Monday, December 31, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.14 - That the divine watches over all of us

The first part of the chapter discusses how God supervises everything, from flowers to fruit.

Then comes this interesting part:
Why, did anyone ever tell you that you have powers to rival those of Zeus?  But all the same, he has assigned to each of us, as an overseer, his own personal guardian spirit, and has entrusted each of us to its protection, as a guardian that never sleeps and is never open to deception.  To what other guardian could he have entrusted us that would have been better and more vigilant that this?  And so, when you close your doors and create darkness within, remember never to say that you're on your own, for in fact, you're not alone, because God is within you, and your guardian spirit too.  And what need do they have of light to see what you're doing?
To this god you should swear allegiance, as soldiers do to Caesar.  For they, on receiving their wages, swear to put the safety of Caesar above all else; so will you, who have been judged worthy of so many gifts of such a valuable nature, be unwilling to swear your oath, and having sworn it, hold true to it?  And what is it that you must swear?  Never to disobey, never to find fault with, never to complain about, anything that has been granted to you by God and never be unwilling to do what you have to do, or to undergo what you're bound to undergo. 
 What I find interesting about this passage are the similarities between the Christian promise to 'obey God' ... such as a baptism ... and a reminder to keep that promise ... such as the sacrament.  And then there is the inner deity ... which sounds a lot like the Holy Ghost in some Christian theology.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.3 - how may everything be done in a way that is pleasing to the gods?

this is a short and to-the-point passage.

i'll summarize in a few 'tweet-like' sentences or phrases, each of which is an answer to the question proposed in the chapter heading.

1) eat as you ought: politely, with temperance and restraint

2) someone fails you? don't get angry or lose your temper

3) we are social beings; children of God/Zeus; therefore we are from the same family and ought to have a familial relationship with others

4) keep the proper perspective of things; this clump of dirt called earth is small in the vast universe

5) laws of men are "laws of the dead"; have greater "regard for the laws of the gods"

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.12 - on contentment

Even though the title of this chapter is called, "on contentment" or "satisfaction" in some translations, it is more about learning one of the most important lessons of life.

Epictetus starts off with describing various groups of people who believe or don't believe in the gods.  Inserted is a picture that represents these groups.  But it matters very little what kind of God or gods you believe in.  Maybe you don't even believe in a God or gods.  Fine.  What follows is relevant to those who believe or not.

"One who has achieved virtue and excellence, after having examined all these questions, submits his will to the one who governs the universe just as good citizens submit to the law of their city" (v. 7, p. 31).  And for those who have not attained virtue and excellence and are still learning he says they, "should approach his education with this aim in view: 'How may I follow the gods in everything, and how can I act in a way that is acceptable to the divine administration, and how may I become free?'  For someone is free if all that happens to him comes about in accordance with his choice and no one else is able to impede him" (v. 8-9, p. 31).  Whether you believe in the gods or not, the statement above gets to the heart of this matter: coming to accept your lot in life (being content or satisfied).  If you believe in the gods, then your philosophical education aims to teach you how to accept the gods' will for you.  If you don't believe in the gods, then philosophy would still aim to help you accept your fate - the complex turn of events that has brought you to this point in your life at this very instant.  He later expounds on this education: "true education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does" (v. 15, p. 31).

When your lot in life says you must be alone, what should your attitude be?  "You should call that peace and freedom, and view yourself as being like the gods."  And when you are in a large group of people, such as a party, you should think of yourself as a guest at "a feast or public festival" and learn to enjoy it (v. 21, p.32).

And when it comes to physical impairment, such as a bum or crippled leg, will you complain about your lot in life?  Epictetus seems to slap us in the face while saying, "Slave, you're going to cast reproaches against the universe?" (v. 24, p. 32).  I would recommend the reader learn about Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking.  Don't know who they are?  Look 'em up!  They had a lot worse lot in life than a bum leg.  What impediment do you have and how does it compare?

No matter our lot in life, we have complete control over one thing: our attitude toward our fate.  Indeed we must always keep in mind our position and minuteness relative to the universe, but also we must know we are equal with the gods because our our ability to choose our attitude and response.  As Epictetus put it, "the greatness of reason is measured not by height or length, but by the quality of its judgements" (v. 26, p. 33).

If you have eyesight and at the very moment a great work of art is presented to you, it would seem very odd and irrational to shut your eyes!  The same applies to our faculty for reason and choosing our attitude and reaction.  At the very time your capacity to reason and choice of attitude is needed, you should give "thanks to the gods for having enabled you to rise above everything that they have placed within your power" (v. 32, p. 33).

