The Discourses by Epictetus

Alanis Comiotto – I am a junior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I enjoy learning about the philosophical ideas of the past that were once considered radical and how they apply to our lives today.

Matt Manilli – I am a senior majoring in Political Science with a concentration in National Security. I enjoy deciphering the texts of philosophers and implementing them into situations that are relevant to modern day circumstances. 

Trevor Kinman – I am a junior majoring in Political Science with concentration on National Security classes. I have always been interested in politics, especially political stances and debates. I enjoy seeing where our early looks on modern politics came from and see how different or similar they have become. 

The linked video is a presentation by Les Stroud, also known as Survivorman. He is the original wilderness vlogger and his show has inspired many others such as Man Vs. Wild, Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, and Alone. Stroud would go into the wilderness with little more than a multitool and 50 lbs. of camera equipment to film himself, without a crew, surviving by himself for a week or more at a time in some of the harshest and most rugged landscapes on the planet. In the above video, Stroud discusses his ecosophy – Earth Wisdom – which shares attitudes with Epictetus and stoicism regarding nature and being. Any real survival expert will tell you that it is a mental game beyond simply procuring the means of subsistence and that attitude is what many have relied on to pull themselves out of dangerous situations and back to safety. Stoicism, both above and below, is about surviving and thriving in difficult and challenging environments – as the former slave, Epictetus will tell you.

The Discourses by Epictetus

This week we are covering books I and II of the Discourses, which are a collection of informal lectures by Epictetus, a Stoic, that were written down by his student Arrian back in Ancient Greece around 110AD. To remind everyone, Stoicism is the belief that those who are in harmony with the higher powers and have reached intellectual and moral perfection do not experience any “bad” emotions. Epictetus believed that happiness is a choice, and we must learn what we have in control and what is out of our control in order to achieve happiness in life.

Book I: Chapters 1-11

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Leo from that 70’s show with a Stoic message. 

 “Of the Things that are in our Power, and not in our Power”: In chapter 1, Epictetus begins his Discourse discussing whether things like music or grammar can tell you to sing or to write, and asserts that music will tell you how to play and grammar will tell you what to write but neither will tell you whether or not you should sing or write, as that can only be done with rationality. Rationality is the only thing that can be used to make judgments and decisions. It speaks for those things as they cannot. Epictetus then moves on to discuss how the only power that we do have is to be rational, or the “right use of appearances,” because it was the only thing the Gods, aka Zeus, shared with us. Zeus tells Epictetus that the power of appearances is all that he has, and he would have given Epictetus more power and freedom had he been able. He then discusses how people should do the best with what they have and not let external things drag them down, which could even mean relationships that one might have, “We must make the best use that we can of the things which are in our power, and use the rest according to their nature”. I think so far Epictetus has a great point and this is one of my life philosophies, although I do not agree that it makes you immune to any negative emotions. There are so many things that are out of our control, and if we cannot make a change ourselves then what is the point of dwelling on the negatives? For the rest of Book I, Epictetus discusses different circumstances and how a person should just accept their outcomes because they should be enlightened in some way and know that their minds are above whatever physical punishment is being placed. To be enlightened according to Epictetus is to fully know yourself and continually strive for personal betterment. Life goes on (unless you’re being beheaded).

“How a Man on every occasion can maintain his Proper Character”: Epictetus begins chapter 2 by stating that man, as an animal, is made of everything irrational, but is attracted the most to what is rational. He then goes on to argue that what is rational and what is irrational is different depending on the person, and that is why discipline is necessary, unlike Plato who just thought rationality was just out there and the same for all. People must consider what is appropriate to each person and how the concept of rationality applies to the world and nature around them. I think this quote does a good job summing it up, “for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself: for men sell themselves at various prices.” Only you can know yourself well enough to know what would be rational or irrational for you to do; no one can do that for you. Epictetus uses a lot of historical examples in this writing, and in this chapter, he makes an example of the Stoic philosopher Helvidius Priscus, who believed that the emperor should only act with the approval of the senate (Britannica.com). 

