We have recently been discussing Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, examining both how Epictetus sees our specific multiple roles in everyday life, as well as our more fundamental role simply qua human beings. This post is devoted to Johnson’s discussion (in chapter 4) of what, in a sense, it was like to be a student of Epictetus. Unlike previous Stoics, Johnson maintains, Epictetus thought that the acts of prokoptontes (those who make progress), and not just those of the Sage, are in fact good, as evident from his three-part educational program.
Johnson summarizes the program in this way: “students of Epictetus’ program begin with a study of desire and aversion in the first topic, then they move on to a study of roles and their appropriate acts in the second topic, and — if they are fortunate — solidify their correct beliefs with a study of logic in the third topic.” He is referring, of course, to the famous three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.
This is fairly radical, because previous Stoics had maintained that mastery of all three topoi associated with the disciplines (respectively: physics, ethics, and logic) is necessary to perform good acts, which is why only the Sage achieves that ability. Instead, Epictetus is bringing Stoicism down to the level of everyday people, and is implying, according to Johnson, that one does not actually need logic / assent to do good, correct belief (ortha dogmata, in Greek) is sufficient.
Studying under Epictetus, then, begins with tackling the discipline of desire (and aversion), which is related to the virtues of courage and temperance: “[the first topic concerns] desires and aversions, so that that he [the student] may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he would avoid” (Discourses III.2.2).
This is, of course, based on the famous dichotomy of control, which allows us, when mastered, to focus on what is “up to us” and ignore what is “not up to us.” According to Epictetus, this is “the principal and most urgent” topic (III.2.3).
Johnson claims that, contra the classic interpretation by Pierre Hadot, Epictetus is not really concerned with the topos of physics, but rather with the standard Stoic topic of the ethics of desire and indifference to external things. Johnson, however, simply states his alternative interpretation, without really arguing for it, and I still prefer Hadot’s. But really nothing of import hinges on this.
The crucial point, continues Johnson, is that “for Epictetus, appropriate actions are the proper actualization of our capacity for volition (prohairesis) itself, the core of what is under our control.”
“The second [topic] has to do with appropriate action; for I should not be unfeeling like a statue but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen” (III.2.4). As Johnson aptly puts it, “While the first topic disengages us from preferred externals, the second topic re-engages us with the world by summoning us to our roles.”
The novel bit here is that Epictetus is entwining actions and roles, and he does this because we can’t know what actions are appropriate unless we understand which (ethical) roles we play in society. Roles, then, become a guide to social action.
For Epictetus, undue consideration of preferred indifferents is what gets in the way of our relations with others, as in his example of a brother who is about to receive more money than the other brother from their father. Conflict arises because the second brother focuses on the money, not on his more fundamental role as brother.
Importantly, the discipline of desire is now tightly and sequentially related to the discipline of action: “when III.3.5–10 stresses that the right attitude to preferables (the subject of the first topic) makes possible the right relation to others (the second topic), it makes the first topic a prologue to the second topic.”
The third and final topic “falls to those who are already making progress and is concerned with the achievement of certainty in the matters already covered [the second topic], so that even in dreams, or drunkenness, or melancholy no untested impression may catch us off guard” (III.2.5). This third discipline “has to do with assent and what is plausible and attractive” (III.12.14).
Epictetus says that the third topic trains the student to achieve “freedom from deception and hasty judgment” (III.2.2) so that he “may not be liable to be deceived” (I.4.11). Johnson comments: “while the substance of the third topic is logic, part of the function of the third topic is the perfection of the practical reasoning in the second topic (kathêkonta). Because Epictetus treats appropriate acts as one of the key applications of logic, he thus makes the second topic the subject matter of the third.”
At this point in the chapter, Johnson switches to a consideration of the relationship between the third discipline, the topos of logic, and becoming a Sage. He begins with a focus on I.7, where Epictetus engages in a bit of Socratic elenchus with one of his students. The Master asks what is it that logic does, and one of the students answers that it is in the business of establishing what is true and what is false. But, replies Epictetus, is this enough?
