Epictetus ‘Discourses’ 1.2

In our Brisbane Stoics meetup in March, we started exploring the Discourses.

In this video, I outline the core concepts of 1.2

Discourses: Hard Translation 1.2

How one may preserve one’s proper character in everything


In my previous presentation concerning discourses 1.1 I included a quote from the introduction of the Hard translation by Christopher Gill. As we go along I will try to locate these themes in the text which might help to give some structure to my discussion. This is not to say that this is the only way of grouping themes but given my interest in a traditional presentation of Stoicism I will use Gill’s observations in that it includes the sometimes neglected reference to the rational beings distinctive features in a providentially ordered cosmos. Here is the quote again-

“We can identify three subjects or clusters of subjects that are especially prominent in the Discourses. All three subjects are also important in other writings on Stoic ethics, though Epictetus’ treatment sometimes has distinctive emphases. One is our capacity for rational agency, and second our capacity for ethical (especially social) development; a third is the idea that these capacities form key distinctive features of human nature within the framework of a divinely shaped universe.” p. xii.

My approach to the reading going forwards will be to break them into parts, where appropriate and offer some discussion about what might be going on. I would like to emphasise that I am merely a student of Stoicism and it goes without saying that there are much more qualified commentators out there but this here is my little hobby which I enjoy putting together for my local group- the Brisbane Stoics. This caveat is not to discourage you from enjoying my presentation but to remind you to fact check what I’ve said, and also as a reminder that as an amateur there is nothing here that is not available in the public domain for any interested student to discover for themselves. If anything my goal is to share my interest in Stoicism and to suggest that you too can follow the meandering trails that intertwine the fascinating ways and byways that traverse the Stoic philosophical worldview. It’s easy enough to begin a journey starting with some aspect of Stoic logic and following that trail find yourself soon deep in the woods of Stoic physics, only to pop out further along in some verdant ethical vein of inquiry. So, lets jump into the text before I get distracted further.

[1] For a rational being, only what is contrary to nature is unendurable, while anything that is reasonable can be endured. [2] Blows are not by nature unendurable. — ‘How so?’ — Look at it in this way: Spartans will put up with a beating in the knowledge that it is a reasonable punishment. [3] — ‘But to be hanged, isn’t that past bearing?’ — When someone feels it to be reasonable, though, he’ll go off and hang himself. [4] In short, if we look with due care, we’ll find that there is nothing by which the rational creature is so distressed as by that which is contrary to reason, and that, conversely, there is nothing to which he is so attracted as that which is reasonable.

Given our nature, that of rational beings, it follows that so long as something appears rational to us then it is something we are much more likely to be able to accept and to make sense of. In the case of the Spartans it was rational to them and reasonable even to undergo physical discipline but if we were expected to undergo the same treatment we would not merely complain and bemoan the injustice of the experience but we would likely fall apart. Our view that such treatment is not the kind of thing we should be submitted to, that it is not reasonable treatment, makes our experience of a whipping much more devastating for us. This sounds like the set up for some sort of relativism but it sets the scene for the rest of the discourse. If it were a relativism we might expect the advice to be that we should, through some kind of mental technique, make all irrational things rational in order then to make them bearable to us. This immediately becomes absurd- and despite the fact that there is a tendency towards relativistic thinking in the Western moral mindset we recognise that concern for the safety and welfare of the individual makes any account that rationalises harm likely to meet fierce resistance. But what about suicide, after all that results in harm to the individual and is a difficult issue for people to account for. As we all know- a person where they see no other solution, where it seems reasonable to do so- may go on to hang themselves, whereas for others who have never experienced such intolerable conditions at which point all hope escapes them- they find such an option irrational and very difficult to comprehend.

As an alternative to a setup for an argument that there is no rational ground by which we can base our assessments of reasonableness, we might instead consider that the apparent relativity arises despite a rational ground. It is precisely because the beliefs that underpin our choices are grounded in reason that it appears rational to the one who holds the view. In fact, when a belief fails to accord with the standards of reasonableness set by our beliefs the consequences are taken as intolerable.

