Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.23 - On the faculty of expression

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.22 - On friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.21 - On inconsistency

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

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

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

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

We learn philosophy to change our thoughts.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.20 - Against the Epicureans and Academics

In my search in trying to fully understand this passage, I found that Massimo Pigliucci has done a fine job explaining it.  I won't bother replicating his effort!  Below is the text from his blog post.

This must be Epictetus’ week. Well, for me it’s actually Epictetus’ year, since I decided that the book I’m writing, How To Be a Stoic (to be published by Basic Books in spring ’17) will be organized as an indirect conversation between myself and the slave-turned-teacher, who will guide me and my readers in a breezy exploration of Stoicism. (My original idea was to use Seneca, but I changed my mind.)

Anyway, the other day I was re-reading Discourses II.20, entitled “Against followers of Epicurus and of the Academy,” and I was reminded once again of how forceful Epictetus’ prose can be, and of how intense the intellectual debate among Hellenistic schools really was.

The chapter is in the same spirit of the discussion immediately preceding it, in II.19, which uses the so-called “Master Argument” to make the point that theory is fine in philosophy, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of practice. In II.20 Epictetus exploits his disagreement with both the Epicureans and the (skeptical) Academics to remind his students of the same thing. He begins with what he probably saw as the sophistry of the Academics:

“Even those who contradict propositions that are true and evident are obliged to make use of them. And indeed one may almost give as the strongest proof that a thing is evident that even he who contradicts it finds himself obliged to make use of it. For instance, if one should deny that any universal statement is true, plainly he cannot help asserting the contrary. ‘No universal statement is true.’ Slave, this is not true either: for what else is your assertion than, ‘If a statement is universal, it is false?’ Again, if one comes forward and says, ‘Know that nothing is knowable, but that everything is unprovable,’ or another says, ‘Believe me, and it will be to your advantage; you ought not to believe a man at all’; or again, if another says, ‘Learn from me, man, that it is impossible to learn anything; I tell you this, and will teach you, if you will.’ What difference is there between such persons and–whom shall I say?–those who call themselves Academics?”

The sarcasm is palpable, and it could be directed just as well to some contemporary philosophers of my acquaintance. (I’m not kidding: I just reviewed a chapter by a colleague for a book I’m putting together on the concept of scientism, which is entirely based on very clever and yet completely useless utterances. I kept reaching for Epictetus to help restore my Stoic equanimity…)

The strategy here is to show that the Academics’s positions are self-defeating, based as they are on paradoxes of language and nothing more. This is about the same approach that is often used nowadays against extreme versions of certain philosophical doctrines. If you are a strict logical positivist, for instance, and you believe that only utterances that can be verified empirically are sensible (the rest literally being nonsense), then what sort of empirical evidence would you adduce in support of that verifiability principle itself?

Or suppose you are an extreme postmodernist, claiming that all knowledge is relative, so that no particular position on anything is more rationally defensible than any other. Does that include also your version of postmodernism? And so forth…

Epictetus then turns to Epicurus:

“So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’ What concern, then, is it of yours? … Man, why do you take thought for our sake, why do you keep awake for us, why do you light your lamp, why do you rise early, why do you write such big books? … for this is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation, and snoring. What does it matter to you, what opinions others will hold on these matters, or whether they are right or wrong? … What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?”

Epictetus is essentially accusing Epicurus of disbelieving his own philosophy. If it is truly the case, as Epicurus apparently maintained, that there is no fellowship of humanity, that people care (and ought to care) only for mild pleasures and the avoidance of pain, why on earth go through the manifestly painful exercise of writing entire books to convince your fellow humans that they are wrong in what they are doing? Why does the Epicurean care to begin with?

Because, says Epictetus, it is in the nature of being human to care about others, despite loud protestations to the contrary:

“What! We speak of Orestes pursued by the Furies and roused from his slumbers, but are not the Furies and Torments that beset Epicurus more exacting? They roused him from his sleep and would not allow him to rest, but compelled him to announce his miseries, as madness and wine compel the priests of Cybele. So powerful and unconquerable a thing is human nature. How can a vine be moved to act, not as a vine but as an olive, or again an olive not as an olive but as a vine? It is impossible, inconceivable.”

Why, exactly, is Epictetus so worked up about this? (As much as a Stoic can be worked up about things, anyway…) He doesn’t care to show that the Academics or the Epicureans are wrong. He cares about philosophy being useful rather than harmful to people and society at large:

“Bravo, philosopher! Stick to your task, persuade our young men, that we may have more to agree with you and share your views. These, no doubt, are the arguments which have brought well-governed cities to greatness, these are the arguments which made Lacedaemon, these are the convictions which Lycurgus wrought into the Spartans by his laws and training: that slavery is no more shameful than noble, and freedom no more noble than shameful! For these beliefs no doubt those who died at Thermopylae died! And for what principles but these did the Athenians give up their city?”