Before going into the senate, emperor Vespasian ordered him not to go in and speak, but Helvisius said he must stick to his duties and his morals even if it cost him his life. Through this example, Epictetus is saying that being moral and sticking to reason is more valuable than life. He then discusses how there is no way to tell what is rational for another human being because they have different life experiences and something that might matter a lot to them might be meaningless to someone else. He does this through an anecdote of an athlete who did not want to get his male “package” amputated. Epictetus ends this chapter by saying that one should not neglect to look after themselves because of the desire to reach perfection. 

“How a man should proceed from the principle of God being the father of all men to the rest”: Epictetus argues in chapter 3 that if men just accepted that they are a creation of God, and God also created other gods like Zeus, then they would not be self-deprecating. He then states how if someone would consider more personal and corporeal facts like who their parents were then they might fall into those bad emotions, for example, a person adopted by Caesar would be arrogant about it. Men are more than just flesh, they have intelligence like the gods, and should act that way. The main message of this chapter is that we cannot be too attached to the physical world as we are more than just animals. 

“Of progress or improvement”: “For it is always true that to whatever point the perfecting of anything leads us, progress is an approach towards this point”. Epictetus begins chapter 4 by asserting that people should do what they want, in the context of their desires, or else they will not be happy. But one should not fall into the things that they know are immoral or things they know that they should avoid, but should instead keep their drive on what good they desire. Virtue is what everyone should really be striving for, because virtue brings about good fortune and tranquility, aka peace of mind. Epictetus then begins to talk of Chrysippus, another Stoic philosopher who is actually considered to be one of the founders of Stoicism (DailyStoic.com). He makes an example of how a person can know Chrysippus and his writings, but knowing is not enough their actions also matter. He also makes a point that a person cannot be afraid of failing, or else they are actually not making progress, “that he may be able to say when he is in fetters, “Dear Crito, if it is the will of the gods that it be so, let it be so,”; and not to say. “Wretched am I, and old man;”””. As we have seen in class, Crito is a whole dialogue written by Plato. Reading Epictetus is extra interesting because of these references that he makes to other philosophers. Epictetus then makes an interesting note mentioning that people have erected temples to celebrate those heroes and gods that have brought them things like wheat and grapes but not for those that have shown the light, the real gift from the gods, that came from their human mind. 

“Against the academics”: In chapter 5 Epictetus poses the questions of what should one do if a person is so stuck in their own ignorance that they do not listen to rational arguments. People can be hard-headed because of things like understanding or shame. Someone who has the ability of perception but pretends not to is “even worse than a dead man”, someone that cannot comprehend is in pretty bad shape, but one that can perceive and still does not make changes for the better is the worst. In this chapter, Epictetus seems to be making the point that people can be in many different conditions that can affect why they are not seeking virtue and a good life, and some are worse off than others, but nothing is as bad as chosen ignorance. 

“Of providence”: Epictetus argues in chapter 6 that God created everything for a reason, and so that things can work together, like man and woman, or even just the existence of light that enables us to use our vision to see. One must recognize creation and praise Providence so that they may appreciate and be thankful for everything that they can do. It is not sufficient to simply exist, you have to understand the purpose behind things, like why animals are the way they are. God has given “powers” to humankind so that they can experience the wonders of the world, the good and the bad. It is very important to understand that everything has a purpose that it was made for, and accepting that is a step towards happiness. 

“Of the use of sophistical arguments, and hypothetical, and the like”: Like in chapter 6, Epictetus discusses in chapter 7 how not only do things have a purpose and people must understand that, but people must also understand the concept of consequences and how they affect their lives. One of the duties of life is to question everything, even the things you may know so that you can gain perspective. He is almost saying to be like Socrates when it comes to questioning everything no matter the cost, “… purposes to conduct himself skillfully in reasoning, the power of demonstrating himself the several things which he has proposed, and the power of understanding the demonstrations of others, including of not being deceived by sophists”. He then discusses that people should stick with what they do and the conclusions they draw, as long as the premises for that conclusion remain the same as when they were made. This also applies to something that may seem like a false conclusion. The way to not give in to false reasoning is to stick with what you know and not be pushed into ridiculous arguments. 

