Chris Fisher: The Piety of Epictetus


Chris has been working on a series of very well written, and heavily researched articles on Stoic Piety for the past few weeks.  His most recent iteration, is on Epictetus.  

The religious character of The Discourses is apparent to anyone who has read them, and despite the modern trend of wanting to discount any form of non-atheism in Stoicism the case for the religious nature of the school is well founded.

Head on over, give his article a read.  It’s worth the time.

SLRP: XIII. On Groundless Fears (Part 2: 10 – 17)



“And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.”

It seems you’ve been hanging out in the Garden a bit much, of late.  This looking forward to better things might be a reasonable pedagogical step for the new student.  It’s probably better for the average person’s mental equilibrium.  But for we philosophers of the Stoic school, ἀταραξία (ataraxia) should not be a goal.  It might be a pleasant ancillary benefit, but our focus should be elswhere.

While the ἰδιῶται (idiotai) or ‘uninstructed persons’ might simply be seeking relief from mental anguish (understandable), others of us earnestly desire progress of a different sort.

My worry, is that since your early letters assume someone new to our School, that many readers will take these precepts as indicative of the School, and not the mere pedagogical technique of appealing to an eclectic brand of help which I suspect it to be.

It is with that caveat, I bid you farewell.

Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XIII. On Groundless Fears (Part 1: 1 – 9)



If I may quote from today’s letter:

“We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour.”

It seems to be very hard to actually be in the present.  Will you take for granted that our ruling faculty is presented with impressions from the mind as well as from the sense organs?  That memory, and thought are given up to us, similarly to the sights and sounds of the world?  The mind seems to constantly scan forward and back in time.  Forward, looking for problems, and backward looking for past solutions.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that makes a tremendous amount of sense.  Yet, we find ourselves then pinned down by it, constantly planning and plotting for the future, and meditating and masticating the joys and pains of the past.  We chew them so much, they’ve taken on a bitter taste, it seems.

We lament, for actions taken poorly, and for opportunities missed.  For the hurts we thoughtlessly, and sometimes intentionally, have given to others.  For the hurts and scars we ourselves bear.

But other than in memory, or the sting of it, these things do not exist.  We cannot catch them in our teeth.  We can recall them, but then the judgment is ours once again.

Just another impression.

So, we then must ask, how do we weigh it?  Do we assent to the hurt, or the joy?  Are we made better, more virtuous by it?  Or is it merely another rumor from the street?

Whispers of a forgotten pain.  Hints of previous pleasures.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XII. On Old Age (Part 2: 6b – 11)


“On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life.”

Freedom is a tricky thing.  We learn about it first through negatives.  All children have an instinctual aversion to being controlled by parents.  When they are so young they can only toddle, they resent the corrective hand of the parent.

There seems to be something in our very make-up that demands on autonomy, control, self-esteem, and ability.  Yet, nearly every social, religious, governmental, and cultural system is bent in the opposite way.

We seem torn, recognizing that we ourselves as individuals deserve autonomy and independence, yet unwilling or unable to trust our fellows with the same.

Is that we’re so different them, are we so much better?  The paradox is, we can hardly find a man in such a state as to be able to govern himself, yet we set all manner of incompetents up to govern others.

The philosopher may be an outlier.  The philosopher recognizes that his actions, impulses, and intent need to be shaped… but by himself.  How many accounts do we have of philosophers easily and willing accepting exile, death, and the like rather than turn over their integrity and autonomy?  Are these not our most hallowed paragons of the schools?

Indeed, it is so.  Freedom is hard, because the amount one wants, one has to be willing to give as well.  We do not seem to be able to do so however.

Maybe the Cynics had it right, leaving behind the polis and all the trappings (pun intended) of society.  To live free upon the earth, a citizen unto himself:  a king in his own right… ah, what a thing.

But it’s hard.  There’s no amount of faltering that’s acceptable if one wants to be a Diogenes.  I could probably settle for an Epictetus or Musonius, though.

As it were, and with thoughts of the true freedom of the philosopher, I bid you a fond farewell.

Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XII. On Old Age (Part 1: 1 – 6a)



I can remember well the feeling of being immortal in my teenage years.  Of course, we “knew” we could and would die, but we didn’t feel like it.  Then, a few years out from my thirties, I began to feel … uncomfortable.

At 28, I hadn’t done the things that younger-me had assumed I would.  I hadn’t made the progress, I hadn’t built the life I expected.  The endless-time of youth was passing, and I was starting to glimpse a deadline, if you will.

Lately, I’ve come to accept, and maybe even started to appreciate entropy as it relates to myself… but less so as it does to others.  My perspective has changed even since I started studying philosophy.

Memento mori is starting to mean something different that it used to for me.  I’m not sure that it’s sweeter, as you say.  But it’s definitely a different vintage… but maybe we’re just more able to appreciated the bitter bite.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XI. On the Blush of Modesty



You keep snagging little bits of Epicurus, if you’re not careful, you may pique my interest in that other camp.  I jest, but I’m surprised to find that the Epicureans might have also used to the model of the Sage… although Epicurus probably had himself in mind.

For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

This time last year, I was engaged in a project in which I made use of the Sage, but I admit, the practice has fallen away.  Thank you for the reminder.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: X. On Living To Oneself


It’s fortuitous that you write me today on prayer.  I have a tab open in my browser for a blog article from Chris Fisher on piety to read today, and he is talking about you!

You may be aware, or you may find it surprising, that in a sub-set of modern Stoics, there’s an ample amount of energy spent in displacing the religious nature of the writings we’ve inherited.

Frankly, it seems to be a political issue, and one which no longer holds much interest to me.  If folks want to pretend that words don’t mean what they clearly mean, that’s their prerogative, I suppose.

Moving on…

“As for your former prayers, you may dispense the gods from answering them; offer new prayers; pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body. And of course you should offer those prayers frequently. Call boldly upon God; you will not be asking him for that which belongs to another.”

Epictetus extols to us, similarly as you, that we had better attempt to remedy the soul than the body, for it is better to die well, than to live in a state of madness.  This past weekend, I found myself frustrated by the tiniest of problem.  I’ll illustrate just how small by telling you precisely what it was.  While shopping, I wanted to buy two carrots for a lentil soup for this week.  There was an error in ringing them up, and my two small carrots were charged as if they were each a bunch of carrots, totaling about $3 for the two carrots.

I incorrectly (and very quickly) assented to the impression that I was wronged somehow, ignoring that the issue was one of money and carrots (there’s a sentence one never expects to write…), and as a result, my mood was shot.  I tried to call to mind the tenets of our School, but strangely, they were not helping.

It was only when I thought of a friend of mine, who is preparing to endure a (possibly) very long separation from his children that I said, “My friend is saying good-bye to his children, and I’m upset over carrots,” that I was able to find the proper perspective.

I realized, “I’m upset over carrots, and that’s a really  unreasonable situation.”  Indeed, it is better that we focus on healing this soul-malaise, and that is especially driven home to me these days.

“Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.”

Maybe I’m engaging in some of that “pretending words don’t mean what they clearly mean, but do you mean pray-pray?  Like, on one’s knees, talking to God?  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done that.  I may have even forgotten how.

“Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening”

This, I think, I can remember how to do.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.