First of all, notice the passion here! And remember it, next time someone accuses (again) the Stoics of being detached and emotionless robots. Notice also, again, the deployment of sarcasm as a way to make his students pay attention. And finally that Epictetus here is again rejecting epistemic and moral relativism, positions that are still surprisingly common not just in some quarters of the (modern) academy, but among the population at large.

He then goes back to commonsense, again coupled with a good dose of sarcasm:

“Man, what are you doing? You convict yourself of falsehood day by day: will you not abandon these crude fallacies? When you eat where do you put your hand, to your mouth or to your eye? When you bathe into what do you go? When did you ever call the jug a saucer or the ladle a spit?”

He concludes his lecture by advising his audience not to waste their time trying to convince their opponents:

“Such men trifle with us; they take advantage of all the gifts of nature, while in theory they do away with them … It is useless to go on disputing with one of these men, or reasoning with him, or trying to alter his opinion. One might have very much more hope of altering the mind of a profligate than of men who are absolutely deaf and blind to their own miseries.”

Rather, what we should do is to focus on what is really important, to use philosophy for the common good, not to score logical points in useless diatribes.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.19 - To those who take up the teachings of the philosophers for the sake of talk alone

Epictetus calls out fake philosophers - people 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 actions.

"Show me how you're accustomed to behave in a ship when confronted with a storm.  Do you remember these theoretical distinctions when the sails are rattling and some mischievous bystander hears your cries of terror?" (v. 15, p. 119)

"If Caesar sends for you to respond to an accusation, and you remember these distinctions if, as you're entering the room pale and trembling, someone comes up to you and says, 'Why are you trembling, man?'" (v. 17, p. 119)

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 "pride yourself on qualities that you don't possess." (v. 19, p. 119)

A real Stoic is "someone who is ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy" (v. 24, p. 119-120).

"It is a human soul that one of you should show me, the soul of a man who wants to be of one mind with God, and never find fault with God or man again, and to fail in none of his desires, to fall into nothing that he wants to avoid, never to be angry, never to be envious, never to be jealous, and who ... wishes to become a god instead of a human being, and though enclosed in this poor body, this corpse, aspires to achieve communion with Zeus" (v. 26, p. 120).

Epictetus tells us his mission: "this is the task that I've laid down for myself, to set you free from every obstacle, compulsion, and restraint, to make you free, prosperous, and happy, as one who looks to God in everything, great or small" (v. 29, p. 120).

Epictetus desired to make proof, out of his students, that nothing is in our power "other than to make right use of impressions" (v. 32, p. 120).

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, March 25, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.18 - How we should struggle against impressions

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.  "For it cannot fail to come about that, as a result of the corresponding actions, some habits and capacities will be developed if they didn't previously exist, while others that were already present will be reinforced and strengthened" (v. 7, p. 114).

If you see something you want (greed) but counter the first impression with reason "to make us become aware of the evil, the desire will be suppressed and our ruling center will be restored to its original authority"  (v. 8, p. 115).  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.  Our ruling center is at the center and we need to remain balanced in it.

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: "First of all, keep calm, and count the days in which you haven't lost your temper" (v. 12, p. 115, 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

  • "withdraw to the company of wise and virtuous men, and examine their life" (v. 21, p. 116)
  • "don't allow yourself to be dazed by the rapidity of the impact [of an impression], but say, 'Wait a while for me ... let me see what you are, and what you're an impression of; let me test you out" (v. 24, p. 116)
The challenge of challenging impressions is perhaps the greatest "sport" - that of training yourself to confront the most seductive of impressions (see v. 27, p. 116).  Great is the struggle and divine the enterprise, to win a kingdom, to win freedom, to win happiness, to win peace of mind (v. 28, p. 116)  But it is a worthy fight and challenge.

One word of caution: if you procrastinate this training, "in due course, you won't even be aware that you're acting wrongly, but will begin to put forward arguments to justify your behavior; at which point, you'll be confirming the truth of Hesiod's saying that 'One who delays his work is always wrestling with ruin.' (v. 31, p. 117)

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.17 - How we should adapt our preconceptions to particular cases

Rid yourself of preconceptions when you approach philosophy!  "What is the first task for someone who is practicing philosophy?  To rid himself of presumption" (v. 1, p. 110)

"Why, then, are you frustrated?  Why are you troubled?  Aren't you presently trying to avoid what is inevitable?  Why do you fall, then, into difficulties of any kind, why do you suffer misfortune?  Why is it that when you want something, it doesn't come about, and when you don't want it, it comes about?  For that is a very strong proof that you're in a troubled and unfortunate state.  I want something and it doesn't come about: who could be more wretched than I?  I don't want something and it comes about: who could be more wretched than I?" (v. 17-18, p. 111-112)

"Don't wish for anything other than what God wishes.  And who will be able to obstruct you then, who will be able to constrain you?  No one at all, any more than he could obstruct or compel Zeus."

