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Monday 24 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (I)


Stoicism is an interesting philosophy. It helped Marcus Aurelius tear himself away from his books and warm snuggly bed and get on with running the Roman Empire, but it didn't seem to make the poor man happy. It's very hard to read his Meditations without wanting to give the guy a hug, despite the fact that (a) he was one of the most powerful men who ever lived and (b) he's dead.

Not so Epictetus' Discourses. If the emperor was melancholy to a fault, then the freed slave was angry as hell. Reading the Discourses is like being continuously verbally assaulted by a very angry goose that really couldn't care less about your opinion but secretly loves you. I thoroughly recommend reading it in full. It's an easy, lively, thought-provoking read, full of withering put-downs and incisive remarks.

But should I write a review at all ? Epictetus says I should, so I will.
It is no great achievement to memorise what you have read while not formulating an opinion of your own.
I set out to write this with the feeling that most of it was sensible enough, but sometimes taken too far or perhaps out of context, or with too much rhetorical dressing. There seemed to be a few exceptions where I thought, "but that's just daft", but then, one gets those with any philosopher. So I thought I'd write some nice little highlights with the occasional ranty bit.

As usual, it didn't work out like that.

It's not just formulating an opinion that matters : it's forcing yourself to write it down. What look like irritating niggles become glaring contradictions when set against each other. And the more I wrote, the worse it got, until in the end the whole dang thing seemed riddled with problems. Yes, it's chock-full of wisdom too, but (almost) more by luck than judgement - as though Epictetus was a deeply wise man who happened to fall in with the wrong crowd.

Yet Stoicism has not only helped Roman emperors like Aurelius and slaves like Epictetus, but also modern-day fighter pilots. Clearly it's got something going for it. And Epictetus isn't Lord Shang : his intentions, if not his conclusions, are very clearly honourable, and his work deserves saving. So while I'll be trying to show why I think Stoicism doesn't work, I'll also be trying to figure out ways to avoid the inherent paradoxes and the most useful messages to take home. This was such an interesting exercise that I went a bit nuts, and split the initial gargantuan post into five shorter but still very long ones. Each should be mostly readable independently. While I've tried to organise everything thematically, the whole basis of the philosophy means that some issues will appear in multiple sections.

The edition I have contains the Discourses, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. As an example, I'll use the following notation : DBII19 here means the quote is from Discourses, book 2, chapter 19; E2 would mean the second part of the Enchiridion, etc..

Stoicism : keep calm, grow a beard, and get your head chopped off

Reading Epictetus is a bit like reading a second-century self-help book. Okay, a lot like reading a self-help book. The essence of stoicism is that the external world isn't bad or good in itself, it's only your opinion of it that affects you. By controlling your opinions you can find comfort : you will never give in to despair or fear.
Don't hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen : this is the path to peace.
Sickness is a problem for the body, not the mind - unless the mind decides that it is a problem. Say this to yourself whatever the circumstance and you will find without fail that the problem pertains to something else, not to you.
This rather simple idea has, as we'll see, profound implications. Despite all the problems, what's remarkable is that almost everything seems to flow directly from this one single idea.

The advice given above seems reasonable enough as stated. While an external world definitely does exist, we can only know it through our senses and opinions (what Epictetus calls "impressions"). It's an incredibly empowering idea : only what you believe is bad can really hurt you. If someone tries to insult you but you genuinely don't care, what power do they have over you ? None whatsoever.
In general, remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves - that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted ? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished-?
For the life of me I can't avoid thinking of this stupid photo of Trump yelling fruitlessly at a small boy, who's apparently bearing this "presidential" assault with obliviousness that would do any Stoic proud.

Perhaps the most obvious way to begin exploring this is to see how far we can push it. For Epictetus, in principle there is no breaking point at all; the ideal Stoic cares not one whit about their own personal circumstances :
It isn't death, pain, exile or anything else you care to mention that accounts for the way we act, only our opinion about death, pain, and the rest.
But we might think that surely our situation can compel us to act in a certain way - at least, if it's going to lead to our death then we no longer have a choice ? Surely, this idea that even death is not really a threat is a mere rhetorical device. Epictetus says no, he means it literally :
'What about if someone threatens me with death, though, surely he compels me then ?' It isn't what what you're threatened with - it's the fact that you prefer to do something rather than die.
For him, even this most extreme, natural preference for life over death is one that's just a matter of opinion and one we can control. With training we can reach a state of total, truly bizarre indifference :
'Come Epictetus, shave off your beard.'
If I am a philosopher, I will not shave it off.
'But I will cut off your head.'
If that will do you any good, then cut it off.

