Epictetus ‘Discourses’ 1.3

We further discuss the ‘Discourses’ for our Brisbane Stoics meetup.

How, from the idea that God is the father of human beings, one may proceed to what follows

Today I will offer some of my thoughts on the next chapter of our readings. This time Discourses 1.3

Returning again to Christopher Gill’s observation concerning the grouping of subjects in the discourses…

“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 a 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.

It is clear from the outset that this short chapter is going to be concerned with Gill’s third theme, that our rational agency and capacity for ethical development “form key distinctive features of human nature within the framework of a divinely shaped universe”. Let’s jump into the text and see how this theme is put to use.

[ 1 ] If only one could be properly convinced of this truth, that we’re all first and foremost children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself.

In the commentary on this section Hard tells us “Stoicism regularly presents human beings, by contrast with non-human animals, as sharing rational agency with God”. Humans are thought to contain a spark of God within them, the rational part which gives us the divine power to employ reason to penetrate the appearances of things. Whereas, animals are thought to be mostly restricted to stimulus-response when it comes to dealing with the world as it appears to them, human beings armed with reason have the unique capacity to test ‘appearances’ or ‘impressions’. Humans have a unique aptitude for being able to create a gap between stimulus and response and to be able to fill that gap with the rational processes of critique and inquiry so as to ensure that the final judgements they assent to are in accord with things as they are and not projections of their own subjectively based wishes and fears, or other forms of ignorance and bias. The overarching point for the Stoics is that reason is the defining feature of man, otherwise he is merely an animal. This includes the idea that the cosmos is a rational being and that individually we are each a part of this overall being, and that the only commitment worth pursuing is the knowledge of what one is. From this the Stoics can say our only commitments should be toward a normative understanding and use of reason as opposed to commitments that would make things outside the domain of our rational autonomy valuable to us.

Simply put, we are Cosmic Reason made conscious, we are the use of reason. External things lay outside of the domain of our rational autonomy and should be used appropriately, which includes the awareness that they have no inherent ethical value in themselves. The only value they can have for us is in our normatively rational use of them.

This all sounds quite recondite, but a simple schema might go something like this

(image) –

Like the popular modern formulation, the danger of such a simple description is that it simplifies the philosophy to a simple technique which may be useful as a learning tool but does nothing to engrain the wisdom of the philosophy. Such a tool may indeed remind us to question impressions, which is a fundamentally requisite habit, but it does not adequately instruct us in understanding the deeper and transformational aspects of the philosophy. These shorthand descriptions might serve some useful heuristic purpose but we must be careful not to allow the device to operate for us. We must learn to ‘see’ in a certain way to identify with ourselves as beings of rational purpose and not merely ape or act out a method. Stoic philosophy must coincide with our conception of ourselves and operate from deep within and not be a mere activity of recall of the type Plato warns against when he speaks of certain types of writing-

“At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Thoth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.

Now in those days Thaumus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is the district surrounding the great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Thoth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thaumus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use of repeating all that Thaumus said to Thoth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when he came to letters, ‘This’, said Thoth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly’. Thaumus replied: ‘O most ingenious Thoth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact; for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ soul, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality’”.

Plato, Phaedrus.

The point is that recall of writing or technical prescriptions may produce certain activities, but without knowledge it cannot produce virtue. This kind of resort to technique does indeed have useful consequences and are used in psychotherapy to reduce psychological distress but arguably, at the cost of their original purpose, as just part of a much broader set of activities designed to inculcate philosophical doctrine. John Sellars makes this argument in his article “Roman Stoic Mindfulness: An Ancient Technology of the Self”, definitely a worthwhile read.

The implications of this for Stoicism is that a reduction to a set of psychological techniques may reduce the utility of Stoicism, downgrading it to a modern set of psychotherapeutic practices aimed at decreasing psychological distress for the individual. Whereas, the goal of Stoicism seems more to me a critique of the ‘common opinion’ that unmediated judgement is an adequate guide to ethical life and that external things have value in themselves and are appropriate objects of desire. Furthermore, Stoicism focuses on our interconnection with others and our duties and obligations toward them, recognising the rational (and therefore divine kinship) that connects us.

This discussion, based just on a few lines of Stoic text and an appreciation for the larger themes at play presents us with a perspective that locates our rational capacities and ethical development within the context of a divinely ordered whole. Why would we seek to downgrade this noble and normatively healthy view of the cosmos and our place in it, reducing it instead to a series of practices that makes distress management the end goal. Epictetus directs us to imagine what life could be like if you knew that you were a child of the living Cosmos, you would never harbour any ignoble thought about yourself. Imagine what kind of life you could make for yourself if you understood the implication of what has been given to you, the capacity to use reason to get what you need to live well.

