Epictetus’ Stoicism in nine crucial steps

“Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.” (Enchiridion, 51)

The Stoics openly called themselves “Socratics,” thus acknowledging the debt their philosophy owed to the gadfly from Athens. Epictetus in particular often refers to Socrates in both the Discourses and the Enchiridion, and a 2013 paper by Mark Lamarre, entitled “The Socratism of Epictetus:
The influence of Plato’s Gorgias on Stoicism,” makes the connection between the two philosophers crystal clear in just a few pages. (Hat tip to my friend Greg Lopez for directing my attention to the paper during the recent Stoic Camp New York 2020.)

While Lamarre’s paper is mostly devoted to a side-by-side comparison between Epictetus and the Socrates of the Platonic dialogue called the Gorgias, here I want to remark on nine crucial steps highlighted by Lamarre that, taken as a whole, well represent the essence of Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism. Needless to say, given Epictetus’ very practical bent, these nine steps also have profound implications for our day-to-day life, if we actually accept and implement them. So here we go:

1. Every one acts according to what they think is good

“Do people then apply themselves earnestly to the things which are bad? By no means. Well, do they apply themselves to things which in no way concern themselves? Not to these either. It remains then that they employ themselves earnestly only about things which are good; and if they are earnestly employed about things, they love such things also.” (Discourses, 2.22.1-3)

Here we find the classic Stoic distinction among things that are good, things that are bad, and things that are (morally) indifferent. The basic notion is that people always seek what they think is good for them. Of course they may be, and often are, mistaken about what that is, but that’s a different story. This isn’t a pollyannish view of people, it’s a basic observation about normal human behavior.

2. The worst evil is false opinion of what is right and wrong

“And yet not to know the criterion of colors and smells, and also of tastes, is perhaps no great harm; but if someone does not know the criterion of good and bad, and of things according to nature and contrary to nature, does this seem to you a small harm? The greatest harm (I think).” (Discourses, 1.11. 11)

If people always do what seems good to them then it follows that knowledge of good and bad is crucial, or we risk misliving our lives. For the Stoics, the only good thing is whatever improves our character, and the only bad thing is whatever undermines it. Everything else may be preferred or dispreferred, but it’s not truly good or bad. Notice that here Epictetus mentions the famous Stoic motto that we should live in agreement with nature, which means two things: the nature of the world, and human nature. In modern terms, the first meaning translates into living by understanding how the world works and not indulging in wishful thinking about how we wished it worked. The second meaning focuses on the two attributes that Stoics think are most characteristic of humanity: our ability to reason and our high degree of sociality, both of which should therefore be the focus of our efforts.

3. No one willingly chooses to do wrong

“Every error comprehends contradiction: for since those who err do not wish to err, but to be right, it is plain that they do not do what they wish. For what does the thief wish to do? That which is for his own interest.” (Discourses, 2.26.1)

According to the Socratic approach, moral error is the result of an error in judgment. The thief who stole Epictetus’ lamp, or the tyrant who sent members of the Stoic opposition to death or in exile think they are doing the right thing, because everyone wants to do the right thing (point 1), and because they hold to a false opinion of what that right thing is (point 2). The thief thinks he actually gains by trading his integrity for a lamp, and the tyrant thinks he and the state will be better off without troublesome people who speak their mind. They are both mistaken, but not willfully so.

4. Virtue consists in shunning what is bad and pursuing what is good

“And since I was not able to do for you what I have mentioned, I have given you a small portion of us, this faculty of pursuing an object and avoiding it, and the faculty of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the faculty of using the appearances of things; and if you will take care of this faculty and consider it your only possession, you will never be hindered, never meet with impediments; you will not lament, you will not blame, you will not flatter any person.” (Discourses, 1.1.11)

Epictetus here is imagining the universe itself talking to us, and explaining that its gift to us is simple yet powerful: we are endowed with the capacity for reason, which allows us to correctly “use the appearances,” meaning to arrive at right judgments about whether something is good or not. This ability also coincides with the notion of virtue (a word that Epictetus rarely uses), and it’s crucial because if wielded correctly it allows us to live a life during which we are never hindered, we have no cause for complaint, and no reason to blame others.

5. Freedom consists in having the power to decide what is right

“Would you have me to possess power? Let me have power, and also the trouble of it. Well, banishment? Wherever I shall go, there it will be well with me; for here also where I am, it was not because of the place that it was well with me, but because of my opinions which I shall carry off with me: for neither can any man deprive me of them; but my opinions alone are mine and they cannot be taken from me, and I am satisfied while I have them, wherever I may be and whatever I am doing.” (Discourses, 4.7.18)

We tend to think that freedom is the freedom to do whatever we want, and that consequently it depends on how much money, power, and so forth we have. But for the Stoics the pursuit of externals like those simply makes us slaves of anyone who is in a position to bestow them upon us. True freedom comes from within, not without: it is the freedom to arrive at whatever judgment we think appropriate given the circumstances. Such freedom, as Epictetus says, follows us wherever we go. Including exile or prison. He ought to know, since he began his life as a slave, and ended it in exile.

