Monday, May 20, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.14 - Miscellaneous

As the title states, there are various brief thoughts Epictetus teaches in this chapter.

The first one could be summed up as: stand on your own two feet!  Epictetus notes that bad singers are masked when they are in a choir.  But if they were to sing by themselves, it would be apparent they are a bad singer.  Therefore, "sing" by yourself; "stand" on your own without any help to see what you lack.  And by identifying your weak points, you may take action to become stronger.

"If you're anyone at all, man, walk around on your own ... Put up with being laughed at on occasion; look around you, and give yourself a good shaking to find out who you really are" (v. 1-3, p. 170).

Marcus Aurelius shared a similar sentiment when he said, "Your duty is to stand straight - not held straight." (Meditations 3.5)

The next thought regards performing some act which has benefit to you ... and so you do it for the sake of the benefit.  Other people might perform the same act not only for the benefit, but also to brag.  Today's modern example might be people who brag and talk about being vegan all the time, instead of simply being vegan and letting the results speak for themselves.

"When someone drinks water alone, or adopts some other ascetic practice, he seizes every opportunity to tell everyone, 'I drink nothing but water.' ... Man, if it brings you any benefit to drink it, then drink it; otherwise you're acting in a ridiculous fashion" (v. 4-5, p. 170).

The third thought: two things need to "be rooted out from human beings: presumption and lack of confidence" (v. 8, p. 171).

Don't presume that you know everything and that there is nothing else to learn.  Rather, you should embrace a learning mindset.  Look for ways to improve your character and grow your knowledge.  Be humble in your quest of self-knowledge and learning.

Secondly, don't take the perspective that since there is so much chaos and adversity in the world, it's useless to try to change it.  Rather, take the perspective of "growing where you're planted" and try to make your spot-of-the-world a better place.  Fight the apathy and the mindset that you can't make a difference.

The last thought from this chapter deals with what you ought to focus on as a human being.  Thinking yourself better than others because of your title or your lot in life is not "right thinking."  This would be similar to horses bragging about the food they get or the place they sleep.  The only thing that matters in the world of race horses is the result of the race - that is the ultimate measure of a horse.

For humans, the ultimate measure is virtue.  If you have courage, justice, temperance and wisdom, then you are succeeding.  What your lot in life is, the condition of your health or size of your bank account mean nothing if you don't have a good soul - a good character.  "Show yourself to be better in these [virtues] so that you may be better as a human being" (v. 14, p. 171).

Friday, May 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.13 - What desolation means, and the nature of one who is desolate

In Scott Adams' God's Debris in the chapter entitled "God's Motivation" the avatar claims there is only one challenge for God: “the challenge of destroying himself" and attempting to learn what happens afterwards.

It is an interesting thought experiment, one which Adams fleshes out in the book.

Epictetus touches on a similar concept; one of desolation and the conflagration of the universe.  If you're like me, you might wonder what the definition of "conflagration" is.  It's defined as, "an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property."  So, the conflagration of the universe seems to hit at the Big Bang Theory, which also sounds similar to how we possibly exist according to the thought experiment in God's debris.

Epictetus talks of desolation in the human condition as well as in Zeus' condition.  Humans might be considered desolate when they are "bereft of help" (v. 1, p. 167).  The worst kind of desolation isn't just lack of people around you, but lack of people who are "trustworthy, honest and helpful" (v. 3, p. 168).  Whereas in Zeus' condition, he is able to live with himself and "is at peace with himself, and reflects on the nature of his own rule, and occupies himself with thoughts that are worthy of him" (v. 7, p. 168).  However, I wonder if ever at some point in his long, endless life, he arrived at the idea that the Avatar proposes in God's Debris?  All of that is fascinating to discuss, but lets get back to solving the human condition first!

Epictetus teaches, "we too should be able to converse with ourselves, and know how to do without others, and not be at a loss about how to occupy ourselves; we should reflect on the divine governing order, and the nature of our relationship with all other things, and consider how we have responded to events up until now, and how we are doing so at present, and what are the things that afflict us, and how these too can be remedied; and if any of these things need perfecting" (v. 7-8, p. 168).

