Archive for October, 2013

In my last post I began quoting from Epictetus’ Discourses, Book I, Part I: Concerning what is in our power and what is not.  I will continue today.  Epictetus writes:

And yet, where there is only the one thing we can car for and devote ourselves to [i.e. our power to make good use of impressions], we choose instead to care about and attach ourselves to a score of others: to our bodies, to our property, to our family, friends. . .And being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them. . . What should we do then?  Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.  And what is its nature?  However God decides.

‘Must I be beheaded now, and alone?’  Well, do you want everyone to be beheaded just because misery loves company?  Why not hold out your neck the way Lateranus did at Rome, when condemned by Nero to be beheaded?  He held out his neck willingly to take the blow — but the blow was deficient, so he recoiled a bit, but then had enough self-command to offer his neck a second time. . .

What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this?  The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do.  I must die.  But must I die bawling?  I must be put in chains — but moaning and groaning too?  I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?  [NOTE: Epictetus was imprisoned and then exiled with many other philosophers and some were put to death]. . . It’s only my leg you will chain, not even God can conquer my will.  ‘I will throw you in prison.’  ‘Correction — it is my body you will throw there’. . .

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate if you would be a philosopher, the sort of sentiments you should write down every day and put in practice. . . .

Agrippinus used to say, “I don’t add to my troubles.”  To illustrate, someone once said to him, “You are being tried in the Senate — good luck.”  But it was eleven in the morning, and at that hour he was in the habit of taking his bath and exercise.  “Let us be off to exercise.”  When he was done, word came that the had been condemned.  “To exile,” he asked, “or death?”  “Exile.”  “And my estate, what about that?”  ” It has not been confiscated.”  “Well then, let’s go to my villa in Aricia and have lunch there.”  This shows what is possible when we practice what is necessary, and make our desire and aversion safe against any setback or adversity.  ‘I have to die.  If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.’

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Now that you, gentle reader, have some sense of who Epictetus was I will, every once in a while, offer you quotations from his Discourses.  Epictetus’ begins with the topic: Concerning what is in our power and what is not.  He writes:

In general you will find no art or faculty that can analyze itself, therefore none that can approve or disapprove of itself.  The art of grammar is restricted to analyzing and commenting on literature. . .Now if you are writing to a friend, the art of grammar will help you decide what words to use; but it will not tell you whether it is a good idea to write to your friend in the first place. . .

So, what can? . . .the faculty of reason.  Reason is unique among the faculties assigned to us in being able to evaluate itself — what it is, what it is capable of, how valuable it is — in addition to passing judgment on others.

What decides whether a sum of money is good?  The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.

. . .the gods have given us the best and most efficacious gift: the ability to make good use of impressions. . .

. . .what does Zeus say?  ‘Epictetus, if it were possible I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted.  As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay.  And since I could not make the body yours, I have given you a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion — the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions.  If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone.  Is that good enough to satisfy you?’ 

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Epictetus’ influence has spanned more than a thousand years and has impacted many hundreds of thousands of folks.  Allow me, gentle reader, to cite just a few examples.

Marcus Aurelius [see my numerous postings regarding Marcus’ ‘Meditations’] was given a copy of Epictetus’ ‘Discourses’ and they were crucial to his own development as a Stoic, as a man and as an Emperor.  Marcus’ ‘Meditations’ abound in quotations and paraphrases from Epictetus’ writings.  Here we have a Greek slave guiding the intellectual development of a Roman Emperor.

One reason Epictetus’ writings survived the Middle Ages was the he was among a few ‘pagan’ writers that had the Church’s approval.  Epictetus was deemed ‘a natural Christian’ by the Church — is principles and practices were powerfully complementary of Christianity.  By the third century A.D. Epictetus’ fame had surpassed Plato’s.  Why?  Epictetus was admired by ordinary folks, not just philosophers.  What occurred to me when I first read ‘Discourses’ was that if I replaced Socrates name with St. Paul I found that I was then reading a Christian manuscript.  For centuries Monks employed Epictetus’ writings as part of their rulebook.

The Mid-East Christian scholars brought Epictetus to the Islamic East.  The great ninth-century Islamic philosopher, al-Kindi [‘the best man of his time’] was deeply influenced by Epictetus’ writings.  In his great work, ‘On the Art of Dispelling Sorrows,’ al-Kindi emphasizes the importance of freedom from the world and reminds us humans that we are responsible for our lives; he credits Epictetus for this insight.  Like Epictetus, al-Kindi warns us of the negative consequences that result when one becomes attached to material things.