Which leads to a wonderful insult (also meant quite literally, so that we should remember how useless and unimportant we all are) :
You and your teacher are no better than carcasses.
Hang on though, this begins to sound absurd. Why should we want to reach a state where we'd die rather than shaving off a few facial hairs ? Self-sacrifice for liberty and the lives of others seems like a laudable enough goal, but for the sake of our beard ? Really ? I mean, my beard is obviously magnificent, but if it's a choice between nasty scorpion pit or a quick trim... well, hold my beer, I'll get the razor. Throwing away our lives for needless causes doesn't seem like a sensible philosophy to me.

While Epictetus has the sort of obsession with death that would make an Egyptian pharaoh jealous*, it's debatable if he really means to say, "give me beards or give me death". He does acknowledge quite frequently that the ideal Stoic basically doesn't exist : it's a goal we should strive towards, not one we can arrive at instantly. So the death-before-debearding** Stoic may be more of a Platonic form than an actual goal, though it's hard to tell for sure.

* But very confused. 
** Apparently this is a real word, but it's something to do with cooking mussels. Go on, look it up.
No bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight. We must endure a winter training, and can't be dashing into situations for which we aren't yet prepared.
He implicitly accepts that we don't actually have full control of ourselves at all times. This is going to be a big problem later on, but for now I'll just note that this implies that without this training we are indeed suffering - we can only say that that we're not suffering once we've succeeded in passing our Stoicism exams. Our opinions do matter, despite being subjective. But even if we can't achieve full, total self-control, we can at least reach a better state than what we start with, so long as we persevere :
We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from there progress to things of greater value. If you have a headache, practise not cursing. I'm not saying that you can't complain, only don't complain with your whole being. You weren't meant to be invincible by brute force, like a pack animal. You are invincible if nothing outside the will can disconcert you.
Perhaps most succinctly :
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.
To some extent the need to rule over our emotions and not have them dictate our lives is self-evidently a good thing. No-one wants to feel constant fear or anger or pain; they are unpleasant in themselves. And death, in particular, being such a universal concern, is one Epictetus is keen to demonstrate is nothing to worry about :
Death and pain are not frightening, it's the fear of death and pain we need to fear. Which is why we praise the poet who wrote, 'Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is.'
But is it though ? I mean afterwards we're... well, dead, so what does it matter if our last moments are spent in serenity or not-? It's surely important not to spend our whole lives worrying about death, but the final moments - the ones Epictetus is most concerned with - seem to me to be of the least consequence.
I do the only thing I am in a position to do, drown - but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.
'I'm sentenced to death !'
And the rest of us aren't ?


The selfish stoic

The problem with the last is that some of us are sentenced to live very much longer than others. For Epictetus this is irrelevant because everything happens in accordance with the will of Zeus - more on that later - and anyway death itself isn't a bad thing. This too is rather unconvincing; if I live well and help others, surely my death would be a bad thing as anyone depending on me would be in difficulties (Plato took this even further in the opposite direction, saying that it's a good thing for bad men to die). Epictetus explicitly denies this :
'But by leaving them I make them unhappy.'
You think you are the cause of their unhappiness ? No, the cause of their disturbance is the same as yours : judgements. Overhaul your judgements and, if they're smart, they will overhaul theirs. Otherwise, their unhappiness will be of their own making.

Suppose I was tending to a group of disabled koalas though ? They'd all die, and all the good I was doing would be undone.  There are extremely dark and disturbing consequences to this, a viciousness I suspect is wholly unintended, which I'll return to repeatedly. But it's not just fear Epictetus wants us to escape :
I want to be free from fear and emotion, but at the same time I want to be a concerned citizen and philosopher, and attentive to my other duties, toward God, my parents, my siblings, my country, and my guests.
And this is the central paradox and hypocrisy of Epictetus' stoicism. On the one hand, it offers an answer to the age-old question of how God can let bad things happen to good people : they aren't bad things, only their opinion of them makes them so (now I'll grant that this isn't a very satisfying answer, but it is at least a valid answer).
'But it's not right of Zeus to do this.'Why ? Because he made you tough and proud, removed the stigma of evil from these circumstances and made it possible for you to be happy despite them ? Or because he left the door open when things finally don't agree with you ? Friend, take advantage of it, and stop blaming God.
But on the other hand, how are we to supposed to act at all without emotions, let alone act with consideration ? If suffering is just an opinion, and the emotions we experience somehow not relevant, why should we ever try and prevent injustice ? Why, indeed, should we not even deliberately inflict whatever cruelty seems fit to us, since nothing really matters ? That's not something we can answer right away - if at all.

