Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.3 - the benefit of knowing we are children of God

Marcus Aurelius often wrote about "providence or atoms." This was in reference to the management of the universe and world. Is the world governed by God or Gods? Or is it a random interaction of atoms bouncing off each other endlessly leading to constant chaos?

There are several parts of Meditations that mentions this choice. As you read them, you will notice how he leans towards organization, order, a system or machine.

Book 4.2
Revisit the alternatives providence or atoms - and the many indications that the universe is a kind of community. But will matters of the flesh still have their hold on you? Consider that the mind, once it has abstracted itself and come to know its own defining power, has no contact with the movement of the bodily spirit.

Book 6.10
Either a stew, an intricate web, and dispersal into atoms: or unity, order, and providence. Now if the former, why do I even wish to spend my time in a world compounded at random and in like confusion? Why have any concern other than somehow, some time, to become 'earth unto earth'? And why actually am I troubled? Dispersal will come on me, whatever I do. But if the latter is true, I revere it, I stand firm, I take courage in that which directs all.

Book 6.24
Alexander of Macedon and his muleteer were levelled in death: either they were taken up into the same generative principles of the universe, or they were equally dispersed into atoms.  Reflect on how many separate events, both bodily and mental, are taking place in each one of us in the same tiny fragment of time: and then you will not be surprised if many more events, indeed all that comes to pass, subsist together in the one and the whole, which we call the Universe.

Book 7.32
On death. Either dispersal, if we are atoms: or, if we are a unity, extinction or a change of home.

Book 7.50
Again:  'What is born of earth goes back to earth: but the growth from heavenly seed returns whence it came, to heaven.'  Or else this: a dissolution of the nexus of atoms, and senseless molecules likewise dispersed.

Book 8.28
The recurrent cycles of the universe are the same, up and down, from eternity to eternity. And either the mind of the Whole has a specific impulse for each individual case - if so, you should welcome the result - or it had a single original impulse, from which all else follows in consequence: and why should you be anxious about that? The Whole is either a god - then all is well: or if purposeless - some sort of random arrangement of atoms or molecules - you should not be without purpose yourself. 

Book 9.39
Either all things flow from one intelligent source and supervene as in one coordinated body, so the part should not complain at what happens in the interest of the whole - or all is atoms, and nothing more than present stew and future dispersal. Why then are you troubled? Say to your directing mind: 'Are you dead, are you decayed, have you turned into an animal, are you pretending, are you herding with the rest and sharing their feed?'

Book 10.6
Whether atoms or a natural order, the first premise must be that I am part of the Whole which is governed by nature: the second, that I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts. With these premises in mind, in so far as I am a part I shall not resent anything assigned by the Whole. Nothing which benefits the Whole can be harmful to the part, and the Whole contains nothing which is not to its benefit. All organic natures have this in common, but the nature of the universe has this additional attribute, that no external cause can force it to create anything harmful to itself.

So remembering that I am part of a Whole so constituted will leave me happy with all that happens to me. And in so far as I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts, I shall do nothing unsocial, but rather look to the good of my kin and have every impulse directed to the common benefit and diverted from its opposite. All this in operation guarantees that life will flow well, just as you would judge a citizen's life in proper flow when he moves on through acts which benefit his fellow citizens, and welcomes all that his city assigns him.

We too are faced with this decision about how to view this Universe and life. Whether you talk to an atheist or a theist, both will share what they think is evidence that supports their cause. In a debate, it might be a tie. As an impartial observer, in a sense, we get to choose what we want to believe: Providence or Atoms. And when we arrive at this crossroads, we should do well to remember what Epictetus says: "If only one could be properly convinced of this truth, that we're all first and foremost children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself."

When I read this, it seems that Epictetus is saying that if you view yourself in high regard (a child of God), then your attitude about yourself and even the world, pivots to the positive.

image source: https://www.instagram.com/jpeg_v1/
Later he says, "these two elements have been mixed together in us from our conception, the body, which we have in common with animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share with the gods, some of us incline towards the kinship that is wretched and mortal, and only a few of us towards that which is divine and blessed. Now since everyone, whoever he may be, is bound to deal with each matter in accordance with the belief that he holds about it, those few who think they were born for fidelity, for self-respect, and for the sound use of impressions will never harbour any mean or ignoable thought about themselves, whereas the majority if people will do exactly the opposite."

On which side do you tilt? Are humans just high-functioning animals? Or are they more noble?

For me personally, believing in a God or Gods or Providence and thinking the Universe is ordered, I am more willing to accept my fate in all this; and that keeps me on the positive side of the scale. It also helps me give others the benefit of the doubt. If I tend to think that it is all chaos and random atoms, I might be willing to throw my hands up in the air in ambivalence and may act coldly towards other people and their challenges. But if I believe there is some order, I might be more willing order my life and help instill order and harmony in others.

Further Reading:

Stoicism: Providence or Atoms? Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

'Providence or Atoms? Providence!'

Friday, November 16, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.2

Epictetus' Discourses are not the Meditations. I can let a passage from Marcus simmer in my brain a few minutes and I think I can come to a conclusion as to what he means (along with the help of Hadot).  But for Epictetus, I need to read it a few times to comprehend what he's teaching me.

