Monday, April 29, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.5 - To those who leave because of illness

One of Epictetus' students is ill and wants to go home; Epictetus teaches him an important lesson: "if your ruling centre can't be kept in accord with nature, your little piece of land at least could be.  You'll add to your small store of cash, look after your father in his old age, hang around in the marketplace, hold public office; and being of bad character, you'll do everything else badly" (v. 3, p. 153).  His point being, if the student (us) cannot first control our ruling center, then we won't do anything else, no matter what we focus on, well.

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:
unperturbed
unhindered
unconstrained
free

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; being full of gratitude; willing to see and appreciate all of God's works and accept God's "governing order" (see v. 9-10, p. 154).

Socrates said, "As one person rejoices in improving his land, and another his horse, so I rejoice day by day in observing that I myself am becoming better" ... never finding "fault with anyone, whether god or human being, and never [reproaching] anyone, and always [having] the same expression on [my] face (v. 14-16, p. 154).

"Who of you sets this as his purpose, then?  Because if you did, you'd willingly undergo illness, hunger, and death" (v. 18, p. 154).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.4 - To one who took sides in the theatre in an undignified manner

In our last local Stoic meetup, the topic of sports came up - playing sports, as well as rooting for the home team or for your favorite team.  Many people are competitive and have the drive and motivation to win.  Some want it more than others and in some cases, those people may cheat or use every possible method under the rules, to win.  And when some people lose (or if the team they are cheering on loses), they get into the foulest of moods.  I used to be this way.

Eventually, I learned what Epictetus taught the governor.  The governor went to the theater and was wildly cheering on "Sophron" (whoever that is ... I don't know the full context of this; perhaps it was a gladiator or some stand-up comic).  And when the people under his rule started yelling at the governor and verbally abusing him, he got all upset!

Epictetus explains to him that since the people saw him acting all wildly at the contest, they figured they could do the same.  But the governor was being selfish and basically could not take what he was willing to dish out.  He was so upset, he was contemplating punishing them.  Epictetus tell him it would be absurd to punish the people for acting as they did.  If Zeus punished people every time they verbally abused him, "he would have nobody left to rule!" (v. 8, p. 152).

No, the solution is not punishment or silencing people you disagree with.  Rather, when it comes to sports, either as a participant or an observer, you should remember to "keep [your] faculty of choice in accord with nature." And you should say to yourself, "No one is dearer to me than myself; it would be absurd that I should do harm to myself to enable another man to win a victory." (v. 10, p. 152).

I've learned, when it comes to playing and watching basketball, to do as Epictetus taught those going to the public bath.

When you're about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is.  If you're going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at baths, that people will splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you.  And you'll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, 'I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.'  And follow the same course in every action that you embark on.  So if anything gets in your way while you're taking a bath, you'll be ready to tell yourself, 'Well, this wasn't the only think that I wanted to do [bathe], but I also wanted to keep my choice in harmony with nature; and I won't keep it if I get annoyed at what is happening.'"  (Handbook Chapter 4, p. 288)

And so when I am on my way to play basketball, I tell myself that I will miss shots, make bad passes and my team will lose.  But I am honestly there to exercise, not to win a championship.  I will be successful if I try hard, stay in the game mentally, and be a good team player.  I will also accomplish burning calories and get a temporary high from the social aspects of the game.  Ever since I started doing this (for the last 3-4 years), almost 100% of the time, I leave the gym very happy and content.

I apply the same line of thinking when I'm cheering for "my team" whether they be the Texans, Astros, Rockets or Cougars or the Mustangs.  I know, that the odds are stacked against most teams I root for.  Out of all the teams I have cheered for over the last 30 years, only three teams have won a championship.  Despite winning seasons, I know that almost all the time, 'my team' will ultimately lose.  It is a fact that the odds of winning for most teams, is really low.  Most of the time, we are all cheering on losers.

