Epictetus on steadfastness

Epictetus lampI’ve finished re-reading Book I of the Discourses, and I wanted to highlighted a few passages from section 29 (near the end of the book), “On steadfastness.” Notice Epictetus’ clear discussion of “externals” and correct judgment. I also like the defense of the value of philosophy in which he engages (which is still, unfortunately, necessary today!), as well as the attack on logic chopping, from which modern analytic philosophers could take a lesson. And of course I have included his classic and delightful example of the thief who steals his lamp (hence the image accompanying this entry, from Kevin Patrick Jr.).

“[1] The essence of good and evil consists in the condition of our character.

[2] And externals are the means by which our character finds its particular good and evil.

[3] It finds its good by not attaching value to the means. Correct judgements about externals make our character good, as perverse or distorted ones make it bad. …

[8] Who is there left for me to fear, and over what has he control? Not what is in my power, because no one controls that except myself. As for what is not in my power, in that I take no interest. …

[21] This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead! … anyone who affirms that, in a circle, lines that extend from the centre to the circumference can be unequal is not going to win the respect of mathematicians.

[54] So – a true philosopher is under no obligation to respect vulgar opinion as to what is religious or irreligious, what is just or unjust. … It isn’t more logic chopping that is needed – our Stoic texts are full of that. What we need now are people to apply their learning and bear witness to their learning in their actions.”

13 thoughts on “Epictetus on steadfastness

  1. Epictetus is my second-favorite Stoic, next to good old Marc. While I was amused by the jibe at analytic philosophy, I think that Epictetus actually makes a strong case for the study of logic and reasoning, including (but not limited to) formal logic. I credit formal logic with helping me express myself more clearly; my reasoning skills didn’t improve, per se, but I learned how to express an argument in premise-conclusion form, so that people can clearly see the logical implications. If one is not to be deceived, confused, or out-argued by a modern sophist, then one ought to study logic. That’s my opinion, anyway. I could be wrong.


  2. Epictetus, what a beautiful man!

    The bit about externals being the means by which good character finds it’s good reminds me of Paul’s saying that “all things work together for the good of those who love The Good”

    Hey, here is another quote from Epictetus:
    ” What, then, makes a dog beautiful? The presence of the virtue of a dog.. And what, then, a man? Is it not also the presence of the virtue of a man? Look whom you praise when you praise any without affection—is it the righteous or the unrighteous? …Then making yourself such a one as you praise, you will know that you are making yourself beautiful..”


  3. neo-Stoic, yes, I don’t think Epictetus meant to diss logic there, only logic chopping. Which is why I do agree that studying logic and reasoning is crucial, but I have become less and less enamored by some quasi-solipsistic exercises in logic carried out by my “analytic” colleagues.

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  4. That’s an interesting point. I used to be really enamored of the theoretical aspects of philosophy for their own sake, but at this point, I’m more concerned with how the theoretical aspects affect our lives. It seems to me that the quest for a good philosophy of life leads into some theoretical speculation, but it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole and end up doing what you call “quasi-solipsistic exercises.”

    This awakens a curiosity in me, though. Being that you hold several degrees, and being that you are a scientist and everything, I have to ask: do you think of philosophy of science as useful for some purpose, or is it just “pure philosophy?” Is “pure philosophy” worth anything on your view?


  5. Neo-Stoic,

    From philosophy, one learns all sorts of fine-toothed distinctions and notions. These notions are useful for thinking about problems, socially important or otherwise.

    I suspect that frequently when people come up with stupid ideas, or bad solutions to important problems, it’s because they lacked the intellectual tools to even think about these problems in rigorous, sophisticated manners in the first place.


  6. neo-Stoic,

    I think that philosophy of science is largely pure philosophy, trying to understand, epistemologically and logically, the structure of scientific theories and workings. It does also occasionally have direct relevance to science, in those areas of overlap, like studying species concepts in biology.

    However, I don’t think that study philosophy for its own sake is not a worthy pursuit. It is, just like studying non applied science; or literature; or history. What I have become weary of, and the quote from Epictetus reminded, is a certain type of extremely self-contained intellectual game, of which some analytic philosophers are definitely guilty. But so are some literary critics, and even some scientists.


  7. Interesting discussion,

    I think we need to make distinctions in the course of finding our way in the world. The study of logic and philosophy is useful in that it can provide one with tools that help make those distinctions more clear. I agree however that it is not useful to get struck in a narrow world studying logic for logic’s sake or philosophy for philosophy’s sake.

    I think the Taoist philosopher Zhaungzi had a lot in common with the Stoics, and also some important differences. Here is an exerpt from his 2nd ‘inner chapter’ with as a whole deals with the concept of smoothing out disctinctions:

    Zhangzi – The withering of the heart

    Great understanding is broad, small understanding is picky.
    Great words overflowing, small words haggling.
    Asleep the bodily soul goes roaming, awake it opens through our form.

    Our day by day encounters become the wrangling of our hearts –
    overgrown, encaverned, dense.
    Small fear all startled, great fear spreading out.
    “Shooting forth as from the trigger of a crossbow” –
    such are judgments, “that’s so, that’s not.”
    “Kept like an oath or a treaty” – such is the way we hold fast to prevailing.
    “Its death is as by autumn or winter” –describing its daily deterioration;
    what drowns it cannot revive it.

    “It is engulfed as though sealed up” – describing its desiccation in age; the heart near death cannot be returned to yang.


  8. To understand the passage I posted above a little background is necessary. The Chinese had one term for heart & mind, ‘xin’ as the heart-mind. This was due to the understanding that neither our emotions nor our reasons can stand alone. The passage describes how, if unchecked & without a degree ongoing reflexion, our past commitments “Kept like an oath or a treaty” (emotional & conceptual) will lead to a narrowing or closing off of the heart-mind.

    When he speaks of ‘great fear spreading out’, he is actually referring to how coming to terms with our own mortality produces a tranquility that transforms smaller fears. This contemplation of what the stoics would call a dis-preferred indifferent is one similarity.

    The overall guidance here I think is to always try to bring awareness to our judgment making process not falling into a trap where rigid prior commitments reduce our capacity to evaluate alternatives.

    I am not a scholar of either Taoism or Stoicism, but my exposure suggests the two philosophies complement each other well.


  9. Massimo, maybe the problem is in my browser, but I think there is a problem with the link you’ve got to K.L.’s article.


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