Saturday, June 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 4 Chapter 1 - FREEDOM!

Here in the United States, we are gearing up for the celebration of our nation's independence from England.  One of the well-know revolutionary cries comes from Patrick Henry, who passionately argued, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

The American revolutionaries were pursuing governmental freedom and justly achieved their cause.  Epictetus argues there is a higher, more difficult freedom to attain.  And in this post-modern America in 2018, when so many desires are easily and effortlessly obtained, the freedom Epictetus describes is much more difficult to achieve.  While our Founding Fathers gave us freedom from tyranny, we are left with the task of throwing off the shackles of desire and ease.

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

"Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid."

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

Epictetus gives some examples of real slavery and real freedom.

"'A pretty woman has made me a perfect slave, something not even my fiercest enemies could accomplish.'"  Poor guy, to be enslaved by a whore, and a cheap one at that!  What right do you still have to call yourself free?"  This passage is in reference to a mighty military leader, whose enemies cannot conquer him, but rather, he is conquered by a cheap prostitute.  "Until he succeeds in suppressing his lust and anxiety, how is he really free?"

The point?  You are closer to true freedom if you have no desires for sex or women.  I know that may be difficult for some to stomach ("how can you live without sex?!").  But if true freedom is your goal, then killing this desire is a must.  Or more to the point: do you control your sexual urges or do they control you?  And how do you know; how can you really find out if you're in control or if your urges are controlling you?  Chew on that for a long while.

"Diogenes says somewhere that one way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die.  To the Persian king he wrote, 'You can no more make slaves of the Athenians than you can make slaves of fish of the sea.'  'Why?  Can't Athenians be captured?' 'Capture them and straight away they'll give you the slip and be gone, like fish, which die directly [when] they are caught and taken aboard.  And if the Athenians die when taken captive, what good in the end is all your military might?'  There's the word of a free man who has given the subject of freedom considerable thought and, sure enough, discovered the real meaning of the word.  If you continue to look for it in the wrong place, however, don't be surprised if you never find it."

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

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

Indeed, "we all want ... to live in peace, to be happy, to do as we like and never be foiled or forced to act against our wishes."  And we attain that peace, not by seeking freedom in externals, but by focusing on things that are in our absolute control.  And this can be proven: Viktor Frankl found meaning in life despite the most unbearable circumstances; and we can all think of uber-rich celebrities, tycoons and politicians, who despite having everything are still malcontent.  These malcontents are true slaves.

"If you hear someone say 'Master' sincerely and with feeling, call him a slave no matter if twelve bodyguards march ahead of him.  Or if you hear, 'God, the things I put up with!' call the person a slave.  If you just see him disconsolate, angry or out of sorts, call him a slave - albeit a slave in a purple toga.  Even if he does none of these things, don't call him free just yet, acquaint yourself with his judgments, in case they show any sign of constraint, disappointment or disaffection. ... We have masters in the form of circumstances, which are legion.  And anyone who controls any one of them controls us as well."

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, "who is free then?  The way Epictetus describes things, makes it sound like we are all slaves!"  Now we are ready to learn!

Epictetus asks, "What is it then that renders a person free and independent? ... is their nothing that is under our control, is everything under our control - or are there some things we control, and others we don't?"  This is how we have to view everything in our life!  What is under our absolute control and what is not.  Then and only then will we begin to understand where true freedom lies.

Do you have power over your body to perform perfectly anytime you want?  NO

Can you have as much land as you want? NO

Can you have as many clothes, houses, horses, cars, family, friends as you want?  NO

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

"Can anyone make you assent to a false proposition? ... Can anyone force you to choose something to which you're opposed?"  Well, maybe - if they threaten you with death or prison.  Yes - but what if "you despise [it doesn't bother you; you're indifferent to] death and imprisonment - are you still in that person's thrall?"  No.  Therefore, if you can control your attitude about death and prison, you can control your attitude about anything!

The point: "whatever you cannot produce or preserve at will lies outside your range.  Don't let your hands go near it, much less your desire.  Otherwise you've consigned yourself to slavery and submitted your neck to the yoke, as you do whenever you prize something not yours to command, or grow attached to something like health that's contingent on God's will and variable, unstable, unpredictable and unreliable by nature."