[5] But these concepts of the reasonable and unreasonable mean different things to different people, as do those of good and bad, and the profitable and unprofitable. [6] It is for that reason above all that we have need of education, so as to be able to apply our preconceptions of what is reasonable and unreasonable to particular cases in accordance with nature. [7] Now, to determine what is reasonable or unreasonable, not only do we have to form a judgement about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character.

As Nussbaum notes in her ‘therapy of desire’ a belief can be descriptively rational (based on cognitions) but independently either true or false. So perhaps we can approach the text as having for its topic, things that are descriptively rational, such as beliefs and opinions that make claims about what is true or false, good or bad, whilst at the same time being either normatively rational or not. The distinction here between normative reasoning and otherwise, is in the correctness of the use of reason. So, in this case a person can have a set of beliefs which are descriptively rational and is able to make conclusions about the world, that from a Stoic point of view, are irrational. The person well educated in the use of reason will be expected to be able to know how to live according to reason, that is to make normative selections, knowing what is in fact good and bad and not merely accepting the conclusions offered by the uneducated, untrained or uncritical use of reason.

It is worth pointing out that in Nussbaum’s observation, regarding the distinction between normative and descriptive rationality, she is specifically describing emotion. But regardless, the same process is likely at play here in this discourse. This is the case given that emotions are taken by the Stoics not as merely irrational but as based on descriptively rational processes, that is beliefs about things. Rather it is the character of these beliefs that decide their overall status as rational or irrational.

At this juncture you might be tempted to say, “hang on what does this particular discourse have to do with emotion?” What particularly interests me about the Stoic description of emotion is that emotion is viewed as the affective output of a certain type of belief. As just described, beliefs are descriptively rational and just because some types of belief are in effect emotions does not exclude from our rational assessment of normativity. In fact, it may even be the case, that the appearance of certain types of emotion are indicative of the improper use of reason and therefore translated into Stoic psychology, the tendency of certain types of emotions to appear in a person’s experience is a symptom of disorder. The person habitually misuses reason and ultimately makes ‘irrational’ assessments about the nature of things, the objective value of externals and of their own place in the world. In short, this failure to adequately assess reason prevents a person from living in accord with Nature, which has negative consequences for one’s own rational development which encompasses their psychological and moral health. Living in accord with Reason is not merely an act of obedience as we will find from Epictetus’ discussion regarding preconceptions. It recognises that we as rational beings- living in a rationally ordered cosmos have within us the same principles and processes that govern the universe at large. By identifying within our own individual nature these principles we can align our own activity such that it accords with macrocosmic Nature, and given that from the Stoic point of view Nature is the equivalent of God, by pursuing above all things the knowledge of the correct use of reason, we are then living pious lives. This way of thinking about the text brings us to one of the key themes indicated by Gill in his introduction to the Hard translation “the idea that these capacities form key distinctive features of human nature within the framework of a divinely shaped universe.”

In this section Epictetus has just now introduced us to an important idea, that within us are innate concepts of good and bad which are grounded in universal reason. As explained by A. A. Long “[Epictetus’] essential point is that everyone is innately equipped with a moral sense, or rather a shared stock of general concepts that furnish the basic capacity for making objective discriminations between good and bad, and so on. Because people naturally have this endowment, they tend to think… that they know the specifics of goodness and happiness, or right and wrong, and can therefore make correct value judgements in particular cases.” p. 80.

The problem we run into is articulating these preconceptions to fit with specific instances. As Epictetus points out, the general sense that we know what is good and bad gives us a false confidence in being able to say with accuracy whether specific situations are in fact good or bad. And to make matters worse, this false confidence meets other conditions in the world that make the task of using reason appropriately even more difficult. These complications according to the discourse concern having to form “judgement about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character.”