And so I've shifted my mindset from "wanting, really badly, my team to WIN!" to "oh, wow, this game (or season), has been really entertaining for me to watch.  And no matter who wins, I recognize that watching my team play has been a nice distraction.  Win or lose, it's been fun!"  And of course, if my team is doing horribly, I always reserve the right to turn the TV off or stop watching.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.3 - What is the material that the good person works upon, and what should be the main object of our training?

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

"The material that the good and virtuous person works upon is his own ruling centre" (v. 1, p. 149).

"Never will the mind refuse a clear impressions of the good, any more than a man, will refuse Caesar's coinage.  On this hangs every action of both man and god" (v. 4-5, p. 149-150).   In other words, the good is as easy to distinguish as a minted coin.  If someone pays you a quarter, it should be rather easy and quick to determine if they are giving you $0.25 or not.  Likewise, if you see someone act with wisdom, justice, courage or discipline, it should be quite apparent that they are acting according to the good.

And although your father or brother may waste your inheritance, you must ask if they will take "your decency ... loyalty ... or ... your brotherly love" (v. 9, p. 150).  It's absurd to think they can take these things from you!  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 undeniable, unalterable "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.

"It is in accordance with this plan of action above all that one should train oneself. As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away.  What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you.  If we acted in such a way and practised this exercise from morning until night, we would then have achieved something, by the gods." (v. 14-16, p. 150-151)

We must watch for, what Epictetus calls, "vicious judgements" and that we should do all that we can to root them out (v. 18, p. 151).  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 vicious judgements: 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.

A similar exercise, applied in today's modern social media environment, is to observe your reactions as you scroll through Facebook or Instagram.  Do you feel a twinge of envy or jealousy when you see "that perfect family, on the perfect vacation"?  Pause.  Think about what it is you are wanting.  Do you want those externals or do you want virtue more?  You must question these value judgements; you must question the premise of impression.  If it is in your control and is virtuous, then seek it; desire it.  But if it is an external and out of your control, forget it.  It means nothing.

He finishes the chapter with an allegory.  "The mind is rather like a bowl filled with water, and impressions are like a ray of light that falls on that water.  When the water is disturbed, the ray of light gives the appearance of being disturbed, but that isn’t really the case.  So accordingly, whenever someone suffers an attack of vertigo, it isn’t the arts and virtues that are thrown into confusion, but the spirit in which they’re contained; and when the spirit comes to rest again, so will they too." (v. 20-22, p. 151)


Monday, April 22, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.2 - What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important

Below are the first few verses of chapter 2 from book 3.  I've formatted it slightly differently.

"There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained:


  1. that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid;
  2. that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly;
  3. and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.

"Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.

"The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.

"The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard."

Furthermore, you know you are making progress when a "bit of money is involved" and you can avoid the deception of it making you happy.  Or when "you see a pretty girl" and you can "resist the impression" she bears on your mind.  Or when your "neighbor receives an inheritance" and you don't feel the bite of envy.  Or when you lack nothing but "unshakable judgement" (see v. 7-8, p. 148).

Further along, he offers this insightful thought; "when one has shown what his judgements are, then one has shown what he is as a human being" (v. 12, p. 148).

And some parting advice:

"Put aside these things that don't concern you"

Don't give in to "anger, distress or envy; [be] free from hindrance and constraint"

Friday, April 19, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.1 - On personal adornment

Is keeping your hair combed and wearing nice clothes important to a Stoic?

Epictetus answers this question from a student "whose hair was arranged in a rather too fussy manner, and whose clothing was in general very showy" (v. 1, p. 142).

He begins by observing that dogs, horses and birds are beautiful for what they are - for how they are suited to their nature.  "It wouldn't be absurd for one to declare overall that each of them is beautiful precisely in so far as it best fulfills its own nature; and since each is different in nature, it would seem to me that each of them is beautiful in a different way" (v. 3, p. 142).  He further explains that "what makes a dog beautiful will make a horse ugly, and what makes a horse beautiful will make a dog ugly" (v. 4, p. 142).