“That the faculties are not safe to the uninstructed”: It is not only important to know to argue but to also know the different ways one can make arguments. I had to google a couple of words here for chapter 8. Enthymeme is an argument that is not completely stated (Britannica.com), and syllogism is an argument that has two premises that lead to a conclusion. You cannot only know perfect syllogism, but you must also master imperfect syllogism to be able to argue. Someone who is not educated might try to make arguments that are imperfect, you must be able to explain their imperfect arguments and then use reason against them, or else they will bring you down. Everyone kind of has their own thing and one must understand their different perspectives or appearances, with reason. 

“How from the fact that we are akin to God a man may proceed to the consequences”: Epictetus really touches the heartstrings with chapter 9, where he states that a man should not say that they are Athenian or Corinthian, and state where they are born or reside, but should instead say they are a citizen of the world when asked where you are from. To say you are from a country or a state is to limit yourself, as a real community should be between man and God, with man united as one people. He thinks that this should be enough, “to have God for your maker and father and guardian, shall not this release us from sorrows and fears?”. People should not rely on others but on themselves for their needs. Epictetus then makes an interesting point, if we came from God and in death will return to him, why not just kill ourselves so we can join him sooner and leave the wretchedness of the physical world. To this, he says that one must accomplish their purpose and God will bring them back once they are ready because there is a reason behind it all. He also quotes Socrates, who argued that God has given us a post and we must not desert it until it is time. Even if people fall into ill conditions, they can reach for help so that they can move forward, instead of looking for pity and sentiment. 

“Against those who eagerly see preferment at Rome”: I think this is probably one of the parts that most resonates with me, chapter 10. Epictetus makes an example of a man he knows who is superintendent of corn in Rome. The man told Epictetus that his life had been too busy, about work for others and no time for himself, and he would be returning from exile and leading a life of tranquility. The man, however, got some letters from Ceasar and immediately gave up on what he said, and went back to work. We spend so much time slaving away and working jobs that are not helping us grow as people and completely leave ourselves behind. I have seen this personally so many times in the restaurant industry, where people succumb to their jobs with awful hours and usually quite terrible management just to get by because they have given up. 

“Of natural affection”: Epictetus used an interesting anecdote to explain the concept of affection and nature in chapter 11. Epictetus is speaking to a man who is unhappy with his wife and children and tells Epictetus that while his daughter was sick he could not bear to be around to see it, and instead left and awaited someone else to tell him what had happened. The man states that it was his natural response to leave. Epictetus then uses the argument of reason and goes through different scenarios with the man to explain how his decision to leave his daughter can be seen as. The conclusion is that if the man really loved his daughter he would have been there to show her affection and support while she was sick, as affection is the natural response of parents towards their children. Epictetus kind of explains here that not everything is black and white or right and wrong, and it is a person-by-case basis. People have their own opinions and their own free will. 

Book I, Chapters 12-16: God and Man

In regards to god, Epictetus refers to himself and society that worships a higher being as having two sides. He reiterates this point through Chapter 12 where he states, “For if there are no gods, how is it our proper end to follow them? And if they exist, but take no care of anything, in this case also how will it be right to follow them”. If there happens to actually be a god why should an individual worship a being that does not benefit someone and only brings more trouble to one’s life. Throughout chapter 12 Epictetus reiterates this point with examples of “bad parents” or being “dissatisfied with your children” makes it acceptable for an individual to be a bad son or a bad father. This reasoning is based around the fact that if a god truly does exist and he puts you through the misery of externals outside of your control it then justifies bad character. Why make your life even harder by accommodating these externals when you didn’t have the choice of picking these circumstances in the first place. How should one act to please the gods above continues through Epictetus’ writings. 

