Epictetus, even more so than most Stoics, thought that philosophy has to be useful, or it becomes the kind of sterile intellectual exercise (some would dare say mental masturbation) that it is notorious for in certain quarters of the modern academy.
His attitude is perhaps most explicitly and fascinatingly on display in Discourses II.19, where he tackles the famous “Master Argument,” originally proposed by Diodorus Cronus in the III century BCE (i.e., about four centuries before Epictetus).
Here is how the argument is presented in the Discourses. To begin with, Epictetus lays out the three propositions under examination in the argument:
“There are three propositions which are at variance with one another — i.e., any two with the third — namely, these: (1) everything true as an event in the past is necessary; (2) the impossible does not follow from the possible; (3) what neither is true nor will be is yet possible.”
Then he tells us what Diodorus made of this:
“Diodorus, noticing this conflict of statements, used the probability of the first two to prove the conclusion, ‘Nothing is possible which neither is nor will be true’.”
That is, Diodorus assented to (1) and (2) and derived from that (and, likely, some additional assumptions that are taken for granted by Epictetus) that (3) must be false.
But that’s not the only possibility explored by philosophers:
“Some one else, however, will maintain another pair of these propositions. ‘What neither is nor will be true is yet possible’, and, ‘The impossible does not follow from the possible’, while rejecting the third, ‘Everything true in the past is necessary’, as appears to be the view of Cleanthes and his school, who have been supported to a large extent by Antipater.”
So Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, went from the truth of (2) and (3) to the rejection of (1) (which Epictetus confusingly refers to as “the third”).
Finally, this being philosophy, some people (including Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa) defended the last logically available option:
“Others maintain the third pair, ‘What neither is true nor will be is yet possible’, and ‘Everything true as an event in the past is necessary’, and reject ‘The impossible does not follow from the possible’. But to maintain all three propositions at once is impracticable, because every pair is in conflict with the third.”
That is, for Chrysippus (1) and (3) are true, and (2) is consequently false.
Let us pause for a second and notice one interesting thing: we have two major Stoics — Cleanthes and Chrysippus — who disagreed on a major argument in ancient logic (an argument that has important consequences, since it concerns the concept of determinism, and hence the possibility of free will, among other things). So the Stoics did publicly espouse different opinions, as members of a vibrant, non dogmatic school are expected to do.
Next, however, something fascinating happens. Epictetus is asked about his opinion concerning the Master Argument, and he says:
“So it is with me and the ‘Master’ argument: I go no further. But if I am a vain person I cause the utmost amazement among the company at a banquet by enumerating those who have written on the subject.”
He professes to have no opinion as to who is right, and moreover that he thinks it a bit pretentious to go on quoting other philosophers about their opinions, just to impress bystanders.
And it gets better:
“Have you not read [Antipater’s] treatise?’ ‘I have not read it.’ Read it. And what good will he get from it? He will only be more silly and tiresome than he is now.”
This may strike the modern reader as almost anti-intellectual on Epictetus’ part, but it need not be read that way. In other sections of the Discourses Epictetus clearly tells his students that philosophical theory is important (otherwise, why would they go to him to be taught?), and Long makes an argument that Epictetus in many respects simply helped himself to standard Stoic theory in his work, as it would be expected of a Stoic teacher.
A more charitable reading is that Epictetus thinks that there is no obvious solution to the Master Argument, given that major philosophers, including two from his own school, disagree so radically. He then goes a step further, though, and asks what is the point of indulging in further speculation on the topic, given that we know bright minds have come to an impasse.
Better, he suggests, to turn to philosophical teachings we can actually use. And what are these?
“Of things that are, some are good, some bad, some indifferent. The virtues and all that share in them are good, vices and all that share in them are bad, and all that comes between is indifferent — wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain.”
Which is a clear summary of his doctrine of the dichotomy of control.
The second half of II.20 then veers toward an inquiry of what makes for a good Stoic, and whether any can actually be found. It’s a fascinating progression (italics are mine):
“Watch your own conduct thus and you will discover to what school you belong. You will find that most of you are Epicureans and some few Peripatetics, but with all the fibre gone from you. Where have you shown that you really hold virtue to be equal to all else, or even superior? Show me a Stoic if you can! Where or how is he to be found? You can show me men who use the fine phrases of the Stoics, in any number, for the same men who do this can recite Epicurean phrases just as well and can repeat those of the Peripatetics just as perfectly; is it not so? Who then is a Stoic? Show me a man moulded to the pattern of the judgements that he utters, in the same way as we call a statue Phidian that is moulded according to the art of Phidias. Show me one who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him me. By the gods I would fain see a Stoic. Nay you cannot show me a finished Stoic; then show me one in the moulding, one who has set his feet on the path.”
There are no true Stoics to be found, because nobody is a Sage (except perhaps Socrates, who wasn’t a Stoic anyway). And there are people who can play Stoic by words, but could just as well recite the words of one of the rival schools.
But, crucially, Epictetus says that there are Stoics-in-the-making, people who have set their feet on the right path. The Stoics, never shy about introducing new words in their philosophical vocabulary, had a specific term for this: prokoptôn, meaning someone who is making progress as a Stoic. We are all prokoptôn, not Sages.