In discourses 1.1 we discussed Epictetus’ formulation of the Stoic view, that we should be concerned only with what is within our own power, and its consequence for those things not in our power. From such a perspective external things have no intrinsic moral value and cannot legitimately be placeholders for objective values. In short, external things are in themselves neither good nor bad. But nonetheless most if not all of us form attachments to the contrary belief and come to see external things as valuable in themselves and assent to such makes them sources of motivation. The Stoic view is that such beliefs alter our character, shaping our disposition, truncating our rational and therefore moral development and exposing us to inevitable misfortune and ruin. More can be said about the conditions that make accurate judgement more difficult, but let’s proceed with the text with the idea of Normative reason in mind, and with the idea that what is being discussed has to do with the potential of the rational human subject to live well given that the capacity to do so is already built into us.

[8] It is thus reasonable for one person to hold out a chamber pot for another simply in view of the fact that, if he fails to do so, he’ll get a beating and no food, but will suffer no rough or painful treatment if he does hold it; [9] whereas, for another person, it won’t just seem intolerable to hold out a pot himself, but even to allow someone else to do so for him. [10] If you ask me, then, ‘Shall I hold out the pot or not?’, I’ll reply that it is of greater value to get food than not to get it, and a worse thing to be beaten than not to be beaten, so if you measure your interests by these standards, you should go and hold out the pot. [11] ‘Yes, but that would be beneath me.’ It is for you to take that further point into consideration, not me, since you’re the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you’ll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices.

Here Epictetus offers us a clear account of the preconception of what is better and what is worse. It is better (we would all agree) to not be hungry and to not get as beating. But Epictetus raises an important question, at least for the Stoics, regarding the value of what is up to us, what is our proper area of concern, namely our use of belief and its relation to our own character. It is implied here that what is up to us also involves working out how preconceptions should be applied to specific situations such that they improve or at least do not compromise ones character. The correct us of preconceptions has to do with understanding that in all cases the right use will never compromise character even if that means one is exposed to physical deprivation or discomfort, or the loss of other externally dependent items such as wealth, popular esteem or status. Although, from a common sense perspective this may seem harsh, it again shows the rational consistency of Stoicism and the congruency of its apparent parts of physics, ethics and logic. For that part of the individual which is a trace of the larger cosmic whole, the preconceptions in themselves are identical with the kinds of processes that bind the cosmos together into a functioning, living, coordinated whole. There is a consistency and reliability at work here that seems to be lacking in the common sense view or rather common conception of what is good and bad. And it goes a step further than that, its consistency comes by making the rational individual a part of the whole and provides consolation and succour that far outweighs that which an individual as an isolated ego can achieve. Here we have both a coherent rational account of being and at the same time a remedy for existential angst.

Epictetus now gives some examples of classic Stoic responses to the topic at hand-

[ 12 ] That’s why, when Florus was considering whether he should attend Nero’s show to perform some part in it himself, Agrippinus said to him, ‘Go!’; [13] and when Florus asked him, ‘Then why aren’t you going yourself?’, he replied, ‘Because I’ve never even considered it.’ [14] For as soon as anyone begins to consider such questions, assessing and comparing the values of external things, he comes near to being one of those people who have lost all sense of their proper character. [15] What are you asking me, then? ‘Is death or life to be regarded as preferable?’ I answer: Life. [16] ‘Pain or pleasure?’ I answer: Pleasure. ‘But if I don’t agree to play a role in the tragedy, I’ll lose my head.’ [17] Go and play that role then, but I won’t play one. ‘Why?’ Because you regard yourself as being just one thread among all the threads in the tunic. ‘So what follows?’ You should consider how you can be like other people, just as one thread doesn’t want to be marked out from all the other threads. [ 18 ] But for my part, I want to be the purple, the small gleaming band that makes all the rest appear splendid and beautiful. Why do you tell me, then, to ‘be like everything else’? In that case, how shall I still be the purple? [ 19 ] Helvidius Priscus saw this too, and having seen it, acted upon it. When Vespasian sent word to him to tell him not to attend a meeting of the Senate, he replied, ‘It lies in your power not to allow me to be a senator, but as long as I remain one, I have to attend its meetings.’ [20] — ‘Well, if you do attend, hold your tongue.’ — ‘If you don’t ask for my opinion, I’ll hold my tongue.’ — ‘But I’m bound to ask you.’ — ‘And I for my part must reply as I think fit.’ [21] — ‘But if you do, I’ll have you executed.’ — ‘Well, when have I ever claimed to you that I’m immortal? You fulfil your role, and I’ll fulfil mine. It is yours to have me killed, and mine to die without a tremor; it is yours to send me into exile, and mine to depart without a qualm.’ [22] What good, you ask, did Priscus achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest? [23] Another man, if he’d been told by Caesar to stay away from the Senate in such circumstances, would have replied, ‘Thank you for excusing me.’ [24] But Caesar wouldn’t have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place, knowing that he would either sit there like a jug, or else, if he did speak, would say exactly what he knew Caesar would want him to say, piling on plenty more in addition.