Subsequently, you must ask yourself: what makes a human beautiful?  Epictetus teaches, "if you want to be beautiful for your own part, you should strive to achieves this, the excellence that characterizes a human being" (v. 7, p. 142).

What is excellence in a human being?  Excellence is defined as being just, temperate and self-controlled (see v. 8-9, p. 142-143) or as the Stoics would say, you should live according to nature by seeking the good.  And virtue is the sole good.

The next section gets into the topic of duties, namely the duty of a philosopher.  In this specific instance, Epictetus wonders if by saying more, he would offend the student.  But also, if he doesn't saying something to instruct the student, then Epictetus has done the student a greater disservice ("how could it be anything other than cruel for me to leave you unreformed?" v. 11, p. 143).  He eventually discusses Socrates and his duty towards the human race.  "Did Socrates succeed in persuading all who approached him to take proper care of themselves?  Not even one in a thousand.  But all the same, since he had been appointed to this post by the deity [and] he never abandoned it" (v. 19, p. 144).

His duty, as he saw it was to "interrogate [his] fellow citizens, because [they were] most closely related to [him]" (v. 20, p. 144).  He readily recognized he was not like the vast majority of people, and he viewed himself as the purple stripe in a robe - unlike the rest of the stripes, but nonetheless important (see v. 23, p. 144).

Epictetus returns to the topic at hand - on personal adornment.  He instructs, "Learn first to know who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.  You're a human being; that is to say, a mortal animal who has the capacity to make use of impressions in a rational manner.  And what does it mean, to use them rationally?  To use them in accordance with nature and perfectly.  What is superior in you, then?  The animal in you?  No.  The mortal?  No.  The capacity to make use of impressions?  No.  The rational element in you - that is what is superior in you.  Adorn and beautify that; but as for your hair, leave it to him who made it in accordance with his will" (v. 25-26, p. 144-145, emphasis added).

The next part gets off on a bit of a tangent about the specifics of whether one should shave or not (if you are a man).  His opinion is, if God made it so that you should grow a beard, as a man, then do so.  But if you shave, when in fact you can grow a beard, you might as well cut off your testicles and "turn yourself into a woman fully and completely so that we may no longer be in doubt" (v. 31, p. 145).  Some people may retort to Epictetus that women like smooth-skinned men, to which he replies, "But if they like inverts, I suppose, you'd become one of those?  Is this your business in life, then; is this what you were brought into the world for, to make yourself appealing to licentious women?" (v. 32-33, p. 145).

He concludes, "let a man be a man, a woman be a woman, and one who is beautiful be beautiful as a human being, and one who is ugly be ugly as a human being.  For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful" (v. 39-40, p. 146 emphasis added).  "Beautify your moral choice, and eradicate your bad judgments" (v. 43, p. 146).

And one parting rebuttal to people who think beards are dirty.  "Heaven forbid!"  We ought to keep clean, but we don't shear the lion's mane or the cock's comb to keep it clean!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.26 - What is the distinctive characteristic of error?

"Every error involves a contradiction; for since someone who commits an error doesn’t want to do that, but to act rightly, it is clear that he isn’t doing what he wants.  For what does a thief want to achieve? Something that is to his benefit. If theft, then, is contrary to his benefit, he isn’t doing what he wants.  Now every rational mind is by nature averse to contradiction; but as long as someone fails to realize that he is involved in a contradiction, there is nothing to prevent him from carrying out contradictory actions; when he becomes aware of it, however, he must necessarily turn aside from the contradiction and avoid it, just as harsh necessity forces one to renounce what is false as soon as one realizes that it is false, although one assents to it as long as its falsity remains unapparent." (v. 1-3, p. 140).

"For if anyone can make that clear to him, he'll renounce his error of his own accord, but if you fail to show him, don’t be surprised if he persists in it" (v. 5, p. 140)

"Make the ruling centre aware of a contradiction, and it will renounce it; but if you fail to make it clear, blame yourself rather than the person whom you’re unable to convince." (v. 7, p. 141)

In summary, we must assume people are rational and want to do what is right.  We must also assume that once a person is taught correctly, they will act correctly.  Furthermore, if we attempt to correct others, we must not become shocked if they don't immediately change.  Do your best to teach and correct others, but don't fault yourself if you're unable to change their mind.