"When you have such a leader, and conform your will and desires to his, what reason do you still have to fear that you may no succeed?" (v. 22-23, p. 112)

"If you continue to feel envy, poor wretch, and pity, jealousy, and fear, and never let a day pass by without lamenting within yourself and before the gods, how can you still claim to have received a proper education?" (v. 26, p. 112)

"[Start] off from this point, build everything up in due order, so that nothing may come about against your wish, and nothing that you wish may fail to come about" (v. 28, p. 113).

Three Stages of a True Philosopher

"It is enough for me to live my life free from hindrance and distress, and to be able to hold my head high in the face of events, like a free person, and to look up to heaven like a friend of God, showing no fear of anything that could come about" (v. 29, p. 113)

"I want indeed to be free from passion and disturbance of mind, but I also want, as a pious person, a philosopher, and a diligent student, to know what my duty is towards the gods, towards my parents, towards my brother, towards my country, and towards strangers" (v. 31, p. 113)

"I [want] to be secure and unshakeable in my knowledge of it, and not only when I'm awake, but when I'm asleep, when I'm drunk, and even when I'm thoroughly depressed" (v. 33, p. 113)

Having attained stage 3, "you are a god," headed for the stars, "to harbour such ambitions!" (v. 33, p. 113)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.16 - That we fail to practice the application of our judgements about things that are good and bad

I'm simply going to quote some moneyball quotes from this chapter, with a smidgen of commentary.

"Where does the good lie?  'In choice.'  Where does the bad lie? 'In choice.' And that which is neither good nor bad? 'In things that lie outside the sphere of choice.' (v. 1, p. 105)

"a lyre-player ... knows how to play his instrument, and sings well and has fine robes to wear, but trembles nonetheless when he has to come on stage.  Yes, he knows all of that, but he doesn't know what a crowd is, or understand the nature of its shouts and jeers.  He doesn't know, indeed, what this anxiety itself is, and whether we ourselves are responsible for it or other people are, and whether or not it lies in our power to put a stop to it.  And so he leaves the stage puffed up with pride if he receives applause, but his conceit is soon pricked and deflated if he meets with jeers" (v. 9-10, p. 106).

"Has God given you nothing to help you in this predicament?  Hasn't he given you endurance?  Hasn't he given you greatness of soul?  Hasn't he given you courage?  And yet, being equipped with the hands that you have, do you still look for someone else to wipe your nose?" (v. 13-4, p. 106)

"What is it, then, that weighs down on us and makes us lose our minds?  What else than our judgements?" (v. 24, p. 107)

"What are [true judgements]?  Those that a person should reflect upon all day long, so that, feeling no attachment to anything that is not his own, whether comrade, or place, or gymnasium, or indeed his own body, he may keep the law constantly in mind and have it forever before his eyes.  What law?  That of God; to preserve what is his own, and not lay claim to what is not his own, but to make use of what is granted to him, and not long for what is not granted; if anything is taken away from him, to surrender it willingly, and be grateful for the time in which he has enjoyed the use of it" (v. 26-28, p. 108).

"Can you see anything better or greater than the sun, the moon, the stars, the entire earth, the sea?  And if you understand the one who governs the universe, and carry him around within you, why should you still yearn for some pieces of stone and a petty rock?" (v. 32-33, p. 108).

"If he is free to leave the banquet whenever he pleases and abandon the game, will such a man lament while he remains?  Won't he stay as one does in a game, only as long as it continues to amuse him?  Such a man could surely face up to permanent exile, or to death, if he were to be condemned to that" (v. 37-38, p. 109)

"As the expression goes, be ready to lose your head, man, for the sake of happiness, for the sake of freedom, for the sake of greatness of soul." (v. 41, p. 109)

Another translation has a sharper point to it ... "Listen, as the saying goes, it's crisis time: make a last desperate effort to gain freedom and tranquility - to be Stoic."

"Raise up your head at last as one who has been freed from slavery; dare to raise up your eyes towards God and say to him, 'Use me just as you will from this time onward; I'm of one mind with you; I'm yours.  I refuse nothing that seems good to you.  Lead me where you will, wrap me in whatever clothes you wish.  Is it your wish that I should hold office, or remain a private citizen, that I should stay here, or goo into exile, that I should be poor, or rich?  I'll defend you before my fellow men in every case; I'll show what the true nature of each thing is.'" (v. 41-43, p. 109)

The above passage reminds me of a similar attitude which Marcus Aurelius expressed: "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Meditations 4.23)

"If Heracles had sat around at home with his family, what would he have been? ... It was accordingy in obedience to [God] that he traveled around the world purging it of injustice and lawlessness" (v. 44, p. 109).

"Cast fear and distress from your mind, along with desire, envy, malice, avarice, effeminacy, and intemperance.  These you cannot cast out in any other way than by lifting  up your eyes to God alone, and devoting yourself to him alone, and faithfully carrying out his commands" (v. 46, p. 110).

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.15 - To those who hold stubbornly to certain decisions that they have reached

Marcus Aurelius once wrote to himself, "If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change.  I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one's own self-deception and ignorance" (see Meditations 6.21).

