This seems bonkers. There's one last avenue to explore. We've already looked at how people are supposed to behave, but by and large Stoicism doesn't say much about how we should try and influence other people. So let's see if Epictetus really does want to try and minimise, rather than ignore, suffering, and how he proposes to go about this.
The (slightly) sociological Stoic
The central paradox of Stoicism still isn't resolved. Everything is opinion; we have absolute control of ourselves despite the need for extensive training; we're supposed to be able to endure literally any hardship and this may or may not extend to letting other people suffer at the hands of others. Epictetus' Stoicism is very much centred on the individual, and while we're frequently exhorted to duty...
Get married, raise children, and be prepared to hold the usual public offices.... Epictetus also looks down on such base concerns, sometimes being downright (selfishly) rude about the elderly :
'I am ill here,' said a student, 'and want to go home'.Is Stoicism therefore also a license to insult ? It's all very strange : for someone so strongly espousing fortitude and aloofness, he doesn't half go off on a damn good angry rant from time to time. It's hard not to wonder if Epictetus didn't have multiple personalities, or possibly was just an angry drunk.
Because you were never ill at home, I suppose ? Consider whether you are doing anything here to improve your will. Because if you aren't achieving anything, you arrived here for no reason to begin with. Leave, attend to your affairs at home... add to your savings, look after your ageing father, frequent the law-courts, serve as a magistrate, and do whatever comes next - you sorry creature, in your sad and sorry way.
But anyway, the focus on the individual doesn't entirely exclude the sociological. He makes it clear that some people should be in charge and others shouldn't. In fact, he looks down upon the great majority of mankind as somewhat worse than the Great Unwashed :
Some of us sink to the level of wolves - faithless, vicious, and treacherous. Others turn into lions - wild, savage, and uncivilised. But most us become like foxes, the sorriest of the lot. For what else is a spiteful, malicious man except a fox, or something even lower and less dignified ?
|Think you're mean ? You'll never be as mean as Epictetus.|
|Enter the Stoic, pursued by a bear.|
Charming. But that, alas, is just about all Epictetus has to say on the subject of governance. Few indeed are the hints given as to what sort of specific laws should be enacted - not for Epictetus the myriad of problems of formulating an ideal society, a la Plato. Fair enough, I suppose, but frustrating all the same.
A few people in the crowd are capable of reflection; what is this world, they want to know, and who runs it ? Someone must - for no country or estate can function for any length of time without its governor or steward. Naturally they are laughed at by the majority... and I suppose if cattle had opinions, they would make fun of anyone interested in anything besides the grass !
If Epictetus gives no indication of social policies, he at least does give a few hints as to how to behave in society. As usual, despite all the paradoxes, there's plenty of good advice here. As he says, Stoics don't preach contempt for rulers : but they do prefer a quite different mode of respect from the normal one :
'Everybody gives me their attention and respect.;' Right, and I pay attention to my blackboard, wiping it and washing it; and for my oil flask I'll even drive a nail in the wall. Does that make these things better than me ? No - it just means that they are useful to me somehow. I look after my horse too.This, I think, he means quite literally. We should be wary of the powerful, but treat them primarily as our servants (when they start to think it's the other way around, that's when we should start to think of them as dangers to be avoided). We should default to treating them as useful tools and afford them the same level and type of respect. Likewise, while he also advocates for self-sufficiency wherever possible, he also emphasises that man is a social animal. He reconciles these two viewpoints essentially by saying that we should all have a mutual stake in each other's interests : we all have ownership of and in the community in which we live.
'But I can cut off your head.' Good point; I had forgotten that I should look out for you as I would look out for some virus or infection.
It is a universal law that every creature alive is attached to nothing so much as to its own self-interest. The upshot is that if you identify self-interest with piety, honesty, country, parents and friends, then they are all secure. Wherever 'me' and 'mine' are, that's where every creature necessarily tends.In fact he goes as far as to say that we should treat everyone as family. Given that Epictetus would undoubtedly play the role of cantankerous uncle, this isn't necessarily such a good idea. I mean, only Epictetus could praise the family while in the same breath insulting children - and yet again raising his fixation with runny noses :
For God's sake, who benefits society more, people who produce two or three brats with runny noses to survive them, or those who supervise in each person's life what they care about or mistakenly neglect ? My friend, he fathers everyone : every man is his son, every woman his daughter. That is how he regards everyone, and how much he cares for them.
|Well, I suppose a Stoic attitude would help you deal with annoying children... I almost wonder if Epictetus developed the entire thing to deal with runny-nosed little tots.|
You can't expect the same reception from the group you used to associate with if you don't go carousing with them regularly any more.
