Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 4, The philosopher-slave and the emperor-philosopher

(theater at Hierapolis, the birthplace of Epictetus. photo by the Author)

How many men - like Chrysippus, like Socrates, like Epictetus - has Eternity swallowed up! (Meditations, VII.19.2)

Eternity may have swallowed these men up, as Marcus Aurelius says here, but they sure left a mark on his own famous book, the Meditations, which we are currently studying by way of Pierre Hadot’s classic treatment of it, The Inner Citadel (previous installment here). As Hadot points out in chapter 4 of his book, we see direct or paraphrased quotes in the Meditations by Heraclitus, Empedocles, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, and Epicurus, among others. But arguably the strongest influence on Marcus, the person that shaped his whole philosophy of life, was Epictetus.

Epictetus is hardly known these days, except for the very recent resurgence of Stoicism. But he was one of the most appreciated philosophers of antiquity up until the 19th century, and in his own time he was the great philosopher. He influenced early and later Christian thought, from Origen to Thomas Aquinas. As is well known, he began his life as a slave in Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale, Turkey), was acquired by Nero’s secretary, Epaphroditus, and brought to Rome. There he was allowed to attend the lectures of the most famous Stoic philosopher of the time, Musonius Rufus, and when he was freed began to teach philosophy in the capital of the empire. In 93-94 CE he was kicked out of Italy by the emperor Domitian, who did no suffer Stoics to speak truth to power, and re-established his school in Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece, where his fame grew to the point that he received personal visits from the emperor Hadrian.

Epictetus did not write anything down, so far as we know, and what we have from him are four volumes of Discourses (four more are, unfortunately, lost) and the Enchiridion, or Manual. Both of these are due to one of Epictetus’ most prominent students, Arrian of Nicomedia, who went on to become a philosopher and historian in his own right (as well as Governor of the province of Cappadocia, for a time). Hadot goes into some detail to explain why scholars think that Arrian’s Epictetus is likely very close to the real Epictetus, most probably far more, say, than Plato’s Socrates is close to the real Socrates (incidentally, Arrian consciously styled himself after the other great student of Socrates, Xenophon, whose Memorabilia was the book that turned Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, on to philosophy).

There are several explicit quotations of Epictetus in the Meditations, and several implicit or rephrased ones. Interestingly, it is through some of these quotes that we have recovered fragments of the lost four volumes of the Discourses, since several sentences that Marcus cites from Epictetus are not found in the extant material by Arrian. Here is an interesting example of Marcus’ paraphrasing Epictetus (in this case, from Discourses, III.3.14):

That which does not harm the State does not harm its citizen either. Each time you imagine you have been injured, apply this rule. (Meditations, V.22)

Hadot points out that here we see a typical structure used by Marcus. The quote begins by stating a “dogma,” i.e., a theoretical proposition that is part of the Stoic system, in this case that there is a coincidence of interests between society and the individual (a consequence, in turn, of Stoic cosmopolitanism). Then follows a rule that needs to be applied in specific cases, here the notion that if we imagine that we have been injured by an external, we are, in fact, mistaken (which also agrees with another dogma, that the only things that can truly injure us are our own bad judgments, since only those are under our control).

The most crucial bit in chapter 4 of The Inner Citadel arrives when Hadot explains how Epictetus’ famous three disciplines (desire and aversion, action, and assent) are the key to reading the entire Meditations. We will talk about these in detail when we’ll get to chapters 6, 7, and 8, which are dedicated to each of the disciplines in turn. For now it is worth noting that the three disciplines are not found in any other Stoic writing, and appear therefore to be one of Epictetus’ original contributions to the philosophy. Epictetus also completely reshaped Panaetius’ so-called role ethics, which makes him the greatest Stoic innovator since Chrysippus, and arguably even more important in terms of lasting effect throughout the centuries (in part, to be fair, because we lost all of Chrysippus’ works).

To give you a taste, Marcus often draws the Epictetean distinction among impressions (phantasiai), desires (orexeis), and impulses to action (hormai), for instance here:

Erase your impressions (phantasia), check your impulse to action (horme), extinguish your desire (orexis). Keep your ruling faculty (hegemonikon) within your power. (Meditations, IX.7)

I plan to devote a separate post to this crucial aspect of Stoic psychology, which has profound consequences for the ethics, and therefore for how we try to live our lives as Stoic practitioners. For now, though, consider that impressions are a combination of sense data (that we receive from the environment) and initial, pre-reflective judgments. Desires are passive psychological states that result from the fact that we “assent” to certain impressions. Impulses are psychological states that lead us to act on such desires, also the result of assenting to impressions. And the ruling faculty is precisely the part of our mind that leads us to assent (or not) to certain impressions. 

For instance: I may see an attractive woman walking down the street, and automatically think that it would be good to get in bed with her (impression = sense data, I see an attractive woman + pre-reflective judgment, it would be pleasant to have sex with her). This may lead to the development of a desire and potentially to act on it, which would imply that my ruling faculty has given assent to that combination of sense data and pre-reflective judgment. Or, if my hegemonikon is better trained in Stoic philosophy, I will deny assent to the impression, thus at the very least not acting on, and possibly - with practice - even eliminating the desire.

(next: The Stoicism of Epictetus)

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