Similarly, Epictetus reminds us that we should listen to reason and not just "adhere unswervingly to every judgement that [we] have formed (v. 2, p. 103).  Rather, it is more important to first make a sound judgement before stubbornly sticking to it.

He tells someone, "If your decision is justified, look, here we are at your side and ready to help you on your way; but if your decision is unreasonable, you ought to change it" (v. 6, p. 104).

Substitute the word 'decision' with words such as: culture, tradition, religion, or the way things ought to be, and the advice applies.

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."

"Don't you wish to lay a firm foundation at the beginning, by examining Whether or not your decision is sound, and then go on to establish your firm and unwavering resolve on that foundation? But if you lay down a rotten and crumbling foundation, you shouldn't try to build on that, but the bigger and stronger the edifice that you heap upon it, the sooner it will come tumbling down (v. 8-9, p. 104).


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.14 - To Naso

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 cooked 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 as one who "should adapt his own will to what comes about so that nothing happens against [his] will, and so that nothing fails to happen when [he] wants it to happen" (v. 7, p. 101).  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).  And furthermore, to "resemble them as far as possible.  If [the gods are] trustworthy, he too must be trustworthy; if free, he too must be free; if beneficent, he too must be beneficent; if magnanimous, he too must be magnanimous.  And so thenceforth, in all that he says and does, he must act in imitation of God" (v. 12-13, p. 101)

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 goal as: amor fati.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.13 - About anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

The causes of anxiety can be several from lack of preparation on one's part to complete lack of knowledge of an uncertain future or outcome.  Therefore, it is important to practice the dichotomy of control to understand what aspects are in your control versus out of your control.

To begin, figure out if the cause of your anxiety is something you want.  Epictetus says, "When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, 'What is it that he wants?'" (v. 1, p. 97).  If a performer wants not only to perform well, but to "win the approval of his audience" he will need to recognize that: 1) his preparation to perform well is in his control, but 2) how the audience reacts will be out of his control, therefore, to alleviate his anxiety about approval from the audience, he should recognize this is entirely out of his control and therefore, use his energy to focus on what is in his control.

Apply this line of thinking to everything out of your control.  In his handbook or Encheiridion, he lists these things as out of our control: "body, property, our reputations, and our official positions."

Body - if you are anxious about getting cancer or having poor health, much of this is out of your control.  From cancer to heart disease, a large portion of what happens to our body is beyond our control.  But can you eat well and exercise and take care of your body?  Absolutely!  Do all that you can, that is within your power, to keep your body in good health.  But do not let anxiety take over your life, with constant worry.  You will soon die, like every human before you.  Live well, while you can, but do not succumb to constant worry of the body.  Find balance.

How many people who have ate perfectly, exercised without fail, lifted weights and performed cardio every day, but ultimately die in a young age (in their 30s or 40s)?  And how many people have neglected these things and have lived to a ripe age in their 80s or 90s?

Property - possessions can be stolen, burned, flooded, swept away with wind or any number of ways.  Indeed, attempt to be a good steward of what has been given you.  But if you are excessively worried about protecting your property, and when something finally happens to your property, you will be disappointed.

How many people spend all their time and efforts and worries on protecting their property?  What beauties have they missed by focusing nearly all their time and effort protecting what is "theirs"?

Reputation - indeed, do all you can to have a good character, but people may still say what they will about you.  It is beyond your control.

Career / official positions - sometimes we are compelled to perform a duty or be placed in a position.  We must recognize that sometimes what we do for a living is out of our control.  We may be drafted as a soldier.  We may be called to an assignment at the behest of the company.  Indeed, do what you can to ensure your freedom to choose what you do; what position you will hold.  But recognize there are times when this is beyond your control.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.12 - About the art of argument

Thanks to many who have taken the time to explain the technical aspects of philosophy, in laymen terms, I am able understand Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca and others.

In this chapter, Epictetus reiterates the importance of making philosophy accessible so that people can understand it and apply it.

A good philosophy teacher or "a good guide, when he see someone wandering astray, doesn't abandon him with a dose of mockery or abuse, but leads him back to the proper path."  And furthermore, the good teacher doesn't blame the shortcomings of the student, but rather blames himself failing to make it clear: "you shouldn't make fun of him, but should recognize your own incapacity instead" (v. 3-4, p. 95-96).

The rest of the chapter discusses how Socrates "patiently endured abuse from others" in his pursuit to "put an end to conflict" (v. 14, p. 96).  The chapter goes on to provide an example of how Epictetus or philosophers of his day might've gone about engaging with rich lords on the topic of the good.  But it sounds like he could not quite endure it for some unknown reason: "This is an enterprise that I too was once very keen to pursue, until I feel into such difficulties" (v. 25, p. 97)

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.11 - What is the point of departure in philosophy?

