Stoicism was traditionally concerned with three areas of inquiry; logic, physics and ethics. Epictetus, like the other Roman Stoic philosophers was almost solely concerned with ethics, making his philosophy extremely practical in nature. For Epictetus, a philosophy that resulted in magnificent treatises, insightful logical analyses, or breath-taking theories was essentially useless if it didn’t also translate into solid, useful, practical advice on how to live well. In fact, Epictetus calls philosophy the “art of living” making it a far cry from what we might think of when we think of philosophy today. These days, ‘philosophy’ probably leaves us thinking of boring, pointless, logical and analytical disputation about things that no one cares about. Epictetus would have hated that even more than you and although well-versed in the logic of his day, he was very clear that philosophy is about life and living well. Everything Epictetus did and said was geared towards achieving the good life, a concept we will discuss in more detail a little later on.
These days, most of us think of ethics as being something restricted to a set of rules or guidelines we ought to follow regarding our behaviour towards other people and ‘good’ being faithful adherence to these rules. The ancient conception of ethics however, was more expansive than this, meaning what it takes to have a ‘well-lived’ or ‘virtuous’ life.
This conception gives ancient ethics a somewhat self-centred tint; ethics is about how I can live well, and a modern commentator may object to this as being essentially unethical, but this is unfair. Far from being a selfish, self-centred approach to life, ancient Greek and Roman ethics fundamentally included the whole (other people / society) in a way that few of us imagine today. In what follows I hope it will become clear that the modern idea of ethics as being essentially other-centred is naturally included within this broader ancient conception of the ‘good’ life for the individual.
Epictetus valued logic, like his Stoic predecessors, who had made several advances in this field building on Aristotle’s foundation, but he was always very clear that logic was subordinate to ethics. Epictetus doesn’t go into any real detail regarding logical analysis besides mentioning in passing things like hypothetical premises, equivocal premises, and syllogisms. The value in logical analysis is that it a) allows us to understand situations and arguments, b) lets us construct our own logically sound arguments, and c) informs our decisions so we can act ‘right’. As Epictetus says, logic is the measuring instrument, not the thing to be measured.
Epictetus had very little to say as far as physics was concerned. The most important aspect in this field for Epictetus was the conception of the universe as a rational and ordered arrangement. This is important because, as we will see, it feeds back into an understanding of how we ought to act (ethics).
The goal of all philosophy is simple; to allow us to live in tranquillity and peace or to achieve total Eudaimonia, a Greek word usually translated as ‘happiness’. This sentence has probably already stimulated two objections, the first centred around the words ‘tranquillity’ and ‘peace’, the second around ‘happiness’.
Tranquillity, or peace, possibly invokes images of an austere Japanese-style garden, with the trickling sound of water and a robed monk in the lotus position, meditating. Pleasant, calm and peaceful, but also inactive, unproductive and unfulfilling. How can this be the ultimate goal of life? The problem is the image we associate with tranquillity. Tranquillity for Epictetus certainly doesn’t mean just sitting around thinking about your breath (or even philosophy for that matter). All it means is being mentally and emotionally undisturbed. You can be tranquil while working, talking to friends, brainstorming solutions for a problem in your company, or trying to get the kids to eat their vegetables. Tranquil does not mean inactive and it does not require silence (or a chanting monk).
The other objection turns on happiness. Again, we need to look at our modern conception of happiness. ‘Happiness’ as it is used today means nothing more than a fleeting emotion, often the result of some sensory pleasure, and the opposite of sadness, another fleeting emotion. If Epictetus was basing his philosophy around a concept like this, it would deserve criticism. The Greek word Eudaimonia means something more like an enduring sense of peace and calm over a whole life; a more appropriate, although slightly awkward, translation might be ‘abiding contentment’ or, as it is sometimes translated, ‘flourishing’. Specifically, Eudaimonia should in no way be interpreted as pleasure or a temporary emotional peak.