Seventeenth century philosophers witness to the fact that Epictetus survived the transition to the modern era with no loss of importance and influence.  For example, Pascal, praises Epictetus for his delineation of human duties and his admonition that we submit to the will of God.  Pascal writes: ‘Epictetus believes that God gave man the means to fulfill all his obligations; that these means are within his power, that happiness is attained through what we are capable of, this being the reason God gave them to us.’

As a freshman in university I participated in a seminar which focused on ‘thoughts that influence’ us.  I was introduced to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.  One note I made and have kept for fifty years now came from Epictetus’ writings: ‘our emotional responses to actions are not the actions themselves; our emotional responses are the result of our thinking — of what we say about the actions.’  This idea helped me navigate my first deep bout with depression that visited me during my sophomore year.  Epictetus writes: ‘Someone says, I don’t like leisure, it’s boring; I don’t like crowds, they’re a nuisance.  But if events ordain that you spend time either alone or with just a few other people, look upon it as tranquility and play along with it for the duration.  Talk to yourself, train your thoughts and shape your preconceptions.’ 

I am responsible for I am response-able.

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Epictetus was a Stoic.  What is a Stoic?

Stoicism was founded in the second century B.C. by Zeno; however, most of the credit for the development of Stoicism goes to Chrysippus and under his guidance Stoicism became the dominant philosophy of the post-classical era.  The Roman historian Tacitus provides us a clear summary of the core principles of Stoic ethics as they were taught in Rome at that time.  Tacitus writes: Whether human affairs are directed by Fate’s unalterable necessity, or by chance, is a question.  The wisest philosophers disagree on this point.  Epicureans insist that heaven is unconcerned with our birth and death — is unconcerned, in fact, with human beings generally — with the result that good people often suffer while wicked people thrive.  The Stoics disagree, maintaining that although things happen according to fate, this depends not on the movement of the planets but on the principles and logic of natural causality.  This school concedes to us the freedom to choose our own lives.  Once the choice is made, however, the Stoics warn that the subsequent sequence of events cannot be altered.  With regard to practical matters they maintain that popular ideas of good and bad are wrong: many people who appear to be in dire circumstances are actually happy provided they deal with their situation bravely; others, regardless of how many possessions they have, are miserable, because they do not know how to use the gifts of fortune wisely.

‘The Stoic school leaves us free to choose our own lives.’  Confidence in this capacity is a major belief for Epictetus.  ‘Choice’ is fairly unique to Epictetus; most philosophies of his time believed in ‘Fate’ not ‘Choice.’  For Epictetus ‘Choice’ sets humans apart from the other animals.

For the Stoic, Epictetus, human minds frame propositions as statements, such as ‘that is a good thing to have’ or ‘this is the right thing to do.’  These propositions also require an intermediate step: they require our assent prior to our acting.  Epictetus makes two points with an emphasis distinctly his own: (1) that humans [i.e. rational animals] can hold off acting on impressions until they are explored and assessed; and (2) if they are deemed to be unreasonable — irrational or impractical — humans can and should withhold affirming and/or acting on them.  As Epictetus notes: ‘Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent.” Let me put you to the test.’  These mindful functions define the realm of ‘Choice.’  The result is that we must choose how to act and that we are responsible for determining the character and content of our lives.

In Epictetus we find Stoics and others cited — Plato is praised, Diogenes the Cynic is quoted at length and it is Socrates who emerges again and again as the moral authority for Epictetus.  Socrates was a philosophical saint and martyr, a model for those who wished to become Stoics and live by their principles.  Socrates is often cited in support of the key tenets of Stoic morality: that no one does wrong but willingly; that harming others hurts the offender more; that material goods can do as much harm as good.

As a Stoic, Epictetus believed that our thoughts and actions have immediate and inescapable consequences [intended and un-]; ‘You have only to doze for a moment, and all is lost. For ruin and salvation both have their sources inside you.’  ‘Not even the gods,’ writes Epictetus, ‘have the power of coercion over us.’

Although the ‘Discourses’ are Stoic documents — and there are few Stoics around today — they continue to speak to us for they are rooted in common experience and common sense.

Epictetus influenced during his life-time and his influence has continued for almost two thousand years.  With my next posting we will briefly explore Epictetus’ Influence.

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