Lets see what comes next…

 [2] Why, if Caesar were to adopt you, no one would be able to endure your conceit; so if you know that you’re a son of God, won’t you be filled with pride? [ 3 ] As things stand, however, we don’t react in that way, but since these two elements have been mixed together in us from our conception, the body, which we have in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share with the gods, some of us incline towards the kinship that is wretched and mortal, and only a few of us towards that which is divine and blessed. [4] Now since everyone, whoever he may be, is bound to deal with each matter in accordance with the belief that he holds about it, those few who think they were born for fidelity, for self-respect, and for the sound use of impressions will never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about themselves, whereas the majority of people will do exactly the opposite. [5] ‘For what am I? A poor wretched man,’ they say, or ‘This miserable flesh of mine’. [6] Miserable, to be sure, but you also have something better in you than that poor flesh. Why do you neglect that, then, and attach yourself to what is mortal? [7] It is because of this kinship with the flesh that some of us who incline towards it become like wolves, perfidious, treacherous, noxious creatures; or others like lions, wild, savage, and untamed creatures; or in most cases like foxes, or something even more ignominious and base. [8] For what else is a slanderous and ill-natured person than a fox, or something even more unfortunate and base. [9] Watch out, then, and take care that you don’t end as one of these wretched creatures!

As Hard points out in the commentary, the two elements referred to here are not meant to introduce a dualism that does not exist in Stoic theory but rather “Epictetus uses the contrast to mark an ethical distinction between using our rational agency in a way that reflects the aspiration towards virtue or in the opposite way”. p 307. So, what is at stake here is the consequences of the use of reason. Used correctly reason directs us in a life appropriate to rational beings- emphasizing our rational autonomy, ethical integrity and our liberation from misfortune. This use of reason takes what is natural to the rational being and applies them as the principles by which to live by, it is the equivalence of piety as living in accord with reason is same thing as making wise use of what is given by Nature. As we have previously discovered in 1.1 such a person has the power of “making good use of impressions” and “won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone”.

On the other hand the person who fails to know the value of the rational capacities and who identifies merely with their body and seeks happiness in pleasure or in other externally contingent things is much more likely to be unhappy in life. But worse than that, the person who identifies worth with things that can be taken from them or that inevitably fail to satisfy our desires, must necessarily have the kind of false beliefs that open them up to the passions. They must look forward to emotional upheaval, the prospect of devastating and demoralizing loss, they will be in danger of feeling like victims or becoming vicious themselves. By misusing reason, a person has become much more like an animal. Their response to a stimulus has no intervening rational critique, there is nothing to stop them from applying false beliefs to impressions. The results are that the life they live is fraught, open to disturbance and destructive passion, the conclusions they draw from appearances are false realities and they have descended into a degraded life of delusion. Reality gives way to fantasy and the proper end of the human, his/her rational telos is truncated. At some inner level we must experience the cruelty we do to ourselves when we deny our selves the ability to live in the real world. Denial of reality is a slow death.

Freud theorised that our escapist behaviour was motivated by the conflict between the pleasure principle and reality- saying that the inner distress is reduced through the application of distraction, substitution or intoxication.

(Dr. Johnson- He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man)

This observation is insightful, but rather than the discomfort being caused by a failure to satisfy libidinal needs I like to think that Stoic philosophy offers an alternative explanation. The rational being fails to understand its nature and its kinship with ‘Men and Gods’ and consequently fails to meet the requirements of reality. To contradict reality is a recipe for disaster, it is an anomaly, an aberration, a cancerous thing that needs to be excised.

Marcus Aurelius notices the same thing writing in his journal-

The soul of man does violence to itself, first of all, when it becomes an abscess and, as it were, a tumour on the universe, so far as it can. For to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained.” Book 3.16

Failure to actualise our nature leads to a condition of existential distress. We have taken a thing of inestimable value and polluted it and at some level we know it. The slow torment the sensitive soul feels and the dense one denies requires it to find succour in distraction, substitution or intoxication. It is no wonder our culture has developed a myriad of ways in which a person can indulge themselves. Consumerism goes hand in hand with individualism to lance the boils and cauterise the tumours helping to manage our illness and prevent it from becoming a terminal condition.

Well that got kind of heavy. Sorry about that.

Too return to Epictetus’ metaphor, that people who are fixated on the pleasures and the body become like wild animals. This connection to stimulus and response and the misuse of reason we have well established but an older use of this metaphor is preserved in Plato’s Phaedo (and has a presumably Pythagorean origin). It goes beyond the concern for the immediate life of the person in question and has Socrates speculating on the consequences for the bearers soul-

“These must be the souls, not of the good, but of the evil, who are compelled to wander about such places in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until the desire which haunts them is satisfied and they are imprisoned in another body…

Men who have followed after gluttony, and wantonness, and drunkenness, and have had no thought of avoiding them, would pass into assess and animals of that sort…

And those who have chosen the portion of injustice, and tyranny, and violence, will pass into wolves, or hawks and kites…

But he who is a philosopher or lover of learning, and is entirely pure at departing, is alone permitted to reach the gods”

The Stoics are not concerned so much with life after death as it appears Socrates may have been but they are indeed concerned with the state of the soul and that it should resemble that of a rational being – and not of a lesser creature. As I have explored, the argument is not ideological at all but rather based on the Stoic understanding of physics. That the world is as the world is and that we are the kind of being that can fit with the order of things or alternatively act contrarily. Our choice produces for us and through us either harmony or disharmony- this is a serious matter; the consequences are worth considering.






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