The examples offered by Epictetus are a good example of one of the themes Christopher Gill encourages us to notice in the text- “Our capacity for ethical (especially social) development.” From the examples we can see that the Stoics injunction to live according to nature includes not only our rational commitments but also our social ones. Accordingly, proper rational conduct in the social sphere is given as a guide to life and as a way of responding to adversity. Often critics of Stoicism will say that the Stoics choose to take a passive approach to adversity and fail to stand up for justice. But in this example that is clearly not the case. The Stoic, understanding that to be concerned with oneself means to be concerned with what is in his power is committed to maintaining his character despite the activities of others around him. Whereas others might feel powerless to respond to the tyrant the Stoic shows equanimity and carries out his commitments despite the threats to his life, as he knows full well that although his life might be in danger his commitment to virtue and his overall well being is not. In this manner he becomes ‘kingly’ which is represented by the purple stripe. In one way this is the perfect response and demonstration of resistance to earthly power, by showing to the tyrant the manner of which every rational being has within it the capacity to be free from all forms of control and coercion. The soul of the Stoic is an inner citadel that no external tyrant can penetrate. This theme appears in the immortal poetry of Boethius, who was clearly influenced by the Stoics and through his own response to adversity became that gleaming band, making the whole so much more beautiful and setting a fine example for the rest of us-

“He who hungers for power must learn

To tame that dangerous appetite;

He must never bend his neck to the heavy

Yoke of that pernicious lust.

All India may quake at his name

And Ultima Thule forward its tribute,

But close at hand, by day and night,

Misery and terror attend him

To mock both him and his powerless power.”

-Boethius, The Consolation of philosophy.

The symbol of the purple stripe becomes the true strength of the Stoic in his dealing with the appearance of worldly power. On the one hand he knows what is up to him and his own character is never in danger and on the other he has been given an opportunity to fulfill a social obligation, to point out that each of us is a site of resistance to which every tyrant is powerless. In doing so the Stoic is being an exemplar to others, and not in some abstract intellectual way but making his life a demonstration of the kind of ‘kingly’ power given to us by our connection with the gods, in other words the rational faculty of which its correct use entails freedom from coercion and control and all misfortune.

This theme of ‘kingliness’ and of false power also directs us back to our earlier discussion concerning those complications which appear to frustrate our understanding and use of preconceptions.

In Margaret Graver’s book ‘Stoicism and Emotion” (2007), she outlines a twofold cause that appears to be responsible for “the regular occurrence of certain specific kinds of error, namely, strong or uncompromising evaluations of such external objects as money, pleasure, fame and their opposites.” p. 153. Graver provides this summary from Diogenes Laertius-

“The rational animal is corrupted sometimes by the persuasiveness of things from without, sometimes through the teaching of our associates. For the starting points which nature provides are uncorrupted”

So, to unpack, the twofold cause- those which misleads us from our uncorrupted starting point- related to the appearance of things on the one hand and on the other to what we are taught by our parents, friends, teachers, the media and society in general.

Of the first it is argued that the things that are good for us are often accompanied by feelings of pleasure. This occurrence of pleasure is incidental to what is good and the account offered in Cicero’s On Ends has his Stoic Spokesman Cato denying “that infants have any natural commitments to pleasure for its own sake; instead, what one has from birth is only an orientation to one’s own constitution; that is, a sense of attachment to one’s natural way of functioning, both physically and psychologically, and a preference for the kinds of objects that tend to preserve it” p. 152.

