Epictetus

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


EPICTETUS


Consider who you are: to begin with, you are a human being, that is, one who has no quality more sovereign than moral choice, and who holds everything else subordinate to it, and moral choice itself free from slavery and subjection.... In addition to this you are a citizen of the world and a part of it.

EPICTETUS

As Rome extended its imperial influence throughout the Mediterrean world and beyond, it absorbed the efflorescence of other cultures, using, enjoying and transforming them. Greek culture flowed into the imperial capital like an inexorable river, and artisans, grammarians, writers, teachers and philosophers came to suffuse the city with all things Greek. Much was imitative, like the Roman copies of Greek sculpture, but some of it was authentic, especially in the realm of ideas. The teachings of the Stoa, preserving the dialectical method of an idealized Socrates, survived the passage to Rome intact and flourished there. Stoic efforts to close the gap between theory and practice found a fertile field in the minds of a people who were already endowed with the ability to apply general principles to particular problems. Stoic metaphysics was clear and coherent, its logic incisive and its ethics adaptable to Roman conceptions of virtue. The cosmopolitan outlook appealed to the Roman imperium. The virtues of the individual – justice, balance and self-control, a sense of the sacred, courage and wisdom – had been given a political flavour by the Athenian Stoics, and they evolved into civic virtues – a sense of justice under law, fortitude and endurance, prudence, bravery and socially delineated duty – under Roman patronage. The philosophy of Epicurus might be used to justify a sybaritic life and the categories of the Academy did not inspire the Roman mind until vivified by Plotinus, but the Stoic viewpoint came to Rome without undue alteration or compromise. The vitality of Roman Stoicism was exemplified in the lives of its greatest exponents, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and warrior, and Epictetus, the ex-slave and exile.

Epictetus was born in the middle of the first century A.D. at Hierapolis in Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor known for its enthusiastic devotion to ancient deities. Little is known of his life, and even his name may be a pseudonym, for epiktetos means 'acquired', Epictetus being a slave from birth. His strong will and self-control manifested early in life. While still young, his master put his leg in a device for torture. "You will break my leg", Epictetus said quietly, and when his leg was in fact broken, he calmly added, "Did I not tell you so?" As a consequence of this cruelty, he was lame for life. Taken to Rome, he was owned by Epaphroditus, an administrative secretary to Nero. His master sent him to take lessons from Gaius Musonius Rufus, a creative and courageous Stoic whom Apollonius of Tyana defended before the emperor and who was later driven into exile. Epictetus eventually won his freedom and settled in Rome to teach philosophy. He was deeply struck by the teachings of Musonius, and attempted to assimilate them thoroughly rather than produce doctrines of his own invention.

In A.D. 90 the ruthless Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome. Unperturbed, Epictetus withdrew to Nicopolis in Epirus on the northwestern coast of Greece. There he lived in a simple dwelling furnished only with a sleeping mat and an earthen lamp, chosen after an iron lantern had been stolen so that he would have nothing another might desire. He founded a school in Nicopolis which was highly esteemed from the first and became famous by the time of his death. His method was Socratic, centering on the applications of philosophical principles in everyday activities. If his disciples demurred at disputing his lessons, were sluggish or in any way inclined to accept what he taught without thinking through every principle thoroughly, Epictetus would take up the debate himself, asking questions, answering them and dealing with objections. Unlike the trend of the time, his school did not offer a broad educational programme, for he held that true knowledge is the fruit of deep philosophical thought. As a slave, Epictetus was not formally educated, though he knew Homer, Plato and Xenophon (who wrote about Socrates), as well as the philosophical perspectives of the age, but even this knowledge seems to have derived from his study of Chrysippus under the guidance of Musonius.