In other words, we ought to find time and space for self-reflection and how we plan to improve ourselves.

Indeed, Caesar and other powerful leaders of the world can sue and guarantee peace from war and piracy, but they would not be able to guarantee their people peace from sorrow or envy or natural disasters.  Only "the teaching of the philosophers promises to provide us with peace from all such things" (v. 11, p. 169).  We learn from the philosophers "by God through the voice of reason ... how nothing bad can possible happen to me; there can be no robber for me, no earthquake; everything is full of peace, full of tranquility; and every road, every city, every fellow traveler, neighbour, companion, all are harmless" (v. 13, p. 169).  And when our time is up and God calls us to return, we return from whence we came: the elements.

Later in the chapter, Epictetus advises us to practice to learn to live like the Gods, who need nothing.  "Take no food, drink water alone; abstain from every desire at one time so as to be able, one day, to exercise your desires in a reasonable way" (v. 21, p. 170).  And when you want to help others, you will be able to do so, since you have conquered yourself.  You can only help others conquer themselves when you have already done it (see. v. 22-23, p. 170).

This advice is very similar to quotes from the following:

Diogenes Laertius quotes Diogenes of Sinope as saying, "It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing and of godlike men to want little."

Crates who said, "practice being in need of only a few things, for this is the closest thing to god. for the gods need nothing. but, so that you may learn more exactly what is involved in having few needs ... reflect that children have more needs than adults, women than men, invalids than the healthy, and, in general, the inferior everywhere has more needs than the superior. therefore the gods have need of nothing and those nearest to them have the fewest needs." source

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.12 - On training

We should train and practice for real events.

Do basketball players practice hockey in order to get better at basketball?  Most likely not.  True, some athletes might practice in other disciplines in order for them to improve in their craft, but they never lose sight of the goal.

Every individual should practice in the area where they are weak.

Sometimes life - the Universe - Zeus - God - will choose what we ought to practice.  Other times, we should self-reflect on where we ought to divert our attention for focused practice.

Epictetus says, "in our training we shouldn't resort to unnatural and extraordinary practices, or otherwise we who profess to be philosophers will be no better than showmen.  For it is difficult also to walk along a tightrope, and not only difficult, but dangerous too.  For that reason, should we too practice walking along a tightrope, or setting up palms*, or embracing statues?  In no way.  For not everything that is difficult or dangerous is suitable for training, but only what will contribute to our achieving the object of our strivings.  And what is the object of our strivings?  To pass our lives without suffering any hindrance in our desires and aversions" (v. 1-4, p. 166).

"When [and where] impressions are most inclined to make us slip, there we must apply our training as a counteracting force" (v. 6, p. 166).

"For who is a man in training?  One who practices not exercising his desire, and practices exercising his aversion only in relation to things that lie within the sphere of choice, practicing especially hard in matters that are difficult to master.  So different people will practice hardest with regard to different things" (v. 8, p. 166).

An oft-cited practice many ancients did, was to hug cold statues, with no clothes on.  They wanted to increase their endurance of the cold.  Epictetus seems to suggest this practice is unnatural and extreme.  I imagine what started as a simple exercise of sleeping without a blanket, on the floor, was used by a person who perhaps was afraid of going cold.  And to break that fear, perhaps they decided to sleep on the floor with no blanket.  Then, perhaps, their fear of the cold was broken and they may have shared this insight with others.  Then, others might have laughed at this practice and to show how easy it is to sleep on the cold floor with no blanket, they may have decided to sleep naked on the floor and then tell others of their feat.  Seeing how humans like to one-up each other, some people, then, may have resorted to hugging statues with no clothes on - to show off their lack of fear of the cold.  In all this, the goal was lost.  The goal, for the first person, was to break their fear of the cold - nothing more.  Once they no longer feared the cold, the practice was irrelevant.

Therefore what?

We ought to practice precisely in the areas where our desires and aversions are greatest.  And each of us will have different desires and aversions to break.

