September 2, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Choose To Practice, Not To Argue Cleverly (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.19)
Key ideas of this discourse
There are clever arguments like the Master Argument. But they don’t contribute to living your life better.
Most people are good at remembering and repeating what the great philosophers said. That’s of no use either unless we judge for ourselves the truth about the impressions we encounter.
We are good at explaining how we should deal with impressions. But faced with a real-life crisis, we are unable to apply what we learned. Talking the talk is not enough. We need to walk the walk.
So far, we have not succeeded in walking the walk. Whether it is my fault, your fault, or the fault of both us, let’s leave the past behind. Let’s make a fresh start.
The Master Argument
The ‘Master’ argument goes something like this: There are three propositions but all three cannot be true at the same time.
- Everything true as an event in the past is necessarily true.
- An impossibility cannot be the consequence of a possibility.
- Something that is not true, and never will be true, is possible.
[The Greek historian] Diodorus realized that these arguments were inconsistent. He accepted the first two propositions to be true, but not the third. He was followed by someone else who rejected the first proposition, but accepted the other two to be true. [Stoic philosophers] Cleanthes and Antipater seemed to have accepted the latter view. There are others who believe the first and third, that something is possible that is not, and never will be, true, and that everything that has happened is necessarily true, but the impossible may be a consequence of the possible. However, we cannot retain all three as true because they are mutually incompatible.
The Master Argument is of little practical use
If anyone should ask me,
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. All I can report is what opinions Diodorus, Panthoides, Cleanthes, or Chrysippus held.”
“But what about you?”
“It is none of my business. I wasn’t born to test my impressions against what people say so I can form my own opinion on the subject. If I did that I won’t be any different from a student of literature.”
[This dialog indicates that Epictetus takes a dim view of arguments for arguments’ sake that propositions like these seem to generate, as the dialog below confirms.]
“Who was Hector’s father?”
“Alexander and Deiphobus.”
“Hecuba. So I’ve heard.”
“In Homer. And Hellenicus too. Perhaps one or two other writers who specialize in these matters.”
Don’t keep repeating what other have said
And that’s how I feel about the Master argument. What can I add to what has been said already? If I am vain and want to astonish people, especially at a party, I can catalog who said what:
- Chrysippus has written so well on the subject in the first chapter of his book On Possibles.
- Cleanthes and Archedemus have devoted an entire book to the topic.
- Then there is Antipater who contributed to On Possibles and also wrote a separate monograph on the Master Argument.
“Haven’t you read it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Do read it, then.”
What good will it do to him? He will find it harder to shut up than he does already. And what did you gain by reading it? What opinions did you form? Sure, you will tell us all about Helen and Priam and the Calypso island, none of which ever existed or ever will. In literary matters, it doesn’t matter much if you remember the story and don’t form your own judgment about it. But it is unfortunate when we do so in matters of conduct.
“Tell me. What is good and bad?”
“Listen. The wind has blown me from a far-off place to here. Anything can be good, bad, or indifferent. Virtues, and anything that shares in them, are good. Vices, and anything that shares in them, are bad. Everything in between, such as wealth, health, life or death, pleasure or pain, is indifferent.”
“How do you know this?”
“I read it in a book Egyptian History by Hellanicus.”
“How is it different from saying that you read it by some other author such as Chrysippus or Cleanthes? In some other book such as Ethics? Have you tested these principles yourself and formed your own judgment?”
Show me how you apply what you have learned
Tell me how you would behave when you meet with a storm on board a ship, as the sails flap madly in the wind. Would you still remember these distinctions among good, bad, and indifferent? What if someone teases you saying, “Remind me, what were you just saying about good, bad, and indifferent? Is getting caught in a shipwreck good, bad, or indifferent?” Aren’t you likely to hit the man with a piece of wood and say, “Why are you torturing me? We are about to drown and you think this is funny?”
When an emperor sends for you to answer a charge, would you remember the distinctions you talked about? When you go to face charges, pale and shaking, what if someone came up to you and said,
“Why are you shaking, my friend? What are you afraid of? The emperor cannot make things good or bad for you.”
“Why do you make fun and add to my troubles?”
“Tell me anyway, philosopher. Why are you shaking? All you are facing is death, prison, torture, exile, or disgrace. Are any of things a vice or connected with a vice? Remind me, what were you used to calling these things?”
“Why do you bug me? I have enough evils to contend with.”
You said it well here. Your own evils – your meanness, cowardice, and pretension – are enough for you. Why do you brag about things that are not your own? Why even call yourself a Stoic?
Just observe the way you behave and you will soon discover what your philosophy is. Most of you will find that you are Epicureans, some are Peripatetics [followers of Aristotle] and even that without backbones. By what action can you prove that virtue is equal, if not superior, to everything else?
We all talk the talk.
One who walks the walk is hard to find
Show me a stoic if you can find one. You can indeed show me a thousand people who can repeat petty stoic arguments. They can talk the talk. They can talk equally well about Epicurean principles. Or about the Peripatetic principles.
Who then is a Stoic? We call a statue “Pheidian,” if it is made in the style of Pheidias. So, show me someone who shapes himself according his beliefs. Show me someone who is sick and yet happy; in danger and yet happy; dying and yet happy; condemned to exile and yet happy; lost his reputation and yet happy. Show him to me, by god, I long to see a Stoic!
You may say that you don’t know anyone so perfectly formed. All right. Then show me someone who is on the way to becoming one, someone walking in the right direction. Do me a favor. Don’t refuse this old man a sight he has never seen. And don’t show me the golden and ivory idols of Zeus, Pheidias, or his Athena. Show me a living person with a soul that never criticizes god or fellow human beings ever again, whose wishes never fail to come true, who never falls into anything he wants to avoid, who is never angry, envious, or jealous, and who desires to be god-like instead of just being human. A person, though in this lifeless body, is in communion with god. Show him to me. You cannot, can you? So why kid yourself and delude others? Why assume an identity that doesn’t belong to you? You are like thieves who take clothes and property that don’t belong to them.
Manage your impressions if you want to be free
Here I am, your teacher. You have come here to be instructed by me. It is my ambition to secure you from restraint, compulsion, and obstruction, and to make you free, prosperous and happy, with your attention fixed on god in everything big or small. You are here to learn and practice these things. Why don’t you do it then, if you have the right resolve and I the proper qualifications? What is missing? When I see a craftsman at work with the right material, I expect to see a finished product. Now here is a craftsman and here is the material. What’s missing? Can this thing not be taught? No, it can be taught. Is it outside our power? No, this is the only thing that is within our power. Not wealth, health, or fame. Nothing is in our power except the power to use impressions correctly. By nature, this alone cannot be restrained and hindered.
Tell me, then, why you fail to succeed. Either it is your fault or mine. Or the fault lies in the nature of the task. But the task is manageable and is totally in our power. It follows then that the fault lies with you or me or, more likely, with both of us.
Well then, are you prepared, at last, to begin the task with me? Set the past aside. Just begin. Trust me, you will see what I have been saying is true.
Think about this
I have this purpose: To make you free from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to learn and practice these things. Discourses II.19.29. Epictetus [GL]