6. It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong

“But a master can give me stripes. Can he do it then without suffering for it? So I also used to think. But because he cannot do it without suffering for it, for this reason it is not in his power: and no one can do what is unjust without suffering for it.” (Discourses, 4.1.121)

Socrates maintained that it is impossible for someone to do bad to others and not suffer the consequences himself. Because his character is diminished by bad actions. The victim, by contrast, is morally blameless, and paradoxically better off, in a sense. Epictetus uses the specific example, with which I’m sure he was intimately familiar, of a master who abuses his slave. The story goes that Epictetus’ master one day was angry and twisted Epictetus’ leg. The future philosopher observed the proceedings, calmly stating “you know, if you keep going like that the leg will break.” Which it did. Epictetus then added: “I told you it would break.” He remained lame for the rest of his life. Incidentally, we don’t know Epictetus’ real name, epíktētos in Greek simply means “acquired.”

7. Vice is a disease of the soul

“In this manner certainly, as philosophers say, also diseases of the mind grow up. For when you have once desired money, if reason be applied to lead to a perception of the evil, the desire is stopped, and the ruling faculty of our mind is restored to the original authority. But if you apply no means of cure, it no longer returns to the same state, but being again excited by the corresponding appearance, it is inflamed to desire quicker than before: and when this takes place continually, it is henceforth hardened (made callous), and the disease of the mind confirms the love of money.” (Discourses, 2.18.11)

Vice, for Socrates, is a disease of the soul. Here Epictetus draws a direct analogy between taking care of the soul and taking care of the body. If you misuse a part of your body, it will get injured. And if you keep misusing it, the injure will deepen and possibly become permanent. The same goes with the soul, or — in a more modern fashion — our character. Every time we succumb to vice we weaken ourselves. Conversely, every time we pursue virtue we strengthen ourselves. That is why we need to pay attention to what we do, because it eventually becomes a habit, for good or for ill.

8. Moderating one’s desires is better than constantly seeking to satisfy them

“For you will know by experience that the words are true, and that there is no profit from the things which are valued and eagerly sought to those who have obtained them; and to those who have not yet obtained them there is an imagination, that when these things are come, all that is good will come with them; then, when they are come, the feverish feeling is the same, the tossing to and fro is the same, the satiety, the desire of things which are not present; for freedom is acquired not by the full possession of the things which are desired, but by removing the desire.” (Discourses, 4.1.174-5)

Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues (the other three being practical wisdom, courage, and justice). Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, thought it was fundamental, and arguably more important than the other virtues, because without temperance one cannot exercise any virtue at all. He recommended practicing temperance every time we sit down at the table to eat: we should wait our turn, help ourselves in right measure, and maybe even pass on the best cuts in order to favor our guests. Epictetus, however, goes radical: he tells his students that the best way to avoid temptation is not to be temperate, but to abstain entirely from certain pleasures, at least in the beginning. He has a point, confirmed by modern psychological research. Say you have a problem with sweets. You could buy ice cream at the supermarket, keep it in the freezer, and then tell yourself that you will indulge only rarely and in small quantities. Good luck. Research shows that it is far more effective to simply skip the ice cream aisle at the supermarket altogether, thus avoiding constant exposure to temptation once you are back home.

9. Virtue leads to happiness, vice leads to wretchedness

“If virtue has the manufacture of happiness and serenity and equanimity as its profession, progress towards virtue must be progress towards each of these. For it is always the case that progress is an approach towards the goal that anything’s perfection brings us to. How is it, then, that we agree on virtue’s being this sort of thing, but seek progress and display progress in other things?” (Discourses, 1.4.3-5)

In Socratic philosophy, virtue leads to good, which means of course that virtue is the key to a happy, in the sense of eudaimonic, life. Epictetus, however, chastises his students, because they seem to know what a good life consists of, and yet are bent on pursuing other things (like money, fame, etc.). That, of course, is because they are still exercising bad judgment, which in turn is why improving our faculty of judgment, prohairesis in Greek, is the key to Epictetus’ approach to Stoicism.

These nine crucial steps in Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism are tightly interconnected, as I attempt to show in the diagram below. Each step taken in isolation is, I think, convincing and enlightening, yet could reasonably be challenged on its own. But the system as a whole is far more solid and difficult to dent. It also makes for a beautifully coherent philosophy of life, leading to the two things that everyone wants: freedom and happiness.

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