For some, cold showers will be useful (they fear losing hot water).

For some, living a week without a smartphone might be a worthwhile exercise.  For others, it might be fasting.  And for others, it might be lifting weights or doing manual labor for several days in a row.

To begin, you have to think about what you desire and are averse to.  The answers tells you where you ought to practice, so as to break your desire and aversion for something.

If you have big desires and aversions to break, then start small.  If you fear losing your home, then practice overcoming your fear of losing small possessions, then work your way up.

After you've broken your desires and aversions, "the second area of study is concerned with your motives to act or not to act, so that they may be obedient to reason" (v. 13, p. 167).  Are you acting with virtue as your sole motivation?  If not, then practice til you can.

"The third area of study is concerned with assent, and with what is plausible and attractive ... we shouldn't accept any impression without subjecting it to examination, but should say to it, 'Wait, let me see who you are, and where you've come from' (v. 14-15, p. 166).

Lastly, "all the practices that are applied to the body by those who are giving it exercise may also be useful here if they're directed in some way towards desire and aversion; but if they're directed towards display, that is the sign of someone who has turned towards external things and is hunting for other prey, of one who is seeking for spectators to exclaim, 'Oh what a great man!'" (v. 16, p. 166).  This is where modern sports (collegiate and professional) have fled.  What was once a practice perhaps for war or for exercising the body, has now blossomed into a multi-billion dollar "look-at-me" industry.

"'If you want to train for your own sake, take a little cold water into your mouth when you're thirsty in hot weather and then spit it out again, without telling a soul'" (v. 17, p. 166).



* "setting up palms" could refer to climbing up a pole with only hands and feet

Monday, May 13, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.11 - Miscellaneous

Although the title is Miscellaneous, the chapter really is a repetition about the dichotomy of control as well as being kind to all; having a kindred feeling for all - bringing all into your circle of love.

If you regard "things in your control" as the ultimate good, then you will be in control of your mental resiliency.  But if you view "things not in your control" as the ultimate good, then you will have envy and uncontrolled desires; you'll have a troubled mind, you'll grieve, lament and be unhappy (see v. 1-3, p. 165).

Have a kindred feeling for all.  For strangers, because they too are the offspring of Zeus or the Universe or God.  Honor your father and mother, since you came from them.  Honor your brothers and sisters, since you and they share a common heritage.  Zeus or God oversees all (see v. 4-5, p. 165).

Similar commentary on this subject can be found on Meditations 4:4.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.10 - How ought we to bear our illnesses?

Pankration
Premeditatio malorum - the practice of anticipating "bad things" ... in that "bad things" are what non-philosophers view as bad for the person; such as death, illness, thirst or hunger.  To the Stoic, these things are external to the ruling center and therefore are neither good nor bad.  But because many of us humans have been trained to think that death, disease, illness, bad health, loss of property, loss of employment and loss of reputation are bad things, the Stoic practice of premeditatio malorum is used to break us of our desire to avoid these things.  It is a form of the Discipline of Assent.

Epictetus teaches, "we should have each judgement ready at hand for when we have need of it; at table, such as relate to the table, at the baths, such as relate to baths, and in bed, such as relate to bed" (v. 1, p. 163).

We see his own personal examples of this.

Table (eating)
Keep in mind that you should always behave as you would do at a banquet.  Something comes around to you; stretch out your hand and politely take a portion.  It passes on; don't try to stop it.  It has not come yet; don't let your appetite run ahead, but wait till the portion reaches you. (Encheiridion 15)

Baths (public pool)
Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like.  If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse - the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things.  In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: "I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature." (Encheiridion 4)

Bed (or before you complete your day and go to sleep)
Let not sleep descend on your weary eyes
Before having reviewed every action of the day.