Refuse to praise someone and you cannot expect the same compensation as a flatterer. It would be unfair and greedy on your part, then, to decline to pay the price that these privileges entail.This doesn't mean that you actually should resort to flattery, only that you can't expect to be treated the same as someone who plays by the usual conventions of society and degrades themselves in such a way. Stoicism, of course, gives you the power not to get the things you desire, but to stop desiring them.
For those who choose the path of philosophy, Epictetus doesn't expect them to become hermits. They must still interact with the world, though (especially during training) they should be very careful about this. To a degree, this makes sense. Learning to be a Stoic is difficult, as already conceded.
You should be especially careful when associating with one of your former friends or acquaintances not to sink to their level; otherwise you will lose yourself.But the ease with which it seems possible to abandon one's Stoic viewpoints seems perilously easy. How can one be said to be a Stoic if it's so easy to fall back on one's base nature ?
What kind of peace is this that is so easily shattered - not by the emperor or even by a friend of the emperor, but by a crow, a street musician, a cold, or a thousand other annoyances ?
Very little is needed for everything to be upset and ruined, only a slight lapse in reason. If you doze off, all your progress up to that point will be negated. It is no small thing that is being watched over, it equates with honesty, trustworthiness, and stability. It is freedom from passion, grief, fear and consternation - it is freedom itself.I suppose we have to assume that this is because of the aforementioned difference between knowledge and belief. An intellectual knowledge of what one should do is not at all the same as a deeper conviction and genuine desire to actually do it. Until he achieves such a state, the would-be Stoic needs to be very careful. Epictetus cautions strongly against deliberately trying to endure difficult situations, because that will likely result in disaster and is usually an excuse to fall back into old habits :
If you lose the struggle once, but insist that next time it will be different, then repeat the same routine - be sure that in the end you will be in so sad and weakened a condition that you won't even realise your mistakes, you'll begin to rationalise your misbehaviour.I emphasise the repetition since Epictetus isn't trying to say that a single lapse is fatal, especially if we've tried to do something above our abilities. We have to do things gradually and incrementally.
You should be careful about fraternising with non-philosophers in these contexts; remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.But this attitude arguably extends to the fully-fledged Stoic too. To repeat of couple of quotes we started with :
Why are they stronger than you ? Because they talk such garbage from conviction, whereas your fine talk is no more than lip service. It lacks life and vigour; anyone listening to your speeches might well come to hate that damned 'virtue' you keep proclaiming. Conviction is quite a potent and irresistible force. So until those fine principles take root in you so that you can begin to rely on them a little, I advise you to use discretion in associating with such people.
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.On the other hand, this could because that's the very nature of Stoicism : not feeling anything too strongly. It could also be a recognition that feigning emotions has a tendency to induce them. Or it could simply be that the fully-fledged Stoic can indeed endure anything, but is simply leading by example. Rather than designing the rules for an ideal society a la Plato, Epictetus chooses only to set forth how individuals should behave, presuming that their example will bring about wider change. In that sense there is a conscious effort and intent to change society, it's just done by a subtle method.
