Epictetus: Discourses 1.1

I randomly decided that I want to read through the works of the three most famous Stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—and type up their works in a language that is quick and easy to understand. Once all is said and done, I may or may not print and bind the document, as a sort of “Stoic Trilogy” to keep at hand for quick reading of the main texts.

I’m starting with Epictetus’ Discourses. As you may well know, my favorite Stoic writer is Seneca. He’s funny, and he’s got a way with words. We’ll spend time with him later. But right now we’re working with Epictetus. Epictetus is a bad ass; he’s like a Stoic drill sergeant. I can imagine him tearing up a student, “You think that’s worth crying about, huh?? Shut the hell up and use that damn brain the gods gave you!”

Ok, ok, no offense you Epictetus-lovers. Actually, I really do enjoy his lectures. He’s vibrant, he’s lively, he’s black-or-white, laying down some basic guidelines for Stoic philosophy, master of philosophical debate. Here’s my slightly-simplified version of Discourses 1.1.

1.1  Things that are in your power, and things that are not in your power

No matter which faculty you study, you’ll agree that no faculty can study itself, and therefore, no faculty can give approval or disapproval of itself. Consider the subject of grammar: what type of approvals can it give? Grammar can only pass judgment on what’s been written. And what about music? Music can only pass judgment on the melody. Can either grammar or music then make a judgment about itself? Not at all. If you’re writing to a friend, grammar will help you decide which letters you should choose, but it won’t help you decide if you should or shouldn’t write to your friend. The same is true with music in regard to melodies. But whether you should sing or play the harp at this time? Music won’t tell you one way or another. So what will tell you, then? The faculty that studies both itself and everything else. And what is that faculty? It’s the faculty of reason. For that is the sole faculty we’ve been granted that is capable of understanding both itself and the value that it contributes—that is, what it is and what it is capable of—and it can understand this about all the other faculties, too. What else tells us that gold is beautiful? Gold itself doesn’t tell us that. It’s clear, then, that reason is the faculty that deals with impressions.

640px-iglesia_de_la_compac3b1c3ada_quito_ecuador_2015-07-22_dd_149-151_hdr

“Gold is beautiful.”—-Why?

What else is capable of judging music, grammar, and the other arts and subjects, and assess our use of them, and tell us when it is proper to use them? It is none other than the faculty of reason.

It’s fitting, then, that God has placed in our power the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others, the faculty that enables us to use our impressions correctly; but everything else He has placed outside of our own power. Why did He do this? Was it that God didn’t want to place other things in our power? In my own opinion, I believe God would have entrusted other powers to us too; but that was something that God just couldn’t do. Because when you consider that we’re here on earth, and we are shackled to bodies like our own, and when you consider the companions we have, how could it be possible that, in spite of all this, we shouldn’t be hampered by external things?

But what does God have to say about this? “If it had been possible, Epictetus, I would have ensured that your poor body and trifling possessions were free and immune from anything getting in your way. But as things are, you must never forget that

idol_torso_cycladic_figurine_plastiras_type_2800-2700_b_pmth_24_0503157

Your body is nothing more than cleverly molded clay.

this body isn’t actually your own—it’s nothing more than cleverly molded clay. But since I couldn’t give you freedom from any obstacles getting in your way, I’ve given you a certain portion of myself instead: this faculty of motivation to act and not to act, of desire and aversion—basically, to sum it up, I’ve given you the power to make proper use of impressions. If you pay close attention to this, and if you entrust all that you have to this faculty of reason, you’ll never be hindered. Nothing will ever get in your way. You’ll never groan, you’ll never find fault with anything, and you’ll never flatter anyone at all.—What’s wrong? Do you consider that to be a useless power?” Certainly not. “So you’re content with the power you’ve been given?” I pray to God that it is so.

But despite how things are, despite the fact that we have it within our power to apply ourselves to one thing alone, and we have the power to devote ourselves to that, we instead choose to focus on many other things, and we attach ourselves to many things. We attach ourselves to our body, our possessions, our brother, our friend, and child, and employees. And naturally, by being attached to anything such as this, we’re weighed down by them and dragged down.

151px-the_queen_of_sheba_1921_-_2

Who made you controller of the winds?

