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.