Marcus Aurelius prodded himself to always be in the mindset of, not blame, but of helping and teaching others in Book 6.27 and again in Book 5.28.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.25 - One the necessity of logic

No need for any commentary on this one; below is the full passage:

When someone who was attending his school said to him, ‘Convince me of the usefulness of logic,’ he replied: Would you like me to demonstrate it to you?—‘Yes.’ —Then I must employ a demonstrative argument? And when the questioner agreed, he asked:  How will you know, then, whether I’m trying to mislead you with a sophism? The man offered no reply. So do you see, continued Epictetus, how you yourself are conceding that logic is necessary, since without it you can’t even tell whether it is necessary or not?

Friday, April 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.24 - To one of those whom he regarded as unworthy

Who is Epictetus talking to that he regarded as "unworthy"?

He's talking to the person who said, "tell me something!"  This person really is not in a state of mind to learn and Epictetus proceeds to show this person why they are not ready to listen to Epictetus.

Skill is required to speak and to listen.  And when it comes to listening, "a good deal of practice in listening" is required "if one is to listen to philosophers" (v. 10, p. 137).

Epictetus wants his listeners and his students to show some initiative in listening - in wanting to learn.  To them he says, "Show me, then, what I can achieve by entering into a discussion with you.  Excite some desire in me" (v. 15, p. 138).  But if the person just sits around like a bump on a wall, saying "tell me something" then Epictetus wants nothing to do with them.  In fact, he only has one thing to say to people like this:

whoever is ignorant of who he is, and what he was born for, and in what kind of world he finds himself, and with what people he is sharing his life, and what things are good or bad and what are honourable or shameful, and is someone who is incapable of following an argument or proof, and doesn’t know what is true or false, and cannot distinguish between them: such a person will exercise neither his desires, nor his aversions, nor his motives, nor his designs, nor his assent, not his dissent, in accordance with nature, but being altogether deaf and blind, he’ll go around thinking that he is somebody when in reality he is nobody at all.  And do you suppose that there is anything new in this? Isn’t it the case that ever since the human race came into being, it is from this ignorance that all our errors and all our misfortunes have arisen? (v. 19-20, p. 138)

He concludes with, "When you want to know what a philosopher has to say, don't ask, 'Have you nothing to say to me?', but simply show that you're capable of listening to him" (v. 29, p. 139)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.23 - On the faculty of expression

Humans have faculties - abilities to see, hear, taste, touch and to think.  In this chapter, Epictetus makes the point that there is one faculty that is better than all the rest; and this one faculty makes use of the other faculties.  The faculty of choice rules all others.  Indeed, we must be grateful to God for the "gifts bestowed" on us, but the one faculty we must pay most attention to is that of choice.

Examples comparing some faculties and the faculty of choice: "And what else does the eye do, when open, than see?  But as to whether it ought to look at somebody's wife, and in what manner, what tells us that?  The faculty of choice.  As to whether one should place any belief in what one is told, or not believe it, and if one does believe it, whether one should be upset by it or not, what tells us that?  Isn't it the faculty of choice?" (v. 12-13, p. 133).

"What is it that makes use of everything else?  Choice.  What is it that takes charge of everything else?  Choice.  What is that that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff?  Choice.  Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?  And how is it possible that what is subject to hindrance should be more powerful than something that is not subject to hindrance? ... But what is capable by its nature of hindering the faculty of choice?  Nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice, but only choice itself when it has become perverted.  That is why it alone becomes vice and it alone becomes virtue." (v. 17-19, p. 133-134)

Lastly, he gives an analogy of the various faculties, by comparing our use of faculties to a traveler who is trying to get home.  "People behave life a traveler who, when returning to his homeland, passes through a place where there is a very fine inn, and because he finds it pleasant, remains there.  Man, you've forgotten your purpose, you weren't travelling to this place, but passing through it." (v. 36-37, p. 135).  Similarly, we use our faculties of vision, hearing, touching, feeling only as a pit-stop or a means of using our ultimate faculty - that of choice.