When it comes to eating the gods want us to eat in a well mannered fashion, however what becomes of us if we asked the servant for iced water and they brought us warm water. Would we then be given the right to lash out and order around a servant who made a mistake. It becomes important to remember where one came from first and be understanding, thus the notion of living by the laws of the gods or being bound by the dead man’s laws. By abiding by the dead man’s laws simply means to be human and to respond to inconveniences with emotion rather than reason. However, if you live by the laws of the gods, you understand that you are superior and that no external force can change that.  Epictetus continues to clarify the lines of man and god. Earth and all of its beauty is a creation of god, hence making man one of those creations that he oversees. When god believes that you are obeying his wishes and acting proper he has the power to guide you down the correct path, but only if you embrace his presence and trust in his power. Epictetus uses his wisdom of philosophy much like a god to a human when helping a man who has issues with his brother. When healing a wound that is associated with hate and anger the only solution is time. Epictetus references this solution with the fig-tree metaphor and informs the man that nothing happens overnight. Consistency, hard work, and time are needed in order to grow a fig-tree which is the same as healing a brother with hatred in his heart. God continuously works in ways that man cannot understand, but must try to appreciate. The appreciation of what god has given humanity is important, something that must be recognized through Epictetus’ philosophy. Animals do not require the same needs as man because they were created as tools to help humanity. Epictetus reiterates this point by stating, “For, animals not being made for themselves, but for service”. Humanity is blinded by stupidity and foolishness if they do not realize the gifts and tools god has given them in order to survive. 

Book II: 1-5 The Philosophy of Man

Epictetus Begins chapter 1, Book 2 stating that philosophers opinions could be paradoxical. Caution and confidence are two solutions that can be used when dealing with certain circumstances. However, what happens when a situation arises and you need both caution and confidence? When dealing with problems of the unknown you cannot be confident because it is a situation you are unfamiliar with. However, Epictetus states that one can have confidence in their caution towards a situation. Epictetus then correlates when man should use confidence and caution by stating, “Confidence then ought to be employed against death, and caution against the fear of death”. However, there is a common conundrum where man flips these two and becomes cautious of death, but when a situation occurs that could kill an individual they become more confident and want to survive. The most important notion Epictetus refers to through chapter 1 is the fact that the body and soul at some point will be separated and is why it should not be feared. Being cautious or fearing of the inevitable seems to be a waste of energy in the eyes of Epictetus. 

Moving to chapter 2, Epictetus discusses the importance of only caring about what is in your own power of doing. When one continuously worries about things outside of themselves such as “poor body” and “little property” you become grounded to things outside of your own control and become consumed and bound to these externals. An example of this can be found when Epictetus states, “ For when you have subjected to externals what is your own, then be a slave and do not resist”. Epictetus uses this example to show when you are consumed by an element or situation outside of your own control you then become a slave to whatever it is you are after. Epictetus then uses Socrates as an example of someone who lived his life in a just manner through his actions and teachings. Therefore, living his life through the things only he can control and not being dominated by problems outside of his control like the trial. 

Moving into chapter 4, Epictetus talks through the implications of fidelity and its correlation with adultery. If an individual’s significant other cheats on them with their neighbor, what are the consequences to the neighbor who did an act of adultery. How is the individual now supposed to see you as someone trustworthy after you broke such a sacred act of love. Should that individual see you as a neighbor, a friend, or anything at all. The trust or bond that was once there between two neighbors is now crushed to dust and something that can never be fixed. Epictetus emphasizes this point when stating, “You have no place where you can be put”. There is no justifiable act a man can do that would ever atone for ruining another man’s marriage. 

Lastly, chapter 5 touches on the importance of only worrying about what is one’s own control. By casting a die you have no choice what the numbers will be, therefore making it an external that should not be stressed upon. Only ones will is a defining factor when it comes to dealing with externals. No one chooses the externals that are placed upon them, however an individual does have the power to turn a bad external into a better one through will power and perseverance. Thus, the analogy between the ball being good or bad doesn’t matter and all that matters is the will power you put into making a bad ball a good ball or turning a good ball into a great ball. One cannot be their best version if they continuously worry about externals or things that are out of their control. By focusing all will power and attention on turning something bad into good is all one can do and all one should really ever focus on. An example of this can be seen through Socrates’external misfortune where it is stated, “Life, chains, banishment, a draught of poison, separation from wife and leaving children orphans. These were the things with which he was playing; but still he did play and threw the ball skillfully”. This is a clear example of how an individual can actively turn negatives into positives by simply not allowing your externals to define you as a person. 