That’s why we sit around with anxiety, constantly looking around if the weather prevents us from sailing. “What wind is this?” The North Wind. And what does it matter to us? “When will the West Wind blow?” It will blow whenever it chooses, my good friend, or rather when God chooses;
for God has not appointed you to be controller of the winds. What should we do then? We should make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes to us. “How does it come, then?” As God wills.

“What? Am I to be beheaded now? Just me?”

Why? Would you want everyone else to be beheaded just so you feel better? Aren’t you willing to stretch out your neck like Lateranus, conspirator against Nero, did at Rome when Nero ordered that he should be beheaded? Remember that Lateranus stretched out his neck, received the blow, and when it proved to be too weak, shrank back for an instant, but then stretched out his neck again. What’s more, when the influential Epaphroditus came to him and asked why he had fallen out of grace with the emperor, Lateranus replied, “If I choose to tell anything, I will tell your master.”

So what tools should we have ready to help us in such emergencies? Why, what else would we need other than to know what is mine and what isn’t mine, and what is in my power and what isn’t? So I’ll need to die at some point; do I need to die groaning, too? So I have to spend time in prison; must I grieve at that, too? I must go into exile; can anyone prevent me from going into exile with a smile, cheerfully and serenely? “Tell me your secrets!” I won’t reveal my secrets, for that lies within

cosmos-giordano-bruno

“You can chain my leg, but not even God can overcome my power of choice.”

my power. “Then I’ll order you to be chained up!” What are you saying?
Chain me up? You can chain my leg, but not even God can overcome my power of choice. 

“I’ll throw you into prison.” You mean you’ll throw my poor little body into prison. “I’ll have you beheaded.” Did I ever claim to be the only man to have a neck that can’t be severed? These are the thoughts that philosophers should reflect upon; it is these thoughts that they should write about day after day, and it is in these thoughts that they should train themselves.

Thrasea, an opponent of Nero, was known to say, “I’d rather be killed today than to be sent into exile tomorrow.” And what did the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus say in reply? “If you consider death to be a greater misfortune, what a foolish choice that is; and if you choose death as being a lesser misfortune, who has granted you that choice? Aren’t you willing to be content with what has been granted to you?

What was it that Agrippinus, the senator who conspired against Nero, used to say? “I won’t become an obstacle to myself.” Even when they brought him the news that “your case is being tried in the Senate,” he replied, “May everything go well! But it’s five o’clock now”—this was the time that he usually exercised and took a cold bath each day—“so let’s go off and take some exercise.” When he completed his exercise, someone came and told him, “You’ve been convicted.” He asked, “To exile or to death?” “To exile,” they replied. “What about my property?”—“It hasn’t been confiscated.”—“Then let’s stop by my estate on the way and eat our meal there.”

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“Oh, I have to go into exile? Can we just swing by McDonald’s on the way and grab a Happy Meal real quick?”

This is what it means to train yourself in the matters in which you should train yourself, to have made your desires incapable of being frustrated, and your aversions incapable of falling into what they want to avoid. So I’m destined to die. If it must happen right away, I’ll go to my death; if it must happen a little while later, then I’ll eat my meal first, since it’s dinner time right now, and then I’ll die afterward. And how should you do this? In exactly the way in which it is right for someone to give something back which is not his own.

(Epictetus, Discourses 1.1)

The outline:

  • Reason is the human super-power. I’m not kidding.
  • Hindrances are human kryptonite. Sort of. The difference is, we’re better than Superman. We can conquer our kryptonite, if we go about it wisely.
  • Epictetus thinks that God wasn’t able to eliminate our kryptonite, so he gave us a super-power to fight with.
  • Use this super-power, and nothing can touch you.
  • Despite our readily-available super-power, we still struggle needlessly with kryptonite. We get involved with and distracted by a bunch of things that are beyond our control. That’s literally why we have anxiety.
  • Be realistic in regards to what’s actually in your control.
  • And accept it.
  • Don’t complain about the nature of life, because that’s irrational.
  • Just remember to categorize everything according to what’s in your power vs. what’s not in your power, and act accordingly.
  • There’s no universal rule that says you can’t be sent into exile with a cheerful smile on your face. Believe it or not, that’s actually up to you.
  • Physical threats can never force your will or consent to anything. It’s like your mind is an invincible god….