If you were going to buy 15 gallons of gasoline for your car, would you want to know that the gas pump that dispenses the gas into your car was accurate?  You would want the scale to say it pumped 15 gallons in your car, when in fact it only pumped 14 gallons in your car.  For this reason, laws have been established to ensure gas stations' pumps are checked on a regular basis to verify they are accurate.  If they are not, then the gas station owner is notified and possibly fined for fraud.

All of this - the scales, the law, the verification, the fines - are set up to ensure justice between seller and buyer.  What great care we take, as a society, over such small matters as gasoline.  Yet what "scale" or system of measurement do we use to tell us if our judgements and way of living are accurate?

This is the point of philosophy - to tell us if our opinions and actions are appropriate.

We are born into "the world without having an innate conception of what is good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, and of happiness, and of what is proper for us and falls to our log, and of what we ought to do and ought not to do" (v. 3, p. 93).  As such, we default to the opinions of our parents and tribes.  Repeated millions of times throughout the world, people and tribes arrive at different conclusions and opinions about what is good, bad, right, wrong and what actions are appropriate and not.  If only there were some scale or measuring stick to tell us what is right from wrong, good from bad, appropriate versus inappropriate actions.  But this is precisely what philosophy aims to do.

How can we tell which opinions are the correct opinion?

"Look now, this is the starting point of philosophy: the recognition that different people have conflicting opinions, the rejection of mere opinion so that it comes to be viewed with mistrust, and investigation of opinion to determine whether it is rightly held, and the discovery of a standard of judgement, comparable to the balance that we have devised for the determining of weights, or the carpenter's rule for determining whether things are straight or crooked" (v. 13, p. 94).

And to be absolutely clear, he further states, "the opinion that each person holds is not a sufficient criterion for determining the truth" (v. 14, p. 94).

We must devise a method and standard for ensuring our opinion is good.  We, humans, have figured out a way to devise a standard for measuring and weighing things such as gasoline, gold, silver, the height of a basketball hoop, so "how is it possible that that which is most vital for human beings should lie beyond determination, beyond discovery?" (v. 16, p. 94)

There is a standard; and we must seek it out and discover it and then "put it to use without fail ever afterwards" (v. 17, p. 94).  It will then "rescue [us] from madness" (v. 18, p. 94).

Epictetus then demonstrates two examples in the chapter by applying them to some criteria about what is good: 1) pleasure and 2) pride.

Since both are not constant and are unstable, they cannot be used as a measuring standard.  For something to be good, it must be reliable and constant.

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

"It is thus that things are judged and weighed when one has the standards at hand; and the task of philosophy lies in this, in examining and establishing those standards.  As for the use of them, once they are known, that is the business of the virtuous and good person" (v. 23-25, p. 95).

Friday, March 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.10 - How may the actions that are appropriate to a person be discovered from the names applied to them

Epictetus goes through a number of titles people might take upon themselves; as he describes what makes that person consistent with the title.  It reminds me a bit of what Marcus Aurelius said in Meditations 3.5: "let the god that is within you be the champion of the being you are - a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler: one who has taken his post like a soldier waiting for the Retreat from life to sound, and ready to depart, past the need for any loyal oath or human witness."

The titles Epictetus reviews:

Citizen - "never to approach anything with a view to personal advantage, never to deliberate about anything as though detached from the whole" (v. 4, p. 90).  His point is, that as a citizen (of a city, country and the universe), we ought to take a view of: what is beneficial for the whole is beneficial for the individual.  The Stoics would go so far as to say "if a wise and good person could foresee the future, he would cooperate with nature even if it came to illness, death, or mutilation, because he would recognize that these are allotted as a contribution to the ordering of the whole, and that the whole is more important than the part, and the city than the citizen" (v. 7, p. 90).

Son - he discusses how as children we ought to obey our parents; never speak badly of them or say or do anything to harm them.

Brother - similarly, we should respect our siblings; do not contend with our siblings.

A council member - to counsel.

Youth, elderly, parent, smith - to show actions appropriate to the title.

The last part of the chapter talks about what we should do when someone injures us.  "'What, then, if someone injures me, won't I injure him in return?'" (v. 24, p. 92).  This is a question a student poses to Epictetus.  Epictetus teaches "that the good lies in the choice" and that it makes just as much sense to turn the statement around: "'Since the person in question has injured himself by inflicting some wrong on me, shouldn't I injure myself by inflicting some wrong on him?"  By flipping the perspective this way, it does not make sense to retaliate, since you are doing self-harm and it amounts to a double-dose of hurt.

It's a bit of an odd chapter, so hopefully you get something out of it.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.9 - That although we are unable to fulfill our human calling, we adopt that of a philosopher

There is a phrase used in the scrum world that goes, "nail it before you scale it"  The idea is that you have to master the basics before tackling more complexity.

Epictetus is making a similar point.  Some want to become a philosopher before they can learn how to be a good human.  He begins, "merely to fulfill the role of a human being is no simple matter" (v. 1, p. 87).  We must be rational in all we do, otherwise we are mere beasts and "act for the sake of our belly or genitals, [or] act at random, or in a filthy manner, or without proper care [or] ... when we behave aggressively, and harmfully and angrily, and forcefully" (v. 4-5, p. 88).  Actually, that is a really good list to start with.  If a person can abstain from the above, they are making progress away from becoming a beast and toward becoming a good human.