Book II: Chapters 6-15

Chapter 6: Of indifference

In chapter 6, Epictetus is talking about hypothetical proposition. Everyone has opinions, experience, and expertise on various different subjects. Oftentimes judgment is used by many people, but “life is indifferent but use of it isn’t. When someone tells you these things are indifferent, don’t become negligent”. Epictetus goes to give examples of indifference, say for example a man tells you not to do something; reflect on yourself to see if it is something you can honestly do. Do not immediately judge him or his opinion, rather look upon yourself to see if it’s achievable by your experiences and character. If it is not, then let the man who knows more about it do it and then follow in suit. A person should play to their strengths and weaknesses and grow from them. As another example of life’s indifference, always remember what yours is and what is others by staying around what is yours, you should not be troubled in any way. God gave your choice and abilities, so stay within the nature of them. If you do not and get caught up in a series of consequences, acknowledge how you got there and learn from it.

Chapter 7: How we ought to use divination

In chapter 7, Epictetus is talking about the responsibilities to man and divinity. Epictetus, he questions why people turn their backs to some of life’s responsibilities for the sole purpose of divination. Paying too much of one’s attention to divination, seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means, could hurt one’s well being when it comes to life. He discusses if divinity is something that is telling me good from evil why are some acts of sacrifice necessary. A balanced person should know what their best interest is. Epictetus points out that it is odd when we resort to divinity only when it is in our own selfish needs and for rewards. Good things are favors and bad things are too fearful to do anything about. Here Epictetus later states that indifference in God’s words are important, “we come to God also as a guide; as we use our eyes, not asking them to show us rather such things as we wish, but receiving the appearances of things such as the eyes present them to us. But now we are trembling, taking the augur by the hand, and, while we invoke God.”

Chapter 8: What is the nature of the good

God is beneficial. But the Good also is beneficial. It is consistent then that where the nature of God is, there also the nature of the good should be. What then is the nature of God? Flesh? Certainly not. An estate in land? By no means. Fame? No. Is it intelligence, knowledge, the right reason? Yes.” Epictetus here is talking about looking for the nature of good. You can look for good in any nature that was given by God, . He relates it to character, very similar to the saying, “what would Jesus do?” if you were aware of the image of God in you, would you still do the thing that you are doing? If you are doing something knowingly bad, is it right to be at the anger of God and his nature? Epictetus brings up ignorance as an example here, the nature of ignorance in a person can deflect the nature of all things good.

Chapter 9: That when we cannot fulfill that which the character of a man promises, we assume the character of a philosopher

A man is a rational, logical, mere mortal being. A being that thinks, talks, and grows and that is highly separated between wild beasts. If you stray away from the basic pillars of being a man, you will resemble a wild beast. Ensuring that man does not behave like wild beasts only benefits nature, society, and the way of life. We can not lose ourselves and lose rational, it is what makes us, us. This will lead us to becoming animals and will only keep us stagnant as beings. Epictetus brings morality towards man in chapter 9, between modesty and immodesty. The idea being that modesty keeps a man pure and happy, immodesty leads to fault and bad things. Epictetus in the end talks about the role and experiences of being a philosopher. How there are times where what they learn and practice can lead to immodest things, which can help build character in the right people. By this, I mean, the right people can learn from mistakes. Faults and mistakes faced with responsibility and action, builds character.  

Chapter 10: How we may discover the duties of life from names

Here in chapter 10, Epictetus focuses on asking who you are. He asks upon people to look at themselves from the in and out and consider your being. You are alive, you are human being, and a natural person to the world you walk around on. You as a being have logic and reasoning, how will you use it? We can’t see the future, only what we allow. Our path is written by us and us alone, some may feel there are outside forces that may play apart and maybe there is, it is still always up to the person to follow, listen, and act. Our choices in nature open paths that we can choose to take or not to take. Only thing we know as humans that the future holds is death, so we have to make the choices that will benefit us and the beings around us the best. We men all have faults in character and are not 100% good throughout, and there is no concrete way to stop this, it is simply nature. But we have to reflect and divert ourselves away from bad to the best of our ability to stay as civilized as possible or we will decline to the level of beasts. All men experience damage, you act upon it, using rational, is the most important.

