Sunday, August 28, 2022

Phil 302 Four Epictetian Analogies Explaining Stoicism

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.

Works Cited

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,

Seddon, Keith H. “Epictetus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3 Jan. 2003,

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Phil 302 - Anonymity and Justice

 Anonymity and Justice

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of justice.  Since humanity and various cultures hold different meanings of justice and injustice, the Ring of Gyges thought experiment can be leveraged to explore this topic and how it still plays out in modern society.  The movie Batman Begins offers multiple character examples of how anonymity is like wearing the Ring of Gyges, and how anonymity is used to commit injustices as well as to fight injustices.  Perhaps anonymity simply demonstrates the on-going challenge of defining justice and Heraclitus’ claim that “strife is justice” and “war is father of all” aptly sums up the problem (Graham).  Or perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in empathy in how to apply justice by way of another thought experiment called the empathy machine (Groothuis).  Thought experiments like the Ring of Gyges and the empathy machine, and movies like Batman Begins, are valuable because they prompt discussion and dialogue of what it means to be just and how to act accordingly.

Glaucon and Socrates discuss the concept of justice in book two of  Plato’s Republic.  Glaucon contends that the just person would ultimately run the same course as an unjust person.  He explains through the thought experiment, called the Ring of Gyges, that the wearer of the ring could become invisible and commit any act they wish; and subsequently a person claiming to be just would ultimately commit injustice if granted invisibility (Plato, et. al., 359c – 361a).  Does anonymity make everyone unjust?  Or are there examples of people who use anonymity to fight injustice.  The film Batman Begins offers insight into various characters who have the power of quasi-anonymity.

Batman Begins is a 2005 film which explores the origins of the comic book hero Bruce Wayne, whose parents were murdered when he was a boy (Nolan).   When Bruce was a college student, the murderer of his parents, Joe Chill, was to be released on parole.  At the hearing, Bruce comes prepared with a handgun with the intent to kill Chill.  He is about to shoot Chill, when an assassin for the mobster Falcone, kills Chill.  Bruce watches intently as Chill dies.  Later, his close friend, Rachel Dawes, discovers Bruce’s intent.  When she learns this, she slaps him across his face, telling him that his father would be ashamed of him for bypassing the justice system.  Feeling the sting of shame, Bruce vows to fight injustice by immersing himself in the criminal underworld for seven years.

While exploring the criminal underworld, Bruce is recruited by a man named Henri Ducard, who belongs to the League of Shadows and whose leader is Ra’s al Ghul.  As a member of the League of Shadows, Bruce learns martial arts and arts of deception and disguise.  At the pinnacle of his initiation, he is forced to decide whether to behead a murderer or part ways with the league.  Having determined that he would never kill, he escapes the League of Shadows, saving his friend Ducard and thinking that Ra’s al Ghul dies in a fire at the home of the League of Shadows.

Bruce returns to his home in Gotham and crafts his alter-persona: Batman.  As he assumes anonymity, he begins to fight the Gotham criminal underworld, using his quasi-invisibility to exact justice on the mobsters of Gotham.  Through the course of his detective work, he learns that Ra’s al Ghul still lives, and in fact, is his friend Ducard.  Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows have plotted to destroy Gotham, intending to commit injustice.  Batman fights Ra’s al Ghul, who dies in a train wreck, and subsequently, Gotham is saved.

Both the protagonist and antagonist of Batman Begins wrap themselves in invisibility and disguise.  Bruce Wayne does so to fight injustices on the streets of Gotham which the police department is powerless to fight because of corruption.  Bruce’s choices demonstrate that a cloak of invisibility does not align with Glaucon’s contention that a proverbial Ring of Gyges corrupts the wearer.  On the other hand, while the antagonist Ra’s al Ghul has a warped sense of justice by destroying everything to force civilization to reboot, he is willing to commit significant injustices to accomplish some justice in the world.  Ra’s al Ghul is an example of what Glaucon contends: that invisibility only encourages the person to commit injustices.

It does not take much imagination to make the leap from the fiction of Batman Begins to the non-fiction of the real world.  Today, cyber criminals and malicious actors work in hidden shadows and the dark web to steal people’s identities and commit all types of injustices from buying and selling drugs to human trafficking.  Also cloaked in anonymity and invisibility are justice warriors from governments and military organizations and even vigilantes.  Like Batman, the cyber world is full of invisible actors, many committing grave crimes, and others, such as vigilantes, fighting them in the name of justice (e Silva).

