Stoicism and Christianity, II: Epictetus

An early modern edition of the Enchiridion (1683), personal copy of the author
An early modern edition of the Enchiridion (1683), personal copy of the author

We have recently taken a look at Seneca from the Christian perspective, as expressed in C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. Rowe continues his analysis of Roman Stoicism with a theme-by-theme description of the philosophy of Epictetus.

The chapter begins with a quotation by A.A. Long that very much resonates with my own impression of Epictetus, and is indeed the reason I decided to make him the central character of my forthcoming book on Stoicism: “Epictetus is a thinker we cannot forget, once we have encountered him, because he gets under our skin. He provokes and he irritates, but he deals so trenchantly with life’s everyday challenges that no one who knows his work can simply dismiss it as theoretically invalid or practically useless. In times of stress, as modern Epictetans have attested, his recommendations make their presence felt.”

The first theme picked up by Rowe is God, and he rightly notes that Epictetus talks about God much more frequently, and more “piously” (though I doubt Epictetus himself would have agreed with that characterization) than Seneca does.

Rowe mentions that in his encounter with Naso, Epictetus says that the “first thing aspiring philosophers must learn is that there is a God … and that in everything [the philosopher] says and does, he must act as an imitator of God,” while significantly downplaying the fact that Epictetus, as a Stoic, thought of God as the Logos permeating the universe, nothing like the personal God of the Christians, who exists outside of time and space and is distinct from the universe, which is his creation. To be an “imitator of God,” then, for the Stoics simply means to live according to Nature.

In fact, with relatively little textual or contextual evidence, Rowe goes so far as saying that “Epictetus’s pious expressions are not simply mythological language intended to express intellectual truths. … To study in Nicopolis was to learn that the word God means someone you can talk to.” I doubt it, and think instead that there is quite a bit of Christian projecting on Rowe’s part going on here.

Rowe correctly highlights what looks like something akin to the argument from design in Epictetus (I do comment on this bit in a chapter of How to Be a Stoic, out in May): “‘Who is it,’ Epictetus asks, ‘that has fitted this to that and that to this? Who is it that has fitted sword to scabbard and scabbard to sword?’ (Disc. 1.14.1–10).” But he also immediately acknowledges: “Epictetus in fact does not finally differentiate between God and the cosmos; ‘all things are united as one’ (Disc. 1.14.1–10). The Artificer is not someone who is ‘outside’ his work. He is, in a very strict sense, part of the work itself.” Yes, and even more strictly, “he” is not really a “he.”

Rowe’s second theme is judgment: “It is hardly accidental that Arrian chose to open the Manual as follows: ‘Some things are under our control, and some things are not’ (Ench. 1.1). For it is this distinction that forms the foundation of Epictetus’s philosophy.” And he continues: “The philosophical contour of Epictetus’s statement comes through specification. ‘Under our control,’ he immediately continues in the Manual, ‘are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing.’ Things that are not under our control, he says, are ‘our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing’ (Ench. 1.1).”

Rowe provides a good capsule summary of Epictetus’ treatment of the “impressions” (phantasia) that bombard us continuously, and his idea that our judgments (dogmata) have the power to deny assent to any impression that turns out, upon examination, “not at all what [it] seemed to be.”

Recall that Rowe’s ultimate project — to which we’ll get near the end of this series — is to show that Stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. No wonder, then, that he dwells on this point: “Epictetus confidently asserts that there can be no contradictions in our preconceptions (Disc. 1.22.1–21; 2.11.13–18; 2.26.1–7): different sorting, and hence different application, would lead to a different life, and we cannot live incompatible lives simultaneously. ‘Is it possible that all the opinions that Jews and Syrians and Egyptians and Romans hold about food can be right? How is that possible? I think it totally necessary that if the Egyptians are right, the others cannot be, or if the Jews are right, the others cannot be,'” and Rowe proceeds to conclude that “no one can be both a Stoic and, say, an Epicurean concurrently.”

Third Epictitean theme: philosophy. “Like Seneca, Epictetus sees philosophy as a habit of being or a comprehensive style of existence, an emancipatory mode of living that includes not only thought but also the full range of human action,” a conclusion based, among other things, on well known passages where Epictetus tells his students that just reading and understanding Chrysippus doesn’t make one a Stoic. One has to practice in order to be a prokopton.

Again, this is crucial to Rowe’s overall argument in favor of his conclusion of an incompatibility between Stoicism and Christianity: since philosophy (and religion) have to be lived, not just studied, and since we can live only one life, we can do so either as a Stoic or as a Christian, but not both.

