Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Epictetus, His Thoughts, and My Personal Stoicism


In my short philosophical career I have been introduced to dozens of philosophers, several eras of philosophy, and different regions such as Eastern and Western. Several philosophers speak to me deeply but I don’t understand all of their thoughts and I usually only look for and hear what interests me initially. I think of it as philosophically shopping. When I go to the store I pick up a little of this and a little of that and just because it’s there I’ll take some of that too. When doing so I am only experiencing bits and pieces of philosophy. Chopping it up and turning it into something that it isn’t. The problem I have with trying to learn philosophy at such an accelerated pace is that it can become overwhelming making it hard to enjoy. However there is one philosopher who speaks to me through his works and inspires me to figuratively work on myself. When I read his writings, which were written down by one of his students in Greek, I try and apply his thoughts to my life because they’re delightful. He is the stoic philosopher, Epictetus.
Epictetus was born in 55 A.D. in present-day southwestern Turkey. He was born into slavery under his ruler Epaphroditus, who himself was once a slave of Nero. It’s kind of funny how that happens. Epictetus had a taste for learning and his master took notice. Epaphroditus sent Epictetus to Rome to continue learning. He studied with Gaius Musonius Rufus. Rufus considered Epictetus his best student and Epictetus was freed from slavery. After being freed and finishing his studies Epictetus stayed in Rome and taught others until 94A.D. He was exiled from Rome when Domitian, the Roman emperor at the time, banished philosophers. Epictetus spent the rest of his life in northwestern Greece teaching stoicism. One of his students Marcus Aurelius Antoninus would become ruler of the Roman Empire and also write one of the most notable books on philosophy titled “The Meditations.” Epictetus died at 85 years old in 135 A.D. He himself did not write any of his thoughts down but luckily for us a student of his, Flavius Arrian, transcribed several of his lectures into Greek. Why do the some of the brightest people not record their work?
Now that we have had a brief introduction to who Epictetus was it is time to take a look at his philosophy. Unlike many of the philosophers before and after him, Epictetus was mostly concerned with how one should live in order to be virtuous and happy overall. He didn’t explore cerebral and metaphysical concepts like so many others, which I myself am thankful for because I find those to be quite uninteresting. Epictetus believed that an individual controlled whether or not he or she was happy. Important to him were the things that one could control and the things one could not control. Our opinions, our aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us are things within our control. Those that are not include the class we are born into and the looks we have. For Epictetus, trying to control things that we could not would only lead to frustration and bad times. His thoughts on attachment, possessions, and death are so extraordinary. For example, one should not worry if something were stolen from them. Can anything actually be stolen from you? Truly nothing is yours besides your own emotions and thoughts. If someone were to steal your wallet you should not fret over it. The Earth loaned you anything you might think you have, therefore if it leaves your possession it is actually just being returned to where it came from originally. However, Epictetus does say that while you do have something given to you should care for it just as a “traveller would take care of a room in an inn.”      

