Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bastille Day Interlude: Some Thoughts on Epictetus

I’ll return to the theme of critiquing the neoconservative policy of the Bush administration, next looking at a centerpiece of domestic policy. For a variety of reasons, I’ll delay this for at least a week – one of which is that it’s not a good idea to focus exclusively on the negative.

Tom Palmer and Daniel Slate have both given ringing endorsements of Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.”

I only have to be told twice, and have just obtained copies of each. I’ve finished Enchiridion (only once, but will certainly reread it) and have a few random thoughts. These are, of course, based on my own understanding of Enchiridion and are my own “thinking aloud.”

1. In Chapter I, Epictetus distinguishes between that which we have power to control and that which we do not. In this chapter and elsewhere he also notes that “appearances,” or what we take to be external things, are often our own *interpretations* of external things. Once we understand this, we can determine exactly what aspects of something are in our control, and then determine how we will respond to it. Compare this to the example given by Miyamoto Musashi in “Book of Five Rings:” a robber, pursued by a band of soldiers, runs into a small hut, which the soldiers surround. The robber looks at the situation and thinks “the situation is grim – I’m surrounded.” Outside, the soldiers think to themselves “the situation is grim – he’s in a fortified position.” Epictetus and Musashi would both have us instead say, “the robber is in a small hut.”

How much of what we “objectively know” about the world is our own interpretation? For each of us, to be able to distinguish between what we observe and our interpretation of it is one of the most fundamental tasks for understanding our world and ourselves. To do otherwise leads us into confusion.

2. In Chapter XV, Epictetus tells us that in life we ought to behave as at a banquet – taking moderate portions as dishes pass, and not wildly grabbing at dishes or taking inordinate portions. He then observes, “But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power.”

But how to follow this last principle? Taken to an extreme, it would mean forgoing life (and how can anything be taken other than to an extreme – a question any ultrarunner will ask). That we are on earth means we’ve received the ultimate gift – existence – and our one responsibility is to make the most of this gift. We do this only by indeed taking what is given to us. This is the proper way to enjoy a banquet – to take what is offered to us, and to help our neighbors do the same.

3. Chapter XXXVII: “If you have assumed a character above your strength, you have both acted in this matter in an unbecoming way, and you have neglected that which you might have fulfilled.” But what is our proper character and our strength? These are whatever we make them, not things that are external, are they not? As the existentialist would suggest, what we actually are is what we actually do.

4. Chapter L tells us that it is one thing to know what we should do, and quite another to do it. Why “accept” a principle and yet not live by it? As a friend once put it, any “principle” that we profess but fail to live by is no principle for us at all. Epictetus: “Immediately, then, think it right to live as a full-grown man, and one who is making proficiency, and let everything which appears to you to be the best be to you a law which must not be transgressed.”

Thanks go to those libertarian Stoics, Palmer and Slate, for recommending this stimulating handbook.

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