Following the example of Socrates, Epictetus wrote nothing for preservation, though he made notes for his own use in discussions. He devoted his whole life at Nicopolis to philosophy, travelling only once to Athens and possibly to Olympia. Nevertheless, his reputation as a teacher spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, and Flavius Arrianus, a historian from Bithynia, became his most devoted disciple. For a number of years Arrian recorded the discourses of Epictetus, preserving for future generations both the recorded teachings and the oral methods of instruction of his master. These were published largely in their original stenographic form after his death as the Diatribai (Discourses). Arrian edited a summary selection which he called the Encheiridion (Manual). This has survived together with four of the eight books of the Discourses. Epictetus was on good terms personally with the Emperor Hadrian, who appointed Arrian governor of Cappadocia. Arrian proved to be an astute and courageous general, and found the time to compose a life of Alexander the Great from primary sources and first-hand accounts. The emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius admired Epictetus above all others, read Arrian's reports avidly and made them the basis of his own thinking. Musonius Rufus had often said, "If you have nothing better to do than to praise me, I am speaking in vain", and Epictetus adopted a similar standpoint. Consequently, the manner and time of his death is unknown, occurring sometime after A.D. 120. The impact of his teachings was not forgotten, however. He was admired by Celsus, Galen and the Christian Origen, while Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom and Augustine spoke highly of him. Two groups of early Christian ascetics used the Manual, and in 1632 Mathias Mittner adapted it for the Carthusian order, replacing theoi with theos and Socrates with St. Paul. The spirit of his teaching reaches beyond theological and philosophical loyalties, for Epictetus never departed from the universal concern of humanity: what it is to be a human being.

In a universe governed by unerring law, one might doubt that the human being has choices, since choice depends upon freedom. "Among the arts and faculties in general you will find none that is self-contemplative and therefore none that is self-approving or self-disappointing", and so none that is truly free. Close inspection, however, will reveal one faculty which can contemplate itself and therefore guide the others.

This is the reasoning faculty, for this is the only one we have inherited which will take knowledge both of itself – what it is, and of what it is capable, and how valuable a gift it is to us – and likewise of all other faculties. For what else tells us gold is beautiful, since the gold itself does not tell us? Clearly it is the faculty that makes use of external impressions.

Since the gods epitomize the tonos or dynamic harmony of the universe, the capacity to choose the best in every context, to select that which reflects harmony, is an essential aspect of Deity. Epictetus makes Zeus declare:

Had it been possible, I should have made both this puny body and this tiny estate of thine free and unhampered. But as it is – and do not fail to notice this – thy body is not thine own, but only clay cunningly compounded. Yet since I could not give thee this, we have given thee a certain portion of ourself, faculty of choice and refusal, of desire and aversion, in a word, the faculty that uses external impressions. If thou care for this faculty and place all that thou hast therein, thou shalt never be thwarted, never blocked, shalt not groan, not blame, not flatter any man. Art thou then content with this?

The faculty of reason confers freedom and thus the very source of human conduct. Reason and freedom are one as the distinctive attribute of soul, and, as Socrates warned Hippocrates in the Protagoras, the soul must be carefully tended through the proper exercise of reason. To think and act in a manner that violates the tonos of the cosmos is not simply to go against providence, it is to destroy freedom and become enslaved to faculties no longer guided by reason. A fundamental attitude must be adopted in the exercise of reason, a deep appreciation of cosmic harmony in all contexts, and this manifests as constructive praise.

From everything that happens in the universe it is easy for a man to find occasion to praise providence, if he has within himself these two qualities: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of what has happened in each individual instance, and the sense of gratitude.

Without a universal perspective and a standpoint of gratitude, reason cannot make use of the impressions with which it must deal, and the ability to understand will be obscured. "If a man", Epictetus warns, "resists truths that are all too evident, it is not easy to find an argument by which one may cause him to change his opinion." This perilous condition is the fault neither of the man's ability nor the teacher's efforts, but rather because he has "hardened to stone" intellectually or through a failure of the sense of shame. The first is the inability to follow a line of reasoning, and the second is due to a misplaced sense of pride. While all recognize the former as a degenerate condition, the latter may be mistaken for strength of character.

The failure to cultivate reason puts one out of harmony with oneself and with nature, and thus one begins to demand that the order of things be different from what it is and can be.

Most of us dread the deadening of the body and would resort to any means to avoid such a state, but about the deadening of the soul we care not at all. . . . We should go to receive instruction, not in order to change the constitution of things, for this is neither vouchsafed us nor is it better that it should be, but in order that, things about us being as they are and as their nature is, we may for our own part keep our wills in harmony with what happens.