Rowe also provides a reasonable reconstruction of the relationship between Stoicism and positive emotions, like affection for others: “Far from being a force that disturbs the philosopher’s autarkeia self-sufficient independence — affection is simply reason enjoying its concert with nature.” It is the negative emotions (anger, fear, hatred) that need to be denied assent. This, of course, is not easy, which is why in Discourses 3.23.30 Epictetus reminds his students that the philosopher’s office is like that of a doctor: you will feel pain before you get better.

Epictetus, Rowe reminds us, is very much oriented toward practice, providing a number of how-to tips to his students: “If, therefore, you wish not to be hot-tempered, for example, do not feed your habit, and set before it nothing on which it can grow. As the first step, keep quiet and count the days on which you have not been angry. ‘I used to be angry every day, after that every other day, then every third, then every fourth.’ … the habit is first weakened and then utterly destroyed.”

The next Epictitean theme examined by Rowe is that of the human being. Epictetus, says Long, is kind of an optimist about humanity, since he ascribes to us the ability to have complete control over our faculty of judgment. The key word here is prohairesis: “You have a prohairesis that is by nature unhindered and incapable of being compelled … prohairesis refers to the faculty that by nature lies beyond the reach of any external influence, the ‘capacities and dispositions’ (Long) that are entirely up to us.” (My notes on this say that prohairesis is best translated as volition, or our capacity for choice, and that it was rendered in Latin as voluntas, which translates in Italian as “volontà,” the English equivalent simply being “will.”)

This is a crucial aspect of Epictetus’ philosophy: we tend to live lives that undermine our prohairesis, that is our capacity to tell the difference between what is and what is not under our control. Philosophy is the remedy, and to be a prokopton means exactly to cultivate one’s prohairesis.

Of course, students of Stoicism “can’t do better all at once, and [Epictetus] advises them that the path to self-sufficiency starts with small things — by adopting the right posture toward a spilled jar of oil before moving on to the death of one’s wife or child (Ench. 12.1; Disc. 2.18.1; 4.1.11). But grow they can.”

The last theme is one that is often misunderstood by critics of Stoicism, that of society. “Epictetus argues that self-sufficiency does not require us to move out of our relational embeddedness. Indeed, as it turns out, the case is quite the reverse. Prohairetic living … is the indispensable condition of discharging well one’s relational responsibilities, of playing excellently the roles that specify our particular natural duties.”

Stoics don’t make just for engaged family members, but for engaged members of society at large: “By God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean polis?” (Disc. 3.7.19)

Ultimately, says Rowe, “For Epictetus, the human being most fully becomes itself in freedom when it neither needs others nor neglects them but, instead, shows them a better way.”

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13 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, II: Epictetus

  1. I was looking forward to this, as I always am to reading about Epictetus, and I was not disappointed.

    I have a question, though, that’s been nagging me for months now. How exactly does one deny assent to a negative emotion? The first line of defence would obviously be to train yourself not to form the impression to begin with, but that wouldn’t really entail denying assent; there would be nothing to deny. It seems to me that a negative emotion, when felt, is a fact, whether we assent to it or not. Some things can be reasoned away, like the oft-used example of hearing a noise in the dark that turns out to be nothing more than the wind; no sense in feeling fear then. Hate and anger are even easier to do away with, since they serve no purpose that isn’t better and more reliably served by calm, rational thought.

    Grief is trickier, because it rarely asks permission, it’s not really as “obvious” that we shouldn’t assent to it, and once it takes root can smother your very desire to reason. Even Seneca says that grief is natural. Usually I try to remind myself that the past is not where things are lost, but where they are kept, and even a life tragically cut short will always be there. Romantic is it sounds, though, I don’t know if it’s really in line with Stoic thought.

    I guess what it really comes down to for me is that deep, unassuaged, rampant pains are simply never an optimal choice, but rather than denying assent to the feelings themselves, we can deny assent to the impression that they must be felt.

    I think I have a better grasp on the subject then when I started typing, so if I answered my own question, at least it was a fruitful one. And not being about Epictetus or Christianity, I hope it wasn’t too off-topic.

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  2. Epictetus in fact does not finally differentiate between God and the cosmos; ‘all things are united as one’ (Disc. 1.14.1–10). The Artificer is not someone who is ‘outside’ his work. He is, in a very strict sense, part of the work itself.”

    nothing like the personal God of the Christians, who exists outside of time and space and is distinct from the universe, which is his creation.

    No, not quite true. Christian teaching is that God is both immanent, transcendent and personal.
    From the Thomist Philosophy page(http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/godtalk.html)

    However, since no creature exists through itself of itself, every creature is continually kept in existence through continual active causality of God. God is the cause of the being of all things precisely because He is Subsistent Being Itself (ipsum esse subsistens)

    “In Christ all things hold together…” Colossians 1:17

    Stoic teaching resembles the immanent God of Christianity but not the transcendent or personal God of Christianity.