Where did I go wrong?  What did I do?  What duty leave undone?
Starting here, review your actions, and afterwards,

Blame yourself for what is badly done, and rejoice in the good.  (Discourses 3.10.2-3)

The concept of premeditatio malorum gives us the idea to anticipate every scenario, and perhaps write down what the right action is to each event and then "keep these verses at hand to put them to practical use" (v. 4, p. 163).  The title Encheiridion means hand-book.  It is a book or manual that Epictetus used; it is the result of his extensive premeditatio malorum, exercises which guided him and reminded him of how to live and anticipate every event.

Reviewing our actions at the end of each day, could be the seeds of our own personal handbook that we keep at hand.  Many of us literally keep a type of handbook with us at all time in the form of a smartphone.  Could we not use it to facilitate our daily review, which then could be used to produce our own personal handbook?

"To practice philosophy ... [is] to prepare oneself to face every eventuality" (v. 6, p. 163) and then face those eventualities as prepared ... and not back out and revert to old habits when that eventuality occurs.

Just as when one trains in pancration, one practices to use it.  And further, the practice is like real life.

What should a philosopher say, then, in the face of each of the hardships of life? ‘It is for this that I’ve been training myself; it is for this that I was practising.’ God says to you, ‘Give me proof of whether you’ve competed in accordance with the rules, whether you’ve followed the proper diet, carried out the proper exercises, and have obeyed your trainer.’ And then, when the time comes for you to act, will you quail? Now is the moment to suffer a fever; may it proceed as it should; to undergo thirst, may you undergo it in the right spirit; to undergo hunger, may you undergo it in the right spirit. Isn’t that within your power? Who can prevent you? Yes, a doctor may prevent you from drinking, but he can’t prevent you from bearing thirst in the right way; he may prevent you from eating, but he can’t prevent you from facing hunger in the right way. (v. 7-9, p. 163-164)

Why do we study and practice philosophy?  It is so we may be happy and "achieve constancy of mind" and to "be in accord with nature and pass ... life" as so (v. 10, p. 164).

And so when God tests you with a fever, "what does it mean to undergo a fever in the right way?  It is to find fault with neither God nor man; it is to refuse to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by what is happening, and to await death bravely and in the right way" (v. 13, p. 164).  It means to not get excited by "good news" nor be dejected by bad (see. 13-14, p. 164).

Furthermore, it is not the duty of a philosopher to keep his external things safe, such as his wine-store or his poor carcass (v. 16, p. 165).  Rather, it is his duty to safeguard his own ruling center, keeping it pure and in accord with nature.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.9 - To an orator who was going to Rome in connection with a lawsuit

There is a part of me who wonders what it would be like, especially in today's post-modern society,  to be an Epictetus or Diogenes or a student of one of them.  It seems they would sit in their school all day long and lecture and have conversations with visitors and teach them where their thinking ought to be fixed.  Poverty was nothing to them; their needs were met and they had either a small family or no family at all to care for.  I wonder if I would be up to the challenge of living a poor philosopher's life.

We get a glimpse into the comparison between the life of a busy, ambitious orator and a philosopher in book 3, chapter 9.

After explaining to Epictetus why he was going to Rome, the orator asked Epictetus what he thought of the matter.  Epictetus could provide no answer as to whether the orator would win his case or not, but Epictetus could inform the orator if his judgements were right or not (v. 2, p. 160).

Our actions are based on our judgement; and as long as our judgement is good, then our actions will be good.

Epictetus observes that both the orator and his opposition think they have sound judgement, yet they both disagree with each other.  How is that?  Therefore, the criteria for good or bad judgement must be something else (see. v. 5, p. 160-161).

To know whether he is good or bad judgement, he orator must subject his judements to examination.  Furthermore, Epictetus demonstrates to the orator they he has never subjected his judgements to examination ... not when he was a child, a teenager or a young man (v. 6-10, p. 161).

Epictetus informs the orator that the central rule of a philosopher is "ensuring that whatever comes about, our ruling centre is and forever continues to be in accord with nature" (v. 11, p. 161).

