The Three Τόποι of Epictetus are a recurring theme here, and I want to draw your attention to several episodes of Chris Fisher’s “Stoicism on Fire” podcast.
Specifically, his discussion here:
Episode 7 – Stoic Spiritual Exercises
Episode 8 – The Theory of Assent
Episode 9 – The Discipline of Assent
Episode 10 – The Theory of Desire
Episode 11 – The Discipline of Desire
Episode 13 – The Theory of Action
Episode 14 – The Discipline of Action
These are part of the larger “Path of the Prokopton” series on the Podcast.
I recently read “The Cynic,” by the Pseudo-Lucian. This work is a dialogue between Lycinus and an unnamed paragon of Cynicism. The dialogue has a Socratic feel, being mostly one of questions and answers. Also, Lycinus begins with the (mistaken) belief that he already knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Our Cynic, however, proves to him that he holds contradicting beliefs, which cannot stand with each other with integrity upon examination.
There is a marked difference, in my estimation, to the Socratic dialogues, in that the Cynic also believes he knows something. These sorts of essays written under the auspices of other philosophers, often have a proselytizing component, as most of the Cynic Epistles did. For this reason, it’s not surprising then that our Cynic is in fact teaching explicitly.
The Cynic explains after Lycinus’ first question, that he is no condition of want, his needs are fulfilled, and he is healthy. Lycinus then jumps into a description which I think lines up well with the modern person’s misconstruing of preferred indifferents (προηγμένα) in Stoicism. I’ve seen folks who seems to think the Stoic position prompts the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and other things which a Cynic would call typhos (τυφώς), and then make similar arguments. This is not the case, by my reading, although it may allow for projects in these realms secondary to virtue. Yet, I still prefer that these projects ought to be built so as to train us for virtue, a point to which we will return shortly.
Lycinus’ position is wrapped up in a strange theological argument; that to deny the bounty of nature and the ability of our bodies to take pleasure in these things which are provided is in fact a sort of impiety. Immediately after, however, he gets to the meat of it: he doesn’t like to go without the things he like.
“To live without all these would be miserable enough even if one could not help it, as prisoners cannot, for instance; it is far more so if the abstention is forced upon a man by himself; it is then sheer madness.” Lycinus says.
The Cynic responds with a point which is well at home in the world of Stoicism, that the manner in which we use these things is not in and of itself valuable, but only instrumentally so. The things are indifferent, but our intent and actions can have a moral component for our own virtue. We cannot inculcate σωφροσύνη (moderation, sort of [Wiki], [MS on food] ) if we don’t actually act out the virtue.
The Cynics makes his point with a metaphor that should not be novel to a student of Stoicism. We also see it in Epictetus: the dinner party:
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.
— Epictetus, Enchiridion 15
The Cynic takes it a bit further, expounding on the idea and pulling back the curtain on the illustration which in the Enchiridion is hinted at.
… [T]he hospitable entertainer is God, who provides this variety of all kinds that each may have something to suit him; this is for the sound, that for the sick; this for the strong and that for the weak; it is not all for all of us; each is to take what is within reach, and of that only what he most needs.
All of this goes to underscore the point that the Cynic’s goal is “enough” not a surfeit. He explains that his cloak meets his needs, his feet fulfill their function unshod, his body is adorned as a man’s ought to be, and the needs of his stomach met easily.
It’s important that we also note a difference here between the Cynic school, our mother school, and the Stoic. Cynicism was descended from the Cyrenaics, where pleasure is held to be a good. It might seem strange at first that a school which held up ἡδονή (pleasure) as a good would chose to live as the Cynics did. Yet we see a parallel in the Epicureans, who espoused a more meager sort of pleasure, a simple kind. At this point our schools diverge, on the underlying moral values. The reasoning, though, is similar as it’s presented here. How we handle material, external, indifferent things has a moral component and matters in the practice and progress of our own virtue.
