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Friday 28 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (V)

At last we reach the thrilling finale to this pointless mini-series examining a popular but daft philosophy. Last time we pretty much nailed Stoicism down as being fundamentally incomplete and probably flawed. If all our suffering is opinion, there appears to be nothing much from stopping us from committing wanton depravity save some external, arbitrary factors like God or whatever. Worse, Epictetus even encourages us - albeit on rare occasions - to actively exploit suffering to further our own advantage.

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'.
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.

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.

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.
Never send a philosopher to do a naturalist's job. But how to organise this rabble of adorable woodland creatures ?

Enter the Stoic, pursued by a bear.

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 !

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.

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.
'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.

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.
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.
At least this does emphasise the importance of philosophers in society. He also says, with his usual directness, that one should either play the philosopher or not. If you realise you're no good at it, don't torture yourself by trying to adopt principles you're ill-suited to : go back into the regular world as soon as you can. Accept that in ordinary society there are different rules to academia, and if you have chosen such a path, remember that you won't get anywhere without respecting those rules. In short, commit yourself fully (or at least as fully as possible) to philosophy or society, not both.
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.
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.

But this attitude arguably extends to the fully-fledged Stoic too. To repeat of couple of quotes we started with :
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 find this another impossible hypocrisy. Even leaving aside Epictetus' own tendency towards vicious insults against innocent bystanders, his words of the ideal Cynic at least show what he was aiming at even if he didn't succeed himself.
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 incoherentetc. 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 ?
As for philosophy, it's fun to consider other viewpoints, especially those you disagree with. There's no compulsion for suffering - that's a rather holier-than-thou attitude I can't accept. But then, Epictetus is largely convinced he already knows the answers and merely needs to impart them, which is very different from the investigative approach of - dare I say it - true philosophers. What Epictetus offers is ultimately not philosophy, but counselling.

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, certainly, influence what we believe by seeking out different sources of information; we can learn to endure a great deal of both physical and mental hardships. But these have limits. We cannot perform complex mathematics while in total agony or with some twit shoving rancid butter up our nose : our judgement can be impaired by external events. And not only by extreme events, but by the littlest things, as the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal testifies. We can't believe our way out of reality - it just doesn't work like that.

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

Thursday 27 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (IV)

My excessively thorough examination of Stoicism continues in this, the fourth part of a mini-series on Epictetus.

Thus far we've looked mainly at whether or not Stoicism is basically correct or not. I've concluded that it isn't - it's just too inconsistent, too contradictory, too incomplete. Stoicism says all suffering is opinion, which risks becoming a license to screw people over. This strange definition that harm is subjective stems from Epictetus' very absolute ideas about what free will really means. Having made it this far, it would be a shame not to go even deeper into this Pandora's Box and see what Epictetus thinks about freedom itself. Might we possibly still find hope inside ?

Spoiler alert : no. By now I cannot avoid the conclusion that Stoicism is, as a system of thought, pretty shite. Instead of viewing it as a complete world view, it's better by far to treat it as a proverbial box of chocolates : regardless of whether it's correct or not, morally it's full of both delicious caramel yumminess and yucky horrible nuggets of nutty despair. And nothing exemplifies this more than Epictetus' ideas about freedom.


This for me is where Epictetus makes his most important contribution, the one that resonates with me most strongly. Epictetus both agrees with the idea that freedom means doing whatever you want, whilst simultaneously destroying it with savage eloquence. Freedom, from Epictetus, is primarily freedom from - but as a means to an end of getting freedom to. In this worldview, freedom is a nebulous and subtle concept, and very far from being a state you can simply bestow on someone by such petty trivialities as legal declarations. Which is sentiment rendered all the more remarkable coming from a former slave.

The key principle of Epictetus' stoicism is that we can only be affected by our own opinions. While there's a great deal of confusion as to how much control we have over those opinions, the point here is that they do affect us, while externals supposedly do not. So, if our own opinions affect us, it follows that we're subject to their control. And how can we be truly free if we're at the mercy of our own emotions ? Well, we can't.
Weren't you ever commanded by your sweetheart to do something you didn't want to do? If your lovesick condition isn't slavery, then what is ? And yet if someone were to force you to kiss Caesar's feet, you'd regard it has hubris and the height of tyranny.
Poor guy, to be enslaved to a whore - and a cheap one at that ! What right do you have to call yourself free ?
But.... do you ever really do anything you truly don't want to do, or do you just have preferences as Epictetus indicated earlier ? You enjoy making loved one's (and whores) happy, so in that these cases, you do want to do it, at least in part. Whereas with kissing Caesar's feet, you do this because you prefer to bend to Caesar's will than risk execution - there's no part of it at all that you actually gain any pleasure from. And avoiding pain seems quite different than gaining pleasure.

So pleasing loved ones is in part a selfish act as you always derive some benefit from it yourself, whereas bending the knee to tyrants is done from sheer necessity*. Is it still a fair comparison if one of these situations gives you some enjoyment but the other does not ?

* Leaving aside Epictetus' silly claim that prefering to avoid death is just another choice. It may be technically correct but it's still bloody daft.