Chapter 11: What the beginning of philosophy is

In chapter 11, Epictetus explains how philosophy is a “door opener” that can lead to questions and ways to live life. If you break it down piece by piece, you will find that philosophy is essential to man. It is the tool to use our logic and rational to its fullest extent. Men were given curiosity and many things amongst it for a purpose, philosophy gives us opportunity. “We come into the world with no natural notions of math & science, but we learn about them in due course.” There is never a right or wrong when asking questions, it only opens doors to more questions, in essence it is a rabbit hole that man is destined to follow. With opinions left and right it’s never a bad thing to stop and ask about life’s perfections and imperfections. Anything in life can be questioned and by questioning it, is the beauty of philosophy.

Chapter 12: Of disputation or discussion

Philosophers have shown what you need to do to use the art of debate, but it is obvious that it is not always practiced. As an example, consider every illiterate man. Abusing or ridiculing him will not get you too far with him. If you try to convince a guy to change his ways, do not mock or threaten him. The idea of political or philosophical debates is not to degrade the other but rather try and understand the adversary. We are all different beings; we have different upbringings and opinions and that is no means for degrading. This chapter is one of the most applicable to modern day politics, we see no matter the side of reason the other is quick to insult rather than to reflect and ask questions. Poking fun and trying to offend in a discussion or debate discredits the philosophy behind it. That is the pure beauty in using our logic, two people have different views, they both explain and spark conversation and questions. Not one person talks and the other employs rude comments. We can see how Socrates did this; he never became irritated in argument, never to utter anything abusive, but to bear with abusive people.

Chapter 13: On anxiety

Epictetus’ chapter on anxiety is a short one compared to his others in book two but that does not mean it needs to be overlooked. “When I see a man anxious, I say, “What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?” For this reason, a lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” The biggest thing to take from this quote is the last few words, too often, and I am even at fault here, but it is being anxious over something that one cannot control. Too many times many people get anxious over times in life where it was out of their control. There are countless successful people in the world who will tell you this. Being fearful of something that is uncontrollable is a waste of energy and time. It is more beneficial to put one’s efforts into the aspects that can be controlled. Keep your understanding, time, confidence, energy, and logic in the things you can control. You can’t make things always go your way, but there are many things you can control, and you should stick to those.

Chapter 14: To Naso

“Every art, when it is taught, causes labour to him who is unacquainted with it and is unskilled in it, and indeed the things which proceed from the arts immediately show their use in the purpose for which they were made; and most of them contain something attractive and pleasing. For indeed to be present and to observe how a shoemaker learns is not a pleasant thing; but the shoe is useful and also not disagreeable to look at. And the discipline of a smith when he is learning is very disagreeable to one who chances to be present and is a stranger to the art: but the work shows the use of the art.” Here in this chapter, learning is sometimes never a pretty thing to experience, but it is the byproduct of that learning that makes it amazing. Using what is learned can be great for the mind, body, and soul. It provides a sense of reward for using that time to learn. Which comes hand and hand with philosophy. When you see or hear something that can be questioned and you question it as such, it can be rewarding in a way.

Chapter 15: To or against those who obstinately persist in what they have determined

Epictetus’ 15th chapter is another short one in book two but discusses, “that a man ought to be constant, and that the will is naturally free and not subject to compulsion…” It is important to know yourself, if you know you are unhealthy but appear to be you should not brag, the only act you should do is become the best version of what you want to portray. The example Epictetus gives is he witnessed a man not eat for 3 days, and he asked the man if it was right, had it been right, to leave the man alone, but had it been wrong Epictetus should try and lead him to a healthier path. The takeaway here is if someone is doing right try and not divert them but if it is wrong and harmful attempt to dissuade the action. It can be challenging to try and persuade people to change their minds but it never hurts to try.