My Main Man Epictetus
Ancient echoes in our age of disruption.
Are we living through extraordinary times of unprecedented transformation?
Our material comforts and technological advances unquestionably qualify as extraordinary and unprecedented. We enjoy luxuries a Roman emperor would not be able to fathom (air conditioning? automobiles? air travel? grocery stores? that light switch 10 feet from you? all of human knowledge on that sleek 4-ounce slab in your pocket? Chick Fil-A?).
And that’s all yesterday’s news. Somewhere right now brilliant men and women are working on tomorrow’s operating system, tomorrow’s energy source, tomorrow’s water desalination method (please let them be in California).
Yet all the wonders of the twenty-first century can’t alter the fact that the operating system within our heads has changed hardly at all over the centuries. A time-traveling infant from 300 B.C. would feel right at home if raised among us today.
We’ve accumulated inventions, stores of knowledge, leisure time, opportunities, and material wealth that would be unimaginable even a century ago, but the human condition is constant. Human evolution hasn’t stopped, but tens of thousands of years have not seen the addition of a single new emotion or physical sense for experiencing the world. The core functions underlying consciousness remain identical to those electricity-less Roman emperors I was just scoffing at, and to the scores of generations before them lost to prehistory.
Sure, we live in an age of disruption and uncertainty, but good luck identifying that mythical era of utterly predictable stasis and certainty.
Our revolutions (technological, cultural, conceptual) reveal stubbornly enduring truths: Part of being human means questioning ourselves on how we ought to live, on what is important, on which direction to take. And there will come a time when each of us seeks consolation.
It’s natural for each generation to think itself unique (pesky human nature again). But as exciting as today is, and as thrilling as tomorrow will surely be, in such times it is profitable to look backward. Someone has been there before.
“To Those Who Casually Divulge Their Personal Affairs”
Sometime around A.D. 100, a former slave, having started a school in Nicopolis following his exile from Rome, berated his students on the perils of . . . oversharing:
“Who will not gladly welcome somebody to share the burden of his difficulties, and, by sharing it, to make them lighter?… But you are simply a babbler, who, by virtue of that, cannot keep anything back…. Whenever you see somebody at leisure, you sit down by him and say, ‘Brother, there is not a man in the world who is better disposed or more of a friend to me than you; I invite you to listen to my affairs.’ And you do this with people whom you have not known even for a short while.”
The speaker’s name was Epictetus, and he was one of the greatest of all the Stoics — a major force in what philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey called “the strongest and most lasting influence that any philosophic ethic had been able to achieve.” Stoicism as an intellectual institution ran consecutively for 500 years starting circa 300 B.C. Its influence never stopped.
Mightily influential or no, down here on the ground we clearly haven’t heeded that bit of advice up there; we’re all babblers now. Oh how Epictetus would loathe us. That’s OK though. He wasn’t very keen on his peers either.
The first time I encountered Epictetus, he was serving as a rather epic deus ex machina in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. Whenever I bore anybody about Stoicism (you know, like right now) I still recommend that they start there. Even if they’re not moved by the philosophy, perhaps they’ll take to Tom Wolfe at least.
There are lots of misconceptions out there about the Stoics. In common usage, if someone is “stoic” then they are (at best) handling something with equanimity or (at worst) shamefully devoid of human feeling. These shorthand definitions are understandable but it’s impossible to explain such a rich philosophical tradition so succinctly, especially since there were disagreements among the key players all those centuries ago.
With significant contributions to formal logic, rhetoric, grammar, theology, the physical sciences, and epistemology, Stoicism exerted major influence on early Christianity, modern psychology, and of course modern philosophy. But more than any other area, Stoicism has influenced ethics. Surviving primary sources predominantly deal with how to live a good life, i.e., one of self-sufficiency and proper judgment. For the perfect (and mythical!) Stoic sage, wisdom lies in assigning the appropriate value to actions, people, qualities, objects, emotions, calamities, windfalls — all aspects of life. It was their opinion that “all human beings are, and inevitably remain, bad and unhappy.” (“Bad” and “good” carried highly specific definitions compared to our more amorphous conceptions of them.) Their teachings are a method of figuring out why we are “bad and unhappy,” and how to ameliorate it.
Stoicism is not about stifling emotion. In The Stoics, F. H. Sandbach’s still highly regarded treatment first published in 1923, he writes: “What the Stoics wished to abolish was not emotion but ‘passion’ (pathos), or, as Cicero translated the word, ‘mental disturbance.’” Sandbach also reminds us, “Marcus Aurelius recalls that one of the lessons taught him by Sextus was to be entirely passionless yet full of affection.” Yet if you ask anybody to describe the Stoics today, “full of affection” won’t make the list.
