Friday, May 31, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.18 - That we should not allow news to disturb us

"Whenever any disturbing news is brought to you, you should have this thought ready at hand: that news never relates to anything that lies within the sphere of choice" (v. 1, p. 175).

News falls under the category of "things outside our control" and therefore, since it is outside our control, the thing can't actually hurt us (mentally - from your hegemonikon's perspective).

Epictetus goes on to elaborate this point through the rest of this chapter.

We should "mind the gap" between stimulus (disturbing news) and our response to it.  The more we practice being mindful, the more quickly we are able to determine that news should really not disturb us.  Rather, we ought to view all news objectively.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.17 - On Providence

"Whenever you find fault with providence, just give the matter some thought and you'll recognize that what came about was in accordance with reason" (v. 1, p. 174)

After Epictetus said this, the student's reaction was, "Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better" (v. 2, p. 174).

This part of the dialogue sums up, in my opinion, the vast majority of conversations and misunderstandings about life and events in life.

In my review of Mormonism, Christianity and religion in general, over the past few years, I have lost count the number of times people who got upset because God did or didn't do something.

People will say God answered their prayer when:
- they found their lost keys
- their loved one was healed
- they financially prospered
- their home was protected from weather

People will say God cursed them when:
- they lost their stuff
- their loved one died or had cancer
- they lost money or were poor
- their property was damaged

Yet other people, in those same "unfortunate" circumstances will say that these are trials God has given them to strengthen their faith in God.  A subset of this group will have their faith strengthened if things indeed "turn around" while another subset of these people might exercise faith in God, pray, fast, etc. but when their desires to find something, or to have a loved one healed, aren't realized, they turn bitter.

I've also seen many people complain how God is in the details of our life and helps us find our lost keys, but then God totally ignores the massacred Jews in WWII, the Rwandans in 1994 or people who died in earthquakes or hurricanes or drought.  They say, "if God can intervene in someone's life on such a small scale of lost keys, why could He not intervene on a macro-level?  Is He only powerful on a small scale and powerless when it comes to large-scale events?"

The Stoic philosophy rises above these mis-guided arguments.  The Stoics accept that God/Zeus/Providence/the Universe will proceed the way it wants to proceed.  Try as we might, we humans will not have much of an impact on guiding Cosmic willpower.  Rather than focusing on something entirely out of your control, you ought to focus on what is in your control - which is your reaction to Providential events, while also recognizing that there is still a human element at play in this universe.

Always keep in mind what Marcus Aurelius said in Book 4.1:
Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use
Rather than choosing to look at events with a "blessed/cursed" mindset, we ought to look at them, at all times, as opportunities to exercise some virtue.

Also, when someone "comes off better" you have to ask yourself what you are actually judging - what game is being played.  If the game is "win all the money" and someone sells their soul or body to gain money, then there will be plenty of people who are better at that game than you.

But if you are trying to judge the character of a person and you choose to be "trustworthy and honest," (see v. 3, p. 174) then the person who sold their soul or body for money is not better off than you who have not sold your soul or body for money.

To put a finer point on this, Stoic philosophy says "virtue is the sole good."  This means the only game that matters is: are you winning at exercising virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, etc).  Nothing else matters.

If you play this game, then wealth, health, prestige, honors, power will not matter to you.  If someone is better than you, then they will have more courage; they will be wiser and have more justice; they will be disciplined and self-controlled.  They will adhere to a moral and honest life, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, maimed or strong, powerful or simple.

If you base your judgments about people and events on virtue, then you will see who the real winners and losers are.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.16 - That we should enter into social intercourse with caution

Are you an influencer or are you always being influenced?  Do you act or are you always being acted upon?  Are you a player or an NPC?

These are the kinds of questions Epictetus is driving at in this chapter.  He wants you to be an influencer in life.  He wants you to act.  He wants you to be the player in the game.

Therefore, he offers some sound advice for developing good, strong habits.

If you want to make progress as a Stoic, you will have to be cautious about who you associate with.  Either you will become more like them or they will become more like you.  If your soul is at risk of becoming more like them (non-Stoic), then be cautious.

"Someone who associated regularly with certain people, for conversation, or for parties, or simply for the sake of socialability, is bound either to come to resemble them or else to convert them to his own way of life" (v. 1, p. 173).

"Until these fine [Stoic] thoughts are firmly established in you, and you've acquired the power that is needed to guarantee your safety, I would advise you to be cautious about getting involved with laymen" (v. 9, p. 173).

If you're a recovering alcoholic, ought you to associate with people who go to the bar all the time?  No!

As such, we are all recovering blathering idiots and we need to educate ourselves with philosophy.  During this time, be cautious not to associate with people who think the National Enquirer and Entertainment Tonight are the best thing since sliced bread!