That’s where he brings up the example of the money changer. Johnson again: “Is it sufficient, asks Epictetus, for a money-changer to know that he must not accept any counterfeit coins (I.7.6)? Surely not, the student says; the money-changer must also be able to tell what is counterfeit and what is not … The money-changer needs to be able to do more than know what statements follow from the maxim to reject counterfeit coins; he must know the facts of the world relating to his maxim, namely, that an excessively light coin must have some impurities, that pure brass tarnishes quickly, and so forth. Similarly in logic, mere speech is insufficient. Given that ‘what follows’ in speech is not enough, it seems that the student of logic must also learn what facts relate to a claim as well as what actions follow upon a claim.”
The idea, according to Johnson, is that for Epictetus most of us can do the job required by the first two disciplines well enough, and that logic and the discipline of assent are necessary to move from “well enough” to perfection, i.e., from the status of a prokopton to that of a Sage or thereabout. This is a fairly novel and strong conclusion, and I’ll leave it to other scholars to debate it. But Johnson is right when he points out that Epictetus seems to think that mistakes in logic are equivalent to mistakes in ethics, because they both relate to incorrect judgments abut impressions. This is consistent with Epictetus’ take on logic more broadly: it shouldn’t be studied as an end in itself, but as an aid to ethics.
This is clear from bits like the following one, in which Epictetus chides his students for mistakenly thinking that they are educated simply because they can master a bit of logic: “What kind of education, man? The fact that you have studied syllogisms and arguments with equivocal premises? Will you not consent to unlearn all this, if at all possible, and make a fresh start, in the realization that hitherto you have not even touched on the principal matter?” (II.17.26–28)
Or consider this passage: “But no, instead someone [enters my school and] says, ‘I want to know what Chrysippus means in his work on [the logical puzzle called] The Liar’. If that is your design, go hang yourself, you wretch!” (II.17.34) Indeed, at III.2.6 he explicitly complains that wannabe philosophers ignore the first two disciplines and jump straight into the study of logic, without realizing that this should be done only to perfect one’s understanding, in the final stages of one’s training. To start from the end is to get things exactly wrong and to miss the point of training entirely.
Johnson summarizes the idea in a very helpful fashion: “Epictetus has reasons for structuring the topics as he has. Before we can accomplish anything else, we must master our passions; hence, the first topic. Once we have silenced our passions enough that we can heed our own reason, we must immediately seek to become virtuous; that is, we should take up our roles in life and do what is appropriate; hence, the second topic. Finally, if we have made progress and we can afford the time to study, we should perfect our understanding (especially of ethical action) through the study of logic; hence the third topic.”
Johnson at this point turns to the distinction between perfect and appropriate (but imperfect) actions: “according to standard Stoic thinking, intermediate actions are performed on the basis of a reasonable [eulogon] justification [apologian]. They are performed by those who are making progress but who are not Sages and therefore who are not yet truly good. By contrast, only the Sage can perform perfect appropriate actions (katorthômata).”
What Johnson proposes, and which is unorthodox within Stoic scholarship, is that Epictetus locates the Sage in the third discipline and the accompanying topos of logic, and moreover that he thinks prokoptontes can actually perform good (not merely appropriate) actions. I am going to skip his discussion of this matter because nothing practical hinges on it, but interested readers may check pp. 70-76 of the book.
The remaining few pages further elaborate on the concept of the Sage, and here is the take away message: “because Stoicism asserts that only the Sage has achieved ethical goodness, Stoicism does not have a good answer for why agents should bother performing non-Sagely actions given that they lack goodness [I’m not sure I agree with this, see here.]. … Epictetus can tell students and visitors to his school that they will become good if they seek only that which they can control (the subject of the first topic) and if they perform the actions appropriate to their roles (the subject of the second topic). … Unlike in Stoicism proper, it is not a matter of indifference for ordinary individuals to honor their parents, to care for their children, to aid their friends, and so on [I don’t think this is indifferent for Stoicism proper either, because it is how one practices virtue]; it is a matter of goodness. … Epictetus does not rely on the standard of the Sage which amounts to an ideal that may never be made real. Instead, he relies on a standard of goodness that measures our ethical victories by what each person, whether slave or senator, can achieve.” Stoicism, that is, is for everybody, particularly so in Epictetus’ version.