The issue of confusion and the corruption of our ‘pure’ starting point- which I am taking to be synonymous with Epictetus’ preconceptions, arises when the developing human fails to distinguish between what is good for oneself- that is what meets the needs of ones own constitution- and the feeling of pleasure that often accompanies it. When this happens over time the distinction between the two items is lost and they are conflated resulting in problematic consequences for our ability to judge the worth of external things. In this way we are conditioned to see pleasure or riches, or glory as the good, and the worthwhile goal of activity, at the expense of Virtue, which necessarily requires us to orient to the objective value of externals and to make use of them accordingly.

The goal of human life as being towards the attainment of rational ends is subsumed by the pursuit of pleasure and taken as an end in itself is ruinous to moral character because it compromises the autonomy of the governing faculty, and betrays ones commitments to ones nature as a rational-social being. This of course means that from the Stoic perspective- which takes our individual selves to be a part of the whole- we not only harm our own character, but we also mislead others and become part of the perverting twofold cause. Furthermore, given the unreliability of external things in securing happiness we begin to find fault in our experience of the world and fail to appreciate the wonder of life. That rational part which marks us out as unique and is equivalent to a divine spark, is neglected and cheapened. We become like animals responding automatically to stimulus with response. How could nature not be offended, and if not capable of offense then perhaps we might say that nature is wasted in us, and in the sense that nature is wasted and not brought to its proper use, then surely it is harmed. This is the kind of gravity that the Stoics place of the right use of reason.

But I was actually interested in talking about the ‘kingly’ connotation of the purple stripe and its relation to the twofold cause. Calcidius, who is writing in the 4th Century, and therefore later than Epictetus, also discussing the twofold cause agrees that the association between meeting the requirements of one’s constitution and pleasure brings about a “natural belief that everything sweet and pleasurable is good, and that what brings pain is bad and ought to be avoided” (Graver, 2007, p. 156).

Calcidius extends this side of the twofold cause showing how it is in his view, that people come to displace Virtue as the proper goal-

“As [people] mature, they retain this belief that everything nice is good, even if not useful, and that everything troublesome, even if it brings some advantage is bad. Consequently, they love riches, which are the foremost means of obtaining pleasure, and they embrace glory rather than honour. For humans are by nature inclined to pursue praise and honour, since honour is the testimony to virtue. But those who are wise and engaged in the study of wisdom know what sort of virtue they ought to cultivate, while people do not know about things and so cultivate glory, that is, popular esteem, in place of honour. And in place of virtue they pursue a life steeped in pleasures, believing that the power to do what one wants is the superiority of a king. For humans are by nature kingly, and since power always accompanies kingship, they suppose that kingship likewise accompanies power…

Similarly, since the happy person necessarily enjoys life, they think that those who live pleasurably will be happy. Such, I think, is the error which arises ‘from things’ to possess the human mind.” p. 156.

Calcidius’s commentary makes for a fitting comparison with Epictetus use of the ‘purple stripe’.

Not only does our natural goal to preserve our constitution and its accidental association with pleasure often become an issue but also humans have other natural goals that can likewise become associated with other externally contingent experiences. On this Graver’s (2007) says-

“Part of our native endowment is a predilection for mastery, which motivates us to assume control over our surroundings. But not every exercise of power is a manifestation of the human being’s proper controlling role; rather power supervenes on that role just as pleasure supervenes on the flourishing condition.

Where honour and glory are concerned there is an additional level of confusion to be sorted out. Humans are by nature inclined to pursue praise and honour, for honour, says Calcidius is “the testimony to virtue”: it has a reliable connection to virtuous action and for that reason constitutes a legitimate object of choice. But humans frequently make the mistake of cultivating another form of praise which is here called “glory” or “popular esteem,” deceived apparently by the resemblance between justified and unjustified praise. Thus popular esteem stands at two removes from the real source of value: honour is derived from virtue, and popular esteem is then confused with honour.” p. 157.

