Epictetus ‘Discourses’ 1.4 – On Progress

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

Transcript below

Given the heading of this reading, I thought it appropriate to start with a reflection from Seneca which is in Letter V.

I view with pleasure and approval the way you keep on at your studies and sacrifice everything to your single-minded efforts to make yourself every day a better man.

Refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement

Each day we want to better ourselves. We want to make progress. But what exactly is progress? What makes us a better person? Of all of the things we could be doing or be focused on, what should we be doing?

When I think about progress, I think about getting better in certain domains in my life. I think about my relationship with my family. My health and fitness. My technical abilities to configure systems better at work. At being a better listener. In some ways I operate on auto pilot, as I have had conversations with myself already on what’s important. That’s why I end up at the gym most mornings lifting heavy things, or on the climbing wall, or out on walks so I’m healthy. I have my own values that I try and uphold, so we spend a lot of time with our families and our close friends. I read books to improve how I listen and communicate. To improve my knowledge on things that are of interest to me like ancient history and health. 

In what ways are you making progress in your own lives?

Based on this, we could argue that  we are making lots of good progress. But are we making progress in the ways that matter?

To answer with a Stoic lens, first we need to step back and recap. Living a life of philosophy is our starting point, as it frames where we should be aiming. For Stoics, virtue is the North Star. Virtue is what we need to make progress on, along with other things in our lives so that we are living in accordance with Nature. As Epictetus remarks in part 5, ‘What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly?’

What do you think the Stoics mean by virtue? Prompters – do you agree that it’s a form in knowledge, or that it’s grounded in knowledge?

Knowledge about how the world is. How to be a rational being in the world. Socrates – builders know how to build a house because they have then teaching and knowledge – they learnt and then applied their knowledge. It’s both combined.

Virtue could be loosely defined as living well in every way. Broken down into four categories, virtue is having and displaying wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage in our daily lives. 

So back to our questions on what it is that we need to focus on to make progress.

For the Stoics, and many of the philosophies of ancient times, philosophy was about how one should live day by day. They are based on the practicalities of daily life, rather than abstract theories that are for debate. 

This is why Socrates in particular so was fascinated with builders, doctors, bakers, soap makers – as to him it is about the application of knowledge into daily life. 

To make progress, we have to remember to not be a passive reader or consumer of information. We need to live the theories and put them into practice.

If we are just focused on reading books about Stoicism, or philosophies, or leadership, culture, family, and so forth, then our progress will only amount to learning as much about particular subject matters as we can. We haven’t yet put anything into practice. Have we made progress? Perhaps in knowledge, but not in implementation. 

The same can be said about the athlete. Heavy weights are great to throw around, but until we can show how we have benefited from them – such as increased strength, endurance, or size – have we actually made progress? 

It could be argued, I think, that it is the realisation of a benefit, by using it in our life that we make progress. 

I’m really interested in health, fitness, travel, business. So I tend to this in these elements. But they apply in all areas. When we start a new job, we struggle at first because we are increasing our knowledge and trying to apply it in our daily lives. Over time, we become more competent in doing something that is good, and that is when we realise progress. 

We want to cultivate our character. Free ourselves of desire for indifferent things and of outcomes not in our control. Put our principles into practice in every situation. Apply what we have learnt and studied. That is a key theme. That we live out out philosophy. That we progress each day. That we act.

One could argue why does it matter what we pursue and what we make progress in. 

Why do we need to think so much about our character and cultivating how we act within the world and in accordance with Nature? 

Part of the role of a Stoic is that we make progress with our own character, that first circle, and then expand our focus outwards toward family, community, and then the world. 

Before we look to our Ancient Stoic friends for guidance, what do you think are some practical day to day ways we can make progress?

What does Epictetus think?

[20] “from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship [21] – that is where you will see true progress embodied.”

Epictetus has harsh words for those that only want to read and consume

[22] “But anyone whose sole passion is reading books, and who does little else besides, having moved here for this – my advice for them is to go back home immediately and attend to business there, [23] because they left home for nothing. A student should practice how to expunge from his life sighs and sorrow, grief and disappointment, exclamations like ‘poor me’ and ‘alas’; [24] he should learn what death is, as well as exile, jail and hemlock, so at the end of the day he can say, like Socrates in prison, ‘Dear Crito, if it pleases the gods, so be it.”

What about the other Stoics?

It’s not just Epictetus that is focused on the idea of focusing improving oneself, of looking within, or knowing where to aim.

Marcus Aurelius comes back to this idea quite a few times in his Meditations.

Book Six, part 4. “Focus on what is said when you speak and on what results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means.”

Book Six, part 7. “Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”

Here we can take meaning that one should accept physical and social support to help us achieve our goals. I think we can also take this as needing help from philosophy – of looking to texts and revisiting our own actions to make sure we are getting the right help to improve ourselves and move forward.

Book Seven, part 69. “Perfection of character: to live your last day; every day; without frenzy, or sloth, or pretence.”

Likewise, Seneca reflects on making progress in his letters.

Letter V. “I view with pleasure and approval the way you keep on at your studies and sacrifice everything to your single-minded efforts to make yourself every day a better man.” Seneca then goes on to offer some practical advice to daily living including keep tidy appearances and to be clean. To do otherwise, Seneca claims, would be to go against nature. 

In Letter VI, Seneca calls attention to his own shortcomings, remaking, “Naturally there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or firmed down or eliminated.”

The Sage

Our meeting today has been about making progress. The end of progress is signified in the image of the sage. This is a Central theme of Stoic philosophy. 

  • What is the Sage in your understanding? 
  • What about role models that we want in our lives? 
  • Do they have a place if we are wanting to be the Sage? 
  • Do we accept imperfection and have other mortals around us that we admire for what they are and how they act?

The sage is an individual who has mastered the art of living. One who always acts appropriate in all manner of their life. It makes sense then, that a large part of our journey in living as a Stoic is to progress ourselves as close as we can towards becoming a Sage. Due to the perfection of the Sage, we ourselves will never get there, but still we need to improve ourselves in living out our philosophy and getting as close as we can to becoming a Sage. In fact, John Sellars, in his book Stoicism (p38) points out that the Stoics have a word for individuals who are ‘making progress’ (prokopē). Those who “aspire after wisdom but who are not themselves wise.”






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