Epictetus on how to do philosophy

philoSection 17 of the second book of the Discourses is entitled “How to adapt preconceptions to everyday instances” and begins in this manner:

“The first thing a pretender to philosophy must do is get rid of their presuppositions; a person is not going to undertake to learn anything that they think they already know.”

What sort of preconceptions is Epictetus concerned with? He becomes explicit later on (at #17-18):

“If your present desires are realistic – realistic for you personally – why are you frustrated and unhappy? If you are not trying to escape the inevitable, then why do you continue to meet with accident and misfortune? Why do you get what you do not want, and don’t get what you do? This is categorical proof of inner confusion and unhappiness. I want something to happen, and it fails to happen, or I don’t want something to happen, and it does – and can any creature be more miserable than I?”

Incidentally, this reminded me of a delightful bit of Stoic comedy by Michael Connell:

Anyway, back to Epictetus. At #24 he says:

“Attach your desire to wealth and your aversion to poverty: you won’t get the former, but you could well end up with the latter. You will fare no better putting your faith in health, status, exile – any external you care to name.”

And finally (#39-40):

“As I said, then, this presumption that you possess knowledge of any use has to be dropped before you approach philosophy – just as if we were enrolling in a school of music or mathematics. Otherwise we won’t come close to making progress – not even if we work our way through the collected works of Chrysippus, with those of Antipater and Archedemus thrown in for good measure.”

So, one can study philosophy by reading books all one wants, but unless one internalizes the precepts proposed by Chrysippus and the others, one is just pretending to be a philosopher (which in this context just means a thinking person).


Categories: Epictetus

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  1. Epictetus’ Fragments | How to Be a Stoic
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