I'd argue that it's at least questionable. The more fundamental difficulty is how to distinguish one's emotions from one's genuine will. For Epictetus they are quite separate things. Emotions are things that enslave us, and are not really a core part of our being.
If I cherish my body, I make a slave of myself, if I cherish my property, I make a slave of myself; because I've disclosed the means to make me captive.
But what if a nice pair of shoes is what makes me genuinely happy ? It isn't, you understand, but what if it was ? Am I "enslaved" to my shoes ? How can I be enslaved if that's what I really want ? Or take philosophy. I like reading and writing about philosophy - it makes me happy. Am I therefore enslaved by it ? Am I enslaved by anything that makes me happy ? I hardly think so; emotions are not separate from my mind, and I wouldn't choose to be perfectly rational even if I could. That's not the goal behind philosophical analysis.

Given that the Upanishads are obsessed with food, a shoe-based philosophy isn't as unlikely as it might sound.
But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps he only means to say that we're enslaved by that we cannot do without, and that is certainly true to a degree. He who pays the piper plays the tune, and if you are truly dependent on externals - rather than merely desiring them - then you'll end up twirling, twirling, twirling towards slavery :
Whoever can be thwarted, coerced, frustrated or forced into a situation against their will - that person is a slave. The person who renounces externals cannot be hindered, as externals are things that are not within our power either to have or not to have.
If you hanker after externals you are going to be twirled round and round at the will of your master. Who is your master ? Whoever controls what you like or dislike.
If you would be free, then do not wish to have, or avoid, things that other people control, because then you must serve as their slave.
So in that more limited sense I cannot fail to agree : if we do not control our emotions, then they control us, and so we are not free. I particularly like how Epictetus uses our naive idea of freedom to show that it's at odds with out emotional burdens - how can we be said to be doing what we want if our emotions stop us from acting as we would wish ? A classic example is paranoia :
Freedom is the power to live our life the way we want. Do you want to live life doing wrong ? No. Therefore no-one who does wrong is free. No-one in a state of constant fear is free either.
It follows that we have to learn to control our emotions, so we need an education. Likewise, if we only know a few possible options, are we really making a free choice ? Not exactly. The the less we know about the situation, the more we are slaves to ignorance. We can't ever reach the levels of knowledge and choice available to the gods, and learning philosophy might not be a good idea for everybody (as we saw in part three), but that doesn't mean we can't increase our level of freedom through education.
The fruit of these doctrines is the best and most beautiful, as it ought to be for individuals who are truly educated-: freedom from trouble, freedom from fear - freedom in general. The masses are wrong to say that only freeborn men are entitled to an education; believe the philosophers instead, who say that only educated people are entitled to be called free.
For Epictetus, having the freedom to do as you will can only be achieved by controlling what it is you want. This links right back to the very basis of Stoicism, that only your opinions can affect you. Control those opinions and you are invincible -  but if you don't then you are a slave. All this is exemplified in what's probably my favourite quote of all :
Education should be approached  with this goal in mind : 'How can I personally follow the gods always, and how can I adapt to God's government, and so be free ?'
Freedom you see, is having events go in accordance with out will, never contrary to it. Is freedom the same as madness ? Of course not. Madness and freedom are poles apart. 'But I want my wishes realised, never mind the reasons behind them.' Now that's madness, that's insanity. Freedom is something good and valuable; to arbitrarily wish for things to happen that arbitrarily seem to you best is not good, it's disgraceful.

It's an interesting paradox how we can be free only if we act in accordance with God's will yet our free will is explicitly said to be independent of God's control, but one I shall leave for another time. More importantly, seeking to fulfil our desires without examining them is no kind of freedom at all in Epictetus' view. Unless you can understand what it is you want, your desires enslave you, and achieving them will bring you nothing. You might get what you want, but you won't be satisfied unless you get what you need.
The slave urgently prays to be emancipated. Then he is liberated, but now, lacking a place to eat, he looks around for someone to sweet-talk and dine with. Next he resorts to prostitution and, if he gets a sugar daddy, he suffers the most degrading fate of all, having now fallen into a far more abject slavery than the one he escaped... The things that men admire and work so hard to get prove useless to them once they're theirs.
The need for education to escape this fate is obvious. It's also important for a more prosaic reason that Epictetus neglects. When he said earlier that "no-one is bad without loss or penalty of some kind", he didn't mention whether they have to be aware of it or not. That raises the tricky problem of the imperfections of self-knowledge, and the fact that we can even incorrectly evaluate our own emotions.

I'll grant that Epictetus would have been hard-pressed to envisage this particular scenario.
We've touched on this issue before : is someone who's happy whilst being in a bad situation really suffering ? According to Stoicism, surely not : that's the very essence of how to endure cruelty. Suffering, says Epictetus, is opinion. And this must surely go both ways : if the criminal is happy while maiming and stealing and raping puppies, are they really suffering ? Apparently not. Granted, an ignorant criminal is not at all the same as an educated Stoic who consciously chooses not to be affected by hardship, but the effect on their opinion regarding suffering is the same. At most, the ignorant criminal could be said to be suffering only in a very abstract sense. And if our efforts to educate them fail, then it's small comfort to know that the criminal is abstractly "unhappy" when they're getting away with injustice and apparently enjoying it. This is perhaps why Epictetus, like Plato before him, resorted to divine retribution to properly redress the balance : abstract suffering just doesn't cut it.

