Epictetus’ Fragments

Epictetus-5After having gone again over Epictetus’ Discourses (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), I re-read the Fragments, which are either direct quotes or paraphrases of Epictetus from other sources. Here are some of the most interesting highlights:

“What do I care whether matter is made up of atoms, indivisibles, or fire and earth? Isn’t it enough to know the nature of good and evil, the limits of desire and aversion, and of choice and refusal, and to use these as virtual guidelines for how to live? Questions beyond our ken we should ignore, since the human mind may be unable to grasp them. However easily one assumes they can be understood, what’s to be gained by understanding them in any case?”

This may be another example of what I have referred to as Epictetus’ “anti-intellectualism,” though the phrase is probably a bit too strong. A different way to look at it is to say that Epictetus here is partially conceding the skeptical argument (but only about knowledge of the natural world), or that more properly he simply wants to focus on the hallmark of Stoicism: knowledge is good when it contributes to our understanding of how to live our life.

“Impressions (which philosophers call), striking a person’s mind as soon as he perceives something within range of his senses, are not voluntary or subject to his will, they impose themselves on people’s attention almost with a will of their own. But the act of assent (which they call) which endorses these impressions is voluntary and a function of the human will.”

This is one the clearest expressions of the Stoic discipline of assent, or what is nowadays referred to as Stoic mindfulness.

“Epictetus would also say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. The former means we cannot bear or endure hardships that we have to endure, the latter means that we cannot resist pleasures or other things we ought to resist.”

Which is from a commentary by Aulus Gellius, and it again captures one of the essences of Stoic practical thought. As Epictetus put it: “persist and resist.”

“It is just charming how people boast about qualities beyond their control. For instance, ‘I am better than you because I have many estates, while you are practically starving’; or, ‘I’m a consul,’ ‘I’m a governor,’ or ‘I have fine curly hair.’ One horse doesn’t say to another, ‘I’m better than you because I have lots of hay and barley, my reins are of gold, and my saddle is embroidered,’ but ‘I’m better because I’m faster than you.’”

A really charming example of Epictetus’ use of metaphors and similes. Just lovely.

“People with a strong physical constitution can tolerate extremes of hot and cold; people of strong mental health can handle anger, grief, joy and the other emotions.”

Which is one of many analogies in the writing of Epictetus (and the Stoics more generally) between physical and mental/spiritual condition.

Finally, we also see examples of classical Stoic virtuous behavior, as in this quote:

“Once, when he [Agrippinus] was preparing for lunch, a messenger arrived from Rome announcing that Nero had sentenced him to exile. Unflustered he replied, ‘Then why don’t we just move our lunch to Aricia.’”

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