My favorite comment on Stoicism comes from Brad Inwood, editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: “An intellectual engagement with Stoicism is an odyssey.” It’s not about prescriptions so much as a lifelong training regimen for the mind. And in Inwood’s view, “A fundamentally Stoic approach to the role of reason in human life is worth exploring in the present millennium, just as it has been during the last three.”
Not everyone will find solace in the Stoics. Epictetus in particular is not for everybody. While he could be funny, he was more often harsh.
If you do prefer your hard truths unvarnished, Epictetus might well prove your favorite, but Seneca is a gentler, more happy-go-lucky sort. A wealthy man of great power and erudition (he was tutor to Nero and in fact largely ran the empire during the first five — and uncommonly well-administered — years of Nero’s reign), he has a slightly Epicurean tinge to him.
And Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s only dual philosopher–emperor, might be the most remarkable Stoic of all, not least for being the most accessible. His diary consists of aphorisms and reminders to himself, and while we all can’t share the burdens of being the most powerful person in the world, he offers much wise advice.
But here let’s focus on the cantankerous Epictetus. Ancient Rome was a brutal place and some of his examples are extreme. Yet it is striking how his teachings so readily apply to the present, just as in the critique above about oversharing.
As Exhibit 7,899,659 that the more things change the more they stay the same, here are several excerpts from his Discourses that seem strangely applicable to today. (All quotes below come from this 1995 edition published by Everyman.) They provoke a way of thinking that is just as useful in 2014 as it was in 114, whether in times of smooth sailing or when the seas are rougher than you’d hoped.
“To Those Who Wish To Be Admired”
“Who are these people, by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not the very people whom you have been in the habit of describing as mad? What, then, do you want to be admired by madmen?”
“That We Should Not Be Angry With Those Who Fall Into Error”
“Man, if you must be affected in this unnatural way at the ills of another, you should pity him rather than hate him; give up this readiness to take offense and inclination to hatred; and do not introduce these expressions that the carping multitude use, ‘Away with these accursed and abominable idiots!’”
“To Those Who Cling Stubbornly to Whatever Judgments They Have Formed”
“What is of greater consequence and more to your advantage than to convince you that it is not sufficient to have arrived at a decision and to refuse to change it? This is the rigor of the madman, and not of a healthy man.”
“That We Should Enter Into Social Relationships With Caution”
“It is impossible to rub up against a person who is covered in soot without getting some of the soot on oneself…. You should withdraw, then, to someplace far away from the sun, as long as your opinions are made merely of wax.”
“That We Must Not Allow News to Disturb Us”
“Whenever disturbing news is brought to you, be ready with this reflection, that news can never affect anything that lies within the sphere of choice.”
“That Some Advantage May Be Gained from Every External Circumstance”
“Is my neighbor a bad one? He is so to himself; but a good one to me. He trains me to be good-tempered and fair-minded.”
“To Those Who Set Out to Become Lecturers”
“A builder does not come up and say, ‘Listen to me lecture upon the builder’s art,’ but acquires a contract to build a house and shows by building it that he knows the art.”
“To a Rhetorician Who Was Going to Rome On a Lawsuit”
“If you for your part come to acquire much property, you need still more, and whether you wish it or not, are even poorer than I am.”
“To One Who Grew Improperly Excited in the Theater”
“If you act as the masses do, you put yourself on their level.”
“Against Those Who Are Contentious and Brutal”
“Here is a person who does not listen to reason, and does not understand when he is refuted. He is an ass. Another is dead to any sense of shame. He is a worthless creature, a sheep; anything rather than a man. Here is another who is looking for somebody to kick or bite; so this one is neither a sheep nor an ass, but some kind of wild beast.”
“It is ridiculous to say, ‘Give me some advice.’ What advice am I to give you? No, what you ought to say is, ‘Enable my mind to adapt itself to whatever comes to pass.’”
“When I see somebody in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What can the man want?’ Unless he wanted something or other which is not in his own power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a person who sings to the lyre feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself, but is anxious when he enters the theater, even if he has a very fine voice and plays his instrument beautifully. For he wants not only to sing well, but to gain applause, and that lies beyond his control.”
“Mindful of what has been appointed, we should enter upon a course of instruction, not so as to change the constitution of things (which is not permitted to us, nor would it be better if it were) but, rather, seeing things as they are and as they were born to be, so that we may keep our mind in harmony with things as they come to pass.”