The idea that education and understanding one's desires is important for freedom in turn leads to a rather Buddhist-like conclusion, but with an extreme consequence. If we are to achieve true freedom, we have to give up everything we value. Everything.
Is there any reason to fear someone to whom I stand ready to surrender my miserable corpse ?
Obtaining our desire is not done by looking outside ourselves for help, or by changing or rearranging circumstance. Hand your will over to Zeus and the gods, let them administer it; in their keeping, your happiness is assured.
Prepare yourself not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging - and the loss of everything that belongs to you. You will be a slave among slaves otherwise; even if you are a consul ten thousand times over, even if you make your residence on the Palatine, you will be a slave nonetheless... Freedom is achieved not by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.
That's hard to accept, and also pointless. Yes, there is great value in the position that we should seek to understand, temper, and control our desires. But eliminating them ? I see no value in that at all : we might as well all kill ourselves and be done with it. What value is there in a miserable corpse ? What's the point of being a living doormat ? What's the point in letting people cut off our heads because we refuse to shave ? Nothing. How can we possibly be "free" if we've lost everything we value - what kind of freedom is that ? None whatsoever. We would simply exchange one master for another, swapping our own ignorance and emotions for someone else's.

Dodgier parts of the internet tell me that some people have weird fetishes, though I don't think that's what Epictetus was into.

Not that such a state is easy to reach though. Epictetus readily admits his own limitations :
'Are you free then ?'
By God I wish I were, and I pray to be; but I still can't face my masters, I continue to value my poor body, I attach great importance to keeping healthy - though it isn't healthy at all.

Instead of urging better medical practises, a Stoic would simply tell us to try and enjoy having a broken leg. It's only your opinion that having your legs torn off by a pack of ravenous hyenas was a bad thing. But if Epictetus didn't value his body, what would he do ? He'd stop eating and die, making it very difficult to fulfil his god-given duty. That's not to say that he doesn't have a point...
We identify with our stomachs, guts and genitals. Because we are still vulnerable to fear and desire, we flatter and creep before anyone with the power to hurt us where any of these things are concerned... No despot, thief or court of law can intimidate people who set little store by the body and its appurtenances.
... only that again he isn't clear as to how we go about deciding what it is we're supposed to do all day if we have no desire to do anything.

The problem is that Epictetus nowhere sets out any way to distinguish either how to tell apart things we can and can't control (lists of examples notwithstanding, as that's not the same as stating the general conditions), or how to act when we're in a position to do something. It would be reasonable enough if he was saying something like, "don't worry about the things you can't control, but do be concerned with things you can" if he wasn't so bloody insistent on the half-baked notion that you can't influence any externals or other people at all. It's paradoxical, too, given his equally strenuous insistence that we can influence our own choices - which therefore must in turn affect other people.
Where I can be stopped or compelled, well, getting those things is not in my control - and not good or bad in any case.
Man is not the master of another man, only death and life are, pleasure and pain.
One person cannot harm another, but it is rather our own actions that help or harm each of us.
This is, it must be said, a wonderful and inspiring notion coming from a freed slave. On a personal level, being able to withstand the punishments men think they're inflicting is a superb way to rob them of victory. But on a sociological level, when it comes to those with the ability to set policy, it is absolute bollocks : if a slavemaster genuinely thinks his slaves are actually happy and free when he whips them, why should he stop ? Not, of course, that Epictetus supports slavery or means to justify it :
If you have been placed in a position above others, are you automatically going to behave like a despot ? Remember who you are and who you govern - that they are kinsmen, brothers by nature - fellow descendants of Zeus.
Rather the problem is that there's no attempt at explaining the general case, again, as though morality were obvious. This is by now a familiar difficulty. But while so far I've countered instances like these with examples demonstrating that Epictetus clearly doesn't want to hurt anyone, in a few few cases things take a very much darker turn. If you succeed in freeing yourself, you're at liberty to exploit those who are still enslaved. Merely blaming the victims was bad enough, but sometimes he goes even further :
'My father is laying waste to my inheritance.' But not harming you. 'My brother is will claim more than his share.' He's welcome to as much as he likes... what currency does he recognise ? Silver. Show him silver, then, and you can cart off what you like. Here is an adulterer. His currency takes the form of pretty girls. 'Take the money, and sell me the merchandise.' In this way they are bought and sold. Here is one whose taste runs to boys. Procure him his currency and you can take what you please.
Instead of trying to free the abused, Epictetus recommends that we simply use them as a weakness of the abusers to get what we want. So much for the virtues of Stoic freedom ! The sentiment might have been acceptable if someone had a weakness for stealing pencils, but sex trafficking ? Uhhh, how about no ?

This, and a few other cases such as saying that we should accept people behaving harmfully towards one another, is the worst and most unforgivable aspect of Stoicism. It follows directly and logically from the concept that everything, including harm, is just a matter of subjective opinion. Even if we employ the hypothesis that opinions can be judged, then Epictetus is at the very least guilty of being, on occasion, a total shithead - if his opinion is that sex trafficking is morally acceptable, then the problem of not stating how to judge opinions stands revealed not as mere incompleteness, but as a vast moral chasm in his personal worldview. At the worst, his whole philosophical system is fundamentally flawed. While previously we saw him turning a blind eye to deal with hardships, here he advocates active exploitation. No thanks.

