Philosophy of Epictetus

Fields of Study | Desire and Aversion | Positive and Negative Impulse | Assent

The common view of a Stoic as someone who is unemotional and ignores physical pain is portrayed in the classic caricature by Existential Comics, "Epictetus Was a Hardass Professor:"

cartoon about Epictetus p. 1

Cartoon about Epictetus, p. 1

I hope this brief introduction to Epictetus’ ethical philosophy will help contextualize this picture of Epictetus and Stoicism.

Fields of Study

While Epictetus clearly taught the full range of subjects in Stoic philosophy, including logic, physics (which included theology), and ethics, the Diss. and Ench. focus mainly on ethical issues. Perhaps the best way into the ethical world of the Ench. is to examine the three fields of study discussed in the first two chapters of the work. There Epictetus tells us that the ability to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not in our control is the key to Stoic ethics. What is in your control is your internal disposition, which ultimately forms the basis of your moral character and action, whereas what is not in your control is external to you. At the beginning of chapter 1, Epictetus lists four things which are under our control: opinion, impulse, desire, and aversion (all to be defined shortly). Examples of what is not fully under our control include the body (health), possessions (wealth), reputation, and political office. In Diss. 3.2 Epictetus enumerated three fields of ethical study: (1) the study of desire and aversion; (2) the study of positive and negative impulse; and (3) the study of avoiding error and rashness in judgment, which ultimately is the study of assent. On these fields of study, see Hadot (1995, ch. 6). Let us look at each of these fields of study.

Desire and Aversion

Desire and aversion are defined by the objects at which they aim (what does one desire?). Desire is directed toward the good, or what you suppose to be good, whereas aversion is the avoidance of evil, or what you suppose to be evil. The Stoic concept of good and evil is drastically restricted to virtue and vice (L-S I.60–61). In the common conception of a happy condition as that of being “healthy, wealthy and wise,” the Stoics would consider only the last item as a true good. Health and wealth were regarded as indifferents, that is, things which were neither good nor evil in themselves (L-S I.58). Wealth may be used for good or evil purposes and thus has no intrinsic value as something good or evil. For the Stoics, it is the one who uses the money well or badly who is good or evil. If you act with the proper disposition, then you are acting morally. Furthermore, these indifferents are not fully in your control. Diseases, for example, may undermine your health. The Stoics concede that in most cases there are “preferred” indifferents (health, sufficient money to live) and “dispreferred” indifferents (sickness, poverty), but ultimately these do not contribute to your moral well-being (poverty, for example, is not to be looked upon as an evil). However, for the most part, Epictetus speaks of everything outside of your control as “nothing to you.” See, for example, Ench. 1.5 and 32.2. But to return to desire and aversion, it is enough at this point to note that desire is directed toward the attaining of a good or supposed good, and aversion toward the avoidance of an evil or supposed evil.

Positive and Negative Impulse

While desire and aversion are directed toward the good, positive and negative impulse (L-S I.57) are directed toward “appropriate actions” (τὰ καθήκοντα). For earlier Stoics, appropriate action was contrasted with “right action” (τὸ κατόρθωμα). The Stoic sage was the only one who could perform right action, since the sage would be the only one who would knowingly perform an action correctly. For the rest of us (since the Stoic sage was a rarity and none of the leaders of the Stoa claimed to be a Stoic sage), there are appropriate actions (L-S I.59; Long and Sedley translate the Greek term as “proper functions”). Appropriate actions are in turn based on the concept of “appropriation” (ἡ οἰκείωσις, L-S I.57). Appropriation assumes that the Stoic god (nature) has set up the universe providentially in the best way possible. Appropriation is the understanding that the Stoic god has endowed all creatures with the starting points to act appropriately in the world. Thus, the first impulse of animals and humans is toward self-preservation. For example, you naturally take in mother’s milk. This is appropriate behavior at this stage of life. Note too that in asserting that self-preservation is the first impulse, the Stoics are arguing against the Epicurean thesis that pleasure is the first impulse of humans. Furthermore, the Stoics believed that humans who have reached maturity are distinguished from animals by having reason. One can see that at birth a baby is not expected to be reasonable, but at a certain stage of life, she is. Finally, there are certain appropriate forms of behavior depending on your position or relationships in society (such as respect for parents and elders). Appropriation is a theory of human development which posits appropriate forms of behavior for each stage of life and for your relationships in society. Thus, appropriate action for the early Stoa is “consequentiality (τὸ ἀκόλουθον) in life, which once it has been done, admits of a reasonable justification (εὔλογον ἀπολογίαν)” (L-S 59B).

