Epictetus and the Master Argument

Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE
Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE

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.

9 thoughts on “Epictetus and the Master Argument

  1. Sounds almost Buddhist. Though the Buddha was more a philosopher than some of his interpreters like to think, I do believe one of his signature approaches was that of not engaging in philosophical discussion or argle-bargle that he didn’t think was useful to the ends of awakening (or to use a Greek term, eudaimonia).

    Indeed, much philosophical discussion and argumentation only serves to inflame passions and deepen our attachment to views and opinions. These are not unrelated, since it is precisely our attachments that cause passions to inflame, when those attachments are disturbed.

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  2. Your posts amaze me every time. You manage to make clear concepts that look very complex for hobbyist philosophers like myself.

    I wish I had taken the time to read all your posts on the past. I surely will do on the next ones. This is stuff of gods!

    If I recall correctly, you argued against the Dichotomy of Control and for a new understanding of Stoic philosophy. I’d like to read more on that. ATM I’m reading Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Joy (for the second time). What would you recommend me reading?

    Thank you so much, please continue!

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  3. Although I agree with Epictetus, there is a certain dynamic where one topic seems to depend on another. So although Chrysippus might have spent a lot of time on logical topics his main interest was surely living a Stoic life.


  4. Gunar,

    thanks for the kind words, they are really appreciated. My take on the di/tri-chotomy of control is here: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/irvine-on-the-dichotomy-of-control/

    and I suggest Irvine’s book (mentioned in that post) as a good complement to Don’s, even though they disagree on this specific issue.


    yes, absolutely. There are other passages in the Discourses were Epictetus very clearly says that it is necessary to study logic and theory. Indeed, I’ll publish a post about this early next week.


  5. “The second half of II.20 then veers”

    You meant II.19!

    This is perfect. I’m reading through the Discourses now, and just got to II.18. You have pre-emptily enriched my next reading!


  6. This reminds me of the questions the Buddha famously refused to answer — which, interestingly, were also metaphysical questions. They were: Is the universe eternal (or not, or both, or neither — that’s how questions were framed in Indian philosophy of the time); is the universe infinite in space (or finite…); is there some eternal aspect of a human being that survives the ending of the process of rebirth? The story of the Buddha refusing to answer these questions is told at least twice (MN 63 and 72). These questions apparently were central to the teachings of some of the other sages of the time. The Buddha in one case explained that he refused to answer because the answers were of no use in furthering his purpose in teaching, i.e., putting an end to _dukkha_, usually translated in English as suffering. The Buddha definitely taught a good deal about what actions, emotions, intentions and ideas were good or bad — or rather, skillful or unskillful ways to put an end to dukkha.

    One thing that amuses me is that, after the Buddha took such pains to banish metaphysics from his teachings, the early sangha snuck them back in in the first few centuries after his death! But that’s another story.

    I also have a question about parallels or non-parallels between Buddhist and Stoic practice. So far, unless I’ve missed something, the Stoic exercises you mention seem to be primarily verbal. Were there also nonverbal Stoic practices? Of course they would have to be conveyed in language, or they would not have survived. But a notable amount of the Pali Canon consists of verbal instruction about nonverbal practices meant to train intention, concentration, healthy emotional states, etc. Some of these, like the four jihanas, were likely part of the common knowledge of the many spiritual strivers of the time. Others might have been invented by the Buddha or the early sangha. But one of the things I like most about Buddhism is that there are clear instructions for managing one’s internal life through practiced skills that make the teachings on virtue much easier to follow successfully.

    Thanks for writing this blog. I am finding it very interesting indeed!


  7. insanityranch,

    “This reminds me of the questions the Buddha famously refused to answer — which, interestingly, were also metaphysical questions”

    Indeed, yet another parallel between Stoicism and Buddhism.

    That said, the Stoics did think that some metaphysics and natural science were relevant to ethics, the study of how to conduct one’s life. but they were useful only in that respect.

    “the Stoic exercises you mention seem to be primarily verbal. Were there also nonverbal Stoic practices?”

    Very good point. And you are right: Stoicism is much more logo-centric than Buddhism. Modern Stoics have expanded the scope by introducing visualization techniques (esp. Don Robertson), but ancient Stoicism was essentially verbal. I might add that I think these are different styles of doing things, and some people respond better to verbal, other to visualization, exercises. (Even in modern times, compare logo-therapy with CBT.)


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