rather you should say, "Merry Christmas" back to the child.  Similarly, if you cannot persuade another person to change their perspective on philosophy, then treat them as you would a child who lacks understanding and context - be patient with them (see verses 30-32).

Furthermore, you can view people who "don't get it" as opportunities to practice what you learn from philosophy.  Are you up to the challenge of being patient with others?  Why did you read and study these things (Stoicism) if not to practice it?  You should be grateful for chances to demonstrate what you've learned, and disappointed when you don't have an opportunity to practice.  Gladiators begged to be put in the ring with worthy opponents - they were always eager to prove their mettle (see verses 36-38).

Developing mental toughness also requires you to embrace and love the life you've been given.  We do not get to choose our circumstances all the time.  We do not get to choose who our parents and family are.  You have the ability to cope and live in contentment now, in these circumstances.  Just like clothes and props don't make an actor great (it's his acting that makes him great), so too it is not our circumstances that make us happy; it's how we react to them that does!  Are you or can you be a philosopher as a Senator or Emperor?  How about as a garbage collector?  Epictetus makes a call to everyone: "What we need now are people to apply their learning and bear witness to their learning in their actions" (verse 56).

Monday, April 2, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 28

According to the Stoics, people act according to their impressions.  What does that mean?  It means that when some event happens (it may just happen or the event may happen to us as an individual) we may react a few different ways.

We may react instinctively, without thinking.  Or maybe we simply observe the event - like watching a leaf fall from a tree.  Or maybe we acknowledge the event and consider what it has to do with us.  If we are required to have an opinion, we may think about it and decide.  If no opinion is required, perhaps we simply pass.  And on that last part - what criteria should we use if we are to have an opinion?

For many people, events impress themselves upon us and we allow ourselves to react without thinking.  You're reading a book in a quiet room.  A little girl enters the room and begins whistling.  It bothers you and you instinctively yell at her.  There was no wrong done on her part.  'But she should see that I'm reading and I need quiet!'  Fine, then teach her and try to persuade her why she should not be whistling in the room right now.

This is a dumb little example, but it is a microcosm of the greater world.  People may think that being angry is a virtue.  And until you can convince them otherwise, why should they not go on living angrily?  Either bear (have patience with) what others do, or make a genuine attempt to convince them of the better way.  But no grumbling and complaining.

Epictetus runs through a similar scenario with Medea (see this summary of her).  He succinctly states that Medea thinks it is better to gratify her anger toward her husband than to protect her children.  Most of us would see this as folly!  To which Epictetus says, "Well, demonstrate to her clearly that she is in error and she will not act on her idea. As long as you don’t lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don’t get angry at the poor woman for being confused about what’s most important, and accordingly mutating from human being to snake. Pity her instead. We take pity on the blind and lame, why don’t we pity people who are blind and lame in respect of what matters most?"  (see verses 8-9).

In so many cases, we assume the other person should know better?  Have we checked our assumptions?  And after having checked our assumptions and learning that the other person needs some educating, are we willing to help them by educating them - by showing them a better way?

The chapter pivots to point out that The Iliad and The Odyssey would not have happened had it not been for impressions and reactions of Paris and Menelaus.  The person Epictetus is having a dialogue with acknowledges that wars, the loss of men and razing of cities is simply due to some bad impressions by a few people.

And then Epictetus simply states that wars, razed cities and dead men are no different than dead sheep and birds nests being burned.  Now this is shocking to the other person and it may even be shocking to you and me to hear Epictetus so flippantly disregard life and property.  But he is willing to teach us.

There is no difference between a man's home and a stork's nest ... both are simply shelters; nothing more and nothing less.

But there is a difference between the man and the stork.  He says, "What counts as good and bad for man can be found precisely in those respects in which he differs from the beasts. If his special qualities are kept safe behind stout walls, and he does not lose his honour, trustworthiness or intelligence, then the man is saved. But lose or take away any of these qualities and the man himself is lost."

What makes humans unique, also defines our nature.  Our honor, trustworthiness, intelligence - our virtue is what makes us different from the beasts.  Living a life according to Virtue is our true nature.

He expounds, using The Iliad as an example: "Everything significant depends on this. Did Paris’ tragedy lie in the Greeks’ attack on Troy, when his brothers began to be slaughtered? No; no one is undone by the actions of others. That was the destruction of storks’ nests. His tragedy lay in the loss of the man who was honest, trustworthy, decent and respectful of the laws of hospitality.  Wherein did Achilles’ tragedy lie? The death of Patroclus? Not at all. It was that he gave in to anger, that he whined about losing a mere woman and lost sight of the fact that he was there not for romance but for war. Those are the genuine human tragedies, the city’s siege and capture – when right judgements are subverted; when thoughts are undermined."