I, for one, can't believe that has the slightest chance of success. And in fact it didn't, otherwise the Roman Empire would have been awash with Stoics (notably, while Marcus Aurelius may have been a decent chap, his son and successor Commodus was certainly not). More generally, remaining largely silent seems like a surefire way to fall into an echo chamber, as you'll only associate with other possibly philosophically-minded but definitely oddly untalkative people. Without debate, you have no chance of changing your own mind, let alone anyone else's. So this "shut up and lead by example" instruction is something I have to reject. Ask questions dammit, and don't presume that you won't be refuted. Continuously test your own beliefs as well as those around you - and this self-scrutiny is crucial in leaders most of all. But Epictetus largely inclines towards the opposite viewpoint :
I want you to show me a person willing to work with, and never criticise, either God or a fellow human being. One who will never fail, or have experiences he does not want; who will never give in to anger, jealousy, or the desire to dominate others... I will define him as someone set on becoming a god.
|I think he probably meant "becoming a sheep". Of course, elsewhere he says the exact bloody opposite.|
I never been angry with God or another human being; I've never yelled at anyone. Have you ever seen me with a sad expression ? The people before whom you bow and tremble - when I meet them, I treat them as if they were slaves.
The signs of a person making progress : he never criticises, praises, blames, or points the finger, or represents himself as knowing or amounting to anything. He has expunged all desire, and made the things that are contrary to nature and in his control the sole target of his aversion. Impulse he only uses with detachment.While avoiding dominance is laudable, I don't think it makes any kind of sense to avoid criticising others. Indeed, I don't see how one can work with people without criticising them if they do in fact deserve criticism. Angrily rebuking them does not and should not mean that one would prefer to send them into exile or beat them over the head with a porcupine, rather it should be more equivalent to his earlier quote about telling people, "your desires are unhealthy, your plans are incoherent" etc. Criticism should have the goal of preventing them from making further mistakes in the future (and - even better - to guiding them towards making positively good decisions instead), not for insulting them in order to gratify the accuser.
Given the extent of the contradictions, one minute telling us to ignore everyone else completely, and the next telling us to behave like a sheep, I have to wonder if Epictetus was simply insane.
It's important that ad hominem attacks, where necessary, are both justified and relevant. It makes little or no sense to bring up someone's hairstyle when it comes to their opinion about aircraft design or taxation levels. But it makes no sense at all to completely avoid criticising them if they themselves are just no good at aircraft design, if their terrible idea to make the wings out of plasticine isn't due to some silly mistake (like a typo or whatever) but because they're an idiot. Or if their taxation policy is designed to hurt disabled people, and not just due to an unforeseen consequence - then their morality can and should be attacked. The goal is to reform them and their ideas, and if they do so then they should be welcomed. Ad hominem attacks constitute a fallacy only if they attack something irrelevant*; using them as a first response to literally every throwaway comment someone says (as the hyperpartisan media tend to do) is also foolish. But avoiding them completely - never mind avoiding criticism itself ! - is at least equally problematic.
* A great many fallacies boil down to, "you're criticising the wrong thing."
There's a nice little quote which sums up the problem :
Our debating skills improve at the cost of our character.I both agree and disagree. Some have it that learning rhetoric encourages critical thinking, and to an extent this is true. But as I've argued before, rhetoric seems to dominate politics while the actual substance of debate is all too often treated with disdain. Learning rhetoric teaches us to be critical, but it doesn't necessarily teach the self-doubt that's an essential part of critical thinking. Making criticisms is just one aspect of self-examination, but it's hardly the whole story. Hence one can appear to successfully refute an argument without even understanding it; we can learn techniques to argue with others without necessarily remembering to apply that same scrutiny towards ourselves.
Perhaps this is the most basic flaw of Stoicism of all : that it teaches us to suppress human nature rather than dealing with it. Now there are many cases where this is important, where the correct solution is simply to learn self-control. I myself am I highly introverted, to the extent where I (sometimes) feel flushed and anxious about a trip to the post office*. I cannot stop this from happening, but I can learn to accept it - the physical symptoms still manifest, but I can still act rationally during the whole process (this is a real example by the way, so if you think it's silly or funny then I'll thank you to sod off).
* Well, at least the Czech ones. It's uncomfortable not knowing if they'll speak English or not or how many people I'll have to deal with to post a simple letter.
My point is that while my Stoical attitude makes perfect sense in a lot of everyday situations, and there are many people far more emotional than me who could benefit a great deal from Stoicism, there are other circumstances in which it makes no sense at all. Trying to suppress anger at genuine injustice will only lead to further perpetration of that injustice; likewise, refusing to praise people for doing good is a recipe for disaster. Trying to make humans into Vulcans will just lead to pent-up emotional explosions. Yes, there are many lessons from Stoicism that could be applied directly to the theatre of debate, but we shouldn't avoid debate completely. Nor should we avoid emotional reactions completely. That won't make us more rational - it will have the very opposite effect. Failing to understand the emotions of others will mean we cannot tell when they're being rhetorical and when they're sincere, and that brings disaster.
