Epictetus and Stoicism
by Martin O'Hagan
Aristotle, in the 4th century before Christ, declared that men considered the good life was one of physical pleasure, wealth and honour. During the 17th Century Spinoza reaffirmed the Aristotelian formula, only he substituted the word 'fame' for honour. Today 'fame' has not have been completely replaced with the notion of 'social approval' nevertheless both are desired.
For the vast majority of ordinary people Aristotle's formula is unrealistic because, in the words of Thoreau, they 'live lives of quiet desperation' (Walden p5). This negative side of the Aristotelian ideal is the recognition that frustration and disillusionment is part of the human condition.
The attainment of such goals depends only in small part on the efforts of an individual. External circumstance can thwart him or her at any moment. Secondly no matter how successful an individual is he or she can't be secure in their possessions. And thirdly desire is the root of all frustration, insecurity and painful striving. Human Beings are by nature unable to satisfy all desires, because individual powers are limited and desires are unlimited except by life span. Paradoxically it is quiet reasonable to have all the material benefits and yet desire a more Spartan life style.
Philosophers have recommended strategies by which people over come frustration generated by desire. Of the various techniques suggested to emancipate the individual perhaps the most radical and simplest Is stoicism. It took root among the Greeks and then influenced the Romans about whom Lecky said. "Long before they had begun to reason about philosophy they exhibited it in action" (European Morals Lecky p172).
Not much is known of Epictetus's life. He was born in Hieropolis in Asia Minor and was for some time a slave but freed by his Roman master. He was educated by a Stoic philosopher and soon began to teach philosophy himself until he was banned from Rome by the emperor Domitian. No written work of Epictetus has survived and the Encheiridion was dictated to a disciple.
Western Thought categorises Stoicism within philosophy but perhaps it would be better to label it a form of spiritual training. Epictetus dictated in his manual, "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well" (Encheiridion C8).
This notion is a reworking of the ideas of Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, who said that the end or telos of human life is to be in accord with nature. For Epictetus morals become unintelligible apart from cosmology. And the term nature becomes a term something other than what it is in either Plato or Aristotle. It links moral laws to cosmic status. These laws, apart from local convention, and the physical universe now have a shared source.
Attuning the individual's mind with the way the universe actually is, Is considered the ideal human condition. Epictetus believed that the cosmos was determined by nature which is sometimes substituted for the term God or Logos. All events in the external world are also determined by prior states of the universe.
The Stoic universe is an organic and perfect whole which has order linking all its parts. The determination of events is control by an even stronger coherence than mere casual determination of future events by past events. Stoics believed that once an individual becomes aware of the pattern of the cosmos it is possible to see that the nature of any local occurrence was completely fixed by the remainder of the pattern.
Bringing the mind into line with the world as it, is one of understanding that nothing and no event that causes dissatisfaction could possibly be otherwise than it actually is. It is a theory that smacks of Leibniz formula 'All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds' and which was perceptively satirised by Voltaire's portrayal of the patient philosopher Dr. Pangloss in the popular novel Candide.
White suggests an insight into this aspect of Stoic determinism, "Given the awareness of the places of such an event in the pattern of the cosmos it could be unable to think of events being different" (The Handbook, White p8). He suggests the example of 2 plus 1 is inconceivable as anything other than 3. with such an inconceivability of an alternative such as 4 or 14 it seems reasonable to hold it is not intelligent to hold the wish that 2 plus 1 might be anything other than 3.
Spinoza also accepted such determinism and instead of using numbers he said that a man is born a baby. Humans accept that it can not be otherwise. If men were born adults and some were born babies then would no longer accept the inevitability of their fate. (Spinoza, Hampshire, p145-p161)
According to MacIntyre the Stoics believed it possible to combine determinism with free will to dissent or assent from the divine Logos. What is determined is the physical world including human beings. But what escapes determination is human agreement or disagreement to the course of things expressed in the form of intention.
"Even if I dissent from and rebel against predetermined course of nature my physical behaviour will still conform to it. Ducunt volentem fata nolentem trahunt wrote Seneca later on" (A Short History of Ethics MacIntyre p106).
Epictetus's first technique begins with the premise that to be free and happy then we must accept that, "Some things are up to us. Our opinions.... and our impulses desires and aversions - in short whatever is our own doing" (Encheiridion C1).
His Stoicism emphasises that a person must learn to differentiate between what he or she can control and can not control if they are going to achieve an inner freedom from egoistic emotion. This inner tranquillity leads to outer effectiveness. Within our control are our own opinions, desires and the things that repeal us. These areas are our concern because they are subject to our influence. This means we always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.
According to Epictetus we have no control over what sort of body we have, whether we are born into wealth, strike it rich, how we are regarded by others and our status in society. These things are externals and subsequently not the concern of the ordinary person. Trying to control or change what we can't only results in torment for the individual. The things in our power are naturally at our disposal and are free from restraint or hindrance; those outside our power are weak dependent or determined by the actions of others. To attempt to control things outside our power or to adapt the problems of others only leads to frustration and anxiety. The individual then often becomes a fault finding person.