I apologize for all the copying of quotes, but one more.  This is the rub: do we allow our life to be ruled by reactions to impressions?  Or do we put thought into our reactions?  This is how Epictetus closes the chapter:

"A sense impression appears and right away I react. Am I better than Agamemnon and Achilles, insofar as they do and suffer such wrongs by following their impressions, while the impression does not satisfy me? Is there any tragedy with a different source? What is the Atreus of Euripides? An impression. The Oedipus of Sophocles? An impression. The Phoenix? An impression. Hippolytus? An impression. What kind of person, then, pays no attention to the matter of impressions, do you think? Well, what do we call people who accept every one indiscriminately?


"And do we act any differently?"

Friday, March 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 25 - protect what is yours

According to Epictetus, Zeus sent us here to earth with the commandment: "Protect what belongs to you at all costs; don't desire what belongs to another."

What truly, wholly belongs to us?  It is our perception - our opinion - our attitude.

Indeed, we can prioritize everything in our life, but whatever we decide to focus on, we ought not to resent it (see verse 17).

Epictetus also correctly points out that what we try to protect and cherish becomes a means for us to be enslaved.  He says, "If I cherish my body, I make a slave of myself, if I cherish my property, I make a slave of myself" (see verse 23).  When we place importance on things that don't belong to us or are not in our control, we only torment ourselves.  "In general, remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves - that is, our opinions do" (see verse 28).

So what should we do?  We should practice "maintaining always the same even temper," for this is what Socrates did.

This is why the discipline of assent is so important.  We may experience a gut reaction to some event.  We ought to pause and in that pause, reflect on whether whatever it is that is trying to bother us.  Is it in our control?  Does it have sway or power over us?  Most likely it does not.  And instead, it is our perception that is holding us enslaved.  Therefore, we ought to check our assumptions and change our opinion as needed.  This is true freedom.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 24 - the struggle defines us

The first part of this chapter and the last part of this chapter are pure gold.

What makes us unique?  What defines us?

The Stoics would say that the obstacle is the solution to our problems.  Life throws challenges and curve balls at us and how we respond to them reveals who we really are.

Epictetus says, "the true man is revealed in difficult times."  When difficult times - challenges or obstacles in our path - come to us, how we react to them reveals who we really are.  And we need to be of the mindset that these challenges and obstacles are opportunities for us to prove ourselves - they are gifts for us to "rise to the occasion."  We can learn and read our Stoic principles all day long, every week, month after month.  But if we never have the occasion to prove that we have embraced them, then what have we accomplished?  Give me a challenge and I will show you what I've learned - what I have become - who I am.  Gold is revealed in the rock after the fire purges out all the waste.

Epictetus tells his students how the true character of Diogenes was revealed.  Diogenes wore the bare minimum of clothing.  He slept on the bare ground.  His proof of success was his confidence, his serenity, his freedom and his tough and radiant physique (see verse 8).

Certainly, you can avoid the challenges and obstacles; you can even exit through the door - permanently.  But if you do so, you'd be a greater coward than children.  Children will flippantly decide to not play anymore when they don't get their way - they disengage from the challenge or obstacle.  Is that who you are?  Or maybe you're the type who is not willing to exit through the door, but will still complain and carp and constantly be pissed off.  That certainly is no great existence either.

The best solution, according to the Stoics, is to face the challenge - embrace it - engage with it.  You will fail, and that is fine.  But keep moving forward; pick yourself up and get back in the game.  More challenges and obstacles will come.  So learn from the previous ones and improve when you meet the next round of challenges and obstacles.  Allow yourself to be defined by your trials - after all, they are yours.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 22 - preconceptions

If you were to tweet: "justice is fair" no one would dispute your tweet.  Similarly, you could tweet "bravery is admired" and no one would dispute it.

But if you tweet, "he was very courageous to stand up to the vice president the way he did" someone might reply, "not courageous, but idiotic."  And here is where we begin to deviate - in the application of some preconceptions.

Epictetus mentions religions and how they dispute what ought to be eaten or not eaten.  He also mentions a couple of main characters from The Iliad who argue over justice.  At the heart of it all, is where you put "the good" - where you place happiness and contentment in you mind.  Do you derive happiness and contentment from your body, property, parents, siblings, children, country and friends?  Aren't all those good things?  Most would say, "yes! absolutely!"  But if you place your whole happiness and contentment in things that are out of your control, you must constantly deal with sorrow and discontent.

Furthermore, some people will even place these externals in the domain of "coming from God."

God gives me a healthy body: I am blessed!  God gives my body cancer: I am cursed!

God gives me riches and land and a beautiful home: I am blessed!  God sends a drought and famine and my riches and land and home are lost: I am cursed!

God gives me wonderful parents and a family: I am blessed!  God causes my family to die and hate me: I am cursed!

God sends me to the richest, most powerful country in the world: I am blessed!  God allows another country to invade and conquer my country: I am cursed!

God gives me countless, kind friends: I am blessed!  God causes all my friends to leave me: I am cursed!

Truly ask yourself, do you need a functioning, healthy body to be happy?  Do you need property, land, riches, parents, brothers and sisters, children, a country and friends to be happy and content?  Most people say yes!  But the reality is that these things do not bring you happiness.