When Epictetus speaks of appropriate action, he most often has this last category in mind—appropriate forms of behavior depending on your position or relationships in society. The most relevant discussion is Diss. 2.10, entitled “How is it possible to discover one’s appropriate action from one’s designations (ὀνόματα)?” Epictetus first answers this question by claiming that your primary designation/identity is as a human being: rational beings capable of moral choice. Furthermore, you are a citizen of the world (πολῖται τοῦ κόσμου—this is where our word “cosmopolitan” comes from, although it now has devolved into meaning “sophisticated”). Thus, you must do everything to align your mind and actions with the rational plan of the universe ordained by the Stoic god. You must look to the larger whole and not strive for private pleasure or benefit. Epictetus is fond of quoting the poem of Cleanthes, the second leader of the Stoa: “Lead me, Zeus! Lead me, Fate! / Wherever you decide I should have my post” (Ench53, trans. Smith). Epictetus also often compares the world to a stage, in which you must play the role (πρόσωπον) assigned by the Stoic god (Ench17). It is your duty to play your role to the best of your abilities, even if your role is that of a beggar, for poverty is no hindrance to focusing on your moral choice, on what is in your control.

Αppropriate action also encompasses your relationships or roles in family and society (σχήσεις), such as a son, brother, a citizen of a state, etc. (Diss2.10). For example, a son should obey his father and never speak ill of him, regardless of whether he is a good father or not. Epictetus tells you to concentrate on what is in your control, your moral choice, which tells you to respect your father. The response of your father is outside your control. In Enchch. 30 Epictetus advises the student to show respect to his father, and when the student objects that he has a bad father, Epictetus points out that the student “has been put into a natural relationship to a father, not a good or bad father.” Your appropriate actions are based upon your relationship to your father, not on the actions of your father toward you, which are outside your control. However, for other roles, you must look to yourself to see whether you are fit for this role. For as we saw earlier in the case of Diogenes (see Predecessors), Epictetus does not think that everyone can attain to the Cynic ideal and in ch. 37 he advises you not to assume a role (πρόσωπον) beyond your capacity. For a discussion of the different terms for roles, see Johnson (2014, 13-14).

Most scholars trace the importance of roles back to Panaetius (c. 185-109 B.C.E.), who postulated that you have four personae: (1) your nature as a human being, (2) your personal nature, (3) your circumstances and (4) your choices. But see also the reservations in Long (2002, 256-57) and Johnson (2014, ch. 8).

Assent

Positive and negative impulse are directed toward appropriate actions based on social and natural roles and relationships. But what motivates an individual’s impulse to actually perform appropriate action, or the reverse? Epictetus’s answer is that assent to your opinions or judgments causes you to act—assent being the third field of study in ethics. Your opinions/judgments are types of “appearance” or “impression” (φαντασία, L-S I.39). The term covers not only your perceptions (“Here is money”), but also judgments about the perceptions (“Money is a good thing” and “One should pursue money”). If you assent to the latter judgment (the expression of a desire), then it will generate an impulse, and you will act on this desire. Note that human impressions have propositional content and therefore are true or false. For the Stoa, this process was a logical one (if p, then q), even when it led to the arousal of a passion. As Margaret Graver (2007, 44–45) has shown for earlier Stoics, the syllogism leading to assent would have this form (I have modified the syllogism slightly to fit the present context):

  1.  Objects of type T are goods or evils.
  2. If a good or evil is present, it is appropriate for me to respond in the following way.
  3. Object O, being of type T, is now present.
It is now appropriate for me to respond in this way.

