Monday, June 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.24 - That we should not become attached to things that are not within our power

Attachment is real.  Another word for attachment is dependency.  An even more forceful word could be slavery.

If you consider the opposites of attachment, dependency and slavery, you will arrive at detachment, in-dependency and freedom.

When weighed on a value scale, I would wager most people would place more value on detachment, in-dependency and freedom.  The Stoics' goal was to help people become free of the mental chains we've wrapped ourselves in.

Assume you have some sort of relationship with another person; be it a spouse, a friend, a neighbor or co-worker.  They are independent from you and therefore they do their own thinking and you do your own thinking.  Does it make sense, then, to carry their mental baggage for them?  Or do you have enough of your own to deal with?  As Epictetus says, "If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.  He has provided them with the resources to achieve this" (v. 2, p. 198).  In other words, for those people who have matured enough and have enough mental ability to reason on their own, they can enjoy happiness and peace of mind - this is in their control.  Both the other person and you can enjoy independence (mentally speaking) from each other.

You might say that the other person, after you have left them for some reason, is now "inconsolable."  I think of a child leaving home to go to college and their mother is inconsolable.  In this case, we might say the mother has become too attached to her child; and she needs to cut the proverbial umbilical cord!  She ought to have reflected upon the thought that the day her child would leave home would eventually come.  Did she expect the child to live with her forever?  This does not sound like freedom for either the mother or the child.  Doing the mental work of anticipating someone leaving you is work you ought to do.  So that when the day comes, when someone leaves you through a separation or death, you won't become inconsolable.  This is a form of premeditato malorum or negative visualization.

We are not supposed to "pass our lives in perpetual misery and lamentation" and we must "wean ourselves once and for all" of this notion that separation is bad (see. v. 9, p. 199).  If we take the view from above - to look at the world and universe and one big whole - we will begin to appreciate the fleeting nature of time and space.  The Stoics view the universe as "a single city" of which "the substance ... is single too, and that there must be a periodic revolution when one thing gives way to another, and when some things are dissolved while others come into being" (v. 10, p. 199).  Indeed, we are cosmopolitans of time and space.

If we take this view, we will see "that everything is full of friends" both the gods and humans "who by nature form one family" and "that we should take delight in those with whom we live, without being upset to see others go away."  Furthermore, we ought to recognize that humans are not like trees and forced to be planted in one spot for hundreds of years.  Rather, we are "able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle" (v. 11-12, p. 199).

And if that is not consolation enough, for those who have separation anxiety, then it may serve them well to also think that "no human being is an orphan, but that all have a father who takes care of them constantly and forever" and that you are free to look to god without an intermediary separating you, your loved ones and him (see. v. 15, p. 199).

Indeed, Stoicism aims to make the human free and happy.  And for someone to be free and happy, they must possess all that they want (see. v. 17, p. 200).  The question and challenge becomes, "what do you want?"  Do you want unlimited power, fame, health, possessions?  If so, then those are out of your control and you will fail.  But if you want to live a life of virtue, then you can be free and happy if you seek a virtuous life - this can be obtained independently from external factors, people and events.

As noted earlier in Discourses, Epictetus envisions a conversation with Zeus, in which Zeus tells him, "I've given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the power to make proper use of impressions; if you pay good heed to this, and entrust all that you have to its keeping, you'll never be hindered, never obstructed, and you'll never groan, never find fault, and never flatter anyone at all." (link)

And so the point of the two preceding paragraphs is that we have already been given everything to make ourselves free and happy which is the goal Zeus had in mind when he created and ordered the universe.  "Truly this is an ill-governed universe if Zeus doesn't set out to ensure that his own fellow citizens should be happy like himself" (v. 19, p. 200).

The good and virtuous human is the human who knows herself and himself (i.e. "know thyself").  Epictetus says, "how can someone be good if he doesn't know who he is?" (v. 20, p. 200).  Part of knowing who you are includes knowing what is in your control and what is not in your control.  And to desire something out of your control is foolish.  "To desire the impossible is the mark of a slave and a fool; it is the behavior of one who is a stranger to the world, and is fighting against God through the only means that is available to him, through his own judgements" (v. 21, p. 200).