Epictetus, as I've said, views the mind and body as separate entities. But if we adopt a different view, that the mind is either a product of or at least directly affected by the body, then the whole Stoical worldview collapses. If emotions are an intrinsic part of our mental state, and not some strange aberration, then we must learn to manage them, not simply extirpate them.
Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable. Physical hardships are not intolerable by nature.This, I think, is simply wrong. Natural, physical events can cause unendurable hardship, and there should be no shame in that (and yet another contradiction, since Epictetus elsewhere allows suicide). While there is far more to life than merely allocating resources, to deny that this plays an important role in human happiness is as bad as saying that only economics leads to happiness.
The return of the selfish Stoic
All in all, the Stoic philosopher as part of society feels like a strange beast. To his great credit, Epictetus not only acknowledges that some of the advice given seems bizarre but also that it is open to doubt.
Rufus used to say, 'If you have nothing better to do than praise me for it, then my speech was a failure.'Thank goodness for that, otherwise all this would have been a monumental waste of time ! But how to participate in a debate with those we disagree with ? Even more importantly, what happens when we reach an impasse ? As I've said before, in general the only sensible answer to the question, "do you want to be right or do you want to win ?" is both. There are exceptions though :
'I want everyone I meet to admire me, to follow me around shouting, "What I great philosopher !" ' And who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by ? Aren't they the same people that you are in the habit of calling crazy ? And is this your life ambition, then - to win the approval of lunatics ?There's clearly no point in winning the approval of lunatics, and convincing the irrational requires irrational arguments anyway. But Epictetus goes rather further, totally prioritising being right over being persuasive. If, in the end, we reach the limits of Aumann's Agreement Theorem, we just have to sit back and feel smugly content with ourselves.
If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realise that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be our own, and you will have all the witness you could desire.This is perhaps comforting to some but incredibly self-centred, presuming a tremendous arrogance that "outside approval" might not come from someone much more expert and intelligent than you. No philosopher ever said that truth could be decided by majority opinion, and Epictetus is no exception :
A true philosopher is under no obligation to respect vulgar opinion as to what is religious or irreligious, what is just or unjust. What dishonour he brings on philosophers in general if he did !... but this idea of not seeking outside approval at all goes many steps further. And bear in mind his other conflicting statements that we shouldn't always stick to a decision but shouldn't let anyone else tell us what to do. Now these could be reconciled with a discussion of context and the broader principles at work, but Epictetus doesn't do that.
I prefer to suggest that we should seek approval from intelligent, experienced experts, trying to recognise our own deficiencies. True, in some cases we ourselves will be more expert than others, and so seeking the approval of "lunatics" is indeed flawed. But as a general rule, I don't think shunning outside approval is sensible : it's just more complex than that, and can't easily be generalised.
Similarly, Epictetus suggests that it doesn't matter if no-one knows who we are :
Don't let thoughts like the following disturb you : 'I am going to live a life of no distinction, a nobody in complete obscurity.' Is lack of distinction bad ? Because if it is, other people cannot be the cause of another's disgrace. Is it solely at your discretion that you are elevated to office, or invited to a party ? No, so it cannot be a dishonour if you are not.Which is again true only to a degree. The authority of popularity engenders a confidence in content that would otherwise be utterly disregarded, whereas obscurity conveys distrust (or simply lack of interest) in even the most perceptive and important analyses. But if you think you have something important to contribute, if you think that popular opinion is wrong or incomplete, then being obscure and right is no virtue. Indeed, you have a duty to express your opinion : you should at least try to stop people from making horrible mistakes. This in no way precludes the caveat that you might be wrong, but again, sincere dialogue and discussion is the best way to test that - not hiding and doing nothing.