You do not have to choose a miserable life.  It is all in your head.  How long will it take you to finally learn this lesson.  If you are disappointed, it is very likely you've placed your desires in something out of your control.  Now, quickly realize you have the power to change your attitude; and soon, you will be able to thank the gods for any obstacles or adversities placed before you.

If you truly want to be satisfied in life, you must learn that you are not held accountable for your parents or your siblings or any impediment to your body or what happens to your possessions or even for death or for life itself.  The gods have made you responsible only for what is in your power - the proper use of impressions.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.11 - on family affection

A government official talked to Epictetus.  The topic of family came up, to which Epictetus asked him what he thought of family life.  The official responded, "miserable" and proceeded to tell Epictetus that he couldn't even bear to be in the presence of his daughter when she was ill, because it caused him distress to see her suffer.

From there Epictetus proceeded to instruct the man about the criteria for judging whether something is right or not and what the proper reaction of the man should have been when his daughter was ill.

The key point in all the dialogue is found at the end of the chapter.  "In a word, it is neither death, nor exile, nor distress, nor anything else of that kind, that causes us to do something or not to do it, but rather our judgments and opinions" (v. 33, p. 30).

Once we realize and accept this, from that moment on, "we'll ascribe the blame to nothing other than the judgement that led us to act as we did ... in like fashion, we will also ascribe what we do rightly to the same cause.  And no longer will we blame slave, or neighbor, or wife, or children as being responsible for any of our ills, since we're now convinced that unless we judge things to be of a certain nature, we don't carry out the actions that follow from that judgement.  Now when it comes to forming a judgment, or not forming one, we're the masters of that, and not things outside ourselves" (v. 35-37, p. 30).

If you want to blame someone for your misfortune or ills, look no further than your opinion and judgement of the matter.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.10 - to those who have set their hearts on advancement in Rome

In this little discourse, Epictetus tries to make a point about how vigorous we ought to pursue a life of philosophy.  "If we had devoted the same unsparing effort to our own work as the senators at Rome have in achieving what they have set their mind on, perhaps we too might have achieved something" (v. 1, p. 25).

He shares a story of an older man who passes through his town.  The man was returning from exile and going back to Rome.  The man denounced his old life (his life in Rome, prior to exile) and "declared that from now on, after he got back, he would concern himself with nothing other living the rest of his life in peace and calm" noting that he had very little time left to him in life.  Epictetus told the man he was bluffing and that as soon as the man got a "whiff or Rome" he would be right back where he started before his exile.  Sure enough, the man returned to Rome and soon was back at it.

The point?  It was not to denounce this man's life and choice when he returned to Rome, but rather to learn from his industry and desire.  Epictetus wants people to be busy and industrious about their lives, and he wants them to put just as much vigor in learning and practicing philosophy.

"To be sure, we old men, when we see the young at play, feel a desire on our part, too, to join them in play.  How much more, then, if I saw them wide awake and eager to join us in our endeavors, would I be eager to combine my efforts with theirs" (v. 13, p. 26).

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.9 - how, from the idea that we are akin to God, one may proceed to what follows

Do you remember that part from the movie The Matrix, where Morpheus is trying to free Neo from the prison of his mind?  If not, then you can find it on YouTube (link).  In a sense, Epictetus is trying to free the minds of his students when he addressed them in this chapter.  He tried back then, and still today, with his written words (thanks to Arrian), he is trying to free his students' minds and our minds.

We are bound in the chains of our body and possessions.  And for people who place happiness and contentment in the body and possessions, they remain imprisoned.  Epictetus took it upon himself to free the minds of his students.  He believed that humans are more than mere animals.  We are related to the divine and to reason.

The chapter starts off with the concept of a cosmopolitan.  We ought "to follow the example of Socrates" when he was asked where he was from.  He would reply, "I'm a citizen of the universe" (p. 22).  We too should take the cosmopolitan view.  If you really think about it, what does it mean to say you're an American or Argentinian?  What it means is that your corpse happened to be born in some corner of the world purely for the reason that your parents and grandparents were born there too.  Does it really make sense to claim allegiance to some plot of land, some neighborhood, some city block, some square mile, some city, some county, some state, some nation, some continent?

We ought to come to the understanding that "of all things, the greatest and most important, and most all-embracing, is this society in which human beings and God are associated together" that of the association of "rational beings" (p. 22).