“Shall I fail to make use of my faculties to that purpose for which they were granted me, but lament and groan at what happens? ‘Oh but my nose is running.’ And what have you hands for, slave, but to wipe the rheum away with? … Yet I undertake to show you that you have the equipment and resources for greatness of soul and a courageous spirit: you show me what occasion you have for complaint and reproach!”
“If, trembling and lamenting all the while, you seek never to fall into misfortune, how, I ask you, are you making progress?”
“It was the principal and most peculiar characteristic of Socrates never to be provoked in a dispute, not to come out with anything abusive or insolent, but to bear patiently with those who abused him, and to put an end to the conflict.”
“How Must We Struggle Against Impressions?”
“If you want to do something, make it a habit; and if you want not to do something, abstain from doing it, and acquire the habit of doing something else in its place. This is also the case when it comes to things of the mind.”
“How Should We Behave Toward Tyrants?”
“What is by nature free, cannot be disturbed or hindered by anything but itself. But it is man’s own judgments that disturb him.”
“Dwelling, therefore, among such people, who are so confused and so ignorant of what they are saying, or of what evil they have within them, or whether they have it, or where they got it from, or how they can be freed of it, it is worthwhile, I think, to ask oneself continually, ‘Am I, perhaps, also one of these people? What do I imagine myself to be? How do I conduct myself?’”
“How Should We Struggle Against Difficulties?”
“Difficulties are the things that show what men are…. Why are we still afraid? No one else has authority over the things that seriously concern us; and the things over which others have authority are of no concern to us. What is left for us to worry about? … What is it to be reviled, for instance? Stand by a stone and revile it; and what effect will you get? If you, therefore, would listen like a stone, what would your reviler gain?”
“On What Is in Our Power, and What Is Not”
“What else than to know what is mine, and what is not mine, and what is within my power, and what is not? I must die: and must I die groaning too? —Be fettered. Must it be lamenting too? —Exiled. Can anyone prevent me, then from going with a smile and good cheer and serenity? —‘Betray the secret.’ I will not betray it; for this is in my own power. —‘Then I will fetter you.’ What are you saying, man? Fetter me? You will fetter my leg; but not even Zeus himself can get the better of my choice. ‘I will cast you into prison.’ My wretched body, rather. ‘I will behead you.’ Did I ever tell you that I alone had a head that cannot be cut off? … This is what it means to have studied what one ought to study; to have rendered one’s desires and aversions incapable of being restrained, or incurred.”
“How Is One to Preserve One’s True Character in Everything?”
“‘Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard.’ If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave it off. ‘Then I will have you beheaded.’ If it will do you any good, behead me.”
“So is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable; but it is possible to strive continuously not to commit faults.”
Traveling back a couple millennia isn’t as jarring as expected, is it? (Leaving aside his dated focus on beheadings and fetters.) With all our nonstop commentary on information overload, unchecked stress, screen addictions, FOMO compulsions, and countless other “mental disturbances,” his old advice resonates.
The Stoics advise us to abandon our fears and face life with verve, because our fears are irrational anyway. But the way they shined a light on the futility of our fears (and our desires) can sometimes be mistaken for a nascent nihilism, as in this epigram from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: “Soon you will have forgotten everything; soon everything will have forgotten you.” Far from a nihilistic “nothing matters anyway so who cares” shrug, it is an affirmation: What you’re scared of is silly; do what you must.
Perhaps because he was the first Stoic I read, to me Epictetus remains the most vivid and compelling of them. As Sandbach points out, and as some of the examples above show, the most important of Epictetus’s beliefs is “the distinction between what is in our power and what is not”:
“In our power are our way of thinking, conation, appetition, and aversion; in a word all that is our doing. Not in our power are our body, our possessions, reputation and office; in a word all that is not our doing. What is in our power is of its nature free; it cannot be prevented, it cannot be hindered. What is not in our power is weak, the slave of circumstance, liable to be stopped, in the control of others. Remember then that if you take to be free what is of its nature enslaved and think what belongs to others to be your own, you will be obstructed, you will grieve, you will be disturbed, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that nothing is yours but what is yours and that the alien is alien, no one will ever compel you, no one will stop you, you will blame no one, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will suffer no hurt.”
Such a way of life has its appeals; such a way of life seems impossible. And yet: “It is possible to strive continuously.”
To dismiss the Stoics out of hand would be a shame. Their exhaustively coherent approach to life deserves a considered reckoning, even by those who ultimately reject it. Its utility may hinge on the validity of Kant's claim: Does “ought” imply “can”? Just keep in mind that most things worth trying are never easy.
Posted on June 26, 2014.