Saturday, January 21, 2012


Several years ago, when I was experiencing a time of grief, I found great consolation in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I had never read before. I was aware that the Roman emperor relied on the teachings of Epictetus for many of the ideas and precepts he expressed. Only now, though, have I found the opportunity to make a close (well, fairly close) study of that thinker.

Epictetus (ca, 55 CE-135 CE) was a Greek sage affiliated with the Stoic movement. He was born a slave at Hierapolis in Asia Minor, and resided in Rome until banishment when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece where he lived and taught for the rest of his life. His teachings were recorded and published by his pupil Arrian in the Discourses. Philosophy, he held, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. Epictetus believed that there was a fundamental distinction between the relatively restricted sphere that is within our control, and the vastly larger realms that are not. Still, in keeping with the concept of prohairesis or volition, we must act forthrightly when we can, as happiness depends on this All the same, external events are beyond our control, and we must accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. However, this realism does not mean a kind of monastic retirement from the world. As part of the universal city that is the cosmos, human beings have a duty to care for all fellow humans.

After some reflection, I have concluded that there are two obstacles to my signing on to this program.

1) Epictetus recommends a highly constricted sphere of human agency. While we may experience sympathy, we shouldn’t even think of trying to affect the larger sphere of affairs that lies outside our control. Among other things, the minimalism thus commended would discourage engaging in movements for social change (something that has been important to me), or indeed making any large commitments. As regards human action, small is beautiful. But is it? Isn’t it better to have fought the good fight, even though what was sought did not turn out to be fully attainable?

2) The observable regularities of the cosmos provide, the Stoics generally believed, the template for personal morality. Observing such profound consonances will secure the benefit of “living in accord with nature.” This attempted derivation looks very much like an improbable journey from the realm of is to that of ought--a philosophical mistake trenchantly pointed out by David Hume. Moreover, the notion of living according to nature means the downgrading of living “unnaturally,” however defined. Over the course of European intellectual history, the dubious concept of the unnatural has been deployed to forbid all sorts of harmless, even rewarding behavior, including same-sex love. The whole construction, sometimes termed Natural Law, must be rejected.

A final caveat has occurred to me. Now that I have reached old age, with its necessarily more limited opportunities, maybe I can subscribe to the two precepts just noted more easily. To do that, though, would be to betray my earlier self.

PS. One iconoclastic Internaut has come up with the following summary of Epictetus' teaching: "Some things are up to us and others are not. Up to us are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is in our own action. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own action." A caricature? Probably, but so be it.



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