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Ideas of Epictetus, by Text

[Greek, 55 - 135, Born in slavery at Hierapolis. Taught by Musonius Rufus. Freed, and founded his own school at Nicopolis. Arrian was a pupil.]

56 The Discourses
p.44 In the Discourses choice [prohairesis] defines our character and behaviour
     Full Idea: In Epictetus's 'Discourses' the notion of choice [prohairesis] plays perhaps the central role. It is our prohairesis which defines us a person, as the sort of person we are; it is our prohairesis which determines how we behave.
     From: report of Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56]) by Michael Frede - A Free Will 3
     A reaction: Frede is charting the gradual move in Greek philosophy from action by desire, reason and habit to action by the will (which then turns out to be 'free'). Character started as dispositions and ended as choices.
p.46 Epictetus developed a notion of will as the source of our responsibility
     Full Idea: The notion of will in Epictetus is clearly developed to pinpoint the source of our responsibility for our actions and to identify precisely what it is that makes them our own doings.
     From: report of Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56]) by Michael Frede - A Free Will 3
     A reaction: So the key move is that responsibility needs a 'source', rather than being a generalisation about how our actions arise. The next step is demand an 'ultimate' source, and this leads to the idea that this new will is 'free'. This will can be good or bad.
1.01.23 p.7 Not even Zeus can control what I choose
     Full Idea: You can fetter my leg, but not even Zeus himself can get the better of my choice.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.01.23)
     A reaction: This is the beginnings of the idea of free will. It is based on the accurate observation that the intrinsic privacy of a mind means that no external force can be assured of controlling its actions. Epictetus failed to think of internal forces.
1.01.23 p.7 You can fetter my leg, but not even Zeus can control my power of choice
     Full Idea: What are you saying, man? Fetter me? You will fetter my leg; but not even Zeus himself can get the better of my choice.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.01.23)
     A reaction: This seems to be the beginning of the idea of 'absolute' freedom, which is conjured up to preserve perfect inegrity and complete responsibility. Obviously you can be prevented from doing what you choose, so this is not compatibilism.
1.01.32 p.7 I will die as becomes a person returning what he does not own
     Full Idea: When the time comes, then I will die - as becomes a person who gives back what is not his own.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.01.32)
     A reaction: There is a tension between his demand that he have full control of his choices, and this humility that says his actual life is not his own. The things which can't be controlled, though, are 'indifferents' so life and death are indifferent.
1.03.03 p.11 We consist of animal bodies and god-like reason
     Full Idea: We have these two elements mingled within us, a body in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence in common with the gods.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.03.03)
     A reaction: This is what I call Human Exceptionalism, but note that it doesn't invoke a Christian soul or spiritual aspect. This separation of reason goes back at least to Plato. High time we stopped thinking this way. Animals behave very sensibly.
1.04.18 p.13 We make progress when we improve and naturalise our choices, asserting their freedom
     Full Idea: Progress is when any of you turns to his own faculty of choice, working at it and perfecting it, so as to bring it fully into harmony with nature; elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, self-respecting.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.04.18)
     A reaction: [See also Disc.3.5.7] Rationality is the stoic concept of being in 'harmony with nature'. It appears (from reading Frede) that this may be the FIRST EVER reference to free will. Note the very rhetorical way in which it is presented.
1.04.26 p.196 Tragedies are versified sufferings of people impressed by externals
     Full Idea: Tragedies are nothing but the sufferings of people who are impressed by externals, performed in the right sort of meter.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.04.26)
     A reaction: The externals are things like honour, position and wealth. Wonderfully dismissive!
1.06.19 p.17 God created humans as spectators and interpreters of God's works
     Full Idea: God has introduced man into the world as a spectator of himself and of his works: and not only as a spectator of them, but an interpreter of them as well.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.06.19)
     A reaction: This idea (which strikes me as bizarre) was picked up directly by the Christians. I can't imagine every Johnson wanting to creating their own Boswell. If you think we are divinely created, you have to propose some motive for it, I suppose.
1.12.09 p.33 Freedom is acting by choice, with no constraint possible
     Full Idea: He is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can constrain.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.12.09)
     A reaction: Presumable this means that constraint is absolutely impossible, even by Zeus, and not just contingent possibility, when no one sees me raid the fridge.
1.12.09 p.33 Freedom is making all things happen by choice, without constraint
     Full Idea: He is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can constrain.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.12.09)
     A reaction: The idea of 'free' will seems to have resulted from a wide extension of the idea of constraint, with global determinism lurking in the background.
1.17.01 p.41 Because reason performs all analysis, we should analyse reason - but how?