To be fair, we're not supposed to inflict suffering - he's especially keen to point out the importance of familial duties (this particular quote is set in a political context) :
Even a sheep does not desert its own offspring, or a wolf; should a human desert his ? Would you have us be as foolish as a sheep or as savage as wolves - neither of which abandons its young ?
Yet we're also not even supposed to feel sadness :
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child... you should not disdain to sympathise with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
Mind you, I do get annoyed when people claim to be in severe distress because of some disaster that happened thousands of miles away, who go on and on about it but don't actually do a damn thing to try and help.
Epictetus' stoicism flirts, if never actually jumps into bed, with a cold calculation. Moreover, being able to withstand criticism sometimes reaches the point where we shouldn't give a damn about what other people think of us. I don't think he usually means to imply this, but sometimes he quite definitely does (as also illustrated through his eagerness to instruct others that they're not really suffering and should just quit their loser whining). And that's not good.
'What kind of hearing or reception will he give me ?' Idiot, that's his concern - don't concern yourself with other people's business. It's his problem if he receives you badly.
Whatever your mission, stick by it as if it were a law and you would be committing sacrilege to betray it. Pay no attention to whatever people might say, this no longer should influence you.
Bloody hell ! I mean, yes, some things are indeed out of our control, so fair enough, we shouldn't weep and whinge when there was nothing we could have done to influence events - and we'd do well to remember that our influence is always at best limited. But ignoring everyone, and forgetting that they might know better than you ? Ignoring that sometimes we are indeed responsible for calamities that befall us and those around us ? Egads ! Egads, I say !

Even more fundamentally, we're not supposed to feel anything too strongly :
Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. Try to influence your friends to speak appropriately by your example. Keep laughter to a minimum; do not laugh too often or too loud.
Don't talk much about the event [public games] afterwards, or any more than is necessary to get it out of your system. Otherwise it becomes obvious that the experience captivated you.
One has to wonder here : why ? It makes a certain amount of sense to try and escape a fear of death, especially if we continually dwell on it to the point of distraction. But does it really make sense to escape all emotions ?

For that matter, fear itself is very healthy, keeping us from doing stupid things. Epictetus has it that it's only externals which are indifferent, and therefore fear makes no sense if death isn't bad or good in itself. But if we think that life is worth living, then a fear of death is an incredibly sensible thing, whereas a fear of pineapples or fluffy kittens clearly isn't. Fear, I say, isn't a bad thing in itself. Fearing that one might do a wrongful act is a very good thing indeed; to lose our fear and sense of shame of these would be counterproductive. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with being happy or outraged or envious - it depends entirely on context. Emotions simply are, and while we can learn to control them, trying to escape them seems both impossible and pointless.

Of course, some fluffy kittens are even more dangerous than pineapples.

It's okay to let people suffer, apparently

Epictetus encourages us to act rationally, with a Vulcan-like devotion to logic. And he has many valuable insights. But how, if we are to have no emotions and view all external events as neither good or bad, are we to treat other people ? Here I'm afraid I think he falls flat on his face. This is such a crucial part of Stoicism that it deserves a lot more emphasis.

To his credit, Epictetus exhorts readers to do their civic duties. He explicitly defines humans as community creatures, that we should care for our families and look after each other.
What is a human being ? Part of a community - the community of gods and men, primarily, and secondarily that of the city we happen to inhabit.
I aspire to be the purple stripe, that is, the garment's brilliant hem. However small a part it may be, it can still manage to make the garment as a whole attractive.
Which is all well and good, but one has to again wonder : why ? If death is no bad thing, or being kicked and beaten not intrinsically an awful thing, why should we help others by doing our civic duties if their suffering is all just their own opinion ? We can hardly go up to a drowning child and say, "it's just your opinion that this won't end well"*, because by Epictetus' frequent admission, becoming a Stoic is extremely difficult. So what's the point of rendering assistance if every bad situation is just a challenge for us to overcome ?