So, if the modern word ‘happiness’ actually means Eudaimonia, then I think we no longer have such a flimsy basis for a philosophy. The idea that happiness is the ultimate goal for all human beings is now a much more defensible claim. You might still think there are better goals out there, but I contend that anything you can think of will ultimately come back to the final goal of securing happiness (Eudaimonia). Aristotle was the first to say it; happiness is the only thing which is desired for itself, all other ‘goods’ are merely instrumental. We desire money because we think it will make us happy, we want a better job because we think it will make us happy, we even work hard on that cure for cancer because we think it will save lives… and saving lives will make us happy. Again, this isn’t happy in the sense of just having polished off the perfect T-bone steak or delivering the perfect speech or watching the sunset at the end of a perfect date with your fiancé/fiancée; it is happy in the Eudaimonic sense, in the living-a-good-life sense, whatever that may mean for you. Everything that follows is directed in some way to achieving this absolute and abiding sense of Eudaimonia.
Arguably the most important element to Epictetus’ philosophy is that of so-called ‘externals’. Externals are anything that lie outside an person’s ability to control. This wide-ranging subject area therefore includes our body, health, money, reputation, possessions, friends, family, country, other people’s opinions about us, the impression we make on others, the future, etc.; in short, externals include everything except your thoughts and beliefs (what Epictetus refers to as our “reasoning faculty”). The important thing about externals is that, because they lie outside our ability to control, they are things we ought to cultivate an indifferent attitude towards.
There can be few problems with the definition of “externals” as I have given it above – it is little more than a statement of fact. You may prefer to think of externals; your friends, family, and even your possessions, as ‘closer’ to you than that, but as I have defined them (that is, as Epictetus defines them) they are things outside your direct control. Obviously, you may exert more control over some of these than others (you have more control over your brother than a stranger, for example) but your brother can still act against your wishes anytime he pleases.
The real problem begins with the assertion that we ought to be indifferent towards externals. Indifferent towards family and friends? What kind of monstrous doctrine is this? Well, if you enjoy erecting straw men so that you can knock them over, it’s very monstrous. But if you want to think a little deeper, let’s take a closer look. This doesn’t mean, as some people might be led to believe, that we ought to treat everything outside of our reasoning faculty with callous disregard. Once more, we need to check our natural tendencies with regard to the lexicon before us. If we hear the expression, ‘to be indifferent’ towards someone or something, we automatically think it means ‘to ignore’ or ‘not care about’ a thing or person, but in philosophy we need to be a little more precise than we are in everyday speech. In fact, for Epictetus, ‘to be indifferent’ towards externals does not mean ‘to be uncaring’ towards them, rather, all it means is that these things, precisely because we do not have control over them, ought not to have the power to move us to anger, sadness or any other disturbing emotion. So, ‘indifferent’ as in the expression, “externals are indifferent to me” simply means ‘not being able to disturb my emotional and mental well-being’. We will return to this subject when we come to “morality” below.
The Three Spheres of Action
This aspect of Epictetus’ philosophy represents his more original contribution to Stoicism. He essentially divides ethics into three areas of concern; desire and aversion, choice and refusal / duty, and the giving and withholding of assent. These loosely relate to the three traditional subject areas of Stoicism; logic, physics, and ethics.
Desire and Aversion: This area is concerned with the will, specifically that we never fail in our desires and never fall into what we would avoid. This is important because Epictetus believes that if we have unfulfilled desires or encounter things we would rather avoid, we are, by definition, unhappy. You might argue that it is quite possible for people to be perfectly content working towards their, as yet unfulfilled, goals, and I would probably agree, but then you would not be treating your goal as a ‘desire’, in Epictetus’ sense of the word, but rather as an external, i.e. something outside your direct control that can’t adversely affect your happiness.
The central point to be made in this sphere is that in order to achieve perfect equanimity (another word for the goal of philosophy; tranquillity) we ought to completely eliminate our desire. How did we get to this extreme position? Well, in order to be happy we must satisfy all of our desires and fall into nothing we would avoid. There are two ways to accomplish this; first, by brute force, i.e. become so powerful that we are able to control everything to such a degree that we can satisfy all of our desires and avoid everything else or, second, by reducing our desire to nothing. Since the first is categorically impossible that leaves only the second option. The way Epictetus often chooses to phrase this is that we ought to learn to desire only that which actually happens. In this way our will can never be thwarted, meaning our happiness can never be assailed.