The subject of Discourses 1.2 is 'how a person can preserve their proper character in any situation.' The Stoics always say, "live according to Nature." I think what Epictetus is trying to say in this chapter is, "live according to your specific nature." Around verse 7, he says, "not only do we have to form a judgment about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character."

From there, once you know what you are, you can settle on what you will and will not do - what integrity means to you. He says in verse 11, "you're the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you'll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices."

This is a timely passage for me personally. Every so often, I seem to go through some sort of existential mini life crisis. When they occur, I seem to really wonder and question myself and if I'm adding any value to the world. They typically begin on a Friday - after a long, slug-fest at work - commuting, meetings ad-nauseum and seemingly not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything. If asked, 'what did you accomplish today or this week?', I think the answer would be 'nothing of importance.' The only, real, valid reason I work day-in and day-out is for my wife and family. For them, I'm willing to sell my time and soul. Maybe other people can't do that. But I've found, speaking for myself, that is the price I'm willing to sell myself for.

Epictetus offers an analogy about the selling price of one's soul. Does one 'fall in line' or does one 'attempt to stand out'? The analogy involves either being a white thread in a robe made mostly of white threads or being a purple thread, which when contrasted with the white threads, stands out. For some, their price is steep - they would not settle or sell their soul to 'be like the crowd.' He proceeds to give examples of some people's integrity at play. They can be threatened, but they will still do their duty to death.

Now that price has been discussed, the question still remains, "what makes you unique? What is your unique nature? What are you not willing to sell your soul for, if ever, in any circumstance?" Epictetus discusses this in verse 30, "Then how will each of us come to recognize what is appropriate to his own character?" Later, he answers, "if someone possesses such power, he won't fail to be aware of it." He also makes a clarifying point that sometimes we don't know what that talent is until after a 'winter training.' He doesn't expound a whole lot on that, but to me, it seems like we all grow into the talents that are unique to us. Perhaps after some difficulty and challenges, our true talents - aspects that are unique to us individually - are revealed.

Let's assume you've found your talent. Now, comes the possibility that you are not the best in whatever makes you unique. To which Epictetus responds we do not "cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because [we] despair of achieving perfection." Indeed, there can be a 'best' but by virtue of there being a 'best', there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of others 'not the best.'  The conclusion: we still try.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.1

I am reading Epictetus' Discourses, Fragments and Handbook again. My goal is to really think about what Epictetus said and then write my thoughts in a way that my children could understand what he taught. I'm hoping it will be a resource to them in their life journey.

I'm reading from the Oxford World's Classics translated by Robin Hard copy, but I will link the Oldfather translation for each post. As passages stand out to me, I'll make remarks on them. I will not copy the entire passage, as I did with Meditations. If you're reading these blog posts, I suggest you find a copy of the book, and read the corresponding passage.

Epictetus starts things off by talking about one of the most fundamental aspects of Stoicism and life: determining what is in your control and what is not in your control. This is called the Dichotomy of Control. To be more precise and to avoid ambiguity, this concept can be called eph' hêmin or 'up to us.' The dichotomy would then be things 'up to us' and things 'not up to us.'

How to you apply the Dichotomy of Control? Make a list. Deeply think about what you can control (what is 'up to you') versus what you cannot control (what is 'not up to you). And when we use the word "control" it is not partial control or some control; rather, it means entirely within our control.

One item under the category 'not up to me' is the body. Epictetus uses a lot of examples of how the body is not under our control. And while he is citing these examples, he also indicates what is 'up to us' in each of those circumstances.

In one example, Lateranus is to be be-headed at the command of Nero. Lateranus could not prevent himself from losing his head, but he could control his attitude about it. So, "he held his neck out willingly to take the blow." But that is not the end of the story! The blow to his neck was not adequate and he didn't die! After "recoiling" his head a bit, he "had enough self-command to offer his neck a second time" (p. 5).

The body may be put to death, but our attitude and reaction is 'up to us.'

The body may be put in chains or thrown into prison, but our mind and will cannot be chained or thrown into prison.

And here is the key quote from Discourses Book 1, Chapter 1: "These are the thoughts that those who embark on philosophy ought to reflect upon; it is these that they should write about day after day, and it is in these that they should train themselves." (p. 6). A bit later, he advises that we need to come to terms with what we have been given in life.

What I Highlighted In the Book

"It is fitting, then, that the gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven't placed within our power"

"this body isn't truly your own, but is nothing more than cleverly moulded clay"

speaking as Zeus ... "I've given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the power to make proper use of impressions; if you pay good heed to this, and entrust all that you have to its keeping, you'll never be hindered, never obstructed, and you'll never groan, never find fault, and never flatter anyone at all."

"I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?"

"These are the thoughts that those who embark on philosophy ought to reflect upon; it is these that they should write about day after day, and it is in these that they should train themselves."

"train oneself in the matters in which one ought to train oneself, to have rendered one's desires incapable of being frustrated, and one's aversions incapable of falling into what they want to avoid."