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Epictetus: What Can We Control?
John G. Messerly   Jan 31, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 CE) was born as a slave in the Roman Empire, but obtained his freedom as a teenager. He studied Stoic philosophy from an early age, eventually lecturing on Stoicism in Rome. He was forced to leave the city in 89 CE, after the Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from Italy. He then established his own school at Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast in Greece, where he taught and lectured until he died around 135. Today he is regarded as one of the preeminent Stoic philosophers.

The major compilation of Epictetus’ teaching is the four-volume work usually called the Discourses. His other major work is the shorter Enchiridion (usually referred to as the Manual or Handbook). It is essentially an abridged edition of the Discourses. However, the Discourses provide a better guide to understanding the thought of Epictetus.

Theory of Reality & Human Nature

Epictetus believed that humans were rational beings living in a rational universe.  He refers to the fundamental orderliness of all things, or the rational principle underlying the universe as Zeus, God, or the gods. This rational principle pervades all reality, and as rational beings our minds are fragments of Zeus’ mind. While this may sound strange to our ears, a modern interpretation says that Epictetus held that nature is mathematical, logical or fundamentally rational.

As for human beings, the capacity to choose is our fundamental characteristic—the essence of nature. The principle of cause and effect does operate in nature, but our decisions are free of external compulsion.  Thus Epictetus is a compatibilist; he believes that freedom and determinism are compatible. Most importantly he believes that our convictions, attitudes, intentions and actions are truly ours in a way that nothing else is. No doubt these convictions derived largely from is his experiences as a slave, compelled to do many things but free to think for himself.

The Problem of Life & Its Solution

The basic problem in human life is that we suffer because we fail to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not. Some things are within our control: our judgments, intentions, desires, and aversions. This is the internal realm of the mind which is governed by our own volition. Everything else about us—our body, possessions, relationships, wealth, fame, reputation—is contingent on factors largely beyond our control. This is the external world governed by cause and effect. The root of our suffering is confusing the internal, over which we have control, with the external, over which we don’t.

To make matters worse, we often assume that external objects and circumstances are the most valuable  things in life.  And when the external world doesn’t meet our expectations, we experience grief, fear, envy, desire, and anxiety, all resulting from the mistaken belief that happiness is to be found outside of ourselves. But Epictetus rejects the view that such emotions are imposed on us. We are responsible for our feelings, thoughts and actions, and the circumstances of our lives is but the arena in which we exercise our volition.

This basic idea of Epictetus and Stoicism in general is sometimes captured in the pithy phrase: “Happiness is not getting what we want, but wanting what we get.” The idea is that well-being doesn’t derive from the possession of external things, but of control internal states of mind. To better understand this consider a simple example. Suppose we are stuck in traffic. We can fume and curse as our blood pressure rises, or we can be thankful for the opportunity to listen to our favorite music. We have no control over the traffic, but we do have control over how we respond to it.

For Epictetus the key to inner well-being is to align what life give us with what we want or, in his language, align our will with the will of the gods or fate or what life gives us:

But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God [fate]. Is it His will that I shall have fever? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should move toward anything? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should obtain anything? It is my wish also. Does He not will? I do not wish. Is it His will that I be put to the rack? It is my will then to die; it is my will then to be put to the rack. Who, then, is still able to hinder me contrary to my own judgement, or to compel me? No more than he can hinder or compel Zeus. (The Discourses, Book IV, Chapter 1)

These are strong claims indeed, but it seems that even under torture Epictetus was able to control his response by aligning his wants with his fate. In modern times, U.S. Navy airman James Stockdale credited the philosophy of Epictetus with helping him endure more than seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  Thankfully most of us will never have to endure torture, but many of us are tormented by fear, anxiety and depression. Here again, Epictetus has something to offer. The psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, a form of  today’s popular cognitive behavioral therapy, credited Epictetus with providing a foundation for his system of psychotherapy. Perhaps then there is still much to learn from this ancient philosophy.

Epictetus even extended this analysis to feelings of anger or betrayal toward others. What others do is external to us; we only have control over our response. What others do doesn’t hurt us—unless we let it. Suppose someone tells us we are worthless, incompetent, or unlovable. Does this hurt us? Not unless we let it. The words are just sounds in the world. Why should they hurt us? The wind and the ocean make sounds that don’t hurt us. Wecould let sound of the wind hurt us. We could say “I’m no good because I’m in the wind’s way!” But the wind’s blowing doesn’t make you in the way anymore than someone telling you are stupid makes you stupid. These things only hurt you if you let them. This is what Epictetus taught, and it is one of the most valuable lessons in the history of thought.