Returning to the topic at hand - someone else is grieving; must you grieve too?  Epictetus asks why this other person hasn't made the effort to learn these principals.  Indeed we can "strive to put an end to it [their grief and suffering], but [we] won't strive to do so at all costs" (v. 23, p. 200).  Are we expected to not only be responsible for our own actions, thoughts and emotions, but also those of all those around us, plus the people on the other side of town or the country or even the other hemisphere? (see v. 26, p. 201).  It has to end somewhere.  This is why individuals are given free will - it is given to the individual - there is clearly a delineation between me and you.  And so, we can do our part to help alleviate others' suffering, but not at the expense of my own.

The topic then turns from grief over the physical and spatial separation between two individuals, to the permanent separation of people due to death.  Death is the ultimate separation of us and our loved ones.  But to expect that the separation will never come is to expect the impossible.  Old age comes; people die.  "Such is the nature of the world around us, such is the nature of the people with whom we share it; heat or cold, an unsuitable diet, a journey by land or by sea, the winds of the air, dangers of every kind, will cause one person to perish, another to be driven into exile, another to be dispatched on an embassy, and another to be sent out on a campaign" (v. 29, p. 201).

And if this separation causes you perpetual grief, you will quickly learn it happens to everyone, all the time, everywhere.  Are we then to "get upset by all of these things, and grieve, and be unfortunate and miserable, and be at the mercy of any external event, and not just of one or two, but of thousands and thousands"? (v. 30, p. 201).  The proposition is: we are made to be free and happy and to be so is in our control.  Therefore, grief or happiness is a choice.  Can this be proven time and time again?  The Stoics say, yes.

"The life of every one of us is a [war] campaign, and a long one subject to varying circumstances.  You must fulfil the role of a soldier and carry out every deed as your general bids" (v. 34, p. 201-202).  Freedom is not free, and must be fought for.

Epictetus would argue that real freedom is the aim of Stoicism, whereas, pleasure was the aim of Epicuranism (see. v. 37-38, p. 202).  "What else do these people desire than to sleep without hindrance or compulsion, and when they've risen from bed, to yawn at their leisure, and wash their faces, and then read and write as the fancy takes them, and then talk some nonsense or other, winning applause from their friends whatever it might be, and then go out for a walk and having taken a short stroll, take their bath, eat, and go to bed" (v. 39, p. 202).  If you do these very things, with your goal in life being pleasure, "why do you call yourself a Stoic, then?" (v. 41, p. 202).

No, rather what you should do, is what "reason demands ... for the sake of your country, of your family, of humanity" (v. 44, p. 203).  The Stoics believed we had a social duty to those with whom we lived.  And if reason demanded we helped others, we ought to - this is the Discipline of Action.  You ought to recognize those duties you should do "as a citizen, a brother, a friend" (v. 47, p. 203).

Some might be critical of you if you are not a successful citizen, brother, friend or neighbor - they might think you didn't put any effort into it (see. v. 50, p. 203).  "Don't you know that someone who is virtuous and good never acts for the sake of appearances, but only for the sake of having acted rightly?" The reward for acting rightly is having acted rightly (see v. 50-51, p. 203).  This is your sole purpose, as a human being, in life: to be virtuous, good and happy.  Otherwise you will simply be behaving as a little child (see v. 52-53, p. 204).

"When you've come to despise external things and all that lies outside the sphere of choice, and have come to regard none of that as being your own, but to consider one thing alone to be yours, to judge and think rightly, and to exercise your motives, desires, and aversions rightly, what room is left for flattery or self-debasement?" (v. 56, p. 204).