     Full Idea: Since it is reason that analyses and completes all other things, reason itself should not be left unanalysed. But by what shall it be analysed? ..That is why philosophers put logic first, just as when measuring grain we first examine the measure.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.17.01)
     A reaction: The problem of the definitive metre rule in Paris. I say we have to test reason against the physical world, and the measure of reason is truth. Something has to be primitive, but reason is too vague for that role. Idea 23344 agrees with me!
1.18.6-7 p.44 Punishing a criminal for moral ignorance is the same as punishing someone for being blind
     Full Idea: You should ask 'Ought not this man to be put to death, who is deceived in things of the greatest importance, and is blinded in distinguishing good from evil?' …You then see how inhuman it is, and the same as 'Ought not this blind man to be put to death?'
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.18.6-7)
     A reaction: This is the doctrine of Socrates, that evil is ignorance (and weakness of will [akrasia] is impossible). Epictetus wants us to reason with the man, but what should be do if reasoning fails and he persists in his crimes?
1.20.05 p.48 Reason itself must be compounded from some of our impressions
     Full Idea: What is reason itself? Something compounded from impressions of a certain kind.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.20.05)
     A reaction: This seems to be the only escape from the dead end attempts to rationally justify reason. Making reason a primitive absolute is crazy metaphysics.
1.29.01 p.65 The essences of good and evil are in dispositions to choose
     Full Idea: The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and essence of evil likewise.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 1.29.01)
     A reaction: This is the origin of Kant's famous view, that the only true good is a good will. This is the alternative to good character or good states of affairs as the good. It points towards the modern more legalistic view of morality, as concerning actions.
2.01.13 p.76 Don't be frightened of pain or death; only be frightened of fearing them
     Full Idea: It is not pain or death that is to be feared, but the fear of pain or death.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.01.13)
     A reaction: These two cases are quite different, I would say. I'm much more frightened of pain than I am of the fear of pain, and the opposite view seems absurd. About death, though, I think this is right. Mostly I'm with Spinoza: think about life, not death.
2.05.26 p.85 A person is as naturally a part of a city as a foot is part of the body
     Full Idea: Just as the foot in detachment is no longer a foot, so you in detachment are not longer a man. For what is a man? A part of a city, first.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.05.26)
     A reaction: It is, of course, not true that a detached foot ceases to be a foot (and an isolated human is still a human). This an extreme version of the Aristotelian idea that we are essentially social. It is, though, the sort of view favoured by totalitarianism.
2.06.10 p.87 If I know I am fated to be ill, I should want to be ill
     Full Idea: If I really knew that it was ordained for me to be ill at this moment, I would aspire to be so.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.06.10)
     A reaction: The rub, of course, is that it is presumably impossible to know what is fated. Book 2.7 is on divination. I don't see any good in a mortally ill person desiring, for that reason alone, to die. Rage against the dying of the light, I say.
2.08.01 p.90 Both god and the good bring benefits, so their true nature seems to be the same
     Full Idea: God brings benefits; but the good also brings benefit. It would seem, then, that where the true nature of god is, there too is the true nature of good.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.08.01)
     A reaction: An enthymeme, missing the premise that there can only be one source of benefit (which sounds unlikely). Does god bring anything other than benefits? And does the good? I think this is an idea from later platonism.
2.08.07 p.90 Asses are born to carry human burdens, not as ends in themselves
     Full Idea: An ass is surely not born as an end in itself? No, but because we had need of a back that is able to carry burdens.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.08.07)
     A reaction: This is the absurd human exceptionalism which plagues our thinking. It would be somewhat true of animals which are specifically bred for human work, such as large cart horses.
2.08.29 p.92 A wise philosophers uses reason to cautiously judge each aspect of living
     Full Idea: The sinews of a philosopher are desire that never fails in its achievement; aversion that never meets with what it would avoid; appropriate impulse; carefully considered purpose; and assent that is never precipitate.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.08.29)
     A reaction: This is a very individual view of wisdom and the philosopher, whereas wisdom is often thought to have a social role. Is it not important for a philosopher to at least offer advice?
2.10.03 p.95 We are citizens of the universe, and principal parts of it
     Full Idea: You are a citizen of the universe, and a part of it; and no subservient, but a principal part of it.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.03)
     A reaction: He got this view from Diogenes of Sinope, one of his heroes. What community you are a part of seems to be a choice as much as a fact. Am I British or a European?
2.10.04 p.95 A citizen should only consider what is good for the whole society
     Full Idea: The calling of a citizen is to consider nothing in terms of personal advantage, never to deliberate on anything as though detached from the whole, but be like our hand or foot.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.04)
     A reaction: Fat chance of that in an aggressively capitalist society. I've always voted for what I thought was the common good, and was shocked to gradually realise that many people only vote for what promotes their own interests. Heigh ho.