Epictetus then proceeds to tell his students that his duty, as their teacher and master, is to instruct them how to "prevent [them] from having a mean view of [themselves], or from developing mean and ignoble ideas about [themselves]" (p. 23).  Furthermore, to instruct them of their kinship with the rational gods and to understand that we have "these chains attached to us - the body and its possessions" and that we ought to "cast all of this aside as being burdensome, distressing, and useless" (p. 23).

Having heard all this, some of Epictetus' students claim they can no longer bear to be chained to their body and wish to go back from whence they came and to demonstrate to others that they have no power over them (the students) ... implying they, the students, should simply commit suicide to show everyone how little they esteem the world and its possessions.

Epictetus wisely states, and reminds his students and us, that it is our lot, given by God, to stand at our post.  "You must wait for God, my friends.  When he gives the signal and sets you free from your service here, then you may depart to him.  But for the present, you must resign yourselves to remaining in this post in which he has stationed you.  It is short, in truth, the time of your stay in this world, and easy to bear for people who are of such a mind as you.  For what tyrant, or what thief, or what law-courts, can still inspire fear in those who no longer attach any importance to the body and it possessions?  So wait, and don't make your departure without proper reason" (v. 16-19, p. 24).

Later on, he notes Socrates' attitude on life and the view of his duty.  The judges in Socrates' time did not want him talking and corrupting the minds of the youth.  Socrates responded, "How absurd of you to think that if one of your generals had stationed me in a post, I should hold it, and defend it, preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than abandon it, but if God has stationed us in some position and laid down rules of conduct, we should abandon it!" (p. 24).  The idea, here, is that Socrates was telling them that it was his duty, from God, to pester the people and spur them to reason.  But since he made the people look foolish, they got upset and put him on trail.  Despite that, Socrates held firm and carried out the duty he felt was his.

We humans are more than "bodies, entrails and sexual organs!"  We can gain our own contentment and we do not have to rely on others or possessions.  "For it is indeed pointless and foolish to seek to get from another what one can get from oneself.  Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility of mind from myself, shall I seek to get a patch of land from you, or a bit of money, some public post? Heaven forbid!  I won't overlook my own resources in such a manner" (p. 25).  "No one suffers misfortune because of the actions of another" (v. 34, p. 25).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.6 - on providence

The title of this chapter is On providence.

The point of this discourse is to show us that we are not mere brute animals.  What makes us humans unique is our providence-given abilities to "act in a methodical and orderly fashion, and in accordance with our own specific nature and constitution" (verse 15, p. 15).

Humans have the ability to think; to ponder; to reason and to appreciate.  What beasts create museums or art or music or ballets?  What animals write philosophical treatises or carry out experiments?  This is what sets us apart from all other creations.  Epictetus says "God brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them.  It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do.  Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves.  Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature.  Take care, then, that you don't die without having contemplated these realities" (verses 20-22, p. 16).

And where do we go to appreciate God's works?  I think they are not only found all over the world in the most pristine places, but they are also found in the day to day interactions.  To be able to see reason in philosophy and to see God's creations create!

Then the deep, reflective question Epictetus poses to us: "Will you never come to a realization of who you are, what you have been born for and the purpose for which the gift of vision was made in our case?"

And what about when difficult and disagreeable things happen to us?  How are we supposed to appreciate God's works then?  He offers a really good analogy.  People will take a pilgrimage to various places.  Perhaps they travel to Olympia or Mecca or to Washington D.C.  Despite the heat, humidity, the crowds, the traffic, the weather, the noise, the shouting - they endure it all to pay homage to whatever they find valuable.  Is this not true too with life and finding God or Zeus in the world?  Do we not fight the difficulties every day, if only to capture a glimpse of greatness?

And furthermore, God has given us the ability to endure said difficulties.  "by balancing all these things off against the remarkable nature of the spectacle, I imagine that you're able to accept and endure them.  Come now, haven't you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about?  Haven't you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage?  And with endurance?  If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about anything that may come to pass?" (verses 28-29, p. 16)  And there is the rub - the key - the point of it all: to seek, to journey, to venture to find and then appreciate God's handiwork, while using the gifts God provides to enable us to get to that point.  To be able to seek, to use the inherent tools within us, to overcome and to achieve or at least to attempt to achieve.  That's all.

Without a lion to fight, there is no Hercules.  Without a lion, hydra, stag or boar, there is no Hercules.  Without the challenges, Hercules has no definition, no existence.  "What would have been the use of his arms and of all his strength, endurance, and nobility of mind if such circumstances and opportunities hadn't been there to rouse him and exercise him?" (verse 34, p. 17).