Space Republicans ! The law of unintended consequences strikes again...
And yet this is undeniably rare, and arguably anomalous. By and large, Epictetus doesn't say we should go around bribing people, and despises adulterers as worse than vermin. He doesn't even say we should passively accept things, or encourage us to sit around feeling snooty in our own personal freedom while glorying in the servitude of lesser mortals. Overwhelmingly he does want us to act, for the good of our fellow man, and not to sit around all day saying that "everything is just an impression, so why bother ?", let alone selling people into slavery. The problem is not so much his intentions, it's the paradoxical nature of his conclusions. Sexploitation aside, it's just not at all clear as to why we should do anything if everything is just our opinion.

Let's be very generous and assume that Epictetus went a little bit mad from time to time. What, in general, does he actually want us to do all day ?

No lazy Stoics

As we saw in part two, this exact scenario was originally a Stoic meme.
And he clearly does want us to do something good with our lives. We should use our capacity for self-examination as fully as possible :
Consider the gift of reason : it sets you apart from wild animals; it sets you apart from beasts and sheep. By virtue of these two faculties you are a member of the Universe with full citizen rights; you were born not to serve but to govern, because you understand the divine order and its pattern.
Well, then, biting, kicking, wanton imprisonment and beheading - is that what our nature entails ? No, rather, acts of kindness, cooperation and goodwill.
Those who do not bother to temper their passions or question their desires are little better than brutes. Becoming an emotionless Vulcan is pointless and stupid. But learning to govern our passions through reason - that kind of knowledge is real power.

Once again we have to confront that awkward question of whether Stoics are supposed to intervene or just let bad people suffer by wallowing in their own misery. Previously I concluded (or rather rationalised my own pre-existing belief) that they should take action, and that the victim-blaming attitude adopted in parts of Epictetus should be discarded. Further evidence for this comes when he describes how everyone hates moral philosophers, with the obvious implication that moral philosophers are quite important :
Tell me the steps you've taken to care for your soul... did you learn how from another person, or did you discover it yourself ?' At this point you run the risk of him saying, 'What business is that of yours, sir ?' Pester him further, and he is liable to punch you in the nose.
If a doctor tells a patient, "Look, you may think this is insignificant, but you're really sick; no food for you today, only water' - no-one thinks, 'How rude !' But say to someone, 'Your desires are unhealthy,  your powers of aversion are weak, your plans are incoherent, your impulses are at odds with nature and your system of values is false and confused' - and off they go alleging slander.
Which suggests* a very practical reason to adopt a Stoic attitude - how else could a philosopher endure all those insults and nose punches ? Perhaps philosophy would have turned out differently if armour had been cheaper...

* Leaving aside the need to shout, "you're the one who says we should become sex traffickers, you dickhead !"

People are willing to admit physical deficiencies because they're not usually a matter of choice, whereas they prefer to believe they are always in control of their choices. The difficulty for moral philosophers is that they first have to persuade people that they're not as in control as they think, and only then can then re-educate them to allow them to take genuine responsibility.
Though values differ, as a rule people will admit to practically nothing that they regard as dishonourable. In general, where people are led to acknowledge a fault is is because they imagine there is something involuntary about it.
(Though I suppose chronic stupidity is an obvious exception to this.) Only the tutelage of a philosopher, it seems, is any defence against falling into the common trap of ignoring our own moral and intellectual failings. Clearly philosophers have to do something, and not just sit around all day pointing out how awful adulterers are whilst doing bugger all to actually stop them (even if Stoicism, unlike Plato, says nothing much at all about broader social policies). The same goes for both the ordinary man and even the most hardened Stoic :
'But my nose is running !' What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it ? 'But how is it right that there are running noses in the first place ?' Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn't it be easier just to wipe your nose ?
Listen, stupid, you have hands. God gave them to you himself. You might as well get on your knees and pray that your nose won't run. A better idea would be to wipe your nose and forego the prayer.
Being able to endure hardship doesn't mean that you're obligated to. Sure, you can let someone cut your head off, but you don't necessarily need to do that if you have a way to stop them. Rather, it gives you an added advantage in the case where the situation is beyond your control. If the situation is something you can affect, however, you're at liberty to influence it.

The problem here is that Stoicism provides few guidelines as to how to behave when our actions will actually make a difference. I mean, it's all very well being able to withstand suffering, but yet again a hypocritical paradox emerges here : if there's no point in worrying about things I can't control, why does Epictetus labour the point so much ? After all, if there are situations where I do have influence, surely it's more useful to everyone if I dwell on how I'm going to act in those conditions, rather than spend every day preparing for the cases which I can't do anything about anyway. And, as with the example of being deafened, sheer physical pain - when elevated far beyond the inconvenience of a runny nose - would seem to be capable of changing our intentions and rational judgement.

Plenty of other things can ruin concentration.
The central Stoic idea that we should take things as we find them is never reconciled with the practically self-evident notion that we do have means to influence the world. We can either say, "it's a pity my nose is running, but never mind", or we just can wipe our nose instead*, but to provide a complete philosophy there should be an explanation as to why we should choose the latter.

*There are actually three responses to a runny nose : complaining but doing nothing, wiping, or enduring. Epictetus peculiarly omits this last, Stoic response without explanation.

Okay, that's a silly example. Fair enough. The principle becomes clearer, though, with a more serious case. We can either say, "it's a pity those slaves are being whipped, but never mind, it's only their opinion that they're suffering", or we can try and free them (either through direct action or through improved social policies). The principle point is the same : when should we endure suffering, and when should we seek to alleviate it ? When do we try and change someone's opinion that they're suffering and when do we need to intervene to change their situation ?

