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?"