The Discourses, Books III and IV by Epicteus
I am a third year junior with a major in Political Science with an emphasis in National Security as well as a GIS (Geospatial Intelligence Systems) minor. In some aspect, I hope to work for the government, whether it’s creating policies that will help change the lives of US citizens, or in the intelligence community. Either way, understanding philosophy and political theory will greatly impact both of my possible career paths.
I am a second year with a major in Political Science with a focus on National Security and a minor in history. I plan on commissioning into the Army and then working in the Federal Government in some way afterwards.
Book III of The Disclosures is segmented into 17 chapters, each of which breaks down the importance of the ethics and morals in those who we hold to the highest of standards. Epicetus was born into slavery and spent much of his life as a captive, so his philosophy reflects that. He created a school that was home to some influential figures at the time, such as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The Misconceived Judgement of Man
Book III starts by Epicetus discussing the importance and power of judgement in a conversation he had with one of his students at the school. Epictetus starts by asking this student what he thought of beauty and excellence, and more importantly, what makes beauty and excellence possible. “Do we, then, for the same reason call each of them in the same kind beautiful, or each beautiful for something peculiar? And you will judge this matter thus. Since we see a dog naturally formed for one thing, and a horse for another, and for another still, as an example, a nightingale, we may generally and not improperly declare each of them to be beautiful then when it is most excellent according to its nature…”(The Discourses, Book III Chapter 1) Epictetus continues on by discussing that excellence resides in the possession of the person, object, or animal. We desire to possess beauty, so we can show our friends and enemies just how much better we are than them.
Like I said before, Epicetus was a stoic man, not one for bragging or boasting, this is a take on those who are flashy and showy, “The second concerns the movements (toward) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The second topic concerns the duties of a man; for I ought not to be free from affects like a statue, but I ought to maintain the relations natural and acquired, as a pious man, as a son, as a father, as a citizen.” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 2) It’s almost amazing how spot on he was about not only his society, but 2000 years later in ours too. How often do you see influencers and YouTubers showing off the $500,000 dollar car they just bought or the multi-million dollar mansions they buy in? You open the front page of any social media platform and you’re almost guaranteed to see something about Jake Paul or Addison Rae or any other influencer with all the prized possessions they have. We put these individuals on a pedestal, certainly not because of the good deeds they do or the Socratic good lives they live, but because they possess something we dream of, something of excellence and beauty.
So now the question is, how can one exercise themselves against the shallow desire to keep up appearances? Epictetus has an answer for this as well. “As we exercise ourselves against sophistical questions, so we ought to exercise ourselves daily against appearances; for these appearances also propose questions to us. “A certain person son is dead.” Answer: the thing is not within the power of the will: it is not an evil. That is a thing within the power of the will: it is a good. If we train ourselves in this manner, we shall make progress; for we shall never assent to anything of which there is not an appearance capable of being comprehended.” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 8) In modern day terms, just don’t be shallow. Embrace your nature, “Man, consider first what the matter is, then your own nature also, what it is able to bear. If you are a wrestler, look at your shoulders, your thighs, your loins: for different men are naturally formed for different things,” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 15) but conduct yourself in they way in which the gods planned for you, “The business of the wise and good man is to use appearances conformably to nature: and as it is the nature of every soul to assent to the truth, to dissent from the false, and to remain in suspense as to that which is uncertain; so it is its nature to be moved toward the desire of the good, and to aversion from the evil.” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 3) This goes for expanding your own character, as well as when interacting with others. When we are told something that has happened to an individual, something that is out of both of our controls, in Epictetus’ case it was a ship being lost or a man being sent to prison, in our times it might be failing a test or forgetting to do an assignment. What can we do about these events occurring? Simply, we can’t do anything to help or solve the problem, so why allow ourselves to feel pain for something out of our grasp? Epicetus cites an old philosopher Italicus, who would claim hearing this bad news and allowing it to vex him would slowly kill him as well, making him a weaker man. This goes back to earlier when we talked about the stoic philosophy of Epictetus. He truly was a guarded man, who wasn’t one for the sharing of feelings or the listening to the complaints of others, and his philosophies directly reflect that.
Nevertheless, Epicetus carries on in his discussion with the young student, “Man, in every kind there is produced something which excels; in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not then say to that which excels, “Who, then, are you?” If you do, it will find a voice in some way and say, “I am such a thing as the purple in a garment: do not expect me to be like the others, or blame my nature that it has made me different from the rest of men.” (The Discourses, Book III, Chapter 1) Who, then are you? Epictetus is harnessing his inner Pete Weber here. Who do we think we are as human beings to judge those around us based on what we possess or based off of what the gods have given us?