In part two I suggested that this occurs at least when their own opinion of their suffering makes them become worse people, but this is at best merely one example and doesn't solve the general problem. It hardly seems adequate, for example, when we see good people enduring pain by the actions of the villainous and who don't then go on to seek revenge : plenty of people suffer and don't become bad people as a result of it. Surely we should still intervene in those cases too.

Of course there's always the option that we act for the sake of the criminals, taking action to prevent them from harming themselves by their own maliciousness. But still we face the uncomfortable issue of what to do about the victims - if and how we should address their problems or let them endure hardship through Stoic majesty. Without addressing that, Stoicism provokes a deep sense of fundamental wrongness.

It seems to me that the central Stoic idea (that we should accept the world as it is) leads by itself to everyone becoming selfish, lazy, and cruel. Epictetus saves himself from that only by introducing other mitigating factors, such as the will of God or the importance of community and duty. These ideas don't fall naturally from the main Stoic principle.

Crucially, none of this is a problem for the common-sense notion that external events affect our judgement and cause us physical but meaningful suffering, and the Platonic notion of objective justice as being some external, fundamental thing that's not subject to mere opinion. With that attitude, of course we take action to address slavery and murder and the like. Stoicism has to come up with other reasons to get us to stop adulterers and thieves, which doesn't win it much credibility in my book. That's not its intent, but it seems like an all but inevitable outcome.So in the next, final part, we'll give Stoicism  one last chance at redemption by looking at how Epictetus thinks we should strive to influence those around us. Can Stoics become sociologists ?

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (III)

Welcome back to this ongoing mini-series on Stoicism. We've covered quite a bit already, so let's take stock.

Nothing matters except opinion, say the Stoics. That lets us endure more-or-less anything, even if we're thrown into a pool of piranhas with lasers for eyes, but unfortunately it seems to let us morally justify throwing other people into pools of laser piranhas as well. If we just need to alter our opinions to endure suffering, then so be it - and the same goes for everyone else.

"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to realise all your experience is just subjective opinion and therefore die with quiet dignity."
One possible solution to this apparent moral paradox is that though everything may be just opinion, those opinions really do matter. We can't judge external events as good or bad, but we can judge opinions according to some absolute standard. The problem is that Epictetus doesn't provide any such standard; that without training people experience genuine suffering; that contradictory guidance is provided as to how to help people in distress; that if our actions (or intentions) really do make us moral or immoral, then those actions or intentions must indeed have some moral value themselves.

We tracked down the problem to Epictetus' definition of harm. Saying that we're only harmed if our opinions change in an ill-defined way, regardless of whether we experience pain or unpleasantness, causes all sorts of trouble. Why use such a definition ? That seems to relate to the issue of free will. : if we can change our opinions arbitrarily, then all suffering is indeed a matter of choice.

Last time we finished by introducing Epictetus' complex view of this, sometimes seeing free will as limited, but at other times portraying it as something godlike. Let's continue this investigation by looking at actual examples of choices we can make and how we learn how to make them. One career path in particular exemplifies this : the philosopher. Perhaps if we understand how Epictetus thinks philosophers, the most conscious of all of their self-knowledge and abilities, should behave, we might better understand what he really thinks about free will and thus whether his strange definition of harm has any merit. In particular, can Stoics really learn to not to fear attacks of deadly laser fish, or not ? And if they can, is that even a good idea ?

Philosophers : not too cool for school

For Epictetus, there is a very definite - if also mysterious - purpose to life : obeying the will of God. All must play their part. It's not enough to keep would-be hedonistic deviants on the straight and narrow : the bookworms, the quiet, introverted citizens (like Marcus Aurelius) are duty bound to participate too :
It makes no difference whether we wish to be a senator or not to be one... A book is an external, just like office or public honours. Why do you want to read anyway - for the sake of amusement or mere erudition ? Those are poor, fatuous pretexts. Reading should serve the goal of attaining peace; if it doesn't make you peaceful, what good is it ?
Anyone whose sole passion is reading books, and who does little else besides, having moved here for this - my advice for them is to go back home immediately and attend to business there, because they left home for nothing.
Understanding the theory of philosophy is a fine thing, but the whole point is to seek out and practise living virtuously.
When the crisis comes, we groan and say, 'I wanted to keep on learning.' Keep learning what ? If you didn't learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for ?
Understanding is something quite distinct from knowledge. The example I always like to refer to is mathematics : I could in principle memorise any formula, but when it reaches a certain complexity level, then even if I was given all the necessary knowledge, I might not necessarily understand what it meant. Similarly, people may know tonnes of moral philosophical theory but still act like jerks.
You have been introduced to the essential doctrines, and claim to understand them. So what kind of teacher are you waiting for that you delay putting these principles into practice before he comes ?
Step forward and make use of what you've learned. It isn't more logic-chopping that is needed - our Stoic texts are full of that. What we need now are people to apply their learning and bear witness to their learning in their actions.
For Epictetus philosophy is just a means to the end of becoming a good person (though he has not all that much to say of what "goodness" itself really is, or even how we should judge if an action is good or not - it's apparently just obvious). That's the whole point of it. If you just memorise a bunch of stuff and don't actually apply it, he'll happily let the door hit you on the way out.