Furthermore, you are to act "noble-minded" and we should never "be self-abasing or broken-spirited, or should become dependent on another, or should ever find fault with either god or human being."  Indeed, we are to love our children and loved-ones, but our first duty is to be a friend of the gods (see v. 58-60, p. 204).  Again (feels like a broken record), we are not to be unhappy, "but we should instead be happy because of everyone else, and first and foremost because of God, who created us for this end" (v. 63, p. 205).  Diogenes was proof of this counsel.  He acted as a servant for Zeus; he was "full of care for others and obedient to God."  He even "befriended the pirates" who had taken him captive as he "tried to reform them."  And despite being sold into slavery, "he lived ... in just the same way as he had previously lived" when he was free (see. v. 65-66, p. 205).  And so we see an example of someone who proved that they could be free and happy regardless of external events or people.
That is how one acquires freedom. He [Diogenes] used to say accordingly, ‘Ever since Antisthenes set me free, I’ve ceased to be a slave.’ And how did Antisthenes set him free? Listen to what Diogenes says: ‘He taught me what is my own and what isn’t my own. Property isn’t my own; relations, family, friends, reputation, familiar places, conversation with others, none of these are my own.’ What is your own, then? ‘The proper use of impressions. He showed me that I possess that power free from all hindrance and constraint; no one can obstruct me; no one can force me to deal with impressions other than I wish. Who still holds any power over me, then? Philip, Alexander, Perdiccas, or the King of Persia? How could they? For someone who is destined to be overpowered by another human being must first have been overpowered well before by things.’  So accordingly, that person who doesn’t allow himself to be overpowered by pleasure, or by suffering, or by glory, or by wealth, and who is capable, whenever he thinks fit, of spitting his entire miserable body into some tyrant’s face and taking his leave—to what can such a man still be a slave; to whom can he still be subject? (v. 67-71, p. 205)
If you don't think freedom and happiness are the aim of life, then "what reason do you have for living, then?  To pile one sorrow on top of another to make yourself miserable?"  Epictetus boldly states, "I was born for the things that are good for me; I wasn't born for those that are bad" (v. 82-83, p. 207).

Training to Become Free and Happy

Remember you will lose everything and you will eventually turn to dust

"The highest and principal form of training, which stands, so to speak, right at the entrance, that whenever you become attached to anything, don't become attached as though it were something that cannot be taken away, but rather as though it were something like an earthenware pot or crystal goblet, so that if it should be broken, you'll remember what kind of thing it was and not get unduly upset" (v. 84, p. 207).

Do this for everything you have an attachment to.  Start small, with your favorite coffee mug and then proceed to things that are much more valuable to you.  A kitchen table, a nice flatscreen TV, your vehicle, your home, your career, your close & dear friends & neighbors, your relatives, your children, your spouse and then yourself.  A voice should always be whispering in your ear: "you may lose all of this; and someday, indeed, you will."  Whenever Roman generals returned triumphantly from war, they had a slave standing behind them, whispering in their ear, "Remember you are mortal" - memento mori (see v. 85, p. 207).

Additionally, be mindful of "whenever you take delight in anything" and when you do take delight in it, think of the "opposite impression" (v. 88, p. 207).

Be mindful that "you won't exist [forever], but something else will, of which the world then has need.  For indeed, you came into being not when you wanted it, but when the world had need of you.  And so a virtuous and good person, keeping in mind who he is, concentrates on one thing alone: how he may fill his post in a disciplined manner, remaining obedient to God" (v. 94, p. 208).

Keep this idea of impermanence in mind "by night and by day" and "keep these reflections at hand; write them down, read them, make them the subject of your conversation, whether with yourself, or with another" (v. 103, p. 209).

Also be mindful of letting your imagination of desire run wild.  "If your imagination gnaws at you, fight against it with your reason, wrestle it down, don't allow it to gain strength or pass on to the next state, of picturing everything that it wants in the very way it wants to" (v. 108, p. 209).  There is something insidious about Disney movies and catalyzing peoples' imaginations to run wild.  They begin to think they can get things that are out of their control.  And if they allow their desires to get out of control, and they do not obtain what they think they can get, they fall into anguish and at worse, mentally break down.

Furthermore, if it helps, you can replace your desire for external things, with the idea that you can be living proof that things don't make a person happy or content; and that contentment comes only from within.  In this way, you can "provide witness" that the good is found from within and not from without (see. 112, p. 210).

Monday, June 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.23 - To those who read and discuss for mere display

Epictetus was very keen on action - on demonstrating that his students were actually living the philosophy they were learning.  This is another passage where he emphasizes action over rhetoric.

