Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Epictetus (55 A.D.-135 A.D.) and his usefulness

Epictetus is a famed Stoic scholar. He was born lame and a slave. His name means 'acquired'. It is suggested in spotty historical accounts that he had an uncaring master when young, a freedman close to Nero. In the second house of his slavery, he was taught philosophy. He went on to teach it, and teach it well.

The Encheiridion of Epictetus means "to hand" or handbook. It's eighteen pages of class notes from one of his notable students, 53 entries. In his philosophy, Epictetus thinks you should deal with triumph and defeat the same way, which is, to recognize that those things are outside of you. Only how you feel, decide, and act is your decision. That remains the truth of every matter.

In other words, the world can honor you, leave you alone, or hate you, and what really matters is the quality of your decision. Did you act with virtue, or did you act for the externals? Here are a few quotes:

1. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, our impulses, desires, aversions--in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whavever is not our own doing. . . . . If you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, justa as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, . . . . and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.
8. "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well."
53. He quotes Euripides: "Whoever has complied well with necessity / Is counted wise by us, and understands divine affairs."

Vice Admiral Stockdale, Medal of Honor Recipient, Prisoner of War
James Stockdale was a Navy flier captured by the Vietcong and held as a prisoner of war. He was also a student of philosophy. His understanding of stoicism, especially The Handbook of Epictetus, enabled him to teach the other prisoners of war how to survive the worst prisons in Hanoi--torture, unfit food, little medicine, quarters sometimes too cramped to allow a man to extend his arm, and constant questioning,

He calls stoicism "a premium mind game"--something that provides all the answers to do your duty (whatever that might be) under adverse conditions. By putting it this way, Stockdale implies it is not necessarily good for everything--and I think it does not always allow for making change happen in the external world. But in a prisoner of war camp, it would be fatal to show your triumph over finding a scrap of food or maintaining silence under punishment. It would be equally fatal to wallow in self-defeat.

When Stockdale went into prisoner camp, every prisoner he met said, "Don't talk to me. I have been a traitor." He organized these men teetering in despair into a network. They stood together. Even when one or another was confined to solitary, the network helped. It took him back in and bolstered him.

VADM James Stockdale on Stoicism, especially Epictetus, and being a Prisoner-of-War of the North Vietnamese. (pdf1) and (pdf2). These two are slightly repetitive, but each is worth a read.


The Observer said...

Ann T:
How interesting! And yet another example of something I've noticed in the course of my formal education, that theology and philosophy are kissing cousins. You can plainly see that stoicism had some kind of influence over some of the writings of Christianity.

How interesting it would have been to get the Apostle Paul and Epictetus in the same room!

The Observer

Christopher said...

I share the thoughts of The Observer.

Also, I find the philosophy of Epictetus to be a reocurring theme among those in situations that magnify our lack of control, and I think that the principles learned in those unique situations are appropriate for those not so drastic. I read similar thoughts from Elie Weisel and the like.

Thanks for sharing.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer and Christopher,
According to James Stockdale, Tarsus was a hotbed of stoic thought.

(Although 'hotbed' and 'stoic' do not seem to go together.)

Christopher, I also agree that it applies to little things--for instance, getting bent out of shape when people are rude. I think it helps with everyday de-escalation.

The only limit I see to it is in personal relationships. I don't think intimacy is stoic, and certain parts of team-building aren't. For intimacy especially, there's supposed to be some unbending of control for greater knowledge.

I also think stoicism can break a person if it's the only ideal, or blind one to the opportunity for reform.

I've been thinking about this on and off all day, and this is as far as I've thought--so far--

Thanks for writing in. I love this stuff. Further comments welcome.

Ann T.