Still, learning to control our minds takes effort and training. A teacher can help train our minds, but we can do it ourselves says Epictetus because we are rational. We can recognize the difference between our minds, over which we have control, and the external world over which we do not. With effort we can even learn to alter our emotional dispositions. Still, as Spinoza warned, “all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” The journey to enlightenment and inner peace is as difficult to follow as the razor’s edge.

Concluding Remarks

There is more we could say about Epictetus and the other Stoics, and I encourage all to read them. But perhaps the essence of Stoicism was most succinctly captured by Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, in the third maxim by which he governed his life. In homage to Stoic philosophy, Descartes penned three of the longest and most profound sentences I’ve ever read.  And when Descartes refers to “such philosophers as in former times,” he refers to the Stoics.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with.

But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.

For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

 

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



COMMENTS

“As for human beings, the capacity to choose is our fundamental characteristic—the essence of nature. The principle of cause and effect does operate in nature, but our decisions are free of external compulsion. Thus Epictetus is a compatibilist; he believes that freedom and determinism are compatible. Most importantly he believes that our convictions, attitudes, intentions and actions are truly ours in a way that nothing else is.”

And how do such choices happen given determinism? In determinism, nothing is otherwise at any moment than it could be. So where do they come from? The body? A soul? In determinism there is nothing that is not already automatically moving along the lines it must. All is necessitated. Furthermore you did not create yourself etc, how can you say your choices are ultimately free of external compulsion? How could they be free from internal compulsion? Why would internal compulsion leading to inevitable outcomes be any better? If each moment is the only way it can be, as according to determinism, then where is there any ultimate influence…. on inner OR outer circumstances? All would just happen, automatically, like an unstoppable train. Randomness, or stochastic determinism, if true, would refute predeterminism but not reinstate any control. Ultimately, what you call volition would only be a convenient abstraction and not offer any control to the being or body suffering the consequences of what just happens. The body-mind brings about consequences via “choices” and actions, but would be inexorably compelled to do so.  All pain and suffering, whether seen via the “right” philosophical lenses or not, would in each specific instance be how it must be. How it must be by “logical” necessity, not any ethical considerations. That includes our views and whether they work within us or not.

There is no room for what we colloquially call control in determinism. It would be at best proximate and whether futile or not is already given,  the same way it is already given if we try to exert it or not.  All outcomes are inevitable, and since each state tx in time follows necessarily upon a former state t also thus necessitated, indefinitely, each state can be seen as an outcome of a former state. That is why this compatibilism (including the “volitionism mentioned here”) has been called a “quagmire of evasion” by William James and a “wretched subterfuge” by Immanuel Kant.

“The basic problem in human life is that we suffer because we fail to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not.”

In determinism whenever we fail to do so that was already inevitable. Each conceivable moment would be the only possible one, with no room for intervention anywhere. All outcomes perceived as such or not are inevitable. “Volition,” or wantings, or whatever it is,  are causally effective but just like the wind ultimately compelled by antecedent causation. Whether it is a mass of “air” particles mindlessly shifting, or a brain-pattern forcedly moved via configurations of neurons firing etc, outcomes are unavoidable in actuality. Even if quantum mechanics or whatever turns out to be the best theory for “microphysics” would be onthologically random, that does not help with chosing and seems to average out to “adequate determinism” on our scales.

The basic problem in human life seems to be that all which has form is unstable, and no mind twisting tricks to deny this can ever change that. Given finite speed and “finitudes” of substrate, nothing seems to be stable enough to find ultimate rest in. Even the mind keeps necessarily spinning, without which btw we would die easily via self-determining stupid things.  Additionally, whether there is randomness or not, things seem to happen with “us” at best being proximate causes. Furthermore, given chaos theory etc, many outcomes are not even principally predictable. This does seem to make things worse, not better.

“This is the external world governed by cause and effect. The root of our suffering is confusing the internal, over which we have control, with the external, over which we don’t”

The mind is internally constrained by specific configurations of stuff, e.g., the brain in materialism, according to determinism. How spirit stuff would be more free is beyond me.  Whatever control there occurs is automatic and given that nobody paradoxically created themselves how they magically deemed, “luck swallows all.” I borrowed that phrase from some philosopher, “Strawson” iirc.