    A simple way to think of the immanent God of Christianity is to imagine that the laws of nature are the properties of God(as I believe). Thus God is the ground of being and all of creation is a manifestation of God. Therefore God is visible through and in nature. On this point Stoicism and Christianity can agree. They part ways on the transcendence and personalism of God.

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  3. Shane,

    You did in fact answer your own question when you wrote: “what it really comes down to for me is that deep, unassuaged, rampant pains are simply never an optimal choice, but rather than denying assent to the feelings themselves, we can deny assent to the impression that they must be felt.”

    It doesn’t surprise me, I do a lot of my thinking while I’m writing.

    Labnut,

    I don’t think your citation from Thomism contradicts what I wrote. Even if God holds together the universe at any given moment, God himself precedes and is in an important sense “outside” of the universe. This is sharply distinct from the Stoic view of god-as-nature. That said, as you know, I reject both concepts.

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  4. That said, as you know, I reject both concepts.

    Yes, and you feel a compulsion to repeat your rejection. I suspect you are batting away a subliminal fear that faith will creep up on you unawares 🙂

    I hope not. It would be boring if we agreed. Competing opinions are a productive source of new insights so please continue rejecting beliefs I hold dear. That helps me to refine my beliefs and understand why I hold them. I sharpen my Occams’ razor on the grindstone of contention and then use it to surgically remove false beliefs. I have become a good surgeon.

    I do a lot of my thinking while I’m writing.

    Yes, so true. Writing is thinking of a powerful kind. The other stimulus to thinking is walking. I wish I could write while I walked but I suspect that would somewhat reduce my life expectancy.

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  5. Labnut,

    I doubt my repetition of the fact that I don’t believe in gods is the result of a subliminal fear. It’s just that I’m mindful that whenever I write in forums like this one there are other people reading who may not be familiar with my background…

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  6. “I guess what it really comes down to for me is that deep, unassuaged, rampant pains are simply never an optimal choice, but rather than denying assent to the feelings themselves, we can deny assent to the impression that they must be felt.”

    I like that. Amongst other things, grief often involves things that greatly change who we are, and what we must do. Someone once said that a death of spouse or child puts us on a different road, and we must learn to walk on that new path, no matter how rocky nor how steep.

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  7. I have finally decided that if I am to take your analysis of Rowe’s book ‘One Life’ seriously, I had better read it.

    Rowe sets out very clearly the question to be answered:

    Can one live, for example, toward wisdom in the way Seneca’s letters advise us while simultaneously living in light of Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians? Or do the Epistulae and 1 Corinthians project mutually incompatible styles of existence that in practice cannot be merged into a single human life simultaneously? In short, do the arguments of Seneca and Paul require two different kinds of lives such that to live them both would require a conversion from one to the other, a turning away from one pattern of existence toward another, fundamentally different pattern?

    In short, do Stoicism and Christianity require two different kinds of lives that cannot be merged? As Rowe points out, early Christian writers did not think so.

    Both are lived philosophies and, on the face of it, they are lived in different ways. In my Christian life devotion, gratitude, awe and reverence are an important part of my lived philosophy. In my Daily Examen I look for occasions for gratitude and the presence of God in daily encounters.

    In my Stoic life I subject my daily encounters to rational examination, through the lens of the virtues, seeking wisdom, understanding, strength and equanimity.

    Are these different styles of life incompatible? I don’t think so. I find that the deep emotional life of the Christian is perfectly complemented by the rational life of the Stoic. Though Stoics such as Massimo would not find the reverse to be true.

    The answer then depends on which side of the divide you stand. If you stand on the Christian side they are compatible. If you stand on the Stoic side they are incompatible.

    The great strength of Christianity has been that its presentation is simple, accessible, allegoric, symbolic and appealing to deeply held emotions. This makes it accessible to the ordinary man in the street in an appealing way.

    And yet Church philosophers have discovered deep layers of meaning. One of the best examples of this is St. Thomas of Aquinas. Alisdair MacIntyre also comes to mind. For those who look for it, there are deep intellectual riches, And so Christianity has appealed to all, from plumber to academic, though in different ways.

    This multi-layered appeal of Christianity introduces a new dimension to Rowe’s question. The answer also depends on your response to Christianity, at an emotional level or an intellectual level. For the plumber, who responds to Christianity on an emotional level, Stoicism is incompatible with his beliefs. For the intellectual Christian, Stoicism can be seen as a much needed complement to his emotional life.

    Disclaimer, I have only just started reading the book and my thinking may well change as I continue reading.

    Massimo, I love what you are doing with this series. I look forward to more of them.