Epictetus recommends that individuals should keep their attention focused on their own concerns and be clear, that what belongs to others is their business. If a person does this he or she will be impervious to coercion and no one can hold the individual back. "You will be truly free because your efforts will be put to good use and won't be foolishly squandered finding fault with or opposing others" (The Art of Living).
Epictetus maintained that in knowing what concerns the individual no one can be made do anything against his or her will. The practising Stoics can't be hurt nor do they incur enemies. He warns that living by such principles isn't easy. A story is told of how Epictetus warned his master, who was beating him, that his leg would shortly break. When it finally snapped Epictetus is supposed to have calmly remarked, "I told you you would do so" (Lecky p184).
He recommends that from the moment a person understands the above ideas he must practise saying to anything that is unpleasant, "You are an appearance and not at all the thing that has the appearance." Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that Is not up to us be ready to say "You are nothing in relation to me" (Encheiridion C2).
Human desires are mercurial rulers according to Epictetus. Desires demand to be pleased commanding the individual to run off and get what he or she wants. Aversion insists that human beings must avoid the things that repeal them. Typically if the individual doesn't get what he or she wants they are disappointed and when they get what they don't want he or she is distressed.
Epictetus recommends that the individual avoids those undesirable things that are contrary to the natural well being. If they are within the person's control then he or she will never incur anything they don't want. Epictetus cautions that trying to avoid inevitabilities such as sickness death or misfortune over which the person has no real control, will make others around them suffer.
Desire and aversion are powerful habits but it is possible for the individual to train him or herself to have better habits. Restrain the habit of being repelled by all those things that are not in the individual's control and focus instead on combating things within your power that are not good for you. Desire must be reined in because disappointment will follow. Unless this is done it will lead to neglect of the things that are within the individual's control that are worthy of desire.
Circumstance do not rise to meet expectations and events happen as they do and people behave as they are. The attuned Stoic mind sees things for what they are. It is necessary to embrace what is actually given. Only this way is the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation. He suggests that one technique of doing this is to think about what delights the individual such as work tools or people. It is important to remember that each has its own distinct character which is a separate matter from how the individual regards them.
As an exercise consider the smallest thing to which he or she Is attached such as a favourite cup. It Is only just a cup and if it breaks in an accident a person can cope. It is only after all a cup and can be replaced by another like It. Next consider attitudes to other objects including a pet and then other people to whom a person has clinging thoughts and feelings. Epictetus asks the individual to think of his or her child or spouse and remember that it Is a mortal that Is being embraced. If someone should die it is possible to bear it with tranquillity.
Epictetus does not recommend cold and indifferent detachment to other people. He argues that when something serious happens the only thing in an individual's power is his or her attitude towards it. A person can either accept the situation or resent it. Epictetus insists that what frightens or dismays the individual is not external events themselves but his or her attitude and the way events are thought about. It is not things that disturb us but the way their significance is interpreted. This amounts to a call for the individual to stop scaring him or herself with impetuous notion or reactive impressions with the way things are.
Even attitudes surrounding death are no longer terrorising when it is realised that such notions can be dealt with rationally. There are many ways to think about death that it is important to scrutinise attitudes questioning whether they are true and what is their real effect on the individual.
Death and pain need not be dreaded, what is dreaded is the fear of death and pain. External circumstances can't be changed but It is possible to choose how to respond. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and Stoic, following an example that is ascribed to Pythagoras made meditating on death a special mental exercise.
Epictetus was in no doubt that our feelings are the main source of much misery. It follows that blaming others is silly. When a person suffers setbacks or grief it's futile to blame others when it is attitudes that are at fault. "An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself; an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself" (ibid. C6). One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress Is the gradual of extinguishing of blame. The more the would be Stoic works on himself the more stormy emotions are not allowed to overshadow and intervene in rational living.
Epictetus is not encouraging a cold indifference to fellow human beings. Stoics adapted the Cynic doctrine that all humans are 'citizens of the world' implying that everyone is radically equal and presumably are treated as such. In the Encheiridion he dictated "When you see someone weeping in grief take care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved in are bad and be ready to say immediately "what weighs down" in this man is not what has happened (since it does not weigh down on someone else) but his judgement about it. Do not hesitate to sympathise with him verbally and even to cry with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to cry inwardly" (ibid. C16).
This may suggest the lost of ordinary human emotions but Epictetus accepts that other people's attitudes towards their circumstances are often irrational and diseased. Vice is to the mind what disease is to the body and that a state of virtue is a state of health. "A mind distracted by passion and vice may be avoided not so much because it is an obstacle in the pursuit of prosperity, as because it is in itself essentially painful and disturbing" (Lecky p179).