We continue to make progress toward becoming a good human being when we act according to our nature.  "Each person is strengthened and preserved by actions that are appropriate to his nature" (v. 10, p. 88).  If you want to be a carpenter, do what a carpenter does.  If you want to be a skilled writer, do what skilled writers do.  If you want to be "a modest character" then have "modest actions." Your faithfulness is "preserved by acts of fidelity" (v. 11, p. 88).  You see a pattern here; to live virtuously, have virtuous acts.  And being a good human being requires virtuous acts.

"That is why philosophers recommend that we shouldn't be contented merely to learn, but should add practice too, and then training" (v. 13, p. 88).  And even if we practice and train, we still might slip into bad habits and opinions.  "It is one thing to put bread and wine away in a store-room, and quite another to eat them.  What is eaten is digested and distributed around the body, to become sinews, flesh, bones, blood, and good complexion, sound breathing.  What is stored away is ready at hand, to be sure, to be taken out and displayed whenever you wish, but you derive no benefit from it, except that of having the reputation of possessing it" (v. 18, p. 89).  It is with use that we derive the benefit of philosophy, not simply owning or reading philosophical books.

Learn to be a good human being; learn philosophy.  Then practice being a good human being; instill training into your routine to help you implement what you learn from philosophy.  I don't think it is bad to want to desire to lift the rock of Ajax, even if you can't lift 10 pounds.  But if you consistently apply yourself and learn and train, you may achieve your goal.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.8 - What is the essence of the good?

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.  It is here that we ought to spend our time and effort in improvement.

As Epictetus says, we "are of primary value [to God]" and that you and I are "a fragment of God" (v. 11, p. 85-86).  That "fragment of God" bit reminds me of the mind-blowing book by Scott Adams entitled God's Debris.  In this thought experiment, he proposes a paradigm, not un-like the Stoics, that helps us think of a framework where people can liberate their minds to more freely cooperate and help and love each other.  If you've not read or listened to it, I highly recommend it.

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 to satisfy the itch to create something truly special.  We, as a species, are 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 urge has haunted us for hundreds of years and we are driven to create something self-aware, outside the normal biological means of reproduction.

Isn't this nothing more than humanity trying to play like God?  God gave us our freedom and in turn, we are attempting to do the same.  "And what work of any human artist contains within itself the very faculties that are displayed in its markings?  Is such a work anything other than marble, or bronze, or gold, or ivory?  And the Athena of Phidia, once she has stretched out her hand to receive the Victory upon it, remains fixed in that attitude for ever, whereas the works of the gods move and breathe, and are capable of making use of impressions and passing judgements about them" (v. 20, p. 86-87).

Why make this point?  To show that we have a gift from God different from any of other life form in this world.  "Not only has [God] created you, but he has also entrusted you to your own sole charge ... he has delivered you yourself into your own keeping, and says, 'I had no one in whom I could put more confidence than you.  Keep this person as he was born by nature to be; keep him modest, trustworthy, high-minded, unshakable, free from passion, imperturbable'" (v. 21-23, p. 87)

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, nobility.  We ought to show others our strength: "Desire that never fails in its aim, aversion that never falls into what it wants to avoid, motivation that accords with one's duty, purpose that is carefully weighed, and assent that is not over-hasty" (v. 29, p. 87).

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.7 - How we should make use of divination

Astrology, divination, horoscopes ... personally speaking, all are mindless child's play.  This chapter is particularly useful for people who really think that divination has importance.

First off, Epictetus argues we already "have a diviner within [us] who has taught [us] the true nature of good and bad (v. 3, p. 83).

And while a diviner might tell us signs and ways of how to lengthen life, prolong death or gain riches, they cannot tell us that by gaining or avoiding those things, if they would be beneficial to us or not (see v. 6, p. 84).

I love the example he gives in the chapter.  "It was thus an excellent reply that the woman made when she wanted to send a boatload of provisions to the exiled Gratilla; for when someone said to her, 'Domitian will merely confiscate them,' she replied, 'Better that he should take them away than that I should fail to send them.'" (v. 8, p. 84).  She focused on what was in her control (the virtue of helping someone else) and left the results and the outcome fall where they would.

Why would a person approach and seek the services of a diviner?  "Simply cowardice, our fear of what may come about" (v. 9, p. 84).  Therefore, if we spent the time focusing on our desires and aversions (something in our control), would we not have greater success in gaining courage and avoiding fear and anxiety?  Fix the root cause!

If you were to approach God in prayer, ask not for wealth, riches, rewards, improved health, avoidance of bad health and a life of ease or even immortality and eternal life.  Rather, ask that you can desire a life of virtue; ask for understanding and a love of what God wants in the universe and in this world.  Ask that you love what God loves.  Ask for things to happen exactly as they do.