Now, take note!  In the seeking of trying to appreciate God's creations, you not only discover and appreciate those creations, but in the doing you discovered something within you: fortitude, grit, determination, reason, justice, discipline.  And you ought to appreciate this too!  In the seeking, you come to appreciate God's work without and within.  You may even exclaim, "Bring on me now, Zeus, whatever trouble you may wish, since I have the equipment that you granted me and such resources as will enable me to distinguish myself through whatever may happen" (verse 37, p. 17).

Or ... or, you do not embark on the journey to seek and appreciate God's works and you fail to not appreciate God's works and you fail to discover God's works within you.  In other words, "you cast blame on the gods" (verse 38).  You become impious.  In Christian vernacular, you break the first great commandment.

And one final point before the big question of the day.  God has given each of us the resources to deal with whatever difficulties come our way in our search to appreciate God's works.  God has given us the choice; God has given us freedom to choose.  There is no "constraint, compulsion" or "impediment" in this choice of ours - the choice of seeking to appreciate God's work or not.

And finally, to the big question of the day (maybe the question of a lifetime): what will you choose to do?

Will you use your God-given resources and God-given character of strength and resilience to seek out ways to appreciate God's works (both externally and within you)?  Or will you be wail, grieve, complain and groan?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.5 - Against the Academics

In the arena of ideas and debate and conversation, it is important to agree on definitions.  If two people cannot agree on definitions and language, the conversation will be futile.

Even more general than definitions are agreements on things that are obvious.  "If someone ... refuses to accept what is patently obvious, it is not easy to find arguments to use against him that could cause him to change his mind" (p. 13).

Worse still, are those who want to change meanings or words mid-conversation!

Epictetus rails against two types of obtuseness: that of the intellect and that of the moral compass.

If someone cannot intellectually carry on conversation, then you might as well begin talking to a brick.

And if someone lacks moral direction, Zeus help him and society!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.4 - on progress

What is real progress in terms of Stoicism?

Epictetus resoundingly explains.

Stoicism is about living according to Nature where virtue is the sole good.

He says, "Now, if virtue promises to enable us to achieve happiness, freedom from passion, and serenity, then progress towards virtue is surely also progress towards each of these states" (p. 11).

Therefore, if you want to make progress in becoming Stoic, you would not show a sage all the books you've read on the subject of Stoicism.  Rather, you would show them how you are living according to nature and focusing solely on virtue.  Epictetus likens this to an athlete.

"Come now, show me what progress you're making in this regard.  Suppose I were talking with an athlete and said, Show me your shoulders, and he were to reply, 'Look at my jumping-weights.'  That's quite enough of you and your weights!  What I want to see is what you've achieved by use of those jumping-weights" (p. 11).

What are the hallmarks of progress in Stoicism?

"So where is progress to be found?  If any of you turns away from external things to concentrate his efforts on his own power of choice, to cultivate it and perfect it, so as to bring it into harmony with nature, raising it up and rendering it free, unhindered, unobstructed, trustworthy, and self-respecting ... and if, when he gets up in the morning, he holds in mind what he has learned and keeps true to it ... this, then, is the person who is truly making progress; this is the person who hasn't traveled in vain! (p. 12).

"what is truly worthwhile is to study how to rid one's life of distress and lamentation, and cries of 'Ah, what sorrows are mine!' and 'Poor wretch that I am!', and of misfortune and adversity; and to learn what death, banishment, prison and hemlock really are, so that one may be able to say in prison like Socrates, 'My dear Crito, if it pleases the gods that this should come about, so be it!'" (p. 12)

And when you read tragic books, the purpose should be to learn "the sufferings of men who have attached high value to external things." (p. 13)

Epictetus makes that point that we ought to praise God, "who discovered, and brought to light and communicated to all, the truth that enables us not merely to keep alive, but to live a good life" and for whom we ought to thank "for this benefaction" and for "such a wonderful fruit in the human mind" (p. 13).

In summary, we ought to:

Renounce externals (desiring something that is out of your control, or avoiding something painful that is out of your control).

Focus on our character; cultivate it, perfect it.

Make our character honest, trustworthy, free.

Expunge from our life the following: sighs, sorrow, grief, disappointment and exclamations like, "poor me!"

Learn what death is; face it; realize it is your fate.

Be grateful to God or the Gods for having given us the ability to live and live well.

If you can do these things, then you are showing progress in becoming Stoic.