This sphere is associated with Stoic physics, namely the idea of living in harmony with an ordered and rational universe. Since the universe is rational and things therefore happen for the best, we ought to accept what happens rather than struggle against it.
Choice and Refusal / Duty: This sphere is practical in nature and refers to our impulses towards the actions we choose to perform, or not perform, and in general, with duty, that we act in an orderly fashion, with good reasons, a clear purpose and not carelessly.
Under this subject heading, we find that we each have certain duties in society to perform. We are parents to our children, brothers or sisters to our siblings, neighbours to our fellow citizens, etc., and each of these roles comes with certain duties which can be derived from our nature as social beings. For example, as a son we ought to treat everything of ours as if it all belongs to our father, be completely obedient to him, never speak ill of him, never do or say anything that might harm him, etc.
This sphere, being concerned with actions, is associated with Stoic ethics.
Giving and Withholding of Assent:This sphere is concerned with the judgements we make about sense impressions, specifically, that we assent to the true, reject the false, and withhold judgement regarding what is uncertain. The important thing here is that we carefully inspect the sense impressions (perceptions) that come to us so that we recognise them for what they are, apply our philosophical principles (externals are indifferent, happiness is the only goal, etc.) and then decide how, or if, to react based on this.
This sphere is concerned with Stoic logic because we use logic to analyse the sense impressions and apply our philosophical principles to the individual cases.
Morality (or ethics) answers the question of how we ought to live and therefore deals with the concepts of good and evil, i.e. we ought to do the good things and not do the evil ones. So, the million dollar question is what is good and what is evil? Good is concerning ourselves only with our ‘moral purpose’ (shorthand for our reason and mental faculties, i.e. things that are within our control) and evil is failing to do this, i.e. concerning ourselves with externals. This will probably seem very odd at first glance. We usually think of evil as hurting others or lying or stealing, and good as helping others, but Epictetus is having none of that. To understand this, we need to keep in mind the sole goal of philosophy, i.e. serenity and happiness. Anything that helps us to achieve this is good, while anything which leads away from this is evil.
But then we might object, how can this possibly guide our behaviour? Why don’t we all just steal, cheat and lie? First, as we’ve already seen, one important sphere of the moral purpose includes our duties as social beings to other people. This naturally includes things like not harming them. Second, our goal is to become serene and happy human beings, and this imposes some restrictions on us as well. Since human beings are rational (which means we have external impressions and understand them) Epictetus says that we must add to our actions the principle of ‘propriety’. To excel as a human being is to be virtuous, noble, honest, etc.; to kick people and hurt them is to excel as an ass, to be vicious is to excel as a wild beast. Third, all externals are indifferent therefore there ought to be no reason to steal, lie or cheat. What could you possibly be hoping to gain by doing so, money, fame, a good reputation? As we have already seen, these things are all indifferent.
Living in Accordance with Nature
This is another central feature of Stoicism. The good life is necessarily one lived in accordance with nature. ‘Nature’ here essentially means two things; first, the nature of the universe, and second, the nature of the human being.
As I have already said, the universe, according to Stoicism, is rational and ordered. As a part of the universe that means that it is also in our nature to be rational. In addition, Epictetus claims that humans are by nature, high-minded, noble, faithful, etc. (contrast this with the ‘natural’ state of humans in Christianity) Reading the newspaper these days, you could be forgiven for doubting this. Epictetus comes to this conclusion by considering who we automatically praise and condemn. Do we naturally praise people who are honest, kind, and noble, or those who are deceitful, murderous, and cruel? This natural tendency points us to our true nature and the way we ought to act.
Reason vs. The Passions
Reason is our ability to think about and understand our sense impressions rather than just acting on them as animals do. It is what distinguishes us from animals and that part of our being we share with the gods.
