Four Epictetian Analogies Explaining Stoicism
Born in 55, Epictetus was enslaved early in his life or even from birth, as he was taken to Rome “as a boy” by Epaphroditus (Seddon). As a slave, he was introduced to and studied Stoicism with Musonius Rufus, who some modern scholars call “the Roman Socrates” (Gaius Musonius Rufus and Lutz, 4). Prior to 89, he was freed and then sometime between 89 and 95 he was part of the group of philosophers who were expelled from Rome by the emperor Domitian (Long, 9). From Rome, he fled to Nicopolis where he founded his philsophy school and taught there for the remainder of his life (Seddon). Epictetus’ student Arrian wrote much of what survives of his teachings today. Arrian wrote them “as a literal record of Epictetus’ teachings, based on the notes he took as a student” (Epictetus, et al., ivvv). If nothing else could be said of Epictetus, the one idea he relentlessly taught was to live Stoicism. In the Handbook, he emphasizes that the only pride one ought to have is not for the ability to read and understand the teachings, but to apply them (Handbook 49). Because of his impact on his students, he earned a legendary reputation and was more popular in his day than Plato was in his (Seddon).
Stoicism is learned and lived in three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. All three work together to explain the whole philosophy. Early founders of Stoicism used analogies to explain the three topics. One analogy is that of an egg where the shell represents logic, the egg white represents ethics, and the yolk represents physics. Two other analogies compared philosophy to the body (bones and sinews as logic, flesh as ethics, and the soul as physics), and a fruit field (wall as logic, fruit as ethics, land, and trees as physics) (Long and Sedley, 158). The point of these analogies was to show that all three are necessary and one could not truly understand or live Stoicism with only one or two topics.
In similar fashion, Epictetus used analogies to teach his students how to learn and apply various aspects of Stoicism. This essay will focus on four examples, which provide a rough explanation of the philosophy. The first will focus on logic as a standard for knowledge and the analogy of knowing what a measurement is and how to use tools to measure. The second and third will focus on physics and how one can live in agreement with Nature or God, as well as living in agreement with one’s individual nature by using the analogies of visiting one of the seven wonders of the world as well as being a vivid thread. And lastly, the fourth analogy will focus on how ethics ought to be lived and not merely discussed, by using an analogy of a carpenter who truly builds something rather than merely discussing it.
Logic and the use of senses help one learn how the world works and really is, which help an individual to use his volition to make the best choice. Epictetus compares logic with understanding how to measure or weigh something. If an individual’s goal is to build or bake something, then that person must have a sound understanding of the concepts of measuring and weighing, as well as how to use the tools to accomplish good measurement and weighing. If one does not know what measurement or weight is, or what a ruler or scale does, then how could he begin to build or make something? In Discourses 1.17.7, he teaches, “unless we start off by establishing what a unit of measurement is, and what a balance is, how shall we ever be able to weigh or measure anything?” Applied to philsophy, one must know the standard of knowledge and how to use the tool humans have been given (their mind) to demonstrate sound judgement and volition. Equipped with standards and the correct use of his mind, the individual begins to distinguish the things which up to him and which are not. From this knowledge, the person begins to comprehend how he is a minuscule part of the Whole and begins to gain an appreciation for the spectacle of the Cosmos, or the Stoic god.
Because much of the world and Cosmos is “not up to us” the individual ought to assume the wise attitude of following and seeking to understand Nature as opposed to seeking to control it or complain about it (Handbook 1). Part of living this wise attitude is to appreciate Nature rather than wasting time complaining about it. In another analogy Epictetus compares one’s attitude to that of visiting a sculpture of Phidias, who sculpted one of the seven wonders of the world (Jordan, 77). While many people would endure heat, crowds, rains, shouting and “other irritations” just for the chance to see the work of Phidias, when it comes to appreciate the works of Nature directly in front of them, they have no desire to comprehend them, but would rather complain about the trials and hardships of life (Discourses 1.6.23-28). Therefore, just as people endured all types of hardships for the chance to see one of the seven wonders of the world, so too should they endure much to learn, appreciate, and live according to Nature. And not only are people to follow Nature, but they are to align their individual wills or their inner daimon with the greater Cosmos (Bonhöffer and Stephens, 13)
Part of aligning one’s will with Nature is to determine who one really is and stand out by performing his own unique part in life. In the third analogy, Epictetus teaches that one ought to learn his unique role and then be the distinctive thread in a cloth. One should say to himself, “I want to be the purple, the small gleaming band that makes all the rest appear splendid and beautiful” (Discourses 1.2.18). Epictetus similarly teaches one should learn his unique talents and not ignore them (Handbook 37). Lastly, one learns that he may have an assigned role which he is to play and rather than complaining about what parts he does not get to play, he ought to learn his part and play it well (Handbook 17). The unifying concept in many of these analogies is action.
Philosophy is to be lived, not merely studied. If one were only to study philosophy, but not live it, he is no better than a person who expounds about the process of building, but never actually builds something. “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” (Discourses 3.21.4). In the same passage, Epictetus continues by enumerating many duties a Stoic ought to perform in order to live an ethical life, including how to eat, drink, take care of oneself, rear a family, participate as a citizen, endure insults, and tolerate family and neighbors when they behave badly. All duties relate back to the core virtues. The best practiced volition is one that demonstrates justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom regardless of circumstances (Hadot, 233).
While this essay only focused on four analogies, Epictetus’ wide and varied use of parallels can be seen throughout all his works. This essay focused on a subset of comparisons, which guide the reader in a general direction of how Stoicism can be explained and lived. Epictetus used measuring to demonstrate how one ought to be familiar with logic, concepts, and tools. He compared visiting one of the wonders of the world, as well as a vibrant thread for how one ought to view life in general. And lastly, he compared living one’s philosophy to a carpenter who truly builds something rather than merely talking about it. When the student actually sees the wonders of life, or a vibrant thread, or a measuring ruler or a carpenter, then perhaps he will be more likely to remember Epictetus’ teachings and strive to live them.
Bonhöffer, Adolf Friedrich, and William O. Stephens. The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus : An English Translation. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 2021.Epictetus, et al. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Epictetus, et al. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Gaius Musonius Rufus, and Cora E. Lutz. Musonius Rufus - “the Roman Socrates.” Yale Univ. Press, 1947.
Hadot, Pierre, and Michael Chase. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, Mass. London Harvard University Press, 2001.
Long, A. A. Epictetus : A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Clarendon Press, 2013.
Long, A. A., and David N. Sedley. The Hellenistic Philosophers Commentary. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Jordan, Paul. Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1683541.
Seddon, Keith H. “Epictetus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3 Jan. 2003, iep.utm.edu/epictetu/.