Epictetus doesn't preclude that one might be a good person without training, only that there's a very definite purpose to it. This, he says, is where many others go wrong. It's not that theory isn't helpful, it's that people get stuck with it because it's easier than applying what they've learned in everyday life :
The first and most important principle of philosophy is the application of principles such as 'Do not lie.' Next come the proofs, such as why we do should not lie. The third field supports and articulates the proofs, by asking, for example, 'How does this prove it ?' The most important is the first, the one that should occupy most of our time. But we do just the opposite. The result is that we lie - but have no difficulty proving why we shouldn't.
Epictetus tends to the view that training and education does matter, it's just that reading books for the sake of an academic exercise is the wrong sort of training, that an exclusively intellectual focus won't bring about any real change in a person. Academic knowledge is important, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a change in the will to act. The will, in the end, is what really counts.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Epictetus really does value theory. He even goes as far as to say that making errors of logic is not only irrational but borders on the immoral :
'Look, if I err in such matters, I haven't killed my father, have I ?' No, fool - for there was no father there for you to kill ! You made the only mistake you had the opportunity to make. I mean, are these the only crimes, killing your father and burning down the capitol? But to use one's impressions recklessly, carelessly and at random, to fail to analyse an argument as either valid proof or fallacy, and, in a word, to fail to see in the act of question and answer what agrees with your position and what conflicts - is nothing wrong in all of that-?
Errors of judgement can lead us astray. In fact, improperly taught philosophy can be counter-productive, a sentiment shared strongly by Plato. While we should bear unavoidable hardships with complete indifference, this doesn't apply to our own decisions - we have a duty to strive to make the best judgements possible. Epictetus elegantly reminds us that even if our logic was completely sound, our assumptions and input data might still be wrong. Implicit in this is the need for constant re-evaluation. It's a commendably scientific, provisional approach to forming a conclusion.
If the premises remain as they were when we granted them, then we are under every obligation to stand by what was granted and accept what follows. But if they do not remain as they were, we don't have to accept it, because the conclusion no longer holds for us. Nor is it fitting that we accept it, since we have retracted our admission of the premises.
In a prescient passage that deserves to be quoted at length, Epictetus has some strong words for Brexiteers :
If you take pride in having the energy of a lunatic, I have to say, 'Friend, you need a therapist. This is not strength, but a kind of infirmity.'... if it was a reckless decision, it should be open to change.
'But we must stick with a decision.'
For heaven's sake man, that rule only applies to 
sound decisions. I suppose next you will decide that it is night now, and refuse to change you mind because you don't want to. Begin with a firm foundation; evaluate your decision to see if it is valid - then there will be a basis for this rigid resolve of yours.
'I've made a decision.'
Yes, so have lunatics. But the more fixed their delusions, the more medication they require... Nothing is more important than that I cure you of the conviction that, 'We must stick with a decision, and never back down' is too crude a law. This is deranged, not healthy, resolution.

If you can't change a person's mind, realise that he is no more than a child - and clap hands with him.
A sharp contrast indeed to his other statement, "Pay no attention to whatever people might say"*-! But perhaps more interestingly, knowing the techniques of rational analysis does not mean that people either understand or actually apply them. Philosophy, Epictetus says, is far from being the whole answer. He has no explicit statements as to whether virtue is something that can be taught (or otherwise changed by our experiences), a problem that Plato never fully solved either, but the overall impression I have is that he thinks some people can learn but others can't. For the latter a philosophy course can actually make things worse :

* Just as in part one we witnessed Epictetus insult people for being insulting, so here he says, "Listen to me, you must listen to no-one but yourself !" without apparent irony.
When this arbitrariness is reinforced by strength of purpose, the illness becomes past help or healing. I have come to understand that saying which I did not fully appreciate until now, 'A fool cannot be convinced or even compelled to renounce his folly.' God save me from fools with a little philosophy - no-one is more difficult to reach.
The writings and teachings of philosophy, when emptied into someone vicious and a fake - as into a foul and filthy vessel - become spoiled, degraded, and debased, turning into urine, or, if it's possible, something even more disgusting.
Both rigidity and flexibility of thinking are dangerous amongst idiots. The powerful and the stupid, said the Doctor, have in common that they alter the facts to fit their views rather than the other way around. A high level of analytic, problem-solving intelligence is all too easily perverted by a lack of critical intelligence - a respect for a more fundamental truth and an honest readiness to concede uncomfortable facts. And of course morality is arguably something quite distinct from intelligence altogether.
In general every talent , when it gets into the hands of the morally weak, comes with the risk of making them conceited and full of themselves.
Conversely, all this implies that philosophy can be beneficial to others. So at least some people can learn virtue to some degree. That seems a lot safer than saying virtue is entirely learned or innate.

In Epictetus' view, then, we all have imperfect knowledge and so our decisions need re-evaluation, as we ourselves need self-examination. His focus on the need for training to become a true Stoic suggests that knowledge can indeed bring about understanding, desire, and right action - it's just that training is difficult due to our human frailties, and different training methods may have different results on different people. The will, which knowledge can't control, is better viewed as our ability to make choices, not our ability given by knowledge and training to judge which option is best.

As in It, sometimes the choices are much more complicated than they first appear.
Thus, learning philosophy can help us become better people, so long as we train people correctly : if they have the will, then knowledge will help; if they lack the appropriate resolve, then it won't. Maybe this is the reason Epictetus appears to contradict himself as to the importance and strength of free will : he, or the translator, is using the term interchangeably with understanding. It seems like a potentially satisfying solution, at any rate.