For Epictetus, as well, logic plays a role in ethics; in ch. 36 and 44, he draws parallels between logical propositions and ethics and in ch. 52 he warns students not to become obsessed with logical puzzles instead of putting their ethical principles into action. But most often Epictetus asks you to draw the consequences (τὰ ἀκόλουθα) from a situation or role. As we saw in the previous section, the appropriate actions of obeying your father and never speaking ill of him follow upon your role as a son (Diss. 2.10). This logical consequentiality is reflected in the consequentiality of appropriate action; the situation or role provides the justification of the act.

The "conditional + imperative" construction

In the Ench., Epictetus often offers an elliptical version of the process leading to assent, in the form of a conditional clause followed by an injunction to act. The conditional describes a situation or role (your going to the baths or your role as brother) in the form of an "if" or "whenever" statement (ἐάν or ὅταν + the subj. or εἰ + opt.), followed by an imperative or equivalent (e.g., δεῖ or ἀνάγκη ἐστι). This construction fits the formal requirements for what Smyth calls the "present general" conditional, referring to a rule of action or to a particular act ("if ever you do this, I always praise you," S. 2295), and also of the "future more vivid" conditional, used for graphic, impressive, or emphatic anticipation of a future result ("if you do this, you will do well," S. 2322; see G. 650). In Epictetus the conditional protasis does not seem to emphasize futurity, or something generally occurring, as much as something non-specific (i.e. not indicative). The sequence of thought is “if x (non-specific) happens or is the case, then do y.” The authors of the recent Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek classify this type of conditional under “Prospective Conditions,” a label which emphasizes futurity. In Epictetus the temporal aspect is less important than the atemporal moral situation or role. I have thus described these sentences in the commentary as “conditional + imperative.”

If you assent to the imperative, then you will act appropriately. Thus, it becomes important for you to evaluate these perceptions and the associated value judgments. As we see at the end of ch. 1, the most important criterion for this evaluation is whether they are related to matters which are in your control or not. Epictetus often speaks of this evaluative process as the “proper use” of your impressions. (See Diss.1.1.7, entitled “the correct use of impressions.” In the Ench., see for example the end of ch. 6, where he speaks of the use of impressions according to (your rational) nature, and ch. 52.1, where Epictetus says that the first and most necessary subject in philosophy is the “the use of impressions.”)

This evaluative process, which takes place in the volition or will, is "a matter of consciously slowing down one’s thought process to allow for reflection before assent" (Graver [2017, section 5]. In Diss2.18.24, Epictetus addresses the impression, asking it to wait a little until he has properly evaluated it to see whether it is one of the things in his control or not (compare Ench1.5). He repeatedly warns of the danger of being carried away by impressions (Ench10.116.118.119.2, and 20.1). If you make hasty judgments repeatedly, mistaking an indifferent for a good (e.g., wealth as a good), the judgment will form into a habit and/or erupt into a full-blown passion.

Passion, regarded as an excessive impulse, was to be avoided at all costs (L-S I.65). For Epictetus, a passion develops from mistakenly regarding what is not under your control as a good. If you are thwarted in obtaining your desire (such as political office), this desire could quickly turn into an obsessive passion. “Passion is nothing other than the failure to attain what we desire or an encountering of what we wish to avoid” (Diss. 3.2.3). The Stoics regarded this excessive response as irrational. Thus, Epictetus maintains that you should continually practice this evaluative process on impressions. Throughout the Ench., you are given exercises to practice (on which, see Hadot, ch. 6). For example, in ch. 3 he advises you to verbalize your likes and loves but also to realize that they will not be everlasting. You should start practicing with small things, such as a favorite pot, and say “I love this pot,” realizing that one day it may break. He then asks you to gradually move to more significant relationships, such as a son or wife, again saying “I love my son,” but also knowing that your son, being human, will one day die. If you are trying to put these principles into practice, you are someone who is making progress (Diss1.4Ench. 12 and 48). Ultimately, you want to make these principles a stable and consistent part of your life, but the Ench. for the most part is directed to the student making progress.