Pray thusly, "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)

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Friday, March 1, 2019

Stoicism in Six Points

I keep getting asked: what is Stoicism, in a summarized version?

First off, the goal of Stoicism, is to seek a flourishing human life; a fulfilling life through excellence of character (arete).  It is also said the goal and end is eudaimonia, which is defined as happiness or well-being.

To achieve a fulfilling life, three phrases come to mind along with three disciplines or practices.

1) focus on things in your control
2) live according to nature
3) virtue is the sole good

The Three Stoic Disciplines
- Discipline of Assent
- Discipline of Desire
- Discipline of Action

focus on things in your control

The logic is, if you seek to be happy by getting something you do not have 100% control over, you will be frustrated.  Alternatively, if you want to avoid pain or distress about something you do not have 100% control over, you will fall into pain and distress.  Most things in life, are not 100% in your control; Stoics call these externals.  Examples: health, wealth, weather events, actions of other people.

What is in your control?  Your attitude, perspective, judgement, motivation and desire.  Notice where these things come from: from you; your brain; they are internal to you.  This is where you must spend your time and attention in order to achieve a fulfilling and flourishing life.

live according to nature

One weekend night, after eating a bowl of ice cream, I set the bowl down on the floor next to the couch I was sitting in.  My wife and I went to bed and we heard the "clanging" of silverware on ceramic.  We thought our son was in the kitchen.  My wife got up to check on him, and called his name through the doorway.  But he didn't respond and the clanging continued.  She was perplexed.  Then she heard where the noise was really coming from.  Our dog, Fritz, found the empty bowl and was licking it.  He couldn't help himself - it was his nature to lick the empty bowl!  One of the defining qualities of all animals is to eat.  Humans share this quality with animals.  But it is not what makes us unique.  What is our unique nature?  We think; we have emotions; we talk; we write and we can reason with logic.

So when the Stoics say we should live according to nature, we ought to live according to our unique nature; we ought to think and reason.  More specifically, we ought to think and reason about how to live our unique life (our place in time and space and circumstance) in such a way as to lead it to a flourishing and fulfilling end.  Although somewhat simple, I think it still makes the point: consider the movie Kung Fu Panda 3 and how Po trains the seemingly inept Pandas.  He focuses on their unique natures to teach them (see this clip).  The unique trait of each panda enabled them to flourish at Kung Fu.  Likewise, humans' unique ability to think and reason enables us to flourish as human beings.

virtue is the sole good

Related to our unique nature as humans is our ability to live a virtuous life.  Humans are the only animals that can live a life of virtue.  Stoics focused on the four main virtues of temperance, courage, justice and wisdom.  If a Stoic desired and sought to exercise temperance, courage, justice and wisdom, they would flourish as a human being and find fulfillment.  Seeking a virtuous life is both in our control and in accordance with our nature.  Therefore, the Stoics would summarize the entire philosophy as: virtue is the sole good.

The Three Disciplines, as described by Pierre Hadot, are ways to put these concepts into practice.  There is a lot to explain about each discipline, but I will try to get to the heart of it succinctly.

discipline of assent

The discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.  But before we agree or disagree, we need to deconstruct events and things.

The best way to practice this discipline, is to lengthen the pause between event/thing and your impression of it; and then decide to agree or disagree.

Epictetus said, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test'" (Discourses 2.18).

Another quote that I quite like goes, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  I've heard this has been attributed to Viktor Frankl, but I'm not sure if that is confirmed or not.

discipline of desire

As you work on lengthening your pause or space between an event/thing and your judgement of it, you need to begin to ensure your desires are properly grounded.

You should desire two things.

First, macro/global/universal events that are out of your control.  You should work to align your desires with the desire of the cosmos / the universe / Zeus / God / Gods.  This can be difficult in some circumstances, but the Stoics would say, "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)

Pierre Hadot puts a unique perspective on this by making macro events exceptionally personal.  In in his book, The Inner Citadel, he says, "This brings us back to the theme of the present. A particular event is not predestined for me and accorded with me only because it is harmonized with the World; rather, it is so because it occurs in this particular moment and no other. It occurs in accordance with the kairos ("right moment"), which, as the Greeks had always known, is unique. Therefore, that which is happening to me at this moment is happening at the right moment, in accordance with the necessary, methodical, and harmonious unfolding of all events, all of which occur at their proper time and season.

To will the event that is happening at this moment, and in this present instant, is to will the entire universe which has brought it about." (see p. 143, as well as p. 75, 260)

Second, you should desire and yearn for opportunities to practice virtue.  Virtue is the sole good, according to the Stoics.  Therefore, in every event and circumstance, you should desire and be motivated to practice some virtue (wisdom, justice, discipline, courage) according to the how the situation and context dictates.

connecting this to the discipline of assent, as we lengthen that pause, we then need to ask ourselves, "what can I learn from this?  What virtue can I exercise given the situation?"

discipline of action

Having lengthened your "pause" in judgement and having learned proper desire, you are now willing to act.