Clearly Epictetus desire to be the ‘purple stripe’ is the normatively rational expression of his understanding that mastery is concerned with oneself, and the use of what is up to us and has nothing to do with the desire for worldly power often associated with rulership. To be the ‘purple stripe’ in Epictetus’ analogy involves the clear differentiation of natural goals from qualities or states of experience that accidentally co-occur. This act of conscious recognition of the true goals of the rational being, captures the essence of mastery, as mastery over appearances. Mastery is simply just the natural state of the rational human being who successfully makes the use of reason his conscious priority. Epictetus’ is here educating us about the importance between knowing the distinction between the correct use of one’s natural capacities and falling for the persuasive appearance of things.

I have spent some time on this point as I think it’s worth contemplating. This idea that the wrong objects are often valued due to their supervening on other natural goals, raises questions about the health of the values that motivate our ordinary everyday behaviour. Psychologists in various cognitivist schools refer to values as “activities that give our lives meaning” (LeJeune & Luoma, 2019) and are sometimes described as being part of an inner compass that directs us toward a flourishing life. From a Stoic reading this approach may be problematic, in that our values may in fact be toward valuing the wrong objects, those items that become associated with our natural goals and can clearly become stand-ins for the activity that is normatively required. In this sense, if the Stoics are correct then psychologists and those in the helping professions, who uncritically help their clients to identify with and valorise their values may in fact be just another corrupting voice, part of the twofold cause that perpetuates the delusion that external things can provide a flourishing life. The Stoic psychologist on the other hand would help the client in their examination of impressions, to learn to see that what they desire may in fact be a corrupted distortion of the normatively desirable object.

I have wondered a bit from the text, but that’s ok. My intention is not to produce content that follows a strict flow typical of much academic writing. As I mentioned earlier Stoicism to me is a vast interconnected field of thought, of which each stop in the path has something interesting to teach. It is a kind of rotation of a view that shows often hidden aspects- and by wondering slowly along these paths we are often struck by the ways in which one path leads on to another and how certain byways take us past different natural features of the philosophical terrain.

Now back to discourses 1.2

[25] It is in this way that a certain athlete behaved too, when he was in danger of dying if his genitals weren’t cut off. His brother (who was a philosopher) came to him and said, ‘Well brother, what are you planning to do? Are we to cut off this part of you and go to the gymnasium as usual?’ But the athlete wouldn’t submit to that, but set his mind against it and died. [26] When someone asked, ‘How did he do that? Was it as an athlete or as a philosopher?’, Epictetus replied: As a man, and as a man who had been proclaimed as victor at Olympia, and had fought his corner there, and had passed his life in such places, rather than merely having oil smeared over him at Baton’s training ground. [27] But another man would be willing even to have his head cut off, if it were possible for him to live without a head. [28] This is what is meant by acting according to one’s character, and such is the weight that this consideration acquires among those who make a habit of introducing it into their deliberations. [29] ‘Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard.’ If I’m a philosopher, I’ll reply: I won’t shave it off. ‘Then I’ll have you beheaded.’ If it pleases you to do so, have me beheaded.

Regarding the athlete, Epictetus points out that he died as a man, indicating (as Hard’s commentary also notes) that the man’s genitals are inextricably linked with his nature as a man. His point that some would go so far as to live without their head if it would preserve their life, goes to the observation that Epictetus is making that some wisely know the value of preserving their own Natures and will not be coerced into defacing it, whereas others will do whatever it takes, perverting themselves and defacing nature in themselves out of a false belief that doing so is a better course of action than death. The Stoics of course prefer life over death but given the choice of living a life in which one’s rational autonomy is surrendered and the possibility of a virtuous life with it the Stoics, like Socrates would rather choose death- the lesser of the two evils. In fact, death in the face of the alternative option, an ignominious life is not an evil at all but perhaps a godsend as Socrates himself declares at his trial –

“If thus it [my execution] is pleasing to the gods, thus let it be’ (Plato, Crito, 43d).

And elsewhere he reminds his audience-

“No harm can come to the good man in life or in death, and his circumstances are not ignored by the gods” (Plato, Apology 41d).