Naturally, our capacity for, and nature as, rational beings, invites the contrast between this and the passions. Epictetus had little use for the passions, both positive and negative ones, believing that any form of passion was necessarily, and by definition, a loss of equanimity and balance. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the ideal Stoic is an emotionless robot and Epictetus specifically says that we “ought not to be unfeeling like a statue”. Rather, the idea here is that passions are emotional disturbances over which we have no control, and to that extent they are things to be avoided. Most people are carried up and down on waves of emotion that they are largely helpless to control; a co-worker says something mean and we feel angry, a friend praises us and we feel good. Epictetus wants to end this roller coaster ride. Why? You guessed it; so that we can achieve tranquillity.
We usually think of freedom as having our desires completely unrestrained in any way, shape or form; being free to do whatever we want. Under this conception, any kind of restriction placed on our actions renders us in some way less free. Epictetus completely disagrees with this. In fact, he would consider this kind of freedom shameful, and the person who desired it a madman.
For Epictetus, freedom is having a moral purpose (reason/thinking faculties) that cannot be hindered or restrained, and this can only happen if we are each in complete control over our lives. From our discussions regarding externals and morality, we know this means totally aligning our will to what actually happens and releasing our desire from the shackles of the myriad externals we have no control over (see “desire and aversion” above).
He asks us to consider what we aim for in the art of writing. Do we wish to be able to write our name any way we like, using any combination of letters, or do we wish to write it using the correct letters? Complete freedom from hindrance and restraint in writing would result in texts that no one could understand except the author. Likewise in the art of living. We shouldn’t wish to live in any random fashion, according to whatever rules we devise, rather, we should wish to live in the correct way. The path to freedom from hindrance and restraint in writing is knowledge, that is, knowledge of how to write. So, the path to freedom from hindrance and restraint in living consists in the knowledge of how to live, which is the Stoic principle that good and evil lie only in things we can control.
Anybody who has not learned and put into practice the Stoic principles discussed here is sentencing themselves to a life of being yanked this way and that by a thousand external forces and events, making her happy one moment, miserable the next, and forcing her to do things she doesn’t want to do in order to get more of those ‘externals’ that she thinks will make her happy. Is this freedom? Only to a madman.
Epictetus lived at a time when life was cheap. War was a constant threat, medicine and understanding of disease was primitive, and the virtually untrammelled power of the elite meant that the wrong word at the wrong time could see one exiled or even killed. For any philosophy that purported to be concerned with living well, helping people cope with or understand death was an essential inclusion.
As you might expect, death, being a double whammy (something we cannot control and something inevitable), is an external. This means it ought to be an indifferent to us, i.e. neither good nor evil, hence neither sought after nor feared. Epictetus endorsed a calm, accepting attitude towards death; like all externals, it will come upon us when it wants and we ought to embrace it with dignity when it does.
He also issues a number of consolations to help us face death without fear, including but not limited to:
1. Death is inevitable so it matters not whether it comes now or later. It will strike at some time; we ought not to quibble over when.
2. Death is natural, like everything else that happens in our rational universe. In fact, it would be far worse if we never died. If that were the case we would end up cluttering up the planet and never making room for anyone new.
3. Death is not destruction, it is change. Your body is simply returning to the elements from which it was composed.
Epictetus is highly religious (although he knows of Christianity, he is definitely not Christian in any sense) and frequently mentions Zeus by name. However, he also speaks of God in a pantheistic fashion more in line with his Stoic predecessors for whom God tended to be equated with Nature or the Universe. In addition to this, he also talks of “the gods”. This results in a confusing and somewhat inconsistent blend of theism, pantheism and polytheism.
Nevertheless, God (or the gods or Nature) plays an important role in the Discourses, being responsible for creating humans and the universe (or perhaps creating itself in some way) so that the latter is the rational and highly ordered arrangement we live in.
It is worth pointing out here that Epictetus explicitly rejects any kind of belief in an afterlife. At death our bodies simply dissolve back into the elements from which they were composed.