2.10.04 p.200 A citizen is committed to ignore private advantage, and seek communal good
     Full Idea: The commitment of the citizen is to have no private advantage, not to deliberate about anything as though one were a separate part.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.04)
     A reaction: This is the modern problem of whether democratic voters are choosing for themselves or for the community. I think we should make an active effort at every election to persuade voters to aim for the communal good. Cf Rawls.
2.10.05 p.200 If we could foresee the future, we should collaborate with disease and death
     Full Idea: The philosophers are right to say that if the honorable and good person knew what was going to happen, he would even collaborate with disease, death and lameness.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.05)
     A reaction: The 'philosophers' must be the earlier stoics, founders of his school.
2.10.22 p.97 We have a natural sense of honour
     Full Idea: What faculty do you mean? - Have we not a natural sense of honour? - We have.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.22)
     A reaction: This seems unlikely, given the lower status that honour now has with us, compared to two hundred years ago. But there may be a natural sense of status, and of humiliation and shame.
2.10.26 p.97 If someone harms themselves in harming me, then I harm myself by returning the harm
     Full Idea: Since he has harmed himself by wronging me, shall not I harm myself by harming him?
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.10.26)
     A reaction: I am very keen on this idea. See Hamlet's remarks to Polonius about 'honour and dignity'. The best strategy for achieving moral excellence is to focus on our own characters, rather than how to act, and to respond to others.
2.11.13 p.202 Philosophy investigates the causes of disagreements, and seeks a standard for settling them
     Full Idea: The start of philosophy is perception of the mutual conflict among people, and a search for its cause, plus the rejection and distrust of mere opinion, an investigation to see if opinion is right, and the discovery of some canon, like scales for weighing.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.11.13)
     A reaction: So the number one aim of philosophy is epistemological, to find the criterion for true opinion. But it starts in real life, and would cease to trade if people would just agree. I think we should set the bar higher than that.
2.11.24 p.100 The task of philosophy is to establish standards, as occurs with weights and measures
     Full Idea: Things are judged and weighed, when we have the standards ready. This is the task of philosophy: to examine and establish the standards.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.11.24)
     A reaction: It is interesting that this gives philosophers a very specific social role, and also that it seems to identify epistemology as First Philosophy. Other disciplines, of course, establish their own standards without reference to philosophy.
2.20.01 p.126 Self-evidence is most obvious when people who deny a proposition still have to use it
     Full Idea: It is about the strongest proof one could offer of a proposition being evident, that even he who contradicts it finds himself having to make use of it.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.20.01)
     A reaction: Philosophers sometimes make fools of themselves by trying, by the use of elaborate sophistry, to demolish propositions which are self-evidently true. Don't be one of these philosophers!
2.22.03 p.133 Knowledge of what is good leads to love; only the wise, who distinguish good from evil, can love
     Full Idea: Whoever has knowledge of good things would know how to love them; and how could he who cannot distinguish good things from evil still have to power to love? It follows that the wise man alone has the power to love.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 2.22.03)
     A reaction: A rather heartwarming remark, but hard to assess for its truth. Evil people are unable to love? Not even love a cat, or their favourite car? We would never call someone wise if they lacked love.
3.01.23 p.151 Every species produces exceptional beings, and we must just accept their nature
     Full Idea: In every species nature produces some exceptional being, in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. We do not say to them 'Who are you?' It will tell you 'I am like the purple in the robe. Do not expect me to be like the rest, or find fault with my nature'.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 3.01.23)
     A reaction: This idea began with Aristotle's 'great soul', and presumably culminates in Nietzsche, who fills in more detail. In the modern world such people are mostly nothing but trouble.
3.03.10 p.157 Zeus gave me a nature which is free (like himself) from all compulsion
     Full Idea: Zeus placed my good nature in my own power, and gave it to me as he has it himself, free from all hindrance, compulsion and restraint.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 3.03.10)
     A reaction: Although Frede traces the origin of free will to the centrality of choice in moral life (and hence to the elevation of its importance), this remark shows that there is a religious aspect to it. Zeus is supreme, and obviously has free will.
3.07.15 p.165 We can't believe apparent falsehoods, or deny apparent truths
     Full Idea: It is impossible to assent to an apparent falsehood, or to deny an apparent truth.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 3.07.15)
     A reaction: The way some philosophers write you would think that most beliefs just result from private whims or social fashion. That happens, of course, but most beliefs result from direct contact with reality.