It seems extremely unfeeling (“chilling” in A.A. Long’s words) that Epictetus advises you to love your child all the while reminding yourself that one day he/she will die. Can you really say that you love your child, if you will not grieve at the child’s (premature) death? Elsewhere Epictetus recommends never to say that you have lost something, but that you have given back what the gods had entrusted to you (Ench. 11). If your child or wife dies, you have given him/her back. He tells you to take care of what has been given to you just as travelers take care of the contents of a room at an inn. The Stoics maintain that externals are not goods; the performance of your duties to your father or son is a good, but your child or father are not regarded as goods. The important point for the Stoics is not to fall into a passion, such as grief, which will disturb your tranquility. Thus, you must balance your love for child or father by guarding against over-attachment to someone who will lead you to grieve. This seems not only unfeeling but selfish.

Yet in Diss. 3.2 Epictetus says, in discussing appropriate action or duty, “it is necessary that I not be unfeeling as a statue, but that I preserve my relationships, the natural and acquired ones, as a pious man, son, brother, father, and citizen.” How can you not be “as a statue” and still maintain your relationships? The beginning of an answer can be found in the phrase “preserve my relationships, the natural and acquired ones.” An example of a natural relationship would be that between a son and father, while citizenship in a city-state would be an example of an acquired relationship. As we saw earlier, a human being should be a citizen of the world, fulfilling the role the Stoic God has assigned (Diss 2.10). Thus, Epictetus advises you to look to the larger whole in performing your actions (Diss. 2.10.4). The Stoics contrast their view of a human being with the person who only thinks about himself—this person shows true selfishness. The Stoics wish to preserve their tranquility without falling into a passion, yet also try to do their duty to others and the universe.

Even when Epictetus advises you to love your child just as travelers take care of the objects in their inn room, he wishes you to truly take care of your child. The fact that you know your child, wife, etc. will eventually die gives this love urgency and meaningfulness. Furthermore, as we saw in our discussion of appropriate action, this love is not based on reciprocity; whether a child or parent returns or appreciates what you do is not in your control; what is in your control is the performance of your duties in these relationships.

When Epictetus advises you to groan along with your friend, but not inwardly (Ench. 16), he is telling you to sympathize with the friend, but not to accept the view that your friend has suffered an evil (this is what he means by “not groaning inwardly”). The departure of a child abroad, or the loss of externals do not constitute an evil. You should sympathize with your friend but should not accept the opinion that  she has suffered an evil. In fact, the best thing to do is to try to persuade your friend that she has not indeed suffered an evil. Timing here may be an important factor; the friend needs to be ready to hear this advice. Of course, whether you can persuade your friend or not is outside your control.

This then is Epictetus’ response to those who would accuse the Stoics of being “unfeeling as a statue.” First, those making progress are always identifying themselves with the larger whole (family, country, universe), thinking of the greater good. Furthermore, in performing your duties, you do not look for reciprocity. You do your duties for and love your fathers, daughters, etc., regardless of whether they love you back. Finally, Epictetus goes further than other Stoic philosophers in advising you to weep along with a friend in mourning, but without falling into a passion. While refraining from passion shows emotional restraint, which some may still find an inadequate response to the suffering of others, it is also clear that this restraint is a long way from the total lack of emotion assumed by the modern stereotypical view of Stoicism.

Ultimately, the Stoic goal in life is to live in harmony with nature, where nature refers to the universe rationally ordered and guided by the Stoic god (also called Zeus) (L-S I.63). Man’s place in the universe is to play the part of a rational moral being, to be in harmony with human nature. In harmonizing with (human) nature, you will have tranquility (ἀταραξία) and freedom from passions (ἀπάθεια).

Suggested Citation

Albert Watanabe, Epictetus: Encheiridion. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-947822-13-9