The Discourses Books 1 & 2

Discourses: Book I, Part I: Rainey Blankenship 

‘Of the things which are in our Power and not in our Power’

Epictetus begins his Discourses with a discussion of ‘Power;’ specifically, whom or what faculty possesses the capabilities of judgement. He asserts that grammatical art, music, and all other faculties are incapable of contemplating power. It is only rational faculty that is capable of examining itself, other faculties, and their power; ultimately being capable of all judgement. He then refers to our creators, the same creators who were unable to free our body’s from hindrance, but they were able to provide a small portion of power to us. This being the power of rational choice, the faculty of approving or disapproving, or the power of pursuing something or avoidance. It is this power, when used properly, that helps us to avoid hindrance. 

When things begin to drag us down that are not in our nature to control, Epictetus states that we must make the best use of the things that are in our power to control, for we are not the managers of the winds. If man must die, must be bound to chains, must be beheaded, all of which are outside of his nature of control, must he do all while lamenting? No. This is because no man, not even Zeus, can overpower or hinder man’s power of choice. 

‘How a Man on every occasion can maintain his Proper Character’

Rational faculty is tolerable, which is why man is attracted to it; irrational faculty is intolerable, causing man to be pained by it. Man has different estimates of what is appropriate to each individual person as a result, different people see rational and irrational from different perspectives. This is where discipline comes into play. Man determines what is suitable to his character by discipline. Each individual must consider what is worthy to them and what is not when making a decision, and must not act upon things that do not concern them.

Epictetus is pretty much telling people to stay in their lane. 

‘How a man should proceed from the principle of God being the father of all men to the rest’

Epictetus asserts that man should believe he is the son of God and that God is the god of all gods. He leads with an example of man discovering that Zeus is his father, that he would be so elated to uncover such truths. Why does man not feel this way about God? Is it because we neglect intelligence because the mortal man is so attached to appearances related to the flesh? Epictetus believes so, and forewarns that man must take care that they do not become engulfed in appearances.

‘Of progress or improvement’

Tranquility, happiness, the ‘good life’ is the end result of man’s progress, but what must we progress towards? Virtue. Knowledge that desiring is the wanting of good things and aversion means to sway from bad things. Improvement comes when man withdrawals from the externals and exercises these labours. Man must rise each day, train in these rules, make progress, and thank God for this progress; for it is he who gave us the mind to bear the fruits of our labours. In chapter 5, ‘Against the academics,’ Epictetus asserts that man cares more about embarrassment of the body than embarrassment of the soul.

‘Of providence’

Epictetus finds it easy for man to praise providence if they possess the faculty of seeing and a grateful disposition. Animals were not given a rational understanding of things; therefore, God only created them to be of usage. Man, on the other hand, was given the ability to see and understand appearances; therefore, man is a spectator and interpreter of God himself. Man must follow the works of God to perceive his true self and life’s purpose (to obtain the good life), and for man to act as irrational animals do is shameful.

‘Of the use of sophistical arguments, and hypothetical, and the like’

When making decisions regarding our particular life’s path, we derive our conclusions from questioning, just as sophistical and hypothetical arguments are handled. Man must learn the consequences of many things through skillful reasoning, demonstration, understanding, and avoidance of deceit. Epictetus in chapter 8, ‘That the faculties are not safe to the uninstructed,’ asserts that the faculty to develop additional skills brings about greatness. It is he who is uninstructed in the power of arguing and the faculty of persuasion that brings danger.

Discourses Book I, Part II: Jasmine Castillo-Alvarado

‘How from the Fact that we are akin to God a man may proceed to the consequences’ 

We, as individuals, are a part of a society that identifies ourselves with this larger whole. With this identification comes the process of allegiance and the creation of state leaders and structure which begin to dictate how “our intelligence is administered to the world,” (Discourses Book I). This, Epictetus argues, leads to sorrow and fear. Now, instead, one must rely on God as the “maker and father and guardian” (Discourses Book I) to rid the feeling of sorrow and fear for as kingsmen of God, one has all the purpose, truth, and self-recognizing force that should drive him to peace. 

‘Against those who eagerly seek preferment at Rome’

Epictetus recalls on a memory of a man who, when exiled declared he never wanted to work again, and instead wished to have a future of quiet and tranquility. However, as he returned to Rome the man quickly assumed the position of superintendent of corn at the request from the palace. Epictetus uses this story to argue that working physically (being active) or not physically (sleeping) does not matter, if we are asking the questions that help us think critically, we shall achieve all we need. What you do matters only if you use whatever it is you do to ask and seek higher knowledge. 