"You should retire to some place far away from the sun, as long as your [philosophical] opinions are like wax.  That is the reason why philosophers recommend that we should even leave our homeland, because old habits distract us and hold us back from making a start on developing new ones" (v. 10-11, p. 174).

You "should introduce new habits in place of your old ones; fix your ideas firmly within you, and exercise yourselves in them" (v. 13, p. 174).

Constantly ask yourself, "How do I deal with these impressions that present themselves to me?  In accordance with nature or contrary to it?  How shall I respond to them?  In accordance with nature or contrary to it?  Do I declare to those things that lie outside the sphere of choice that they mean nothing to me?" (v. 15-16, p. 174)

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Key Concepts, Ideas and Quotes on the Discipline of Assent


a Greek word that represents the idea of a person's ruling center, commanding faculty, and rational faculty.

another definition is:  'commanding faculty' of the soul; the centre of consciousness, the seat of all mental states (source).

Pierre Hadot mentions "hēgemonikon" nineteen times in his book The Inner Citadel.  Here are a few of the relevant passages:
"the hegemonikon the principle which directs all being. This is that principle of thought and judgement which makes us independent of the body, and the principle of liberty which delimits the sphere of "that which depends on us," as opposed to "that which does not depend on us." (p. 49)
"a guiding principle (hegemonikon) ... It is within this guiding principle that freedom and our true self are located. It is also there, and only there, that moral good and evil can be found, for the only moral good and evil are voluntary good and evil." (p. 83-84)
"[the hegemonikon] alone is free, because it alone can give or refuse its assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object is which is represented by a given phantasia. This borderline which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the "inner citadel." Things cannot penetrate into this citadel: that is, they cannot produce the discourse which we develop about things, or the interpretation which we give of the world and its events. As Marcus says, the things outside of us "stay still"; they "do not come to us"; rather, in a way, "it is we who go toward them" (XI, II)." (p. 106-107).
In this prior passage, we note that Hadot is calling the hegemonikon the inner citadel.  This is the center of our mental universe, which dictates our reality.  Therefore, it is crucially important that we see things as they really are!

boundaries between things in your control and things out of your control

The first practice you ought to master in the Discipline of Assent is circumscribing or drawing a boundary between your hegemonikon - which is in your control - and things outside your control.  This is how you practice "the dichotomy of control."  Hadot writes of four circles, while Epictetus lists out examples.  Regardless of how you frame it, the constant practice of categorizing things in your control vs. out of your control, is crucial.

Hadot's for "circles" or boundaries are:

(1) others
(2) time past and future
(3) involuntary emotions
(4) the course of time or Destiny

We cannot control how other people act or what they think.  We must guard against assumptions about what people are thinking.  You would never want people to assume what you are thinking and you must grant others the same courtesy.  Much of our confusion in communications is due to assuming what other people are thinking.

the future or past
You simply cannot change past events; you cannot re-live the past and change what you have done.  Similarly, you do not know what will happen in the future, and therefore cannot control it 100% of the time.  Indeed, you can plan, but you cannot know exactly what will happen.  Ultimately, the only time span over which you have some modicum of control is the present.

involuntary emotions
Our bodies are subject to instinctive reactions which we cannot control.  The fight or flight reaction many experience cannot be controlled completely 100% of the time.  Some may train to control these powerful, instinctive reactions, but they are largely out of our control.  The key point, though, is to not let those emotions linger.  The more practice we put into to questioning our instinctive and reactive emotions, the better we become at controlling our emotions.  I'll discuss more of this further below (impression→assent→impulse).

Destiny / Universal events
The complexity of events in both the world and the Universe are out of our control.  We cannot control asteroids, solar flares and cosmic events.  We are subject to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, winds, rain, fog, cold and heat.  We don't have any real control over wars, elections, political scandals and culture.  We are living in a river, as it were, and we don't control where it goes or how it flows.

Besides, Hadot's four circles, Epictetus lists things in our control and out of our control in his first chapter of the Encheiridion.
Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are our faculties of judgment, motivation, desire, and aversion - in short, everything that is our own doing.  Not up to us are our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions - in short, everything that is not our own doing.
Note the similarities between Hadot's circles and Epictetus' list.  Our body, falls under the "involuntary emotions" circle.  Our property, perhaps, falls under the "Destiny / Universal" events circle.  Our reputation might fall under the "other people" circle, while official positions might fall under "others" and "Destiny" circles.

reserve clause

I think both Hadot's circle and Epictetus' list serve as a good framework for thinking about the dichotomy of control, but the hard work will come down to you as an individual.  Many things aren't so black and white.  Sometimes, something might be 60% in your control and 40% out of your control, and you have to act accordingly - knowing that there are certain things you can do, but knowing full well a set of variables exist that might disrupt the desired outcome.  This idea is called the "reserve clause."  Implementing "reserve clause" thinking, is another practice of the Discipline of Assent as well as the Discipline of Action.  Donald Robertson has a good write up about this: Action with a “Reserve Clause” in Marcus Aurelius.

impression→assent→impulse (to act or react)

Really take some time to think about the order of operations above.  Many of us have been trained to immediately jump to impulse after some impression hits us.  In a sense, we have let the our monkey or reptilian brains do the thinking, instead of letting the rational, reasoned side or our brains do the thinking.