To be fair, the message here may be more of consolation than advice : if we try but fail, this is not always our fault, so we shouldn't sink into despair. The problem is that absolutely no advice is given as to how to judge if it was our fault or not. How should we prevent ourselves from reaching the wrong conclusions ? What criteria do we have to judge objective truth ? This is not Epictetus' purview, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. If being correct is so important, then we deserve some instruction as to how we go about this. If convincing people isn't important, then we again get back to the Stoical problems of letting people stew in their own personal hell rather than trying to actually lift a damn finger and do something about it.
(It should also be noted that both of the above quotes are phrased explicitly as instructions on how to act in the future, not how to respond to what's already occurred. So I think I may even be being generous by interpreting them as consolation.)
And yet we should remember that for all that Epictetus derides the general populace, he still insists that we're not supposed to hide away quietly philosophising :
We fail to realise how little we differ from the mass of mean, the only difference being that they are afraid that they will not hold office, while you are afraid that you will.Does the "take events as you find them" attitude help here ? As in, "oh, I've just thought of this mechanism to reduce crime overnight but no-one is listening to me, but never mind", or equally, "oh whoops, I've just become a senator, even though I'm a terrible judge of character, but never mind". I don't think it does. Self knowledge is merely imperfect, not wholly flawed. Kudos to Epictetus for advising us to participate in society, but I don't subscribe to the idea we should just sort of go with the flow. I'd like to know beforehand if I should hold office, not deal with this after the fact.
The problem can be expressed using one of Epictetus' own metaphors :
The school of a philosopher is a hospital. When you leave, you should have suffered, not enjoyed yourself.Doctors treat diseases, which is great. Cures, devised by researchers, are even better. Epictetus offers both of these. But prevention is surely best of all, and Epictetus utterly neglects this. Why ? Because he views so much of what happens as being totally outside our control, a fundamentally Stoic doctrine. And the metaphor isn't a great one anyway. You only go to hospital because you're already suffering, and while the treatment might be unpleasant, the end result ought to offset this. Yet while Epictetus is usually only concerned with how we endure unfortunate circumstances beyond our control, when it comes to Stoicism, endurance and suffering are seen as things we should actively embrace, not avoid.
This is a particularly charming clause in the Cynic contract : you are going to be beaten like a donkey, and must love your tormentors as if you were their father or brother.
|Seriously, will ya just leave the animals alone already ?|
On occasion, Epictetus even denies the value on inquiry - albeit specific sorts of inquiry :
What do I care whether matter is made up of atoms, indivisible, or fire and water ? Isn't it enough to know the nature of good and evil, the limits of desire and aversion, and of choice and refusal, and to use these as virtual guidelines for how to live ? Questions beyond our ken we should ignore since the human mind may be unable to grasp them.... what's to be gained by understanding them in any case ?The obvious retort being, "well, your whole damn belief system is predicated on the idea that mind dominates the body, so we could start by looking at the nature of matter, you berk." But Epictetus isn't listening. He already knows the answer - he wants to explain, not examine.
The nature of the Universe was, is, and always will be the same, and things cannot happen any differently than they do now.
Summary and conclusions
Phew, that was a long one. If you read the entire thing, go and get yourself a cookie, you've earned it. Or, if you don't have any cookies, it doesn't matter - your disappointment is merely a matter of opinion anyway.
There's a certain spirit to the text that I could never possibly hope to capture in an analysis no matter how many quotes I used, which is why I highly recommend reading it in full. Still, while I cannot doubt the sincerity of Epictetus' honourable intentions, I do deny many of his conclusions. That's why I've tried to pick multiple examples wherever possible, to demonstrate that I'm not cherry picking or taking things too literally : that the problems and contradictions are all too real and too damning to ignore.
It's not that there isn't wisdom here. It's that there's also a great deal of "nope". The idea that we can learn to have total control over our opinions is philosophically dubious and morally suspect.
If nothing else, this case study has shown why abstract philosophical notions really matter. The nature of mind and matter is interesting in its own right, but has direct psychological, sociological, and political implications too : it informs how we should act toward one another. Which, in the end, is probably one of the most important questions of all. (Granted, however, we cannot tell if Epictetus himself derived his philosophy from reasoning or only used reasoning to rationalise his pre-existing belief.)