"Tell yourself first of all what kind of person you want to be, and then act accordingly in all that you do" (v. 1, p. 193).  If you start with the end goal in mind, you will know when you have accomplished it or when you are making progress.

"For in all that we do, unless we refer our actions to some end, we'll be acting at random; and if we don't refer them to an appropriate end, we'll go badly wrong" (v. 3, p. 193).  If you don't have a heading, then you'll be heading toward a random point.  You must be clear about what your goal is.

He further clarifies to those who would want to teach others where to head (philosophically speaking).  If you "want to be of benefit to others" you must first bring benefit to yourself.  In other words, in order to be able to teach, you must be able to demonstrate your mastery of the topic.

More specifically about Stoicism, he explains what those milestones in progress are.  "Has he acquired self-restraint?  Has he look in on himself?  Has he become aware of the bad state that he is in?  Has he renounced conceit?" (v. 16, p. 195).

Then there is this interesting passage which reminded me of what many people do in this era of social media.  He says, "While you're in such a wretched state as this, then, and have such a hankering for praise, is it by counting the number of people in your audience that you wish to do good to others?" (v. 19, p. 195).  The admonition strikes near those who pursue the greatest number of Twitter followers or "likes" they get on social media platforms.  The purpose of all teaching is to actually help other people, not to be popular.

The real evidence of being able to have an impact on other peoples' lives is if people naturally follow and listen.  A philosopher does not invite people to come and listen to him, but rather it's "just as the sun draws its nourishment to itself without need for further action, a philosopher likewise draws those whom he can benefit" (v. 27, p. 196).  He also notes that a doctor does not invite people to come to him to be cured, rather people seek him out to be cured.

"A philosopher's school is a doctor's surgery.  You shouldn't leave after having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain" (v. 30, p. 197).

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.22 - On the Cynic calling

Who doesn't love a good dog!  Especially an under-dog!  The greatest dog of all time was Diogenes.

Cynicism, as practiced by Diogenes, shocked people in the ancient world.  Not that he was a mentally, unstable, unhealthy bum, but rather he was fit, strong, healthy and yet still lived homeless.  To give you a taste for Diogenes ...

"Diogenes was once invited to dinner by a wealthy man. During the evening, one of the guests became so outraged by Diogenes’ general behavior that he began to throw bones at him, calling him a “dog.” Whereupon Diogenes got  up, went to the guest, cocked up his leg and urinated on him."(source)

He lived in a barrel.

He pleasured himself in public.

He begged for food

He only wore a tunic.

And he was called a dog.  The name Cynic comes from ancient Greece, meaning 'dog-like'.


That is the burning question and Epictetus reveals the answer.  Epictetus admired Diogenes and often used Diogenes' as a good example of Stoic behavior.

Epictetus was quick to point out that wearing nothing but a tunic, sleeping on the ground, not shaving, begging - all these behaviors - do not make one a Cynic.  It goes deeper.

Epictetus begins to explain why Diogenes acted the way he did; and in so doing, he teaches us Stoicism too.

"First of all, with regard to what concerns you directly, you must no longer show yourself to be behaving in any respect as you do at present; you must bring no accusation against either god or man; you must suppress your desires wholly and completely; you must direct your aversion only towards things that lie within the sphere of choice; you must harbour neither anger, nor malice, nor envy, nor pity; you mustn’t find any wench beautiful, nor any scrap of reputation, nor any boy, nor a honey-cake. For you must be clear in your mind about this point, that other people have walls and houses and darkness to protect them when they venture on anything of this kind, and have many means by which they can hide it away. A man shuts his door, he stations someone in front of his bedroom, saying, ‘If anyone comes along, say: he’s out, he’s busy.’ But the Cynic, in place of all these defences, must make his own self-respect his source of protection; or else he’ll be disgracing himself while he’s naked and in the open. His self-respect is his house, his door, the watchman in front of his bedroom, and his darkness" (v. 13-15, p. 182-183).

Whereas some will hide behind walls to indulge in pleasure, Diogenes, other the other hand, intends to put as little between him and the rest of the world.  This is extreme transparency.  There is no shame, fear, anxiety.  He bares (and bears) all.  The Cynic man is "the man of the open air."  The only medium, in the Cynic's art, is his mind - nothing else.  The start of the Cynic's duty is to train the mind; and so it is with Stoicism too.