The same thought process goes for attachments. One should not attach their self to anything that is not actually theirs. Take a cell phone for example. If water were to get into your cell phone and cause it to not work properly you should not allow it to affect you. For one, it is not within your control and two; the malfunction of your cell phone in no way directly hurts you.
One of the most beautiful ideas about death also comes from Epictetus. We should not fear death because death is something that is out of control and will forever be an unchanging force of nature. One is foolish to try and stop the inevitable from happening or to believe that someone will live forever. Instead, Epictetus says we should approach death through a different lens. Rather simply dying, a mortal is just being returned to where they came from. The only part of death someone should be afraid of is the fear of fear itself. I think that this is the most delightful approach to death. I, like many people I suppose, am in no hurry to die. I do not think that I fear death because truly there is nothing to fear because no one knows what death will be like. I think what concerns me the most is the uncertainty about it.
Moving on to something that every philosopher touches on, God. God, for Epictetus, is seen as the giver. He is who gives you life and everything else that follows. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “If the Stoic making progress understands God, the universe, and themselves in the right way, they will never blame the gods, nor find fault with them.” I believe this is healthy way to believe in a deity.
The stoic approach to life is absolutely awesome. A stoic understands that life is not going to be a walk in the park. There will be problems that one encounters all the time. However, the stoic attitude regarding difficulty is so different than most. Stoics do not believe in hope or at least try not to have hope. Rather hope for something not to happen such as heartbreak, pain, frustration, and anxiety, just expect them to happen and when it does it will not be so hard to cope with. Yes, you will encounter each and every one of these things at some point but in the end everything will be okay. This is probably my favorite feature of stoicism. In my opinion the stoics are the toughest people. When they encounter difficulty they do it with finesse and after it’s all over and done with they keep riding on. I try to be tough and bold every day. I accept challenges and take them on. In fact I go after them. I think that Epictetus, other stoics like Marcus Aurelius, and myself could have been very good friends had we all lived in the same era. We would all agree upon how to handle obstacles when confronted with them. We would share similar attitudes. Yes problems will arise eventually but we are in control of how we let those problems affect our lives. If I had a network of stoic friends I think it would be much easier to confront life’s challenges. Thankfully I do. I try and surround myself with people who have strong wills. Friends who are not brought down by difficulty but instead create motivation out of it.

Lastly, there is another feature of stoicism that I do not agree with but I feel it’s worth mentioning. The stoics believed suicide was acceptable if one simply could not bear life’s toils. I do not see how a stoic could have a bold view on problems but at the same time be so weak. I am a firm believer in pushing on and keeping your head up no matter what. I guess every form of philosophy is personalized in some way though. Like I said before, it’s like philosophically shopping.

1 comment:

  1. So fascinating, that the former slave instructed the future emperor.

    "Why do the some of the brightest people not record their work?" - Maybe he shared Socrates' mistrust of writing as lacking the nuance of personal interaction and conversation? But I'll bet all those old non-writing philosophers would be blogging and tweeting (etc.) if they were with us today, provided they could do so without being enslaved by attachment to their devices.

    I agree that suicide is not a very stoic response to life's challenges, but it's interesting to note that Epictetus anticipated the Existentialists in implying that the ultimate philosophical question is whether life is worth living, and how we can respond to life's vicissitudes to make it so.

    For an entertaining fictional treatment of Epictetus and stoicism check out Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full"-

    "...when I introduced the subject of stoicism in this book, suddenly, it became a tale of morality. I had this young man, Conrad Hensley, who was out of work and through mishaps was in Oakland. His car is towed, and he eventually gets into a fight with somebody at the pound, the private car pound where these cars are taken, and he ends up in jail. He really has no one to turn to. His wife has given up on him; his parents are worthless, ex-hippies. He has nothing; he has nobody. And, by mistake, he’s sent this book about the stoics, and he reads these lines from Epictetus and learns that Epictetus, himself, had been sold as a slave when he was 10 years old to a Roman – he was Greek, himself – he was sold to a Roman military officer.

    ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it gives Hensley, who was already a good man, the – almost the theology or the ideology of his goodness.

    TOM WOLFE: Right. Stoicism – a true stoic has no dilemmas. I’ll give you just one quick example. Epictetus, like most – practically all philosophers in Rome – had a long beard, and the emperor Domitian, who followed Nero – this was all in this era of flesh pots in Rome – was – and had it with these philosophers, who were kind of thorns in his side – and so he issued a euchasa that said all philosophers must cut off their beards or be beheaded or sent into exile. So – and the beard was the symbol of being a philosopher. So either you deny your own nature as a philosopher, or you’re going to die or be sent into exile. So they came to Epictetus, and they told him the choice that he had – either death or shave off your beard – and they said, we’ll give you 24 hours to decide. He says, I don’t need 24 hours. He says, I’m not shaving it off. And they said, well, we’ll behead you. He said, go ahead; you do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do; my body is only a bowl of clay with a quart of blood in it; and someday I’ve got to give it back anyway. Ah – this – this is stern stuff and it’s so alien – what I liked – it’s so alien to the age that we live in..."