3.13.15 p.177 Each of the four elements in you is entirely scattered after death
     Full Idea: Whatever was in you of fire, departs into fire; what was of earth, into earth; what of air, into air; what of water, into water. There is no Hades, nor Acheron.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 3.13.15)
     A reaction: This sort of remark may explain why so few of the great Stoic texts (such as those of Chrysippus) survived the Christian era.
3.20.04 p.185 Health is only a good when it is used well
     Full Idea: Is health a good and sickness an evil? No. Health is good when used well, and bad when used ill.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 3.20.04)
     A reaction: Although I like the idea that health is a natural value, which bridges the gap from facts to values (as a successful function), there is no denying that the health of very evil people is not something the rest of us hope for.
4.01.125 p.239 The evil for everything is what is contrary to its nature
     Full Idea: Where is the paradox if we say that what is evil for everything is what is contrary to its nature?
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 4.01.125)
     A reaction: A very Greek view. For humans, it must rely on the belief that human nature is essentially good. If I am sometimes grumpy and annoying, why is that not part of my nature?
4.01.42 p.230 All human ills result from failure to apply preconceptions to particular cases
     Full Idea: The cause of all human ills is that people are incapable of applying their general preconceptions to particular cases.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 4.01.42)
     A reaction: I'm not sure whether 'preconceptions' is meant pejoratively (as unthinking, and opposed to true principles). This sounds like modern particularism (e.g. Jonathan Dancy) to the letter.
4.08.14 p.111 Philosophy is knowing each logos, how they fit together, and what follows from them
     Full Idea: [Philosophical speculation] consists in knowing the elements of 'logos', what each of them is like, how they fit together, and what follows from them.
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 4.08.14), quoted by A.A. Long - Hellenistic Philosophy 4.1
     A reaction: [Said to echo Zeno] If you substitute understanding for 'logos' (plausibly), I think this is exactly the view of philosophy I would subscribe to. We want to understand each aspect of life, and we want those understandings to cohere with one another.
4.10.36 p.277 Homer wrote to show that the most blessed men can be ruined by poor judgement
     Full Idea: Did not Homer write to show us that the noblest, the strongest, the richest, the handsomest of men may nevertheless be the most unfortunate and wretched, if they do not hold the judgements that they ought to hold?
     From: Epictetus (The Discourses [c.56], 4.10.36)
     A reaction: This seems to be right. He clearly wrote about the greatest and most memorable events of recent times, but not just to record triumphs, because almost every hero (in the Iliad, at least) ends in disaster.
57 fragments/reports
15 p.313 Even pointing a finger should only be done for a reason
     Full Idea: Philosophy says it is not right even to stretch out a finger without some reason.
     From: Epictetus (fragments/reports [c.57], 15)
     A reaction: The key point here is that philosophy concerns action, an idea on which Epictetus is very keen. He rather despise theory. This idea perfectly sums up the concept of the wholly rational life (which no rational person would actually want to live!).
58 The Handbook [Encheiridion]
§16 p.258 Epictetus says we should console others for misfortune, but not be moved by pity
     Full Idea: The injunction of Epictetus is well known, that in commiserating with another for his misfortune, we ought to talk consolingly, but not be moved by pity.
     From: report of Epictetus (The Handbook [Encheiridion] [c.58], §16) by Charles Taylor - Sources of the Self §15.1
     A reaction: This goes strongly against the grain of the Christian tradition, but strikes me as an appealing attitude (even if I am the sufferer).
16 p.292 If someone is weeping, you should sympathise and help, but not share his suffering
     Full Idea: When you see someone weeping is sorrow …do not shrink from sympathising with him, and even groaning with him, but be careful not to groan inwardly too.
     From: Epictetus (The Handbook [Encheiridion] [c.58], 16)
     A reaction: The point is that the person's suffering is an 'indifferent' because nothing can be done about it, and we should only really care about what we are able to choose. He is not opposed to the man's suffering, or his need for support.
22 p.314 Perhaps we should persuade culprits that their punishment is just?
     Full Idea: The governor Agrippinus would try to persuade those whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced, …just as the physician persuades a patient to accept their treatment.
     From: Epictetus (The Handbook [Encheiridion] [c.58], 22)
     A reaction: This resembles the Contractualism of T.H. Scanlon (that actions are good if you can justify them to those involved). It may be possible to persuade people by the use of sophistry and lies. Nevertheless, a fairly civilise proposal.
26 p.295 We see nature's will in the ways all people are the same
     Full Idea: The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we do not differ from one another.
     From: Epictetus (The Handbook [Encheiridion] [c.58], 26)
     A reaction: There you go! This is the rule for anthropologists on field trips. And it guides us towards a core of essential human nature. But it neglects the way that nature is expressed in different cultures, which is also important.