Perhaps we might think that Epictetus’ refusal to allow his beard to be removed is excessive, and perhaps he is merely making a rhetorical point. But in the Roman culture of the time, beards had become associated with philosophers, so Epictetus’ point may be that the removal of his beard even as a symbolic rejection of his commitment to wisdom was untenable to him. The implication is that for someone like himself, who holds Virtue as the only thing of value, he will not budge an inch. As he says earlier in the discourse “[14] For as soon as anyone begins to consider such questions, assessing and comparing the values of external things, he comes near to being one of those people who have lost all sense of their proper character.” Epictetus is clearly telling us that for the person genuinely committed to virtue will not stop to consider the pros and cons of compromising activity. It is immediately clear to the Stoic and reflexively so as he has internalised the doctrine, that externals have no inherent value in themselves and where we are called to entertain them as items of real value, then they must be rejected immediately.

[30] Someone asked, ‘Then how will each of us come to recognize what is appropriate to his own character?’ How is it, replied Epictetus, that when a lion attacks, the bull alone is aware of its own might, and hurls itself forward on behalf of the entire herd? Isn’t it clear that the possession of such power is accompanied at the same time by an awareness of that power? [31] And in our case too, if someone possesses such power, he won’t fail to be aware of it. [32] And yet a bull doesn’t become a bull all at once, any more than a man acquires nobility of mind all at once; no, he must undergo hard winter training, and so make himself ready, rather than hurl himself without proper thought into what is inappropriate for him. [33] Only, consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure, man, that you don’t sell it cheap.

But what is great and exceptional is perhaps the province of others, of Socrates and people of that kind. [34]

‘Why is it, then, if we are fitted by nature to act in such a way, all or many of us don’t behave like that?’

What, do all horses become swift-running, or all dogs quick on the scent? [35] And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. [ 36 ] Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.       [37] For I won’t ever be a Milo either, and yet I don’t neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and I don’t neglect my property; nor in general do I cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because I despair of achieving perfection.

Epictetus view on the topic of training and progress comes to the fore here. Constant reflection on the manner in which we use impressions and the study of Stoic philosophy will help us to make progress along the path to Virtue as conceived by the Stoics. As A.A. Long observes regarding Epictetus’ approach-

“We need Stoic doctrine in order to learn that conventional goods such as health or wealth are not strictly good nor their opposites strictly bad because they are not unequivocally profitable or harmful respectively, or to learn that happiness does not consist in a succession of pleasurable sensations and an absence of painful ones. Our preconceptions need to be articulated by definitions far more precise than their ‘innate’ content involves; and we need unremitting training in order to make our conduct consonant with these refinements.” p. 82.

But the view seemingly held by Epictetus is that progress can be made and that once it is made it will become evident. Just as the Bull knows its own strength, the Stoic will also know his own when facing adversity. He will have internalised the view to such a degree that it does not even occur to him to consider external things as worthwhile items for consideration. His character, the views he takes, his response to impression, his character, these are the things that concern him and are not the kinds of things that he weighs against infinitely inferior alternatives.

But what of the student who is afraid that he will never be completely free of vice? Who seems to think that the Stoic doctrine demands too much, and that he lacks the inner resources to completely fulfil such a commitment. Epictetus is entirely generous here, he knows how difficult it is to live as a Stoic with the kind of vigilance required to consistently reject the persuasive appearance of false goods. We get the impression that his student here is a young man and that young people are often dissuaded from practice if perfection is not on the immediate horizon. With maturity we realise that sometimes it’s not perfection that’s needed but the desire to keep working on things, especially where those things concern the preservation of our natural constitution. It is likely that if the student can be encouraged to continue the work, internalising the lessons and mastering the doctrine that his life will be immeasurably improved. And although he may not become a sage, he may yet become an exemplar the kind of person we can look up to when guidance is needed.

In closing, Stoic philosophy offers an important critique to worldviews, like our own, that often identifies the goal of life with external acquisition and achievement. I am of the opinion that we are desperately in need of such a critique and way of life given the ubiquity of the voices, both lay and expert that corroborate the view that externals can reliably lead to a happy flourishing life.






Leave a Reply