Well I mean the importance of proper instruction should be obvious.

It's not your teacher's fault you're a jerk

Unfortunately this may not be sustainable. Our will, our ability to make choices, is something Epictetus views as absolute in the strongest sense of the word. The imperfections of the external world limit our options and cause us to make mistakes, but they do not affect in any way whatsoever our innermost ability to choose between those options. They limit and restrict us, but do not influence us :
God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way.
You carry the living God inside you and are blind to the fact that you desecrate him with your dirty words and dirty thoughts... you alone were given the power of self-determination.
Both the will and externals are fitted by nature to obstruct the power of sight, as well as speech and hearing. But what can obstruct the will ? Nothing external; only the will can turn back on and obstruct itself. Which is why virtue and vice apply to it and it alone. It is by the faculty of will, when rightly applied... that a good person becomes good; when its purpose fails, he turns bad. It determines whether we are to know happiness or not, and whether we will be on hostile or amicable terms with our neighbours.
So we have imperfect knowledge and wayward desires, but apparently we have total control of how we respond - not just in terms of our outward behaviour, but even in terms of our opinions as well. This seems very much mistaken almost by definition - we cannot simply choose our emotions and desires, however much we might want to :

Okay, we can influence ourselves by choosing what to read and who to associate with, etc., but that's hardly direct or complete control. If we did have such control, it would imply that the instant we understand what's right or wrong, we'd become the very model of virtue :
In the case of our ideas about good and bad, right and wrong... we are born with an innate understanding of what these words mean. We come into the world knowing some things that nature, you might say, has taught us already; and, building on this knowledge, we come to form opinions. [But] if, along with the innate ideas, we came into the world with knowledge of how they should be applied, we would be perfect wise men from the moment we were born.
This is quite sophisticated. But again, as soon as we understand how to apply these ideas, our complete self-control ought to make us practically perfect in every way. But, if the will is something so supremely powerful, and all we need is the right knowledge, how come moral philosophy courses haven't long since transformed the whole planet into a demi-paradise ? There feels like another contradiction and unanswered questions here : do we have supreme will or not ? If the will has such divine potency, and all we need to act is correct knowledge, why are there still assholes ?

Arguably, this contradicts Epictetus' stance that philosophy and moral teachings don't always succeed. I agree with him that even philosophers can be corrupt, but he never gets to the central issue of why. Sure, there are some very tricky moral issues, but sometimes even the most educated do really blatantly dickish things. Why would any philosopher ever choose to do things they know are wrong ? What's wrong with their supposedly godlike will in those cases ?

Some failures take real effort and, occasionally, intelligence.
And although he accepts the imperfections of our senses and the need to re-examine our decisions if circumstances change, Epictetus all too frequently implies that the external world can't affect our judgement at all so long as we have correct information. It's as though everything is ultimately a form of knowledge (again a Platonic tendency), albeit with things such as desire and understanding being quite a different type of knowledge than merely knowing facts.

Perhaps this could yet salvage the whole thing if we extend the logic a little. Suppose that everything is a form of knowledge, some of which we're born with (like the meaning of "good") but some we're not (like how to actually be good in practise). Maybe Epictetus is trying to say that although some of our characteristics are absolute, we're not born with the knowledge of self-control and desire and whatnot. That way they could both be ours and subject to external influence; we begin with an unlimited free will in the sense of a capacity for self-control, but no knowledge of how to apply it - just as we begin with knowledge of goodness but not the details of its application. Teaching is then genuinely important, because you can't act correctly without correct knowledge (and without correct knowledge of self-control this becomes even more true), but in the end our decisions are our own.

This might work... but it raises a whole new paradox. Remember back in part one, we saw that Epictetus said we shouldn't worry about thieves or adulterers because everything happens according to God's will, but here he explicitly denies this. They're clearly not acting in accordance with God's will but their own (albeit due to ignorance rather than malevolence). So at the very least, we ought to be concerned with their motives so we can correct them through education and/or punishment. But Epictetus says :
I mean, do we worry whether we are going to make an error in judgement ? No, because it is under our control. Or having an unnatural urge ? No again.
How can this be ? How can criminals possibly be said to be making correct judgements ? Our emotions clearly can be affected by the external world, and they clearly can affect how we make decisions. Epictetus admits the former but not the latter :
'But they deafen me with their shouting.'
So your hearing is offended; what does it have to do with you ? Your power of using impressions isn't diminished, is it ? Who can keep you from using desire and aversion, or choice and refusal, in conformity with nature ? No mob is big enough for that.

Of course it's bloody diminished, you twit ! YOU try solving a differential equation while someone is singing Justin Beiber songs in your ear at the volume of a steam train ! And if I'm deafened, I've lost external information by definition ! Sheesh.

Once again there's a promising solution to the main issue, but it comes at a cost. If we have unlimited capacity for self-control but only begin with limited knowledge of how to apply it, then we can learn to endure different situations and need to be taught right from wrong. Taking our "will" to mean our capacity for choice, we can say this is unlimited and free (within the available options) but our knowledge can be incomplete and influenced by external events. But we then have to reject Epictetus' assertion that external events can't influence our choices or the (frankly stupid) idea that we'll never make an error in judgement, moral or otherwise.