* Although the ideal Stoic is supposed to be the equivalent of the oblivious child being shouted at, there are a lot of times where I see Epictetus as the equivalent of the angry Trump. The photo works both ways.

Now, admittedly this idea sounds fine when we apply it to ourselves - we can see difficulties as opportunities for self-improvement :
So is it possible to benefit from these circumstances ? Yes, from every circumstance, even abuse and slander. A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner - and my accuser is my sparring partner. He trains me in patience, civility, and even temper.
And Socrates assertion in his trial that he couldn't be sure who was suffering the most (himself by his death, his accusers by their moral degradation) is both inspiring and heroic. Yet in a broader, social context, where we're supposed to insist this is true for others as well as ourselves, this becomes ridiculous and cruel.

My biggest problem with Epictetus is that he explicitly promotes victim blaming :
You have beautiful clothes and your neighbour does not. You have a window and want to give them an airing... The neighbour does not know what man's good consists in, but imagines it means having beautiful clothes... it's a foregone conclusion that he's going to to try and steal them. So don't provoke them - don't air your clothes at the window !
And it's not an isolated case either, but an explicit part of of Stoic philosophy. If someone does something you don't like, change your opinion of them. It doesn't just apply to ourselves either, but even to the cases where we see them abusing others.
Is someone unhappy being alone ? Leave him to his isolation. Is someone unhappy with his parents ? Let him be a bad son, and grumble. Is someone unhappy with his children ? Let him by a bad father. 'Throw him in jail.' What jail ? The one he is in already, since he is there against his will; and if he is there against his will he is imprisoned.
Did a child of yours die ? No, it was returned. You wife died ? No, she was returned. Your land was confiscated-? No, it too was returned. 'But the person who took it was a thief.' Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver [God] effects its return ?
I have a very big problem with this. You can't go around letting people do as they please, and we'll see that Epictetus' own opinions contradict each other. So can we be sure this is really a problem inherent to Stoicism, or could it instead be a personal flaw of Epictetus ? Well, consider the Stoic definition of harm :
What, after all, are sighing and crying but opinions ? What is 'misfortune' ? An opinion. And sectarian strife, dissension, blame and accusation, ranting and raving - they are all mere opinion, the opinion that the good and bad lie outside us. Let someone transfer these opinions to the workings of the will, and I personally guarantee his peace of mind, no matter what his outward circumstances are like.
No-one suffers harm even if they are flogged, jailed or beheaded. The victim may be majestic in suffering, you see, and come through a better, more fortunate person; while the one who really comes to harm, who suffers the most and the most pitifully, is the person who is transformed from human being to wolf, snake, or hornet.
Sure, they may be majestic. But they also may not.

The basic idea that we should first look to address our own faults is fine. If we get into unavoidable difficulties then sure, of course Stoicism becomes a great asset. But the idea that difficulties caused by other people are unavoidable, that we simply have to endure them with good grace, is nonsensical : of course we can act to change people, of course we can act to put in social policies that will help or hinder the group as a whole. That we should just let criminals do whatever and simply shrug our shoulders and say, "oh well, whatever, never mind" is crazy.

Similarly, I agree only provisionally that we ought to try and teach people the errors of their ways rather than punishing them for the sake of it; ignorance should be viewed more as an involuntary problem than a matter of choice (more on that later) :
We make allowances for people without the benefit of education, and say to ourselves, 'He is telling me to do this because he imagines it's good for himself as well; so I can't blame him.'
What grounds do we have for being angry with anyone ? We use words like 'thief' and 'robber' in connection with them, but what do these words mean ? They merely signify that someone is confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead ? Show them where they go wrong and they'll reform.
Don't get angry at the poor woman for being confused about what's most important... pity her instead. Demonstrate to her clearly that she is in error and she will not act on her idea. We take pity on the blind and lame, why don't we pity people who are blind and lame in respect of what matters most ?
Which is a nice ideal, but does it really seem credible when he says that people will change ? Often yes, it's true that people behave badly only through ignorance as to what is good. Such people need instruction, not punishment. But people who act deliberately to inflict harm, who know what they're doing is wrong - these, I have to disagree with Plato and Socrates, most assuredly do exist. Does anyone think that you could educate Donald Trump or Nigel Farage into being less dickish ? Of course not. And the Platonic idea that punishment is itself a form of instruction has merit : fear of penalties does act as a successful deterrent in some situations. Plato had it that punishment itself should only ever be an instructive, never punitive for the sake of it. Epictetus tends to take that to extremes, as though literally providing instruction was the only sensible response to an immoral act.