What are we to do with stories like these:

Stephen Hawking or Helen Keller (people who's bodies did not function well for them).

Eric Hoffer (who was never really rich and labored with his hands most of his life).

Countless other people who's stories are never told, but they are never rich, yet seemingly are always happy.

Myth or not, what about Job - how was he able to be content and happy when everything was taken from him?

Do we not admire people who've had property, health and family taken from them, yet they are still able to find happiness and contentment?

Ultimately, all these things are externals to our will.  Our mind - our attitude - how we view the world is based on what we decide to assent to (or agree with).  If we place all our hopes and dreams in externals, then we must accept and expect that our happiness and contentment will be out of our control.

And do you want to be in control of your happiness or would you rather roll the dice and see what happens?

If you want to be in control of your happiness, then focus on what is in your control: your attitude.  But if you want to take your chances, then pick something that is out of your control and let your emotions and attitude and state of mind depend on whatever happens to it.  Good luck!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 19

This is an interesting chapter, especially if viewed in the context of modern-day corporate society - in which many of us make a living.

Vice presidents, executives, managers, divisional managers ... all of them wield power and authority.  But we fail to realize that the only power and authority they have is what we give them.  That power only exists in our own mind.  The power and authority is not real; not in the slightest.

Epictetus cuts right to the chase.  The only real power is the power of controlling our desires and aversions and our impulse control; in short, self-discipline (see verses 2-4).

And how should we view authority figures at work and in government?  We ought give them attention like we give our dishes or pets attention.  It is a necessity that has to be done; we do what we need to do, but nothing else.  The dishes are dirty, we wash them.  The horse needs to be groomed; we groom it.  There is no need to bow or show deferential treatment to them.

But those managers and bosses can fire you!  They can cut your pay!  Good point; then I'll watch out for them and perform my own due diligence like I would with anti-virus shots.  I'll do what I must for my own self-care, but I don't have to make my whole life dependent on them.  Soon, they will be retired, they will forget about you - they'll be golfing, going on vacations, put into a retirement home and soon, dead.

"If a [VP, manager, executive] threatens to [fire you, cut your pay], whoever holds his [pay, job] in high regard will beg for mercy, whereas the person who cares more for his character will answer back, 'Go ahead and [fire me, cut my pay], if that's what you want.'"

To which someone might ask, "And you don't care?"

And my response is, "I don't care.  I may have to pretend to care in front of people who value these kinds of things, but my sense of self-respect does not depend on their opinion.  I only do this so I can help my wife and children eat, sleep and go to school.  When the time comes that they can fend for themselves, I'll no longer need to pretend.  But as for now, I'll give VPs, managers and bosses the same respect and attention I give my dishes" (see verses 8-10).

Later, Epictetus talks about sacrifices and offerings to gods.  And he asks a really poignant question, "Now who, I ask you, has ever offered a sacrifice for right desires, or for impulses in agreement with nature?  We only thank the gods, it seems, for what we popularly supposes are the good things in life" (verse 25).

Let this be your guide for having the proper attitude in dealing with "people of authority."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 18 - some questions

How should we view and deal with thieves and robbers?  How do you react and think about immoral people?

Someone poses this question to Epictetus: "Well, shouldn't we do away with thieves and degenerates?"

Epictetus responds, "Shouldn't we rid ourselves of people deceived about what's most important, people who are blind - not in their faculty of vision, their ability to distinguish white from black - but in the moral capacity to distinguish good from bad."  He compares the loss of moral capacity with loss of seeing or hearing and he asks if we should execute the deaf and blind?  If someone loses the capacity to be moral, Epictetus views this as similar to the loss of a sense.  Should we execute someone who is blind?  No!  Similarly, should we execute someone who's ability to make moral choices is lost?  No!

But I will say, how do you determine the difference between someone who has lost their moral ability and someone who knows right from wrong, but still chooses to be immoral?  That's a tough question.

Interestingly enough, while working today, I happened to have the TV on and the Today Show with Megyn Kelly aired a segment about mothers dealing with children who have brain disorders - the very kind that prevents them from making moral or empathetic choices.  It's an interesting segment to watch and should give you pause when you are quick to "hate and take offence" (see verse 9).  The Today Show segment is called "Mothers Open Up About Concerns For Their Children With Brain Disorders" and it aired today, March 22, 2018.

Epictetus then goes on to discuss how we need to not place our desires in things that can be robbed from us.  He goes so far as to say that a tyrant can chain us up, and lop off our head, but the tyrant can never take our integrity from us.

How do we get to be this resilient?  "We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from there progress to things of greater value.  If you have a headache, practise not cursing.  Don't curse every time you have an earache.  And I'm not saying you can't complain, only don't complain with your whole being."  Later he says, "You are invincible if nothing outside the will can disconcert you."

In summary, test yourself.  Allow yourself to get into the mindset of constantly being tested and then work to win at those tests - to be the better man!  To quote one of my favorite Rocky lines, "How much can you take, and keep moving forward!  That's how winning is done!"