Epictetus chides the orator for wanting to visit Epictetus only for show and that he (the orator) only came to see Epictetus and not to really come to know and learn of him.  The only real way to know a person is to "become acquainted with his judgements, and show him one's own judgements in one's turn."  Epictetus tells him, "Learn to know my judgements, show me your own, and then you can say that you've met me.  Let's cross-examine one another; and if I'm harbouring any bad judgement, root it out, or if you're harbouring any, bring it to light.  That is what meeting a philosopher is all about" (v. 13, p. 162).

Some might complain that by focusing time and effort on these matters (discussing good vs. bad judgement, talking to a philospher), they will lose their land or their "silver goblets" and cattle.  To which Epictetus would say, "But I have no need of such things, and even if you come to acquire many possessions, you'll need more again, and whether you wish it or not, you're more poverty-stricken than I am" (v. 16, p. 162).

Someone who is focused on acquiring wealth and protecting it, sacrifices "stability, a mind in accord with nature, and freedom from agitation" (v. 17, p. 162).  They are focused on things that perish and will turn to dust.  They are distracted by all these things, so much so, that they "go to the theatre to kill time" (v. 20, p. 162).  This mental disease is exactly what afflicts post-modern society today.  People want kill time on their phones, flipping through social media, playing games and streaming content such as TV shows and movies.

Focusing on acquisition and the upkeep of material possessions leads to "insatiable" desire, while the philosopher has his or her desires "already fulfilled" (v. 21, p. 162).  Malcontents are like monkeys or children who "push their hand into a narrow-necked jar and try to extract nuts and figs; if they fill their hand, they can't get it out again, and then burst into tears.  Drop a few of them and you'll get it out (v. 22, p. 162-163).

So too, to us post-moderns: "let your desire drop; don't hanker after so many things, and you'll get what you want" (v. 22, p. 163).

Monday, May 6, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.8 - How we should train ourselves to deal with impressions

The Discipline of Assent is a very important discipline to develop.  It is mental work.  It is looking at things from a very rudimentary level.  The goal is for you to observe "things" and "events" without consciously forming an opinion of them.  This allows you to then think about what is an appropriate response in the context of "what virtue can I exercise given this thing or event?"  You have to give yourself a change to re-act reasonably, which means developing a "pause" between observing a thing or event and your reasoned reaction to it.

Epictetus gives examples.

Observing that someone has died and that that event is out of their control.

Observing that someone has lost their inheritance and that that event is out of their control.  Similarly, if it were you who lost your inheritance and then recognizing that that event is out of your control, is all you should do when exercising the discipline of assent.

Observing that someone has been condemned by Caesar or some authority figure and acknowledging that this event is out of their control ... full stop: that is the discipline of assent.

If, however, these events happen to someone or you, and that someone or you is disturbed by them - being disturbed by this is in your control and by being disturbed by them is failure on their part or your part.

However, if someone endures or you endure those events nobly and undisturbed - this is also in your control and is a success on their part or your part.  In this case, you have exercised a virtue as a reaction to some event or thing out of your control.  This is what Marcus meant when he said, "So in all future events which might induce sadness remember to call on this principle: 'this is no misfortune, but to bear it true to yourself is good fortune.'" (Meditations 4.49).

"If we adopt this habit, we'll make progress," says Epictetus (v. 4, p. 159).

The Universe/Zeus/God has given each of us "the ability to endure things, and has made [us] noble-minded, because he has prevented these things from being evils, because he has made it possible for [us] to suffer them and still be happy" (v. 6, p. 160).

Truly, we can choose the best, most virtuous reaction in any circumstance, but it takes mental toughness and discipline.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.7 - To the inspector of the free cities, who was an Epicurean

Adapted from Donald Robertson's analysis found here: Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

Epictetus took advantage of a visit from an inspector who was Epicurean.  Getting right to the point, Epictetus asked him "what is the best thing in the world" / "which is best" (v. 1-2, p. 156).

Both Epictetus and the Epicurean agreed that the flesh - the body is not the best good (v. 3, p. 156).

The next agreed that the best good lies within the mind (v. 4, p. 156) and specifically what lies within our "sphere of choice" (v. 5. p. 156).

Continuing, "does the pleasure of the mind lie within the sphere of choice?" to which the Epicurean said "it does" (v. 6. p. 156).

