Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 5 - some notes on "attitude"

One of Epictetus' students is ill and wants to go home; Epictetus teaches him a lesson on attitude.

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

He wants to be:
without complaint

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

He will always have a smile on his face; ready to accept any fate assigned to him.

Socrates said, "One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement." (verse 14)

It is no small feat to "never accuse anyone, God or man, never to blame anyone, and to have the same countenance going in or out." (verse 16)

"Which of you has the same attitude?  If you did, you would gladly put up with illness, hunger and death." (verse 18)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 1 - what is good?

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

"The raw material of the good man is his mind - his goal being to respond to impressions the way nature intended" (verse 1).

Furthermore, "the soul will never reject a clear impression of good" and "the good is preferred over every human association."

"If we locate the good in soundness of character, then it becomes good to maintain [relationships we have with people]" (verse 8).

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

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

"Here is the primary means of training yourself: as soon as you leave in the morning, subject whatever you see or hear to close study.  Then formulate answers as if they were posing questions.  Today what did you see - some beautiful woman or handsome man?  Test them by your rule - does their beauty have any bearing on your character?  If not, forget them.  What else did you see?  Someone mourning for the death of a child?  Apply your rule.  Death too is indifferent, so dismiss it from your mind.  A consul crossed your path; apply your rule.  What category of thing is a consulship - a good of the mind or one of matter?  If it's the latter, then out with it, it failed our test.  It is nothing to you, reject it.  Now, if we continued to practice this discipline every day from morning to night, we would see some results, by God" (verses 14-16).

We must watch for, what Epictetus calls, "insidious opinions" (verse 18).  They are insidious because they erode the most sovereign and absolute philosophical concepts: virtue is the sole good and it can be found from within by the working of our own will.

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

He finishes the chapter with an allegory.  "The soul is like a bowl of water, with the soul's impressions like the rays of light that strike the water.  Now, if the water is disturbed, the light appears to be disturbed together with it - though of course it is not.  So when someone loses consciousness, it is not the person's knowledge and virtues that are impaired, it is the breath that contains them.  Once the breath returns to normal, knowledge and the virtues are restored to normal also."

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.