Epictetus against the Academics and the Epicureans

Plato_Academy_MAN_Napoli_Inv124545Interesting section (#20) of Book II of the Discourses, devoted to criticism of both the Epicureans and the Academics (i.e., the followers of Plato – the figure to the left is a Roman mosaic of the 1st century BCE from Pompeii, now at the Museo Nazionale Archologico, Naples, representing Plato’s Academy).

Here, for instance, Epictetus seems to take a commonsensical approach to some of the epistemic skepticism he evidently sees coming from those schools:

“Even people who deny that statements can be valid or impressions clear are obliged to make use of both. You might almost say that nothing proves the validity of a statement more than finding someone forced to use it while at the same time denying that it is sound.”

While this may strike modern readers as philosophically naive, I think Epictetus is simply reminding people of a crucial assumption of Stoicism: philosophy is supposed to help in life, otherwise it becomes a mere “academic” (in the pejorative sense of the word) exercise.

With his characteristic sense of humor, he provides a series of examples of (imaginary, exaggerated) self-contradictory statements by his opponents, here is my favorite one:

“Or, ‘You learned it here first, my friend: There is nothing capable of being learned.”

(The idea being that the “friend” is being taught by one of those philosophers that there is nothing to learn…)

Epictetus seems puzzled by why Epicureans should care enough about philosophy to actually try to convince others of the truth of their views:

“Make like the animal you’ve judged yourself worthy to be: eat, drink, copulate, defecate and snore. The views of others on the important questions, whether right or wrong, should hold no interest for you.”

But he provides an explanation for this seemingly puzzling behavior of his opponents in terms of human nature (i.e., the fact that they are creatures of reason):

“A vine cannot behave olively, nor an olive tree vinely – it is impossible, inconceivable. No more can a human being wholly efface his native disposition.”

He goes on poking fun at the Epicureans’ take on god, even though here, I think, the Epicureans got much closer to the truth than he did:

“The gods do not exist, and even if they exist they do not trouble themselves about people, and we have nothing in common with them. The piety and devotion to the gods that the majority of people invoke is a lie devised by swindlers and con men and, if you can believe it, by legislators, to keep criminals in line by putting the fear of God into them.”

Shortly thereafter, Epictetus makes a clearly pragmatic argument about the practical danger of philosophical speculation untethered to social reality:

“That’s good, philosopher, keep it up, and win over the young people so that we’ll have more with the same feelings and beliefs as you. It’s these opinions that produced our well-regulated cities. Sparta owes its existence to such ideas. And through his laws and system of training Lycurgus instilled his people with the following convictions: slavery is no more bad than good, and being free is no more good than it is bad. The fallen of Thermopylae died for these doctrines; and what other opinions but these motivated the Athenians to quit their city?”

He comes across as a fairly conservative thinker, or perhaps he could be interpreted as arguing against an early version of moral relativism (the two interpretations are, obviously, not mutually exclusive).

Toward the end of the section, Epictetus returns to deploying his sense of humor (okay, sarcasm) in an attempt to show how philosophers who are skeptical of everyday truth, and even the very meaning of words, don’t actually practice what they preach:

“If I were slave to one of these philosophers I would taunt him constantly, even if I got a beating every day in consequence. If he said, ‘Put some oil in the bath, boy,’ I’d go grab the fish sauce and pour it over his head. ‘What the … ?’ ‘Pardon me, I received an impression – identical, indistinguishable, I swear to you – of olive oil.’”

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