On 8/30/15, the full foursome plus Alex Fossella (Danny’s researcher on the Modern Day Philosophers podcast) discussed the Manual of Epictetus, aka the Handbook or Enchiridion, written around 135 CE by Epictetus’s pupil Arrian (but unlike Plato’s accounts of Socrates, these seem more likely to be Epictetus’s actual words noted down).
Stoicism is one of the big ancient wisdom traditions (we’ve covered skepticism too, and still need to get to Epicureanism) that grew out of Plato, founded on the idea that life needs examining because things aren’t as they seem and received values are, on closer reflection, largely wrong.
In the case of Epictetus (a former slave in the early Roman empire), he certainly didn’t invent Stoicism (you can read the Stanford article for some background on the movement as a whole) but solidified in ethical form that’s come down to us today via Augustine, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and others. Our modern version of Epictetus’s teaching is the Serenity Prayer, i.e., “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s pretty rare for a philosophical position to have become an actual, everyday English adjective that we understand and can utter casually without being pretentious: being stoic means you’re calm in the face of adversity, maybe detached, not saying much or getting perturbed, and all that’s definitely in Epictetus, but what’s his rationale?
He makes a sharp distinction between things in our control, which are our own judgments, desires, opinions, actions; and things not in our control, which include body, property, reputation, etc. So, you can’t generally control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it, and in fact good and bad, properly speaking, can only refer to the things in the first category. This, for Epictetus, is truth.
So, if your house burns down, you’d assume that’s bad, right? No, that badness is just an appearance, and you’ll be happier if you don’t let that appearance carry you away. Realize that the badness is really in your judgment about the situation, your judgment that it’s bad. If you can change that judgment to “It is what it is,” if you can somehow align your will to what actually happens in the world (and exhibiting this kind of self-mastery is what amounts to virtue for Epictetus), then you can be happy, no matter how things may appear to be.
You can see with this example that Epictetus’s position is much more extreme and contentious than the Serenity Prayer might indicate, and so there are a few obvious points to pick on:
First, does Epictetus identify the distinction between what we can and can’t control correctly? You could read it as equivalent to the mind-body distinction, but that seems wrong: pain seems something in the mind, yet you can’t simply make yourself not feel pain, and the same goes with many feelings, memories, images, etc. What he thinks you can control are judgments about these things and (per our Spinoza discussion) a full-on emotion always involves a judgment, not just a feeling like pain or nausea. Still, you might think that people really can’t control their emotions, and if they think they’re doing that, they’re just fooling themselves: repression or just pretentious faux-badassery.
Second, even if you can repress your emotions and realign your will in the way Epictetus says you can, would it actually be desirable, psychologically or ethically, for you to do that? Since what happens to anyone else is outside of your control, you’re commanded by Stoicism to not really care about them. Could you really be a good parent or a good romantic partner while following this philosophy? Could you fight for worthy political causes?
Third, even if you admit that a Stoic ethical point of view is coherent and psychologically feasible, does it make sense to categorize emotional reactions as “mistakes,” as not seeing truth, the way that Epictetus does? What could motivate the moral realist claims that good exists but that it only refers to human self-control and other personal virtues that derive from self-control?
Epictetus doesn’t get much into the epistemic grounding for this morality, as his philosophy alleges to be practical: He’s providing a method by which he thinks we can be happy, and so of course the only way to test it is to become what he’s recommending and compare your happiness with that displayed by others around you. And it’s true, per Buddhism and Schopenhauer and others, that if you see life as largely made up of suffering, that trying to withdraw your concern from those inevitable things that make people suffer is just prudent. But is that really a worthy goal for living life to its fullest?
You can read this free version online (that Seth and I read) of the Manual or purchase this more modern translation, which also includes The Discourses, which is a record, also by Arrian, of of Epictetus’s teaching in action; it provides more details and examples to flesh out what’s in the Manual.
Also, just so you know what you’re getting into with our guest, here’s a video that Alex wrote (and does puppeteering for):
Watch on YouTube.