‘Of natural affection’

In chapter 11, Epictetus argues with a father who abandoned his sick daughter because he could not take the pain of seeing her unwell. The father defends his behavior by arguing that his runaway response was “natural” due to the circumstances and his affection towards his daughter. Epictetus disagrees. Affection towards family is argued to be natural and good; good is consistent with reason. To further his point, Epictetus asks the father if he would have liked to have been abandoned at a time of desperate need? No, of course not. Hence, the actions are not indeed natural or rational, but instead are motivated by individual choices. Rationality and choice are dependent on the agent’s capability to correctly examine oneself. There is great harm in not knowing the criterion that distinguishes good and bad, therefore, one must be cognizant of our opinions and thoughts in order to act according to the rational (Discourses Book I). Nothing can make us not do or do anything. Our actions are dependent upon our own opinions and our will. 

‘Of Contentment’ 

Bobby McFerrin and Epictetus would get along just fine.

Epictetus in chapter twelve states that although “we do not have [the power to change the constitution of things], we ought to accept and remember that things around us are what they are and by nature exist,” (Discourses Book I). Once we accept this reality we may “maintain our minds in harmony,” (Discourses Book I). Man must constantly remind himself that he is content with the freedom he now possesses through an acceptance of his mindfulness. If one chooses not to accept, his punishment is his existence as a prison within his own state, body, and mind. Epictetus adds that the Gods have blessed man with the ability to think. It is from this intelligence that in which you perceive your reality. He, Epictetus (and me) wish your reality to be worry-free and happy :). In Chapter thirteen, Epictetus furthers this argument by declaring contentment as a standard for living a life acceptable to the Gods. This acceptable life is lived with “equanimity,” is “temperately and orderly,” and just (Discourses Book I). 

‘That the deity oversees all things.’ 

God is a pretty powerful entity, Epictetus argues. God created the sun afterall, so he’s been on a power-high for a while. God is able to perceive our every move, the depths of our souls, and the make up of our mind. This is because God is within each of us and so are our individual demons, And to this inner-God, Epictetus argues, we must swear an oath just as the soldiers did to Caesar: to “never be disobedient, never to find fault with anything that he has given, and never unwillingly to do or to suffer anything, that is necessary,” (Discourses Book I). By swearing this oath of allegiance, men swear to honour themselves before all (Discourses Book I). Men place themselves as content beings that trust the process in which soul and mind is part a greater whole. 

‘What Philosophy Promises.’

Philosophy, as an art, does not propose to secure for a man any external things (Discourses Book I). It is not a form of thinking or being that can be capitalized. Instead, philosophy is a process, for nothing great is ever produced suddenly, nor are questions ever answered so simply. To conclude Book I, Epictetus asks us to be grateful to the wonders of the way in which the world is set up. To appreciate animals’ self-sufficiency and to acknowledge the workings of God. Don’t hate, appreciate. 

Discourses Book II Part I -Michael Byers

Book 2 of Epictetus’s Discourses follow a similar trajectory of the first, as he continues examining the concepts of choice, judgement, and indifference, and man’s persistent struggle to grasp these virtues. Epictetus builds off Book 1 in his explanations of the “internals” and the “externals”, and how man should approach these different challenges.

         Epictetus first addresses the dichotomy of confidence and caution, stating that it is possible to have both characteristics, and by being cautious we can achieve true confidence (Discourses Book 2). Epictetus once again emphasizes the ultimate power of the will, stating that if bad things occur from bad exercise of the will, we must employ caution; however, in things independent of the will, we should exercise confidence, since we have no power over them except in regard to our response (Discourses Book 2). By being cautious with that which is truly dangerous or bad, we are all the more equipped to exercise confidence in what is good (Discourses Book 2). Epictetus compares man to deer that fall into the trap of the huntsman, since man chooses to be fearful of that which is independent of his will and out of his control (Discourses Book 2). By recognizing what trials are external, and what is not worth time and energy fearing, we may gain more control over the things that concern our internals, and can better control our internal reaction to external matters (Discourses Book 2).

         Further in Chapter Six, Epictetus expands on the concept of the internals and externals, as he explains the balance between our perceptions of good, evil, and indifference of the two. Epictetus posits that, rather than good and evil being external consequences of things that happen to man, man must internalize good and evil in how he responds to external occurrences (Discourses Book 2). Because everything that is external is out of our control, and independent of our will, we must show indifference to it, and instead focus on our will, the only thing we do have control over. Here he compares mankind to stalks of corn, as our ultimate fate is essentially to decline and die, such as corn eventually ripens and gets picked (Discourses Book 2). However, man spends so much time fearing death that it hinders him from fully living the life that he does have.

         Later in Book 2, Epictetus returns to this concept of showing indifference to external circumstances, particularly with man’s struggles with anxiety (Discourses Book 2). He states that man is fixated on anxieties that are external in nature, such as his upbringing, his body, his duty to Caesar, or other circumstances independent of the will. Epictetus uses the comparison of the weaver and the wool here in Chapter 13, as he states that the weaver may not be given the finest wool, but he does his best with what he is given, since he does not make the wool. In the same way should man make best with what he has, rather than be anxious about that which he cannot change.