In the Encheiridion, Epictetus is very much engaged in practical advice giving and that interest in working out philosophical problems is relatively small. He shows that the only thing in our control and what really makes us human is the way we deal with our minds. It is the capacity of the human mind to receive impressions and experiences consciously and not to waste inner energy on things that we have no power over.
In recent years Stoicism and especially the writing of Epictetus has had growing numbers of adherents among modern westerners who appreciate that his non religious way is very much in tone with western psychic. In a godless world many to day are turned off by religious jargon. The nearest Stoicism comes to God is the use of the term to represent the mind of the universe. "The universe is at one divine and material. The primary material fire is transmuted to the physical states by the universal rational principle, the Logos which is the deity" (MacIntyre p105).
As a spiritual technique becomes a way of life that requires practical acts which may be likened to monastic living. In contrast, Stoicism can help people to search for that inner freedom in the midst of stress care and pressures of modern bourgeois society. Freedom here is recognising the limits of the individual's power.
According to American philosopher Jacob Needleman, Stoicism gives the individual a way of stepping back and not get swallowed up by life. It creates a philosophical and spiritual paradox that Epictetus shows the westerner that the more a person steps back the more he or she is able to humanly engage in life. "It doesn't mean the person doesn't care in fact it is the opposite and the person cares too much. Such people are full of passion but it is not egoistic passion," says Needleman (Art of Living).
This idea of a person not engaging fully in life causes suspicion within modern way of life. People equate agitation and annoyance as a sign of passion and feeling. According to Needleman it is a sign of confusion and ego tripping.
Stoicism lasted for almost 500 years and was the main spiritual discipline for the warring and class torn Romans. But it was not confined to classes. For one the one hand the most powerful man in the Roman world Marcus Aurelius and the least powerful Epictetus, a slave, both espoused the same philosophy.
Objectively Hegel criticised Stoicism as a false solution to human frustration which masked the real relationship between Master and Slave. The acceptance of necessity and identification with universal cosmic reason hides the real relationship.
The Stoic and to a large extent the Spartan systems of antiquity and later the asceticism of the Middle Ages belong to time when social movement is static. The doctrines taught people to endure. pain, repress desires and establish what Lecky described as an 'absolute empire over their emotions' (ibid. p188).
The emotional side of human life was banned from the empire of reason. Human will is educated to act in the service of reason. Emotions that can initiate action are proscribed. Seneca elaborated at great length the difference between clemency and pity. The later is described as a 'weakness of the feeble mind that flinches at the sight of suffering' (ibid. p189). Whereas clemency is an act of judgement, pity would disturb that same judgement.
The Stoic obsession with human emotions as some sort of disease is found in all their attitudes. Friendship is preferred rather than love, hospitality rather than charity, magnanimity rather than tenderness, clemency rather than pity or sympathy.
The Stoics carried suppression of the emotions further than any other school of thought. They tried to compensate for the lost of their emotional side by teaching the fraternity of men and the duty of each man to the welfare of others. It was an age when women were invisible to the cold male and even colder Stoic eye. The Stoics even extended the Socratic maxim that no one knowingly commits evil to their treatment of criminals. They urged that a basis of punishment must be prevention.
But despite their benevolence, the declared war on the emotions is seen as a practical and a psychological evil. When Anaxagoras was told that his son had died retorted, "I never supposed that I had begotten an immortal." And Stilpo who had just lost his family, his city and country said the sage is above such circumstance. In both examples human virtue is reduced to some kind of majestic egoism.
Even Epictetus taught that a person should look on with pretended sympathy in order to console a suffering friend. Empathy has been abandoned. A person who refuses to look on pain and suffering as an evil are scarcely likely to help relieve them in others. The Stoic theory of benevolence might be acted but the animating spirit appears to be absent.
If all virtue was conformity to nature what is implied is nature as a composite thing comprising many facets. Similarly human nature in conformity with nature is also composite To deny one part of that nature or to make part of that nature our whole nature is not to affirm but to mutilate humanity.
An Introduction to Existentialism Robert G. Olson (Dover 1962)
Epictetus, The Handbook (Encheiridion) Nicholas P. White Tr. (Hackett 1983)
CandideVoltaire (Wordsworth Classics 1993)
Classic Thought, A History of Western Philosophy Terence Irwin (Opus General Editors 1989)
Spinoza Stuart Hampshire (Pelican Books 1953)
The History of European Morals W.E.H. Lecky (3rd edn Longman 1876)
A Short History of Ethics Alasdair MacIntyre (2nd edn Routledge 1991)
Encheiridionin Classics of Western Thought ed by S. M. Cahan (3rd edition Hackett 1990)
The Art of Living read by Richard Bolles, translated by Sharon Lebell (Audio Literature). Interview with Jacob Needleman
© Marie O'Hagan 2001