Is Glaucon’s thought experiment, resolved?  Does invisibility turn all people into actors of injustice?  Applying the analysis of Batman Begins and the battles being fought on the Internet, it can be stated that invisibility does not turn all into actors of injustice.  Therefore, what is to be learned from this thought experiment?  Perhaps the real lesson from Batman Begins and the gift of anonymity is that it reveals humanity will always be locked in a struggle to define what is just and unjust.  What happens overtly also occurs anonymously as the fight for justice and against injustices simply moves to a meta world.  Consequently, when Heraclitus says, “We must recognize that war is common, strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity” and that “war is father of all and king of all” it simply denotes the endless fight over the definition of justice (Graham).  Ra’s al Ghul felt compelled to fight injustice in his own way, and in turn Batman felt compelled to fight Ra’s al Ghul and the criminal underworld.  Humanity is trapped in a perpetual struggle to define and execute justice and how to fight injustice.  But is humanity truly trapped in this unending battle?

To begin to address injustice, all people need to gain self-awareness and empathy.  One University of Sydney academic philosopher wrote, “invisibility may be self-induced through self-justifying rationalizations, and ignorance may be manifested and expressed as lack of self-reflection and self-knowledge” (Edward, 564).  This idea of ignorance and lack of self-examination and reflection may be key to unlocking a universal understanding of justice.  What if justice began with self-examination and reflection?  If more people were to be instilled with empathic awareness, could humanity step closer to universal justice?  Two scenes from Batman Begins show two characters with a sense of empathy and how these acts of kindness had knock-on effects.

One scene shows a young Bruce at the police station, shortly after his parents were murdered by Chill.  With empathy and kindness, a police officer named James Gordan took time to think of the feelings of a frightened child.  His act was to simply put a coat around the young boy and offer comfort.  Later in the film, in difference scene, the hero similarly shows empathy for a young boy whose life is full of stress.  While surveilling a rough part of the city, a young boy walks onto the balcony to leave a heated argument between his parents.  To his surprise, he sees Batman on the terrace.  He explains to Batman that none of his friends would believe him if he told them he saw Batman.  Without saying a word, Batman hands the boy a surveillance tool and the boy breaks out in a wide, happy expression.  Having the ability to understand what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes and then to treat that person, accordingly, may be the right thought experiment to advance the conversation of justice.

One professor of philosophy proposes that moral virtue, including justice, may be better understood with a thought experiment called the empathy machine.

When one is hooked up to the empathy machine, there is a radical shift from the third-person and second-person to the first-person; from propositional knowledge to experiential knowledge … from hearing about pain and observing pain to being in pain and thus knowing it from the inside out. It is a shift from hearing-about or being-near to being-there (Groothuis, 86).  

Experiencing the pains of injustice may begin to shape humanity to reconsider actions which may be unjust.  Instead of allowing baser instincts of protection, revenge and survival to guide humanity, perhaps there ought to be greater focus on tapping into emotional intelligence in an effort to expand not only self-awareness, but other-awareness.

While humanity may long argue over what justice is and is not, the thought experiments of the Ring of Gyges and the empathy machine, along with the plot of Batman Begins help to sort out how humanity can apply justice at the interpersonal level.  Indeed, Heraclitus may always be correct about humanity being trapped in a perpetual cycle of strife and war.  Or, perhaps there may be some hope in a more enlightened civilization, in which the citizenry taps into the rich potential of empathy and reaches escape velocity from the ceaseless cycle of conflict. 

Works Cited

e Silva, K. K. “Vigilantism and Cooperative Criminal Justice: Is There a Place for Cybersecurity Vigilantes in Cybercrime Fighting?” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, vol. 32, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 21–36. EBSCOhost,

Edward, Howlett S. "The Sixth Estate: Tech Media Corruption in the Age of Information." Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, vol. 18, no. 4, 2020, pp. 553-573. ProQuest,, doi:

Graham, Daniel W. “Heraclitus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 2019,

Groothuis, Douglas. "THE EMPATHY MACHINE: A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT." Think, vol. 19, no. 55, 2020, pp. 85-94. ProQuest,, doi:

Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros., 2005. 

Plato, et al. A Plato Reader : Eight Essential Dialogues. Hackett Pub. Co, 2012.