Observers may scoff at the idea of possessing as little as possible and wonder how one can be content with nothing.  Diogenes would reply, "Look at me, I am without a home, without a country, without possessions, without a slave. I sleep on the ground. I have neither wife nor children, nor a governor’s palace, but only the ground and sky and a single rough cloak.  And yet, what do I lack? Isn’t it the case that I’m free from sorrow, free from fear? Am I not free? When did any of you ever see me failing to attain what I desire, or falling into what I want to avoid? When have I ever cast any reproach at god or man? When have I ever accused anyone? Have any of you ever seen me with a sad expression on my face?  How do I treat those who inspire you with fear and awe? Don’t I treat them as though they were slaves? Who, on seeing me, doesn’t think that he’s seeing his king and master?" (v. 45-49, p. 186).

Diogenes contrasted with those who sought contentment and happiness in food, women, possessions or fame.  He further contrasted with people who would be upset and angry when they did not get what they wished or when things did not go their way.

While others sought the thrills of watching athletes compete, Diogenes, who was ill with fever, would yell at them as they passed, "You wretches, aren’t you going to stop? You’ll travel all the way to Olympia to see wrestlers and athletes do battle with one another, and yet you have no wish to see a man fighting it out with a fever?" (v. 58, p. 187).

Later on, Epictetus describes how Diogenes wasn't some ordinary bum; but rather a person with a fit body and an attitude of a gentleman: "It is also necessary, however, that the Cynic should have the right kind of body, because if he comes forward looking like a consumptive, all thin and pale, his witness would no longer carry the same weight.  For he must not only prove to laymen, by displaying the qualities of his mind, that it is possible to be virtuous and good without having the things that they set such store on, but he must also show through his bodily qualities that a plain and simple life lived in the open air has no deleterious effects even on the body.  ‘Look, both I and my body bear witness to that truth.’ That was the way of Diogenes, for he would walk around radiant with health, and would attract the attention of the crowd by the very condition of his body.  But a Cynic who arouses pity passes for being a beggar; everyone turns away from him; he arouses everyone’s disgust. Nor should he look dirty, so as not to scare people away for that reason too, but even in his destitution, he should be clean and attractive" (v. 86-89, p. 191).

Equal to his fit body, should be his wits and sharpness, otherwise he's just a boring windbag (see v. 90, p. 191).

His radical acceptance makes him pure.  "He sees that his every thought is that of a friend and servant of the gods, as one who shares in the government of Zeus, and is ready to say on every occasion, 'Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny' and 'If this is what pleases the gods, so be it,'" (v. 95, p. 192).

Lastly, his endurance to physical and verbal abuse mush be unmatched.  "A Cynic must have such powers of endurance that he strikes the crowd as being insensible and like a stone. No one can insult him, no one can strike him, no one can assault him; as for his poor body, he himself has handed that over for anyone to deal with as he thinks fit.  For he keeps in mind that what is weaker must necessarily be overcome by what is stronger, in that respect in which it is weaker, and that his body is weaker than the crowd, as what is physically weaker must be to what is stronger.  So he never enters into this contest in which he can be defeated, but renounces once and for all what is not truly his own, laying no claim to what is slavish" (v. 100-102, p. 192).

Marcus Aurelius uses a similar metaphor in the "rocky headland," as an example of unwavering endurance to brutality (see Meditations 4.49).

Indeed, nothing frightens Diogenes.  He cares not for his body, possessions, honors or career.  "When anyone tries to scare him by means of such things, he says, 'Go and look for some children; they're afraid of empty masks, but I know that they're made of clay and have nothing inside them.'" (v. 106, p. 193).

In summary, Epictetus attempted to describe, to his students, the Herculean  effort it would require to embrace the Cynic life.  He even begged them to "take some time to judge [their] aptitude" for becoming a Cynic.  It is not for the faint in heart, rather, it is all out war.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.21 - To those who set out to become lecturers without due thought

In this chapter, Epictetus lays out who should and should not be able to teach philosophy as well as what it takes to make progress.