"Your purpose [is] to render yourself capable of using the impressions that present themselves to you in conformity with nature, and not to fail to attain what you desire, and not to fall into what you want to avoid, and never to suffer failure or misfortune, but to be free and immune to hindrance or constraint, as one who conforms to the governing order of Zeus, obeying it and finding satisfaction in it, and never finding fault with anyone, and never accusing anyone, being able to recite these verses with your whole heart, 'Guide me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny'" (v. 42, p. 136).  This last part reminds me of what Chris Fisher often quotes in his blog posts and podcasts "Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)"

We get to choose our attitude and reaction to events.  Will we always love our fate and in so doing, will never be frustrated or fearful or sad?  Will we always get what we want because we want things to happen exactly as they do?  Or will we let sights, sounds, smells, and events determine our attitude?  Do you choose freedom or slavery?

Monday, April 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.22 - On friendship

Like many companies these days, my office is going through an agile transformation - changing the way we work.  Part of the Agile Manifesto states, "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."  Epictetus would have similarly said, "friendship over externals."  Let's deconstruct that.

There are people, during Epictetus' time and people today who value things and externals over people and friendships.  He points to the example of two cute, cuddly puppies playing and everyone says, 'awww!  aren't they so cute!'  Then you throw a piece of meat between them and they turn into wolves!

Now, apply that same idea to humans.  He gives examples of a seemingly real friendships which are torn, when it is apparent one or both value the external over the friendship:

  • "small bit of land" is comes between father and son (v. 10, p. 128)
  • a "pretty girl" divides a father and son (v. 11, p. 129)
  • "the throne" comes between two brothers (v. 14, p. 129)
  • "a pretty woman" breaks the friendship of Paris and Menalaus (v. 23, p. 130)
  • "a necklace" breaks apart a marriage (v. 32, p. 131)
"For as a general rule—and one should have no illusions on the matter—there is nothing that a living creature is more strongly attached to than its own benefit. So whatever seems to him to be standing in the way of that benefit, be it a brother, or father, or child, or lover, or beloved, he will proceed to hate, reject, and curse." (v. 15, p. 120)

"For that reason, if one identifies one’s own benefit with piety, honour, one’s country, one’s parents, one’s friends, all of them will be safeguarded; but if one places one’s benefit in one scale and one’s friends, country, and parents, and justice itself, in the other, the latter will all be lost, because they will be outweighed by one’s benefit." (v. 18, p. 129-130)

"It follows that if I am where my moral choice is, in that case alone will I be the friend, the son, the father that I ought to be. For then it will benefit me to preserve my trustworthiness, my sense of shame, my patience, my temperance, my cooperativeness, and to maintain good relations with others." (v. 20, p. 130)

"Whoever among you sincerely wants to be friend to another, or to win the friendship of another, should thus eradicate these judgements, and despise them, and banish them from his mind. And when he has done so, he will, in the first place, be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment; and, furthermore, in his relations with others, he will always be frank and open with one who is like himself, and will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance; and he will never be harsh with anyone because he fully understands the saying of Plato, that ‘no mind is ever willingly deprived of the truth’" (v. 34-36, p. 131-132)

To summarize, if we are to be true friends, husbands, wives, children - we need to value the friendship over externals.  To do so, we ought to come to despise the things over which we have no control.  And instead, we ought to love virtue.  For the virtues we love and adhere to, will benefit ourselves and our friends.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.21 - On inconsistency

The topic of this chapter is how "people are inconsistent and confused in their ideas about matters of good and evil" (v. 4, p. 125).  He notes that people are very reluctant to admit their lack of virtue.  Rather, most will cite some quasi-involuntary short-coming.  Most will not admit they lack justice or self-control.