Epictetus then asks what is the cause of this pleasure of the mind.  Can the mind just create the pleasure by itself, or is there some cause of it?  The Epicurean agreed that there must be some cause before the pleasure ensues (v. 7, p. 156).

And on this point Epictetus begins to instruct the Epicurean.  In essence the question is: can something 'not good' cause pleasure which is 'good'?  On this, they both agree.  If your pleasure is to be good, the thing on which it is based must also be good ... they both agree with this concept.  I wish to quote Robertson on this particular part, as he does a great job explaining this specific passage:

He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.
However, this goes against the Epicurean philosophy of "the pleasure of the mind is pleasure in bodily things, and these [external] pleasures thus come to be what is of primary value, and the essence of the good" (v. 8, p. 156).

The next point Epictetus makes is to show the Epicurean that although they teach that to obtain the Good, they ought to seek pleasure by stealing, while not getting caught, they still do not steal.  Why is that?  Because "it is impossible to give our assent to what appears to be false" (v. 15, p. 157).  The same can be said of securing massive amounts of wealth, seducing your neighbor's wife and even killing her husband (v. 15-16, p. 157).

The Epicureans preach "shameful doctrines" while "acting nobly" and the Stoics preach "what is fine and noble, but do what is shameful" (v. 18, p. 157).

The next folly of Epicureanism that Epictetus points out has to deal with the discipline of action.  Whereas the Stoics adhere to a cosmopolitan view of the world, in that we each have a duty to those closest to us which then expands to the community and the whole world, the Epicureans have a more selfish motive and one that is unsustainable as a community.  To maximize pleasure and minimize pain, people would choose to not marry, nor have children, nor perform civic duties.  Consequently, society would cease to exist if everyone adhered to Epicureanism (see v. 19-20, p. 157).

And if the Epicurean city official could not fully understand Epictetus' point, Epictetus makes it crystal clear what one ought to do with regard to the community: "keep your hands off other people's property, regard no woman as beautiful apart from your own wife, and regard no boy as beautiful, nor any piece of silverware or goldware.  You should seek out doctrines that are consistent with that pattern of behavior" (v. 21-22, p. 158).

He further emphasizes this when he says our actions should be "fulfilling one's role as a citizen, marrying, having children, honouring God, taking care of one's parents, and, in a word, having our desires and aversions, and our motives to act and or not to act, as each of them ought to be, in accordance with our nature.  And what is our nature?  To be people who are free, noble-minded, and self-respecting" (v. 26-27, p. 158).

And just because Caesar signed a piece of paper certifying that this Epicurean is a judge, does not make him a good judge anymore than if Caesar had given him credentials that he's a judge of music (v. 30, p. 158).  No, what makes a good judge is someone who will govern people "as rational beings by showing [them] what is in their interest" and that he must earn their respect by being a good person himself.  The judge should act in a way so that people would admire him and want to emulate him (see v. 34, p. 159).

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.6 - Miscellaneous

Just a few thoughts stand out from this passage.

Where effort is applied, progress is made.  If you apply effort to "solving syllogisms" then you will solve them.  If you apply effort "to keeping [your] ruling centre in accord with nature," you'll make progress.  He further contends, if you focus on one, you will fail in the other. (see v. 1-4, p. 154-155)

Invincible is another term used to describe the goal of Stoicism.  Says Epictetus, "The good person is invincible because he never engages in any contest in which he is not superior.  'If you want to take my land, take it; take my servants; take my public position, take my poor body.  But you won't cause my desires to fail to attain their end, or my aversions to fall into what they want to avoid.'  This is the only contest that he enters into, the one that is concerned with things that lie within the sphere of choice; so how can he be anything other than invincible?" (v. 5-7, p. 155)

Lastly, every person can convert to philosophy - it's as easy as snagging "soft cheese on a hook" and therefore to find the one who are truly going to embrace philosophy, Musonius Rufus (Epictetus' teacher) would turn students away.  Those who refused to be turned away and kept coming back were the gifted ones.