From Epictetus to Naso

20101104092246_jeppe_hein_mirror_1In book II, section 14 of the Discourses Epictetus addresses someone in his audience named Naso, and brings up some interesting points on the nature of philosophizing and the (usually unfavorable, already then!) reception that philosophers get from the public at large.

He draws an analogy between philosophy and any other profession:

“Becoming a carpenter or pilot, we realize, requires some formal training. Is it unreasonable to suppose that it will take more than just the desire to be good or bad – that the student of philosophy will also have to learn a few things of his own?”

Then tells his guest what one learns by studying philosophy:

“Philosophers say that the first thing to learn is that God exists, that he governs the world, and that we cannot keep our actions secret, that even our thoughts and inclinations are known to him. The next thing to learn about is the divine nature, because we will have to imitate the gods if we intend to obey them and win their favour.”

(Yes, that’s definitely too religious for my taste, but Epictetus was the most overtly religious of the Stoics, so there.) Interestingly, he then claims that Naso thinks he knows all the important things in life, being an adult and so forth. And yet he clearly doesn’t:

“Well, what if I were to show you that all that’s missing are the keys to happiness? That your life to date has been devoted to everything except what it ought to be? And what if I were to crown it off by saying that you don’t know what God is, or man, or what good and bad are, and – if that’s not too much to endure – that you don’t know who you are, either?”

Philosophy, he says, is like a mirror, it holds up to you an image of who you are, so there is no sense in being upset about what it tells you:

“And yet I won’t have done you any harm – any more than a mirror is to blame when it shows a plain person what they look like; or a doctor is mean if he tells a patient, ‘Look, you may think this is insignificant, but you’re really sick; no food for you today, only water.’ No one thinks, ‘How rude!’ But say to someone, ‘Your desires are unhealthy, your powers of aversion are weak, your plans are incoherent, your impulses are at odds with nature and your system of values is false and confused,’ – and off they go alleging slander.”

But of course people will keep laughing at philosophers, not understanding, and in fact downright rejecting, their insights, content we what they already have in life. Which brings Epictetus to his final analogy:

“And I suppose if cattle had opinions, they would make fun of anyone interested in anything besides the grass!”


5 thoughts on “From Epictetus to Naso

  1. The context of cattle analogy, as a market where the many are useful and busy and a few ‘useless’ philosophers are spectating, is interesting.

    At the beginning of his conversation with Naso he repeats a formula he used in chapter 6, of the first book: “cattle use appearances: for use is one thing, understanding is another.” In book 1 ch. 6 he explains that man begins in nature like other animals, using appearances, but should end where ‘nature ends in man’. That is, nature ends in human contemplation. In other words, nature is, ultimately, spectacle for interpretation. “God has introduced man to be a spectator of God and of His works; and not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter.”

    Furthermore, man is not only the ‘end of nature’ in his capacity as spectator–but is the ‘end of nature’ as the ultimate spectacle. The more so if he is a philosopher! Indeed, no need to endure the hardships of travel, weather, thronging crowds to see the marvels of Olympia; just look at how a man can be happy enjoying his own life regardless of whether fate brings him pain or pleasure. For he regards this opportunity to be just such a spectacle as the highest good and happiness.

    Massimo, I’m curious to what extent you buy this view from Epictetus.


  2. Wm., you may be reading too much in Epictetus, or maybe not, I’m not sure. At any rate, I of course reject any talk of gods, but think that much of what Epictetus says can be translated with little loss into secular terms. As for travel, I’ve been to Olympia, and it was worth it!


  3. Hey Massimo, I live in Olympia! (Olympia, Washington, that is). I intend to visit the real Olympia soon though.

    I agree that one can reject the use of the word ‘god’ without significant loss of what Epictetus says. What I’m not sure of is that one can reject his view of the human relation to nature along with how one relates to oneself and others in light of that view (which my post addressed) and still retain a worldview that can be associated with him.

    One can reject a Designer and still hold the belief that human like sentience (or the potential of such) is necessary in order for nature to have any ‘end’ (value or purpose) whatsoever and that, in fact, humanity is sufficient to provide meaning and value matching any imaginable god. Indeed, that should be their vocation.


  4. Wm., definitely worth going to see ancient Olympia! As for the rest, I tend to agree, and don’t have a problem with that understanding of Epictetus.


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