As such "we should constantly be focusing our attention on the following thoughts:

  • What kind of person do I picture myself as being?
  • How do I conduct myself?
  • Is it really as a wise person, as someone who has control of himself?
  • Can I say for my part that I've been educated to face everything that may come?
  • Is it indeed the case, as is fitting for someone who knows nothing, that I'm aware that I know nothing?
  • Do I go to my teacher as to an oracle, ready to obey?
  • Or do I go to the schoolroom like a sniveling child, wanting only to gain second hand information, and, if the occasion should arise, expound them to others? (v. 8-10, p. 125)
We learn philosophy to submit our judgements to purification.

We learn philosophy to become fully aware of what we stand in need of.

We learn philosophy to change our thoughts.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.20 - Against the Epicureans and Academics

In my search in trying to fully understand this passage, I found that Massimo Pigliucci has done a fine job explaining it.  I won't bother replicating his effort!  Below is the text from his blog post.

This must be Epictetus’ week. Well, for me it’s actually Epictetus’ year, since I decided that the book I’m writing, How To Be a Stoic (to be published by Basic Books in spring ’17) will be organized as an indirect conversation between myself and the slave-turned-teacher, who will guide me and my readers in a breezy exploration of Stoicism. (My original idea was to use Seneca, but I changed my mind.)

Anyway, the other day I was re-reading Discourses II.20, entitled “Against followers of Epicurus and of the Academy,” and I was reminded once again of how forceful Epictetus’ prose can be, and of how intense the intellectual debate among Hellenistic schools really was.

The chapter is in the same spirit of the discussion immediately preceding it, in II.19, which uses the so-called “Master Argument” to make the point that theory is fine in philosophy, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of practice. In II.20 Epictetus exploits his disagreement with both the Epicureans and the (skeptical) Academics to remind his students of the same thing. He begins with what he probably saw as the sophistry of the Academics:

“Even those who contradict propositions that are true and evident are obliged to make use of them. And indeed one may almost give as the strongest proof that a thing is evident that even he who contradicts it finds himself obliged to make use of it. For instance, if one should deny that any universal statement is true, plainly he cannot help asserting the contrary. ‘No universal statement is true.’ Slave, this is not true either: for what else is your assertion than, ‘If a statement is universal, it is false?’ Again, if one comes forward and says, ‘Know that nothing is knowable, but that everything is unprovable,’ or another says, ‘Believe me, and it will be to your advantage; you ought not to believe a man at all’; or again, if another says, ‘Learn from me, man, that it is impossible to learn anything; I tell you this, and will teach you, if you will.’ What difference is there between such persons and–whom shall I say?–those who call themselves Academics?”

The sarcasm is palpable, and it could be directed just as well to some contemporary philosophers of my acquaintance. (I’m not kidding: I just reviewed a chapter by a colleague for a book I’m putting together on the concept of scientism, which is entirely based on very clever and yet completely useless utterances. I kept reaching for Epictetus to help restore my Stoic equanimity…)

The strategy here is to show that the Academics’s positions are self-defeating, based as they are on paradoxes of language and nothing more. This is about the same approach that is often used nowadays against extreme versions of certain philosophical doctrines. If you are a strict logical positivist, for instance, and you believe that only utterances that can be verified empirically are sensible (the rest literally being nonsense), then what sort of empirical evidence would you adduce in support of that verifiability principle itself?

Or suppose you are an extreme postmodernist, claiming that all knowledge is relative, so that no particular position on anything is more rationally defensible than any other. Does that include also your version of postmodernism? And so forth…

Epictetus then turns to Epicurus:

“So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’ What concern, then, is it of yours? … Man, why do you take thought for our sake, why do you keep awake for us, why do you light your lamp, why do you rise early, why do you write such big books? … for this is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation, and snoring. What does it matter to you, what opinions others will hold on these matters, or whether they are right or wrong? … What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?”