Case in point: Your child haphazardly spills milk all over the counter top, and almost instantaneously, you begin to berate and yell at the child for being so clumsy!  In this case, you have let the emotion of anger take over your state of mind.  You have automatically judged the milk being spilled by your child as "bad" and have proceeded to let this judgement turn into an emotion, which then turned into a reaction, which formed into words coming from your brain, out of your mouth and into the ears and brain of your child.  You eventually come to your senses and you may apologize to your child for over-reacting.

You now get a do-over.  What do you do differently?  Would you like a longer pause between impression and reaction?

A quote, largely attributed to Viktor Frankl (but unsubstantiated) says: "Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

What we need to do, is to "mind that gap" and practice growing it.  I like to think of this as the Stoic Pause.  The more technical term for it is Prosoche.


There is lots of information, as well as overlap in other philosophies and religion, on the topic of prosoche or mindfulness.  To put it succinctly, this exercise is all about becoming constantly mindful of your impressions, desires and actions.  We are bombarded with stimuli and events and people all day long.  Getting a handle - a very good handle - on your judgement of those things is crucial to becoming a true Stoic.  It is the practice of being aware of Hadot's "circles" and Epictetus' list and ensuring you have a true understanding of things, so you can assent and then re-act and act appropriately.

There has been plenty written on this topic.  I will link to a few articles that I have found helpful:

Prosoche: Illuminating the Path of the Prokopton

Sati & Prosoche: Buddhist vs. Stoic “Mindfulness” Compared by Greg Lopez

The Philosophy of Stoic Mindfulness by Patrick Ussher

How you practice mindfulness is up to you.  Journaling, writing, planning and reviewing your day, breathing, counting to ten before saying something, and meditating are all useful practices for becoming more mindful.  The more you are mindful of your circumstances and your emotions and attitude, the more you will be able to "slow things down" a bit - to give yourself time to decide whether you agree with an impression or not.

Epictetus best sums it up: Whenever the impression of some pleasure comes into your mind, guard yourself against being carried away by it, just as you should do with impressions in general.  Let the thing wait a bit, and give yourself a pause." (Encheiridion 34)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.15 - That we should approach everything with circumspection

"In each action that you undertake, consider what comes before and what follows after, and only then proceed to the action itself" (v. 1, p. 171).

In this chapter, Epictetus intends to convince people to give themselves wholeheartedly to what they intend to do.  He wants us to think about things fully, before acting.  It later becomes clear in the chapter, that he specifically speaks to those who want to pretend to be philosophers, and never really fully devote themselves to becoming a Stoic.

Athletes must consider all the pains, injuries, and hardships they must ensure if they are to reach the pinnacle of success.  And they can only focus on one thing.  You cannot become the best player in basketball and baseball.  Some have tried, but none have succeeded.  Those who wish to become Stoic sages must do likewise.

"For your own part likewise, you're sometimes an athlete, sometimes a gladiator, then a philosopher, then an orator, but nothing at all whole-heartedly; no, in the manner of an ape, you imitate everything that you see, and one thing after another is always catching your fancy, but it ceases to amuse you as soon as you grow accustomed to it.  For you've never embarked on anything after due consideration, nor after having subjected it to proper examination and tested it out, but always at random and in a half-hearted fashion" (v. 6-7, p. 172).

He lays out the type of training a Stoic philosopher must endure in order to win the prize.  This list is actually a really good list of Stoic disciplines that even us Moderns can attempt to become more Stoic.

"Do you suppose you can eat as you do, drink as you do, lose your temper as you do, and be as irritable as you are?  You must stay up at night, toil away, overcome certain desires, become separated from those who are close to you, suffer scorn from a little slave, be laughed at by those whom you meet, and come off worse in everything, in power, in honour, in the courts" (v. 10-11, p. 172).

The prizes of endurance in these practices?  Serenity.  Freedom.  Peace of mind.

Epictetus concludes, "you must be one man, either good or bad; you must devote your efforts either to your ruling centre or to external things" (v. 13, p. 173).

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?

How ought we to bear our illnesses?

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.