What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”.

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

 

The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

Making Big Decisions

Some thoughts about advice on making major life decisions.

The Pythagorean UpsilonA famous physicist once said that the opposite of every profound truth is very often another equally “profound” truth. I think that’s usually the case with proverbs and folk wisdom: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, they say; but they also say “He who hesitates is lost.” Often folk wisdom is so vague it’s bound to be contradictory.

When you’re thinking about your career, it seems to me that the people giving sage advice fall into two camps. The first group say that the most important thing in life is to be able to adapt to circumstances, spot opportunities when they arise, and seize them with both hands. The second group say that the most important thing in life is to have a sense of personal identity, a fundamental goal in life, to make yourself totally committed to fulfilling your dream or destiny, and to remain unswayed by external events. Now, on the face of it, those both sound like reasonable pieces of advice. However, on the face of it, they also appear at odds with each other: we should be both flexible and inflexible about our goals.

I’ve heard or read this advice many times. Usually a person will go to one extreme or the other, and they always sound very wise, even when they’re saying contradictory things! So what’s the alternative? Now, I should say that I’m generally no fan of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said that the best course of action is often the middle way (via media) between two extremes. I remember one of my old philosophy professors at Aberdeen telling me that was interesting but “not very helpful”. “If I was holding a dinner party,” he said, “and wanted to know how much wine to buy, Aristotle’s advice would be ‘don’t buy too much but don’t buy too little either; get an amount somewhere in-between’.” That’s common sense, but unsatisfactory and vague.

Nevertheless, the best advice I can offer here, if only to remedy the bad advice that comes from clinging too much to one extreme, is that we should be neither too rigid nor too flexible but somewhere in-between when it comes to our goals in life. I believe that both the “profound truths” I mentioned at the start are true, in their own way. If you want to have a good life, you should pay attention when opportunity comes knocking at your door and be ready to change your plans, and adapt to your changing fortune, but not so much that it derails pursuit of your fundamental goal. Likewise, it’s wise to have a definite goal in life and remain passionately focused on it, but not so intransigently that you become a numbskull, and overlook compromises that might contribute to your longer-term happiness and wellbeing. You need to be on the lookout for opportunities and seize them when they arise, but only ones that are ultimately consistent with your fundamental vision, your destiny in life. You’re also going to have to suck it up sometimes and allow some incredibly tempting good fortune to pass you by, if clinging onto it would sweep you too far off course. So in a sense, I think wisdom consists in doing both of these things in harmony, and folly in doing neither of them, or in doing one of them too much.

People who appear merely wise cling to one extreme but in their case it’s only chance that determines whether that will turn out well or badly for them. One man sticks rigidly to his goal, ignores everything else, and becomes a huge success by following this rule of life, another does the same thing but ruins himself by being too rigid. One man watches fate like a hawk, pounces on good fortune when it appears, and flourishes as a result, another following the same principle ends up all over the place, and living a life completely out of kilter with his true values. Be cautious when listening to the advice of fortunate people because often they follow rigid philosophies of life, which only worked out for them by chance. If we only had to do one simple thing, life would be easy. What we often have to do is walk a tightrope, maintaining a delicate balance along the way. That’s hard work, although it’s also, in a sense, just one task. It’s a composite task, though, and though certain principles and ideas can guide us, many difficult decisions, requiring sound judgement, have to be made. That’s why nobody can tell you how much wine to buy. They can remind you not to get too much, nor too little, but you’re the only person who knows enough about your meal, and your guests, to decide what the right amount is. When you’re thinking about your future, don’t be led too much by events, and don’t stick too rigidly to your original goals. More specifically: keep comparing these two things to each other, weigh up each event carefully against the supreme criterion of your fundamental goal in life and ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my long-term happiness and well being, or not?”

Review: The Daily Stoic

Review of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic Cover

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although book designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.

Virtue is its own Reward

The Stoic doctrine that “virtue is its own reward”.

the-only-reward-of-virtue-is-virtue-the-only-way-to-have-a-friend-is-to-be-oneThe Stoics recognise an important place for feelings such as joy and tranquillity in their philosophical system, and they very frequently refer to them.  However, from the writings of the earliest Stoics onward these “good feelings” (eupatheiai) appear to have been regarded as merely “supervening” upon virtue, i.e., side-effects of the good rather than intrinsically good themselves (Lives and Opinions, 7.94).  The principle that “virtue is its own reward” (virtus ipsa pretium sui) was fundamental to Stoic Ethics.  Many subsequent authors have been inspired by this doctrine.  Spinoza and Kant held similar views to the Stoics, in this regard.

Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote:

Unlike Epicurean pleasure, Stoic joy is not the motive and the end of moral action: rather, virtue is its own reward.  Virtue seeks nothing above and beyond itself; instead, for the Stoics, joy, like Aristotelian pleasure, comes along as an extra surplus in addition to action in conformity with nature, “like beauty for those in the flower of youth”. (The Inner Citadel, p. 240)

He quotes Seneca who dedicates one section of On the Happy Life to this issue, where he addresses it very clearly:

But, in the first place, even though virtue is sure to bestow pleasure, it is not for this reason that virtue is sought; for it is not this, but something more than this that she bestows, nor does she labor for this, but her labor, while directed toward something else, achieves this also.  As in a plowed field, which has been broken up for corn, some flowers will spring up here and there, yet it was not for these poor little plants, although they may please the eye, that so much toil was expended — the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded — just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.

The highest good lies in the very choice of it, and the very attitude of a mind made perfect, and when the mind has completed its course and fortified itself within its own bounds, the highest good has now been perfected, and nothing further is desired; for there can no more be anything outside of the whole than there can be some point beyond the end.

Therefore you blunder when you ask what it is that makes me seek virtue; you are looking for something beyond the supreme. Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? When I say to you, “The highest good is the inflexibility of an unyielding mind, its foresight, its sublimity, its soundness, its freedom, its harmony, its beauty, do you require of me something still greater to which these blessings may be ascribed? (On the Happy Life, 9)

Likewise, in one of his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca argues that although virtue is the only true good, we also refer to the consequences of virtue as good in a looser sense, insofar as they derive from it.  This includes the healthy expansion of the soul that tends to follow wisdom and virtue.  (The Stoics interpret healthy and unhealthy emotions, in part, as expansions and contractions of the soul.)  “Sometimes as a result of noble conduct,” he writes, “one wins great joy even a short and very fleeting space of time”.  We can glimpse Stoic joy in moments of action because it is a “delight” to contemplate our own virtue.

But that man also who is deprived of this joy, the joy which is afforded by the contemplation of some last noble effort, will leap to his death without a moment’s hesitation, content to act rightly and dutifully. (Letter 76)

Virtue is the only real motive for the Stoic’s actions.  Someone who posits the joyful feelings, which supervene on virtue, as his goal in life would be morally compromised in certain difficult situations.  He would hesitate in the face of danger, because pleasant feelings are often inaccessible in the heat of battle, and he may die before ever reaping these fruits of virtue.  The Stoic does not wait for a warm glow to descend on him before taking action because his only goal is virtuous action, and the feelings which may (or may not) follow are merely an added bonus, or side-effect – they’re irrelevant to his motivation.

Now Available: Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

The Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available to read in advance.

Stoic Week HandbookThe Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available for you to read in advance, in order to prepare for Stoic Week, which begins on Monday 17th October.

You can now read the online (web) version of the handbook, at modernstoicism.com and complete the preliminary online forms.  The offline versions of the handbook, for use with e-readers, and printing, will not be available until Stoic Week begins on the 17th.

The Perfect Beginners Guide to Applied Stoicism?

Stoic Week 2016 begins on 17th October but you should enrol in advance now to read the materials beforehand in preparation.

Stoic Week HandbookStoic Week is a free online course that will teach you how to apply the concepts and techniques of ancient Stoicism to your daily life. It’s designed for complete beginners, although many experienced students of Stoicism also take part each year. Stoic Week is now in its fifth year. Last year over 3,400 people from around the world took part. It consists of an online Handbook with readings, audio recordings of meditation exercises, and practices, that you follow for seven days. There are also multiple offline versions of the Handbook, for use on e-readers and other mobile devices.

The Stoic Week materials have been carefully developed by Stoicism Today, a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists and cognitive therapists, including several well-known authors in the field. They’re revised each year in response to feedback from thousands of participants. Just visit our website below, create an account, and click the Enrol button on the front page to register in advance for the course. Online course materials become available on 10th October this year, so you can read them in advance. Stoic Week itself will officially begin on 17th October. Will you be taking part? Please feel free to comment below if you have any questions…

http://modernstoicism.com/