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is oikeiĆ“sis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

Albert Einstein provides a great visual for circles of compassion:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.


I know I may have taken a bit more time to explain all that, but hopefully the read wasn't too long.  If you want more in-depth analysis on this, I suggest you read my blog post On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style.

Also, I highly recommend The Path of the Prokopton Series by Chris Fisher.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.6 - About indifference

Discourses 2.6 feels like a continuation of 2.5, in that he continues to talk about things that should be indifferent to us.

"Life is indifferent, but the use that one makes of it is not" (v. 1, p. 81).

If you recall from 2.5, Epictetus distinguishes between the platform and equipment from what we do on the platform and with the equipment.  One of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates this concept is found in Ender's Game.  If you're not familiar with the book or movie, I'm sure you can find a good summary of them on Wikipedia or YouTube.  Ender Wiggins is sent to battle school.  In the school, the students practice war games.  Virtually everything is done to make it un-fair for Ender.  But he consistently controls the one thing he can: his attitude.  The platform (the battle school, as well as the practice battle ground) are indifferent to him.  By use of creativity and team work, he is able to use the seemingly un-fair disadvantages thrown at him, to his advantage.  Also, while in battle school, Ender is given a computer tablet with games on it.  Again, the tablet represents a platform that is out of his control.  Through his reasoning and creativity, he is able to learn amazing things about himself via this tablet.

So too, life is a platform.  The events in it, from traffic, accidents, illness, weather events and what other people say or do, are all things out of our control.  How we interact and use the platform to demonstrate our attitude and virtues, is what matters (virtue is the sole good).

"Always remember what is your own and what is not, and you'll never be troubled" says Epictetus (v. 8, p. 81).

We ought to work to get to the point (mentally speaking) where what happens in the universe is exactly what we wish for.  "If I, in fact, knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that" (v. 10, p. 82).  What an amazing attitude!  Many of us wring our hands and moan about things that happen, which we interpret to be bad.  But what if the universe wanted those things to happen, in order to bring about something greater?  That is an attitude we could embrace if we so chose.  If the event is going to happen either randomly or with intent by the universe, it still is going to happen.  What's left is our choice of attitude about the event.  If we so choose to view it as fated, intended by the Universe or God, then it may change our perspective and attitude.  Alternatively, we could choose an attitude of "this sucks!  The universe is always out to get me; why try?"  But that does not seem so very productive to me, rather, "we suffer our lot with tears and groans" (v. 16, p. 82).

"Can anyone compel you to think anything other than what you want to think?" (v. 21, p. 83).  Really take the time to think about that question and decide your answer and what that means.

"Just remember the distinction that must be drawn between what is yours and what is not yours.  Never lay claim to anything that is not your own.  An orator's platform and a prison are two different places, one high and the other low; but your choice can be kept the same in either place, if you want to keep it so" (v. 24-25, p. 83).

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.5 - How greatness of mind may coexist with carefulness

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.  These are materials for our use of our reason; they are the platform to demonstrate our virtues and attitude.  Therefore, he states, "materials are indifferent, but the use that one makes of them is by no means indifferent" (v. 1, p. 78)

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 or dice ...
The dice and cards fall where they may - they are out of our control.

What is in our control is our reaction to them: "to be attentive and skillful in making use of whatever does fall, that is now my task" (v. 3, p. 78).

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.  "Then a storm descends on us.  Now why should that be of any concern to me?  For my role has been completed.  This is now somebody else's business, that of the helmsman.  But now the ship begins to sink.  So what can I do?  What I can and that alone, namely, to drown without fear, without crying out, without hurling accusations against God, as one who well knows that what is born is also fated to perish.  For I am not everlasting, but a human being, a part of the whole as an hour is part of the day.  Like an hour I must come, and like an hour pass away.  So what difference does it make to me how I pass away, whether it be by drowning or a fever?  For in some way or other, pass away I must" (v. 11-14, p. 79).

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're anxious or nervous when we make the catch or throw, what will become of the game, and how can one maintain one's composure; how can one see what is coming next?" (v. 17, p. 79)

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 twenty 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 uses the ball, but he does not grow attached to it - the ball is just a means for demonstrating skill.

Life is like 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 run the race!

Similarly, if you view yourself as part of the whole, then "it may be in the interest of the whole that you should now fall ill, now embark on a voyage and be exposed to danger, now suffer poverty, and perhaps even die before your time.  Why do you resent this then?" (v. 26, p. 80).  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
"For it is impossible, while we are in a body such as ours, and in this universe that contains us, and among such companions as we have, that such things should not happen to us, some to one person and some to another.  It is thus your role to step forward and say what you ought, and to deal with these things as they turn out.  If the judge then proclaims, 'I judge you to be guilty,' you may reply, 'I wish you well.  I have fulfilled my role, it is for you to see whether you have fulfilled yours.'  For he too runs some risk: don't forget that." (v. 27-29, p. 81)