The prevailing view in the text is that the mind is separate from the body. At most, it might suffer from limited powers of perception, but the ability to make correct judgements given full and correct information can never be impaired. We might, of course, be hindered by our lack of knowledge as to how to correctly apply our various faculties in judging different problems. But ultimately, the mind and the will cannot be thwarted. Everything depends upon perception and opinion - it's just a matter of learning mental control. Since everything we believe happens through perception, and through our own awareness of that perception, everything is subjective. Everything is opinion. And so no-one is ever really suffering, and if they think they are, they simply have a wrong opinion. Opinions, you see, are completely optional and subject to the absolute control of the mind, at least with proper training.
|Mercifully, Epictetus doesn't follow this through to the extreme end point in which reality is "nothing like" what we perceive it to be. I stand by my opinion that this is bollocks, that external reality definitely exists, but we can only ever define it by how it affects our perceptions.|
We can be on our guard, of course. We can learn about manipulation and psychology, and investigate different ways of forming conclusions. But none of this can ever undo the simple fact that external events influence our opinions and judgements - and Epictetus doesn't even try to outline the best methods to ensure good judgement.
Where it really falls apart is when it comes to morality. Despite laudable efforts to ensure that Stoics act for the common good, Epictetus labours in vain to remedy a fatal flaw in the whole Stoic world view : if everything is subjective opinion, then no-one can ever be said to be really suffering. Criminals only act out of ignorance, while victims only suffer because they choose to let events affect them. Make yourself invincible by changing your opinion ? It's not for me, thanks. I'd rather investigate the best conditions in which we could all live together, rather than insisting that anyone unhappy should just shut up and deal with it. And I stress that Epictetus is replete with far too many examples of saying, "shut up and let other people suffer" for this to be dismissed as mere rhetoric : he intends it as real, practical advice on how to live.
Stoicism, in the end, offers personal peace by throwing everyone else under a bus. As consolation and counselling, it has much merit in teaching us to deal with disasters when they befall us. But as a sociological guide to life, as preparation for what to expect and how to behave, it's a worse disaster than the Titanic - because it says that everyone on the Titanic should have had the decency to drown quietly.
And psychologically too there are enormous problems. Stoicism doesn't want us to manage and control our emotions - it wants us to eliminate them entirely. This is simply not an option, and attempts to do so are downright dangerous. Sure, we can learn emotional control, and even alter what we experience emotionally (familiarity breeds acceptance), but attempting to make ourselves into robots is never going to work. Total elimination of desires, of suppressing joy and grief and rage and lust, all so that we can prepare to die rather than cut off our beard, is nothing I'd sign up for. Why bother being alive in such a state ? The true Stoic would indeed be little more than a "miserable corpse".
|And as we've seen, criminal ignorance looks a lot like Stoic bliss.|
Yet much of Stoicism can be salvaged. In moderation and in proper context, very little of it is without merit. Eliminate my desires ? No thanks, but teaching me to control them, to account for my own emotional biases when forming judgements, to analyse whether my rage or despair or hope is justified ? Yes please, that's actually useful. To allow me to justify any career path I want, even if I'm no good at it ? That's stupid. To prepare in advance, to honestly say to myself, "I wouldn't be any good at this, but I might be good at that" - that's helpful. And likewise, to callously dismiss the problems of others as being only their opinion ? No thanks. But to be able myself to endure hardship when there is no alternative - not to avoid the emotional pain, but to still be able to act sensibly in order to survive it, that, surely, is a worthy goal.
So I will end on an upbeat note, because I despise a pessimistic finish. Stoicism as a complete world view is lame and should be utterly dismissed. But individual insights are profound and pragmatic. Let's finish, then, with my ten favourite quotes in handy meme-format. They may not be your traditional, "just believe in yourself" nonsense, but then Epictetus is at his best when not bound by Stoic mantra.
On re-thinking decisions
That external forces are not all there is
That a little wisdom is a dangerous thing
That self-interest does not have to lead to selfishness
That other people may understand us better than we do ourselves
Be careful what you wish for
That knowledge is not the same as understanding or wisdom
That the freedom without understanding is not freedom at all
That the ignorant can never be free