Philosophical principals ought to be "digested" first.  To me, it seems like he's saying we ought to really think about what we learn from Stoicism and how we can apply it to make progress.  If we simply memorize ideas and phrases, only to vomit it back up, then there is no actual benefit.

The benefit of food is to actually digest it, which is then converted to energy and maintenance of the body.  But if you always vomit the food after eating it, you will never derive the benefit of food.

The same goes for philosophy.  Learn it; think about it; apply it; show what you have learned - "show us some resulting change in your ruling centre" (v. 3, p. 179)

He uses a builder as another analogy.  "A builder doesn't come forward and say, 'Listen to me as I deliver a discourse about the builder's art,' but he acquires a contract to build a house, and shows through actually building it that he has mastered the art" (v. 4, p. 179).

The art that philosophy is focused on, is the art of living.  Therefore, once you have learned philosophy and have thought about how to apply it, then show the world what you have learned.  "Eat as a proper human being, drink as a proper human being, dress, marry, father children, perform your public duties; put up with being abused, put up with an inconsiderate brother, put up with a father, a son, a neighbor, a fellow traveller.  Show us these things to enable us to see that you really have learned something from the philosophers" (v. 5-6, p. 179).

He later provides additional examples of people who are actually living the philosophy.

"people who are patient and helpful towards others, and have minds that are free from passion and agitation, and are furnished with such provisions for their journey through life that they'll be able, by that means, to face up well to everything that comes about, and draw honour from it" (v. 8-9, p. 179).

And if you're going to set up a school for philosophy, then you'll need to be wise, have a special aptitude and predisposition, a particular physique and a vocation from God to fulfill this function (v. 18, p. 181).

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.20 - That advantage may be gained from every external circumstance

This is an important chapter about resilience.

"The good and bad are in ourselves, and not in external things" (v. 1, p. 177).  Your choice, as to how to react to the world and to your body and surroundings, defines everything.  You can either choose to exercise virtue or vice.  If you choose to exercise virtue, it will be to your advantage.

Take the simple understanding "that knowledge is good, and error is bad, so that even in regard to what is false, something good arises: that knowledge that it is indeed false" (v. 3, p. 177).

The same can be applied to health, illness, death, lameness and all externals.

Seek for and draw advantage from illness, death and lameness.  Dig deep and you will gain the advantage - you will improve as a human being.

"Cease to attach such value to what is purely material, and cease to make yourselves slaves of things ... and ... of the men who are able to procure them for you or take them away from you" (v. 8, p. 177).  If you cease to deeply value such things, they will not hold you enslaved.

Just as you can derive advantage from a sparing partner, you can derive advantage from any event in life.

The man who insults you, becomes your training partner.  He trains you in patience; he helps you abstain from anger and he helps you remain gentle (see v. 9, p. 178).

Your neighbor who is a bad man is "bad to himself" but not to you (v. 11, p. 178).

Your attitude toward everything in life should be: "bring me whatever you wish, and I'll turn it into something good.  Bring illness, bring death, bring destitution, bring abuse or a trial for one's life, and ... all of that will become a source of benefit" (v. 12, p. 178).

Confronted with death, "make it something that can bring you honor" (v. 13, p. 178).

Confronted with illness, then remain steadfast and serene and don't even pray for death (v. 15, p. 178).

"Whatever you present to me I'll turn it into something blessed and a source of happiness, into something venerable and enviable" (v. 15, p. 178).

Be sure to check this post out: and watch the video of Johnny Cash's song Sue.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.19 - What is the position of the layman, and what that of the philosopher?

There is not much to this chapter other than a reiteration of: it is not things that disturb me, but my judgement of those things.

In this chapter, he discusses the practical matters - when we complain how we suffer due to a parent, or sibling or boss or some external event.

We should not think or say that these things cause our suffering.

Rather, we should say, "Ah, how I suffer because of myself" (v. 2, p. 176).

We should always "blame ourselves for it and remember that nothing except our own judgement is capable of causing us to become disturbed or confused" and if we do this, then "we've made progress" (v. 3, p. 176).