There's a great deal of wisdom we can salvage from Epictetus. But we have to be (ahem) willing to concede that the work as a whole is inconsistent and sometimes just plain wrong. It is not in the least bit a complete system, and in places it's so full of holes you could use it as a colander, except that it would go all soggy.

In the end, Epictetus doesn't seem to have a definitive answer as to how to reconcile the influence of external events with unlimited free will. Perhaps he's just being rhetorical*, but taken at face value his statements that our judgement cannot be impaired just don't make any sense - he fails to address why people tend to act as if they are indeed being influenced when apparently they are not. His only hint at how our rationality can be impaired is not terribly convincing :

* Though I doubt it. Much effort was made to make sure quotes are neither taken out of context nor isolated examples.
When a frightening noise comes from heaven or if an abrupt alarm threatens danger, the mind even of a wise man is inevitably shaken a little, blanches and recoils - not from any preconceived idea that something bad is about to happen, but because certain irrational reflexes forestall the action of the rational mind.
He's not entirely wrong, of course, but it's a heck of a leap to extrapolate this to all situations : that the mind has rational and irrational aspects, and that one cannot directly affect the other. Isn't it more natural to suppose that we have one faculty of reason which can be affected to differing degrees ?

It's all rather odd. Our emotions can, surely, be affected by external events. So why in the world would anyone think that our emotions cannot affect our preferences and our otherwise good judgement ? If our preferences can be affected through training - and obviously they can otherwise Epictetus wouldn't have tried to educate people - then why shouldn't our emotions be able to affect our judgement as well ?

No, it's that we do things, on occasion, that we are unable rather than unwilling to resist - the idea that we just prefer to do one thing over another (again, see part one) is not sufficient. Even if our deepest desires can change, sometimes we do things we fundamentally do not actually want to do - it's not always a matter of our preferences changing. We are neither thoughtless automata nor impervious divinities, but something in between, with finite abilities both to choose and to act.

Still, Epictetus seemed to me to be along the right general lines with regards to free will. Freedom of choice does not mean having unlimited options or being unimpeded or being unpredictable. It's about whether you get to decide for yourself between whatever options are available. You make a choice.

And sometimes those choices are very smart.

Are you in control ?

But what in the world does "you" mean here ? Descartes got into problems when he tried to describe the mind and body as two distinct sorts of substances, having no plausible way to explain how such utterly different media could interact with each other. Epictetus doesn't suffer those problems, because he goes no further than saying that the mind and body are separate. Presumably, the divine (i.e. supernatural and unknowable) nature of the mind is what allows it to control physical matter, but for Epictetus the main point is only that the mind is not matter. This leads to suicide as a valid option when one has been pushed beyond one's Stoic limits - there are things which matter just cannot endure :
When the mind no longer consents, then you can take my body, and farewell to it. Only, we must not part with it rashly or irrationally, or on trivial pretext. Because, again, God does not wish it. He needs us, he needs the world that we help populate.
Which is contradictory to the earlier statements that externals can't affect us and the will is supreme. Epictetus might say that our feeling despair and misery is not true suffering, that we only suffer when we act or think badly, but this is again a consequence of that strange definition of harm. It seems clear that if our thoughts turn to suicide, then we - in this context, our supposedly divine mental selves - have been affected.

So surely it is impossible to maintain that we don't suffer because of external events. Yes, we can alter our opinion, but the occasional need for suicide shows that this only goes so far. If we really had a truly irresistible will, what would be the need for suicide ? We could keep going quite happily despite even having our eyes gouged out. Accepting that this ability to put aside pain is limited inevitably concedes that we can be affected by externals. Even if it's because externals only affect the irrational part of our mind, Epictetus admits that the irrational part can overwhelm us - hence externals affect us indirectly at the very least.

So in the end, apparently our self control is only ever limited, and it varies enormously from person to person. This is not dissimilar to Plato's depiction of morality as being relative but objective.
For one person it is reasonable to be a bathroom attendant... Someone else not only finds such a job intolerable for him personally, but finds it intolerable that anyone should have to perform it. I will tell you that earning a living is better than starving to death, so that if you measure your interests by these criteria, go ahead and do it. You are the one who knows yourself, you know how much you are worth in your own estimation, and therefore at what price you will sell yourself; because people sell themselves at different rates.
Death before the dishonour of becoming a bathroom attendant ! To each their own, indeed.

Epictetus ultimately offers no clear guidance as to what it means to say that only our opinions can affect us. Are they really a matter of full control or not ? He variously suggests that they are a matter of full, partial, or no control whatsoever, often expressing these different and mutually exclusive views with equally staunch conviction, and provides no explanation for this. He seems to think that goodness is something innate and obvious, yet it's necessary to educate people for them to behave properly; we have a duty to help each other, but should let criminals get away without any earthly punishment. Stoicism for me is ultimately unsatisfying.

And yet Epictetus does give many valuable insights, even if he doesn't have a robust framework to tie the whole thing together. Free will depends in a rather inscrutable way on the mind-body duality. If Epictetus is not able to offer any great revelation about the physics (or perhaps psychics would be a better word) behind this, he does have something useful to say about the morality of the free aspect - even if he eventually goes to extremes. There is, "no greater faculty than free choice", he says. But what is free choice ? Does it mean simply being unhindered and able to do whatever you want ? Yes - and no. In part four, we'll look at my favourite part of Epictetus : his examination of what it means to be free.