Sometimes, it's wrong to judge people based on appearances. But on the other hand, sometimes it isn't.

But that much is perhaps a minor, personal fault, not a deep philosophical flaw. Worse though, Epictetus again slips back into victim blaming. It's all very well for us to reform ourselves, and sensible for us to take precautions against criminals - we know they exist, so if we behave as though they don't then it's reasonable for us to take some responsibility : if you walk straight into an active riot, it's kindof your own fault if you get hit by a passing brick. All the same, the major, primary cause of your distress are the hooligans, not you, and you damn well deserve to be angry with them. Indeed you should be angry with them, insofar as this will motivate you to take action to ensure there are less hooligans in the future. Epictetus doesn't get this :
We get angry because we put too high a premium on things that they can steal. Don't attach such value to your clothes, and you won't get angry with the thief who takes them. Don't make your wife's external beauty her chief attraction, and you won't be angry with the adulterer.
Now I have to digress slightly to point out that elsewhere he loathes adulterers with the fiery passion of a thousand flaming Suns; the contradiction serves to illustrate how difficult it is to extract what Epictetus really thinks. Hell hath no fury like a bipolar philosopher scorned.
What are we going to do with a human being who can't fulfil the most basic human role ? Fine, you can't function as a friend; how would you do as a slave ? Who would have any confidence in you, though, even in that capacity-? So how would you like to be tossed in the rubbish too, like dung ?
'But I'm a scholar who understands Archedemus !' You can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or ape rather than an ape or a human being, what's to stop you ?
Which implies a very important distinction between knowledge, intelligence, and morality, of which more later. The point here is the stench of hypocrisy. Epictetus frequently uses scathing insults (which makes the text a joy to read) but is essentially insulting other people for being insulting, while telling everyone else to behave Stoically. Okay, he says that this isn't easy. But there are many times where it feels like he's not even trying at all.

Strictly speaking hypocrisy is not a fallacy. Just because someone fails to live up to their standards does not mean that they haven't said something useful. But hypocrisy and flawed arguments are hardly mutually exclusive either. Indeed, Epictetus himself points out instances where hypocrisy is evidence against an argument. He's particularly annoyed with skeptics who claim you can't know anything for certain :
And you skeptics, who dismiss the evidence of the senses - do you act differently ? Which one of you ever went to the mill when you were in need of a bath ?
It's the same as if they were to say, 'Know this, nothing is knowable'; 'trust me on this, nobody can be trusted'; 'you learned it here first : there is nothing capable of being learned'.'... When did you ever mistake your saucepan for a dish, or your serving spoon for a skewer ? If I were a slave to one of these philosophers I would taunt him constantly, even if I got a beating every day in consequence. What point is there in trying to refute one of these philosophers, arguing with them, or trying to alter their opinion ? You'd have a better chance persuading someone to change their sexual orientation than reaching people who have rendered themselves so deaf and blind.
Epictetus is effectively saying, "stop insulting people, you feckless twit."

Anyway, it seems to me that Epictetus' victim blaming is not his own personal failing, but a fundamental problem with Stoicism-: his hypocrisy is evidence of a genuine problem in this case, not just double standards. If we get angry because we value externals, then it is our fault for being affected by external events. If we can't ever truly judge if a situation is good or bad, then what right do we have to act when we see other people committing an injustice ? How could we even judge what's right or wrong at all, when Stoicism renders the very concept is rendered entirely subjective ?

I don't believe for an instant that Epictetus intended to say, "sit back and let everyone suffer, it's all just their opinion", but at the same time, it's not at all obvious how Stoicism avoids this. That's the heart of the dilemma. But surely there must be some hope for a would-be Stoic - this problem must have been appreciated by Epictetus himself. So in part two, we'll look at how Epictetus tried to square this awkward circle.

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