Philosophical study is largely therapeutic, and "instruction consists precisely in learning to desire each thing exactly as it happens". The metaphysical recognition of cosmic harmony and the therapeutic nature of philosophical discourse together imply that the consistent use of reason has a strong ethical dimension. Understanding begins with oneself and then reaches out to embrace the external world.

"But the tyrant will chain –"
"What? Your leg."
"But he will cut off –"
"What? Your neck. What then will be neither chained nor cut off? Your moral purpose. This is why the ancients gave us the injunction, 'Know thyself'."

One must start somewhere, and since right reason is the result of continuous effort, "One ought to practise in small things and pass on to the greater". The first step is to become indifferent to the unavoidable and mindful of what may be altered, and this can be tested.

If you wish to realize how careless you are about the good and the evil and how zealous you are about that which is indifferent, observe how you feel about physical blindness on the one hand and mental delusion on the other, and you will find that you are far from feeling as you ought about things good and things evil. . . . Do you expect it to be possible to acquire the greatest art with a slight effort?

Epictetus strictly adhered to the principle that philosophy cannot secure external possessions of any kind for human beings, but it promises its devotees increasing harmony with nature. Each one must develop the art of living, but the art for one is external to another. When a distressed individual consulted Epictetus about his brother's anger towards him, the philosopher responded, "Bring your brother to me and I will talk with him, but I have nothing to say to you on the subject of his anger." There is no foundation for judging another's actions, for it does not conduce to harmony.

Ought not this brigand, then, and this adulterer be put to death? Not at all, but you should ask rather, 'Ought not this man be put to death who is in a state of error and delusion about the greatest matters and is in a state of blindness in the discernment of the good and the evil?' If you put it this way, you will realize how inhuman a sentiment it is that you are uttering. It is as if you should say, 'Ought not this blind man or this deaf man be put to death?' Drop this readiness to take offence and this spirit of hatred; do not use those words which the multitude of the censorious use.

Equally, there is no reason to multiply wants and possessions. Epictetus owned an iron lamp which was stolen, and he decided to replace it with an earthenware lamp which no one would care to steal.

"A man loses only that which he already has."
"I have lost my cloak."
"Yes, for you had a cloak."
"I have a pain in my head."
"You don't have a pain in your horns, do you? Why then are you indignant? For our losses and our pains have to do only with the things which we possess."

Distress, anxiety and pain can only be caused through material or mental possessions. Human beings are affected by and through what they have, and relief can come only through divesting oneself of unnecessary possessions of every sort. Nevertheless, the radical reduction of needs and simplification of wants still leave one with some possessions – a body and social relationships, the need to eat and to discharge duties.

Being by nature noble, high-minded and free, the rational animal, man, sees that he has some of the things which are about him free from hindrance and under his control, but that others are subject to hindrance and under the control of others. Free from hindrance are those things which lie in the sphere of moral purpose, and subject to hindrance are those which lie outside that sphere.

When this is grasped, the noetic individual recognizes that moral discernment alone can be carried intact through all possible circumstances, and one need expect nothing more than that. Circumstances become settings in which the individual is a dispassionate actor, avoiding the madness of becoming caught in the roles he must play. The noetic individual is at peace.

"I am content, wherever I be and whatever I do."
"But now it is time to die."
"Why say 'die'? Make no tragic parade of the matter, but speak of it as it is: 'It is now time for the material of which you are constituted to be restored to those elements from which it came.' And what is there terrible about that?"

The inward balance which is the fruition of reason nurtured by philosophy is inseparable from the harmony of the cosmos, the tonos which is theos, Deity in action. For such a being, "the kinship of theos and men is true", and he cannot identify with Athens or Corinth, with class or race, religion or sex, but can say only, "I am a citizen of the universe." The cultivation of inner resources springs from contemplation of the cosmic architectonics, and confers the noetic freedom which is invincibility.

Who, then, is the invincible man? He whom nothing that is outside the sphere of his moral purpose can dismay. . . . What will one do if a bit of silver is put in one's way? Despise it? And if a bit of a wench is put in one's way? Or a bit of reputation? Or abuse? Praise? Death? Even abnormal madness? The man who passes all these tests is what I mean by the invincible athlete.