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.