Askesis: Notes on Epictetus’ Educational System

Aside

This short excerpt comes from a book titled, “Askesis: Notes on Epictetus’ Educational System,” (Hijmans, B. L.).
It touches on a variety of topics, and this particular bit touches Stoic theology.  I’ve worked through it once “quickly,” it relies heavily on primary sources, often not in translation, with the occasional German, French, and Latin thrown in for good measure.

I’m going to need to sit down and spend some serious time with this before my thoughts are finalized, but initial impressions are high favorable.  The book is exceedingly well-researched.

Now, on to Stoic Theology…

Whenever we discuss the God of the Stoics, Zeus, Providence, or any other word for this concept in Stoicism, there is often an immediate knee-jerk like reaction from many that prompts them to argue against the Abrahamic God.  This short paragraph should lay that particular point to rest, and begin to show how the piety of Epictetus is based in gratitude for reason.  Specifically λόγος ὀρθός, or “right reason,” and the prohairesis.

I’ve been wrangling with the conception of Stoic theology and piety for some time, and I think can begin with gratitude and an appreciation for natural beauty.  I’ll keep you updated on how that goes.

Enchiridion 1 and what’s up to us.

Aside

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In Enchiridion 1, Epictetus through Arrian discusses which things are “up to us,” (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν).  He does not provide a definition, although we can use the short hand and definitive prohairetic things.  Instead, Epictetus gives us a list of examples, whereby we can infer the general rule or type of things he’s discussing.

He ends this list, which I interpret not to be a closed class, with what’s often translated as “whatever are our own actions/works.” Oftentimes, this word ἔργα (erga) is translated as actions, works, deeds, etc.  A literal reading is often “works.”

It is not the person who eagerly listens to and makes notes of what is
spoken by the philosophers who is ready for philosophizing, but the
person who is ready to transfer the prescriptions of philosophy to his
deeds (erga) and to live in accord with them.

— Arius Didymus

I came across another interesting translation which uses “whatever we bring about.” That’s an interesting take, probably closer to the spirit of the passage in Ench.1.  As Stoics, we’re more concerned with the intent of a thing than its results in the world.  We’re more concerned about how we handle judgments and impressions than how the results of those go out from us.  “Whatever we bring about” then encompasses these internal things, our actual focus, better than do the English words “works,” “actions,” or “deeds.”

The madness of anger

Quote

​Nam si exaudit rationem sequiturque qua ducitur, iam non est ira, cuius proprium est contumacia; si vero repugnat et non ubi iussa est quiescit sed libidine ferocia-que provehitur, tam inutilis animi minister est quam miles qui signum receptui neglegit. Itaque si modum adhiberi sibi patitur, alio nomine appellanda est, desit ira esse, quam effrenatam indomitamque intellego

For if anger listens to reason and follows where reason leads, then it is already not anger, of which obstinacy is a proper quality; if, however, it fights back and does not become quiet when it has been ordered, but is carried forward by its desire and ferocity, then it is as useless a servant of the soul as a soldier who disregards the signal for falling back. And thus, if it suffers a measure to be applied to itself, then it must be called by a different name, and it ceases to be anger, which I understand to be unrestrained and untamable. 

— Seneca, De ira 1.9.2–3

μετάνοια.

Standard

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul…”


μετάνοια is often translated as “conversion” in the wake of the Christianization of the West.  Marcus uses this word to describe his coming to Philosophy.  It is more than mere “change of mind,” but also a turning inward, a soul-change as well.

It has been my experience that there are many ‘conversions’ for one on the philosophical path, a constant turning inward and reorienting.

Lately, I’ve gotten awful wrapped up in externals.  Things which are rightly by our school things indifferent.  And my progress has suffered for it.  A philosophical backsliding that is staggering.  Today, when I needed it the most, from an unlikely source (for me), I received the reminder that “we are what we eat.” This is true physically as it is spiritually, or philosophically, of you’d rather.

I sat and listened while someone noted that we can monitor our speech, and by watching what comes out in words, actions, deeds, we can get a clue to what’s been going in.

For me, these past several seasons, it has not been a dialogue of virtue, of justice, of fittingness, of wisdom, and of courage.  My words have been that of the complainer, the bitter one, the ingrate.  Precisely the person that Marcus warns himself, and us, to be prepared to meet every day:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”

This has been me for months.  This hasn’t become a premeditatiobut a description of myself.  At work, at home, with friends.  If it is correct that the soul is colored by the thoughts we entertain, I’ve been working on the quite the dye-job.

 


At every impression, every judgment lies the opportunity to change.    Today, however, I choose to not be the asshole.That call to μετάνοια is present.  This ability to change, to make a decision contrary to our urges, instincts, habits, and lifestyle is the core ability for Stoics.

That is my intent today; to turn inward, rededicate myself to my practice and progress.

De ira…

Quote

“[Q]ualities which we ought to possess become better and more desirable the more extensive they are: if justice is a good thing, no one will say that it would be better if any part were subtracted from it; if bravery is a good thing, no one would wish it to be in any way curtailed: consequently the greater anger is, the better it is, for whoever objected to a good thing being increased? But it is not expedient that anger should be increased: therefore it is not expedient that it should exist at all, for that which grows bad by increase cannot be a good thing.”

— Seneca, On Anger.