         Book 2 of The Discourses provides several fundamental components to Epictetus’s Stoic philosophy. He emphasizes not only how important it is to determine what is external and what is internal in our lives, but also how to respond to that which is dependent or independent of our will. He persistently provides dichotomies that man must balance in order to be satisfied, fulfilled, or ultimately happy. Man must be both cautious and confident in things dependent or independent of the will. Man must also determine what he does not have power over, in order to have ultimate power over his response, his mind, and his emotions as a whole. Mastery of these tenets provided by Epictetus allows man to truly become his own master.

Discourses Book II Part II- Nick Anthony

In Chapter 8 of Book II, Epictetus examines the nature of good, the nature of God, and how one ought to conduct themselves. Epictetus notes that God is beneficial, and so is the nature of good. However, the natures of good and God do not exist in all of God’s creation; plants and irrational animals such as sheep do not possess the nature of good because they were not created by God with the faculties of comprehension and understanding (Discourses, Book II). Conversely, humans can have the nature of God in them because they were created in His image. Epictetus even questions the audience directly: “why then are you ignorant of your own noble descent?” (Discourses, Book II). By examining the internal faculties of oneself, Epictetus encourages the reader to acknowledge God’s presence within their self and act morally.

In the next chapter, however, Epictetus notes how uncommon it is for man to truly act as a “rational and mortal being.” To avoid acting as an irrational animal, he argues that we should avoid acting “gluttonously, lewdly, rashly, filthily, and inconsiderately,” (Discourses, Book II). Instead, Epictetus writes that we should aim to act modestly and with fidelity through study and practice; the latter is especially important for philosophers, he argues, as they must act in accordance with what they practice.

Epictetus uses Chapter 10 to emphasize every person’s inherent divinity. He writes that man is distinguished from other animals, and therefore no one is subservient to anyone; in fact, he writes that every person is “one of the principle parts” of the world (Discourses, Book II). Simultaneously, he encourages the audience to embrace their finite understanding of the world and operate in situations that they can perform best in. In order to fulfill one’s role as a rational being, he notes the importance of acknowledging one’s self as a child or a sibling. Being conscious of one’s talents and appreciating one’s relationships is key to not losing one’s self.

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Epictetus to anyone who would listen, 100 B.C.E.

In Chapter 11 of Book II, Epictetus discusses the inherent weaknesses of man and their relationship to the study of philosophy. Although humans come into the world with innate ideas such as the dichotomies of good and bad and beauty and ugliness, we are not born with knowledge of mathematics and science. Because most of the knowledge needed to have meaningful, educated discourse must be learned, disputes often result in emotional arguments or aporia. This dispute, Epictetus writes, is the axiom of philosophy: he defines it simply as “a perception of the disagreement, an inquiry into the cause of the disagreement,” and a general distrust of what ‘seems’ to be (Discourses, Book II).

Continuing his examination of disputations in Chapter 12, Epictetus notes how despite philosophers having shown how to “apply the art of disputation,” humans often fail to put it into practice (Discourses, Book II). He demonstrates his argument through the example of arguing with an illiterate man. Ridiculing and abusing him does not benefit either party; however, displaying to them the truth is the best way to communicate knowledge. Epictetus then discusses Socrates’ reductio ad absurdum method, which does not pose a specific argument, but rather examines other interpretations and plainly state contradictions within them to display their inaccuracy. Specifically, Epictetus admires Socrates’ ability to remain calm and never become frustrated with other peoples’ arguments.

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Socrates using the reductio ad absurdum argument, 400 B.C..

Epictetus then discusses the cause of anxiety and its obsolescence in one’s pursuit of acting as a rational being in Chapter 13. He mentions how a musician plays fine when they are alone but gets nervous when they are in front of a crowd. The musician is anxious, Epictetus writes, because he is concerned with things outside of his control. Epictetus uses the example of the musician to show how worrying about things one cannot change is pointless.

In Chapter 14, Epictetus responds to a Roman, Naso, and his son about the labors of learning arts. He writes that although acquiring knowledge about any art requires labor, the product that results from that labor shows its “use in the purpose for which it was made,” (Discourses, Book II). He goes on to discuss the work of the philosopher; similar to learning arts, philosophers must labor to understand both natural and acquired relations, familial relations, and the relations of a citizen. When one knows these things, they have the ability to influence the circumstances they find themselves in. To acquire such knowledge, Epictetus emphasizes the importance of learning language in order to communicate with others. Epictetus writes to those who “obstinately persist” in what they believe in Chapter 15 (Discourses, Book II). He argues that in order to confidently believe something, one has to set strong foundations that their beliefs can be based on. He then notes how hard it is to influence a fool’s mindset because their foundations are based on faulty notions about reality that are not accurate. Having definitive and accurate foundations of knowledge contributes to one’s ability to behave as a rational being.