But how does all of this relate to living the Socratic “Good Life” you might ask. Epictetus has an answer for this too in the following chapters, “There are three things in which a man ought to exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that a man may not fail to get what he desires, and that he may not fall into that which he does not desire. The second concerns the movements (toward) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgement, and generally it concerns the assents.” (The Discourses, Book III, Chapter 2) Of all of these things, Epicetus believed that the first concern is the most urgent and most important of the criteria to live a good life. It goes back to our earlier discussion of possessions and how they hold such a great influence over our society. It really goes to show the relationship between a solid character and the good life. If you are a greedy, shallow, self-centered person with no substance outside of what you possess, how can you possibly live a good life? Yes, you might make others envy you with intense jealousy, but how is that productive to the development of your character and your soul?
Epictetus continues to dive into discussions about good men and the good life. “I am sick here,” said one of the pupils, “and I wish to return home.” At home, I suppose, you free from sickness. Do you not consider whether you are doing anything here which may be useful to the exercise of your will, that it may be corrected?” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 5) It’s an interesting concept Epicetus touches on. As someone who spends more than 60% of the year at school 2,500 miles away from home, I can come to terms with the idea of “homesickness.” Epicetus describes homesickness as having fear that your home life, well being, and money will be lost without you present in your place of comfort. It’s this fear that drives a man or woman to question their strength. When you have a lack of strength, you are vulnerable from those who wish to take what you have amassed. But this should not phase the good man living a good life, for “The good man is invincible, for he does not enter the contest where he is not stronger. If you want to have his land and all that is on it, take the land; take his slaves, take his magisterial office, take his poor body. But you will not make his desire fail in that which it seeks, nor his aversion fall into that which he would avoid. The only contest into which he enters is about things which are within the power of his will; how then will he not be invincible?” (The Discourses, Book III Chapter 6) A good man will always retain a strong will, therefore will never be weak to any attack on him or his livelihood.
Book IV of is split into six chapters and discusses his views on a stoic type of freedom. Book IV continues the
Lectures and discussions
Freedom, from a Stoic Perspective
Those who do not want to act upon the teachings of Stoicism should not bother to read it. Oddly enough, in the New York Times link, former President Clinton was a avid reader of the Stoic philosophy found in Marcus Aurelius Meditations, an interesting connection to how the ancient ideas affect modern leaders.
It’s pretty obvious that the effects of Epictetus prior life as a slave have a large effect on his life and especially here during his outlook on slavery. In the beginning he compares and decides the difference between freedom and slavery in the context of Stoicism and to what extent freedom should be utilized. Epictetus poses the question “Does freedom seem to you to be something great and noble and valuable?” (Book IV). It really asks the question, especially as Americans to what extent is freedom a thing? And how do we synthesize freedom from the perspective of a Stoic using the earlier views of Epictetus on controlling the world and you in it? Is It safe to assume that we can control how personally free we are but society as a whole cannot decide how free they are? I think its safe to assume that would be correct if we use the philosophy of the Just State in conjunction with Stoic philosophy. So how free a person is from the perspective of the Stoic is dependent on outside forces, that can be beyond your control. But you can decide how free your Soul and life is.
How to be Happy
The goal of Stoicism is happiness to a more abstract and expansive sense. As seen in the quote below:
‘He is free who lives as he wishes to live; who is neither subject to compulsory nor to hindrance, nor to force; whose movements to action are not impeded, whose desires attain their purpose, and who does not fall into that which he would avoid. Who, then, chooses to live in error? No man. Who chooses to live deceived, liable to mistake, unjust, unrestrained, discontented, mean? No man.”(Book IV)
Epictetus goes on to share how a stoics view happiness, as a means for not getting what you want, but getting what you need out of life. But what does it mean to be happy as a Stoic? Is going with the flow and not caring about life going to make you happy and how does the Stoic maximize happiness? The video below helps explain quickly about how the Stoic views happiness and the search for “the good life”.
Finally, Inner Peace
Chapter 4 of Book IV, gives a good viewpoint of how to analyze what the good life is through the lenses of Stoicism. Interestingly, it seems that Epictetus harshly criticizes the views of Sophists saying
“Remember that not only the desire of power and of riches makes us mean and subject to others, but even the desire of tranquility, and of leisure. and of traveling abroad, and of learning. For, to speak plainly, whatever the external thing may be, the value which we set upon it places us in subjection to others. What, then, is the difference between desiring, to be a senator or not desiring to be one; what is the difference between desiring power or being content with a private station; what is the difference between saying.”Epictetus, The Discourses (Book IV)
I think its a interesting critique of the other forms of philosophy we’ve studied this year and how it relates to the good life and those who are seeking it.