Epictetus is essentially accusing Epicurus of disbelieving his own philosophy. If it is truly the case, as Epicurus apparently maintained, that there is no fellowship of humanity, that people care (and ought to care) only for mild pleasures and the avoidance of pain, why on earth go through the manifestly painful exercise of writing entire books to convince your fellow humans that they are wrong in what they are doing? Why does the Epicurean care to begin with?

Because, says Epictetus, it is in the nature of being human to care about others, despite loud protestations to the contrary:

“What! We speak of Orestes pursued by the Furies and roused from his slumbers, but are not the Furies and Torments that beset Epicurus more exacting? They roused him from his sleep and would not allow him to rest, but compelled him to announce his miseries, as madness and wine compel the priests of Cybele. So powerful and unconquerable a thing is human nature. How can a vine be moved to act, not as a vine but as an olive, or again an olive not as an olive but as a vine? It is impossible, inconceivable.”

Why, exactly, is Epictetus so worked up about this? (As much as a Stoic can be worked up about things, anyway…) He doesn’t care to show that the Academics or the Epicureans are wrong. He cares about philosophy being useful rather than harmful to people and society at large:

“Bravo, philosopher! Stick to your task, persuade our young men, that we may have more to agree with you and share your views. These, no doubt, are the arguments which have brought well-governed cities to greatness, these are the arguments which made Lacedaemon, these are the convictions which Lycurgus wrought into the Spartans by his laws and training: that slavery is no more shameful than noble, and freedom no more noble than shameful! For these beliefs no doubt those who died at Thermopylae died! And for what principles but these did the Athenians give up their city?”

First of all, notice the passion here! And remember it, next time someone accuses (again) the Stoics of being detached and emotionless robots. Notice also, again, the deployment of sarcasm as a way to make his students pay attention. And finally that Epictetus here is again rejecting epistemic and moral relativism, positions that are still surprisingly common not just in some quarters of the (modern) academy, but among the population at large.

He then goes back to commonsense, again coupled with a good dose of sarcasm:

“Man, what are you doing? You convict yourself of falsehood day by day: will you not abandon these crude fallacies? When you eat where do you put your hand, to your mouth or to your eye? When you bathe into what do you go? When did you ever call the jug a saucer or the ladle a spit?”

He concludes his lecture by advising his audience not to waste their time trying to convince their opponents:

“Such men trifle with us; they take advantage of all the gifts of nature, while in theory they do away with them … It is useless to go on disputing with one of these men, or reasoning with him, or trying to alter his opinion. One might have very much more hope of altering the mind of a profligate than of men who are absolutely deaf and blind to their own miseries.”

Rather, what we should do is to focus on what is really important, to use philosophy for the common good, not to score logical points in useless diatribes.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.19 - To those who take up the teachings of the philosophers for the sake of talk alone

Epictetus calls out fake philosophers - people 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 actions.

"Show me how you're accustomed to behave in a ship when confronted with a storm.  Do you remember these theoretical distinctions when the sails are rattling and some mischievous bystander hears your cries of terror?" (v. 15, p. 119)

"If Caesar sends for you to respond to an accusation, and you remember these distinctions if, as you're entering the room pale and trembling, someone comes up to you and says, 'Why are you trembling, man?'" (v. 17, p. 119)

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 "pride yourself on qualities that you don't possess." (v. 19, p. 119)

A real Stoic is "someone who is ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy" (v. 24, p. 119-120).

"It is a human soul that one of you should show me, the soul of a man who wants to be of one mind with God, and never find fault with God or man again, and to fail in none of his desires, to fall into nothing that he wants to avoid, never to be angry, never to be envious, never to be jealous, and who ... wishes to become a god instead of a human being, and though enclosed in this poor body, this corpse, aspires to achieve communion with Zeus" (v. 26, p. 120).

Epictetus tells us his mission: "this is the task that I've laid down for myself, to set you free from every obstacle, compulsion, and restraint, to make you free, prosperous, and happy, as one who looks to God in everything, great or small" (v. 29, p. 120).

Epictetus desired to make proof, out of his students, that nothing is in our power "other than to make right use of impressions" (v. 32, p. 120).

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.