Practice and be prepared to distinguish everything into two categories:
1) what belongs to you, what you can control
2) what does not belong to you, what you cannot control

After time, and much practice, you will will have "a fixed and measured desire for the goods of the soul, since they are within your power and accessible.  You [will] disdain external good, so that no opening exists for that irrational, intemperate and impulsive form of desire.  With such an attitude toward things, you can no longer be intimidated by anyone."

Marcus Aurelius spoke of a "fortress" when speaking of our will and attitude.  He said, "Remember that your directing mind becomes invincible when it withdraws into its own self-sufficiency, not doing anything it does not wish to do, even if its position is unreasonable. How much more, then, when the judgement it forms is reasoned and deliberate? That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress" (see Meditations Book 8.48).  Epictetus draws a similar comparison and how that fortress is not demolished from the outside, but rather from the inside.  "We can capture the physical fortress, the one in the city, but our judgement about illness, or about attractive women, remain to be dislodged from the fortress inside us, together with the tyrants whom we host every day, though their identities change over time.  It's here that we need to start attacking the fortress and driving the tyrants out.  Surrender the body and its members, physical faculties, property, reputation, office, honours, children, siblings - repudiate all [of] them."

Epictetus more succinctly describes this process: "I submitted my will to God.  He wants me to be sick - well, then, so do I.  He wants me to choose something.  Then I choose it.  He wants me to desire something, I desire it.  He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn't want me to get it, and I concur.  Thus I even assent to death and torture.  No no one can make me, or keep me, from acting in line with my inclination, any more than they can similarly manipulate God."

He continues with this line of reasoning and how God sent us to earth "to witness his design and share for a short time in his feast and celebration.  So why not enjoy the feast and pageant while it's given you to do so; then, when he ushers you out, go with thanks and reverence for what you were privileged for a time to see and hear."  And when it is over, "make room for other people, it's their turn to be born, just as you were born, and once born they need a place to live, along with the other necessities of life."

But while you are here, "if the conditions don't suit you, leave.  [God] wants people keen to participate in the dance and revels - people, that is, who would sooner applaud and favour the festival with their praise and acclamation.  As for those who are grumpy and dour, he won't be sad to seem them excluded.  Even when they are invited, they don't act as if they are on holiday, or play an appropriate part; instead they whine, they curse their fate, their luck and their company.  They don't appreciate what they have, including moral resources given to them for the appropriate purpose - generosity of spirit, high-mindedness, courage and that very freedom we are now exploring."

And as for the externals God has given us (our body, and possessions, etc) use them!  But "don't get attached to them."  And to succeed in not getting attached to them, Epictetus says that we should reflect morning and night that these externals are dispensable.  "Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost - things such as a jug or a glass - and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; your siblings and your wife.  Look on every side and mentally discard them."

And then, if God or fate calls upon you to lose all these things, and you are tortured, flogged, jailed or beheaded, then they "may be majestic in suffering ... and come through a better, more fortunate person; while the one who really comes to harm, who suffers the most and the most pitifully, is the person who is transformed from human being to wolf, snake or hornet."

"The unhindered person is free ... the person who renounces externals cannot be hindered.  ... This is the road that leads to liberty, the only road that delivers us from slavery."

Diogenes was the perfect example of a person renouncing externals.  "Diogenes - he was free.  He had eliminated any means to capture him, there was no opening to attack or seize him in order to make him a slave.  Everything he owned was disposable, and only temporarily attached."

"His true parents - the gods ... his real country, the world at large."

Socrates is another excellent example of a man focused on the right things.  We can wave our hands and say Diogenes had it easy - he had no wife or children to care for.  Fair enough - so lets look at Socrates, "who had both wife and children, but as if they were on loan."  He was drafted to serve in the military.  He served and "fought without regard for his life."  When "ordered by the tyrants to arrest Leon, he did not give a thought to obeying, because he thought the act unlawful, even knowing there was a chance he might die if he refused.  He didn't care; it was not his skin he wanted to save, but the man of honour and integrity.  These things are not open to compromise or negotiation."

"He reflected on the right thing to do, with no thought or regard for anything else.  In his own words, he didn't want to save his body, he wanted to preserve the element that grows and thrives with every act of justice, the element that is diminished and dies by injustice."

While many of us may have rationalized, when confronted with death, that if our life were spared, we would be able to help many people, but that if we are dead, we are of no use to anyone.  But if we look to Socrates, we know "long after his death, the memory of what he did and said benefits humanity as much as or more than ever."

