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.”