The highlights:

  • What else tells us that gold is beautiful? Gold itself doesn’t tell us that. It’s clear, then, that reason is the faculty that deals with impressions.
    • How do we decide that toned abs are sexy? Or that business suits mean you’re hardworking and trustworthy? Are toned abs actually filled with an intrinsic value of… sexiness? Do business suits literally equal hard work and trustworthiness? Noooo. Not even a smidgen. We assign these meanings and values to things by some sort of convoluted process in our own minds. Start seeing things for what they really are. Use your super-power of reason to arrive at a logical conclusion, not an “expected conclusion.” Because contrary to popular belief, society is wrong…a lot.
  • …this body isn’t actually your own—it’s nothing more than cleverly molded clay.
    • Epictetus refers to the body in belittling terms throughout his teachings. He’s obviously trying to drive home the idea that even our bodies, our physical existence, are absolutely meaningless.
  • …since I couldn’t give you freedom from any obstacles getting in your way, I’ve given you a certain portion of myself instead:
    • Our bodies might be meaningless, but a special portion of us is divine. These are the bits of Stoic writing that give me goosebumps. Seriously, I’m almost driven to tears when I stumble across gems like this.
  • If you entrust all that you have to this faculty of reason, you’ll never be hindered.
    • See, I told you Epictetus would say, “Use that damn brain the gods gave you!”
  • That’s why we sit around with anxiety,
    • If you look back to the original text, you’ll see this is only part of the sentence. But I cut it off short, because I think it’s a complete sentence as-is. That’s literally why we sit around with anxiety.
  • for God has not appointed you to be controller of the winds.
    • Who made you Queen of Sheba? Jokingnotjoking.
  • Would you want everyone else to be beheaded just so you feel better?
    • Stop letting your feelings drag you all over the place. “Use that damn brain the gods gave you!” 🙂
  • what else would we need other than to know what is mine and what isn’t mine, and what is in my power and what isn’t?
    • He’s not joking. That’s seriously all we need.
  • So I’ll need to die at some point; do I need to die groaning, too? So I have to spend time in prison; must I grieve at that, too? I must go into exile; can anyone prevent me from going into exile with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?
    • Remember that quote about gold being considered beautiful? Same concept here. Who said that dying is bad? Or that you need to cry over jail time? Or that you have to have a sour face when you’re being sent into exile? Those things don’t have any intrinsic value. They’re just things that humans create impressions, or ideas about. If you are sentenced to death, or to prison, or to exile, there is seriously nothing in the universe that is requiring you to be sad about it.
  • You can chain my leg, but not even God can overcome my power of choice.
    • Another one of these gems that makes my eyes water.
  • Even when they brought him the news that “your case is being tried in the Senate,” he replied, “May everything go well! But it’s five o’clock now”—this was the time that he usually exercised and took a cold bath each day—“so let’s go off and take some exercise.” When he completed his exercise, someone came and told him, “You’ve been convicted.” He asked, “To exile or to death?” “To exile,” they replied. “What about my property?”—“It hasn’t been confiscated.”—“Then let’s stop by my estate on the way and eat our meal there.”
    • Pretty self-explanatory.
  • So I’m destined to die. If it must happen right away, I’ll go to my death; if it must happen a little while later, then I’ll eat my meal first, since it’s dinner time right now, and then I’ll die afterward.

Ok, ok, I get it. But do you know how amazing this is???

Yes, we’re human. We’re stuck in measly little mortal bodies that are subject to all sorts of crap. We’ve also got life chucking banana peels and turtle shells at us (Mario Kart reference). But did you hear what Epictetus is saying???

cosmos 1x01 rogo giordano bruno

Your physical body
is mortal.

 

cosmos-giordano-brunoBut your mind is invincible.

 

 

According to Epictetus, a part of you is divine! Do you understand the implications? Do you understand what you are capable of? Now we just need a bit of training to harness the potential of this invincible mind. Sign me up.

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One response to “Epictetus: Discourses 1.1

  1. Iain McCready August 11, 2016 at 3:46 am

    Great summary, thank you.

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