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  8. Labnut,

    Glad you are appreciating this series, and I do think this book is particularly interesting for people like you who are pursuing both Stoicism and Christianity. However, I must disagree on this:

    “The answer then depends on which side of the divide you stand. If you stand on the Christian side they are compatible. If you stand on the Stoic side they are incompatible.”

    I am a Stoic and an atheist, and I don’t see incompatibility of values or of practice between the two approaches. I do see incompatibility of metaphysics, but that’s true for the Christian as well, and as I’ve argued on this blog, that’s much less important because though metaphysics does inform ethics to some extent, it underdetermines it as far as I can tell: http://tinyurl.com/jfc8knq

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  9. From Rowe:
    Because dying discloses in a final sense the kind of life we have lived—we cannot decide to do things differently after we are dead—thinking about our coming death implicitly forces us to examine the life we are currently living in order to see what verdict death will render upon it.

    I find this very powerful. We should live as if we were going to die. All of us wish our lives to be judged by our successors as having enduring value. We want to feel we have made a difference. We see this in the importance we place on eulogies at funerals where we search for value and meaning in the person’s life.. So living as if we were going to die forces us to live in a way that will leave behind enduring value. I think a powerful exercise would be to write one’s own eulogy and then endeavour to live in a way that makes it true.

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  10. Massimo said:
    Again, this is crucial to Rowe’s overall argument in favor of his conclusion of an incompatibility between Stoicism and Christianity: since philosophy (and religion) have to be lived, not just studied, and since we can live only one life, we can do so either as a Stoic or as a Christian, but not both.

    This is the crucial question: are the ways of living so different that one cannot be both? As a Christian who is a neophyte Stoic I can find no problem with this.

    But it is more complicated because the Christian believes he needs the assistance of God in the form of revelation, grace and faith to fully live his philosophy. The Stoic believes he can live his philosophy by his own efforts alone. It is a philosophy of self sufficiency contrasted with the Christian philosophy of God dependency. I develop this theme further, below.

    1) Moral truth
    Stoic: believes it can be ascertained by reason alone.
    Christian: believes that reason can reveal natural law but that is insufficient. The Christian believes that revelation and grace are necessary to complete our knowledge of moral truth.

    2) Moral behaviour
    Stoic: believes that disciplined effort can achieve moral behaviour.
    Christian believes that disciplined effort is necessary but insufficient. Additionally one needs grace, that is God’s assistance, to fully live a moral life.

    3) Hope and faith
    Stoic: accepts what is out of his control and fate throws at him by the exercise of strong self-discipline.
    Christian: believes that ultimately it will work out well and therefore the present is worth enduring.

    4) Symbolism and ritual
    Stoic: Has no need of this, relying instead on the power of will.
    Christian: believes that the beauty of symbolism and ritual are necessary to enhance his beliefs, in part because he believes that in beauty he sees God.

    5) Meditation and prayer
    Stoic: meditation is a powerful form of self-examination that can lead to improved understanding.
    Christian: shares the Stoic belief but additionally believes that he can discern God’s particular wishes through meditation and prayer.

    6) Commitment and determination
    Stoic: exhibits a strong inward determination to pursue his beliefs. It is a voluntary commitment.
    Christian: is possessed of an intense emotional commitment to his beliefs that transcends all other considerations. This commitment is required as a consequence of his beliefs.

    7) Guilt and shame
    Stoic: is primarily accountable to himself and also to his community
    Christian: is also accountable to himself(conscience) and his community but he is primarily accountable to God.

    8) Role models
    Stoic: believes that role models are important exemplars of moral behaviour that aid moral practice.
    Christian: believes that Jesus Christ is a vital and necessary role model. This strong emphasis on role models is continued in the canonisation and beatification process.

    From an examination of my examples one can say that the Christian can applaud Stoic beliefs/practices but he will maintain that by themselves they are incomplete. He will maintain that Christian beliefs/practices are necessary to complete Stoic beliefs/practices.

    The Stoic, on the other hand, will reject this, saying that his beliefs are complete and that Christian appendages are not necessary, nor even helpful.

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  11. From Rowe:
    Life, Seneca tells Lucilius, is like a play—it matters not how long the action runs or at what precise point it ends. What matters is “how good the acting is,” the philosophical quality of the life played out on the earthly stage (Ep. 77.20)

    That is so powerful, and if one has lost a loved one, so consoling.

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  12. I loved that article about irony. It is so pertinent to Stoicism. Modern irony is a symptom of the rejection of organising principle in life. Stoicism, on the other hand, is an authentic means of embracing an organising principle in ones’ life. Are we beginning to see a return to principled authenticity?

    For some people endurance running is a way to do this. Endurance running strips one of all pretensions and posturing. It is interesting to see that participation in endurance running is increasing against the general trend towards obesity and a sedentary life style. See
    http://www.runningusa.org/statistics

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