Epictetus pleads to us to "study this - these principles, these arguments - and contemplate these models of behaviour, if you want to be free.  Don't be surprised if so great a goal costs you many a sacrifice.  For love of what they considered freedom men have hanged themselves, have thrown themselves over cliffs - and whole cities have occasionally been destroyed.  For true, inviolable, unassailable freedom, yield to God when he asks for something back that he earlier gave you.  Prepare yourself, as Plato says, not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging - and the loss of everything not belonging to you.  You will be a slave among slaves otherwise."

"Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it."

"Work day and night to attain a liberated frame of mind."

Monday, June 11, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 22 - the virtues of Diogenes the Cynic

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

Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, shocked people in the ancient world.  In today's society, he would be considered a homeless, loathed bum who would be waved off as mentally unstable or drug-addicted.  To give you a taste for Diogenes ...

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

He lived in a barrel.

He pleasured himself in public.

He begged for food

He only wore a tunic.

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


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

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

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

"You have to set a different example with your behavior.  No more blaming God or man. Suspend desire completely, train aversion only on things under your control. Banish anger, rage, jealousy and pity. Be indifferent to women, fame, boys and tempting foods.  Other people indulge in these things protected by walls or the gloom of night. They have many ways of hiding; they can lock the gate and station someone outside their chamber: ‘If anyone comes, tell them, “The master’s out,” or, “He’s occupied.”’  The Cynic, in contrast, only has his honour to protect him. Without it he will be exposed to shame – naked, and out of doors. Honour is his house, his gate, his guards, his cloak of darkness." (see verse 12-15)

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

Observers may scoff at the idea of possessing as little as possible and wonder how one can be content with nothing.  Diogenes would reply, "Look at me, I have no home, no city, no property, no slave; I sleep on the ground; I haven't a wife or children, no officer's quarters - just earth and sky, and one lousy cloak.  What more do I need?  I am cheerful, I am tranquil and I am free.  You've never seen me fail to get what I want, or get what I try to avoid.  I have never been angry with God or another human being; I've never yelled at anyone.  Have you ever seen me with a sad expression?  The people before whom you bow and tremble - when I meet them, I treat them as if they were slaves.  In fact, whenever they see me, they all without exception think that they are in the presence of their lord and master."  (verses 45-49)

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

While others sought the thrills of watching athletes compete, Diogenes, who was ill with fever, would yell at them as they passed, "Idiots, where are you going in such a hurry?  You are going a great distance to see those damned athletes complete; why not stop a bit to see a man do combat with illness?" (verse 59).

Later on, Epictetus describes how Diogenes wasn't some ordinary bum; but rather a person with a fit body and an attitude of a gentleman: "the Cynic's body should be in good shape, since his philosophy will not carry as much conviction coming from someone pale and sickly.  He not only needs to show his qualities of soul in order to convince ordinary people that it is possible to be a gentleman without the material goods they usually admire, he also has to prove, with his physique, that his simple, frugal life outdoors is wholesome ... his very ruggedness should be a clean and pleasant kind." (verses 86-89)

Equal to his fit body, should be his wits and sharpness, "otherwise he's just a boring windbag" (verse 90).

Lastly, his endurance to physical and verbal abuse mush be unmatched.  Epictetus uses the example of a block of wood, describing someone who can endure "insults or hits" (verse 100); whereas Marcus Aurelius uses the "rocky headland" as an example of unwavering endurance to brutality (see Meditations Book 4 Chapter 49).

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 3 Chapter 20 - every circumstance is an opportunity

This is Epictetus' way of saying "the obstacle is the way."

It is possible to benefit from every circumstance, "even abuse and slander."

"A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner - and my accuser is my sparing partner.  He trains me in patience, civility and even temper."

"... a doctor who puts me in a headlock and sets a dislocated pelvis or shoulder - he benefits me, however painful the procedure.  So too does a trainer when he commands me to 'lift the weight with both your hands' - and the heavier it is, the greater the benefit to me."

"I have a bad neighbor - bad that is, for himself.  For me, though, he is good: he exercises my powers of fairness and sociability.  A bad father, likewise, is bad for himself, but for me represents a blessing.  The wand of Hermes promises that 'whatever you touch will turn to gold'.  For my part, I can say, 'bring what challenge you please and I will turn it to good account: bring illness, death, poverty, slander, a judgement of death: they will all be converted to advantage by my wand of Hermes.'"

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