The Cynic then proceeds to attach several luxuries in succession, pointing out the same rule, that a lack of want and glut are not the same. Afterwards, he turns Lycinus’ false piety on its head, and discusses the same purple dye we see from Zeno through Epictetus to Marcus: the murex and its blood. He states that to misuse this creature, not as food, but to color their clothes for aesthetic reasons is an impiety.
It’s interesting to me how this little shellfish dances through the Stoic canon and related works. If future Stoics are looking for an emblem of sorts, this little guy might make an interesting one. An interesting spin on Epictetus’ be the purple, maybe? I’ve chosen my own icon, but there is room for others.
After this, we get another look at one of Seneca’s Sages, Hercules. In many ways, next to Socrates, Hercules is the patron of both the Cynics and Stoics, and Pseudo-Lucian shows us why. He closes with a long monologue, no longer fielding questions, but teaching as if a lecture, or public pedagogue.
These externals that you pour contempt upon, you may learn that they are seemly enough not merely for good men, but for Gods, if you will look at the Gods’ statues; do those resemble you, or me? Do not confine your attention to Greece; take a tour round the foreign temples too, and see whether the Gods treat their hair and beards like me, or let the painters and sculptors shave them. Most of them, you will find, have no more shirt than I have, either. I hope you will not venture to describe again as mean an appearance that is accepted as godlike.
Most of this discourse would be at home in the lectures of Musonius or Epictetus. The Cynic heritage which Zeno introduced into his philosophy continues to be of relevance. To me, this pieces asks us to examine the externals of our lives and weight them against our moral training. The manner in which we eat, dress, sleep, and comport ourselves is training: but it is training us towards virtue? That is the operative question. You may not need to wear a thread-bare and simple cloak (τρίβων) or lion’s skin. You may not need to subsist on lupine beans (which are expensive where I live, but were cheap for Diogenes). You may not need to live without home, spouse, or work. But you may need to address how you do those things in light of our philosophy’s ideals. I certainly do, and the Cynic seems to know that as well:
… [T[he fact being that you in your own affairs go quite at random, never acting on deliberation or reason, but always on habit and appetite. You are no better than people washed about by a flood; they drift with the current, you with your appetites.
If you enjoy the writing of Chris Fisher at TraditionalStoicism, I want to point you towards his podcast, which is now in its 14th episode.
I think you’ll find the quality and effort that goes into the writing and podcast sets Chris apart from many online commentators. His posts usually have 15+ citations, and are always well researched.
Stoicism on Fire fills a needed niche in the Online Stoa, and I hope you’ll give it a listen.
Ethical Roles in Epictetus
by Brian Earl Johnson
In: Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy 16 (2):287-316 (2012)
Epictetus holds that agents can determine what is appropriate relative to their roles in life. There has been only piecemeal work on this subject. Moreover, current scholarship on Epictetus’s role theory often employs Cicero’s narrow and highly schematic role theory as a template for reconstructing Epictetus’s theory. I argue against that approach and show that Epictetus’s theory is more open-ended and is best presented as a set of criteria that agents must reflect upon in order to discover their many roles: their capacities, their social relations, their wishes, and even divine signs. Epictetus in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy.
This is an interesting read, but it’s behind a paywall, so no link.
Check your local university or inter-library loan for a copy.
After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest. In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example. Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.” I had not heard anything like this before.
In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do. In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still. It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards. I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.
Time to correct that, it seems.
Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon. Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward. Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating. Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man. When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses. When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly. Agathon agrees to do this. A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters. The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him. Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would. But alas, it is not so.
Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others. He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon. The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his. It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.
Plat. Sym. 220c
Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening. At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning. Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures. It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch. In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.
In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice. Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’ For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν. As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”
From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc. His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work. He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat. Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.
In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.
Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance. I’m not convinced this is the case. It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it. Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me). This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly). It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.
It does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe. For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion. I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.
Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done. So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa. If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.