Anyway: You neither have absolute control over internal, nor absolute lack of control over external circumstances.  And in hard determinism as said here, ultimately all just happens automatically, the feelings etc being like whistles on a steam engine, and the universe, e.g., 4D, being maybe evolving or not towards the future, is mostly functionally equivalent to a non-evolving 4D iron block. Mostly, because if time-events are not eternal, then you cease at some point. If they are eternal, then it is hard to see what “you” is supposed to be given 4D extension. Some static 4D-object? It would be nothing like what we deem being alive today. On the other side, with a block universe evolving and presentism, you face utter annihilation.

“This basic idea of Epictetus and Stoicism in general is sometimes captured in the pithy phrase: “Happiness is not getting what we want, but wanting what we get.”

Like death, chronic illnesses, rape, etc. And how do you chose your reactions? Do you chose such choices? Infinite regress?

Something happens, maybe alternative ways to act or be occur, epistemically sound or not given bounded rationality, feelings happen, a choice occurs. That is first person. Third person we can say molecules move, neurons fire, a person can say something about their inner experience. Which then either seems correct or not, but does not say much about freedom.

“The idea is that well-being doesn’t derive from the possession of external things, but of control internal states of mind.”

“We have no control over the traffic, but we do have control over how we respond to it.”

How is it you control this? By remembering teachings? And then what? How can you make sure to always remember them? How did you come to them? How do you know this or that teaching is true? Where did the criteria going into that come from? How did you know they are right and not alternatives, some of which you might never have encountered? Why did not you encounter them? It should be obvious what I am getting at.

“For Epictetus the key to inner well-being is to align what life give us with what we want or, in his language, align our will with the will of the gods or fate or what life gives us”

Also, if all is determined, whether you do this, whether you are able or not, even only potentially, at any given time, etc, is all already there or as if it was already there (depending on whether you are presentist or eternalist in your view of time).  Each specific moment of happiness or sadness is as it must be, could not be different in actuality, which is all that is causally active. Whatever follows from that, including success and failures, follows inexorably. An ultra specific fate would be the case.

“But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will.”

Language is already abstracting and counterfactual. The potentialities here perceived are epistemologically there (or not, according to criteria that would hold true or not in all cases of free will allowing or forbidding universes), even ontologically, but if time flows as a sequence there is no room in between, and what will happen, what will be causally effective, is actuality only. Even if there is no such thing as time, the fact that we can construe different movements and patterns that way seems to make our world functionally equivalent with one in which time works that way. Only one future is possible, or rather, will be actual. Since one moment follows the other…in way that leaves no room for non-automatic, non-proximate intervention… where is this compatibilist freedom of mind-control in a way for there to be room for any “you” to do something about suffering?

“These things only hurt you if you let them.”

Consequently. Whether you will let them or not in any instance is already determined, or as if determined, for each instance.  People often say fatalism is different from determinism, and that is true in the sense that whatever fated thing occurs is not fated via arbitrary causes, or acausally. And we often do not know which things are to be fated.  Also, many of our statements remain counterfactually true, maybe partly even those concerning influencing outcomes or “abilities”.

“We can recognize the difference between our minds, over which we have control, and the external world over which we do not. ”

Who would it be, external to the mind, that does the controlling? How could it do so freely? Especially given what we know about science? I guess that these ideas are due some to dualistic assumptions build in our grammar, where we can split personal pronouns from the objects described and line them up together, ascribe possessions not strictly constrained by empirical data, etc.  That “I”, to the extent it exists, is just as automatic and determined, or pretedermined, as anything else.

Imo compatibilism is the position of someone failing to own up to the consequences of determinism, often trying to salvage notions like moral responsibility, control, and even self-esteem. Whatever higher level abstractions one tries to salvage, whether they are causally effective or not, whatever downward causation one admits, it would be as determined or random as anything else. “Counterfactual”, this term applies to most of the statements I addressed here, is not called thus without reason. I guess I wrote too much already, so that’s it for now.

You are correct that if hard determinism is true then Epictetus’ advice is worthless. And hard determinism may be true. However most professional, academic philosophers are not determinists. In fact only about 12% are. A majority are compatibilists, about 60%. For the stats go to:

http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/04/29/what-do-philosophers-believe/

I know that I have written quite a bit, so people do not have the time to read it all. But given the long history of the topic this seems hard to avoid. Anyway, I already covered alternatives to hard determinism, and gave reasons why I cannot see how they would allow anyone to follow Epictetus advice either, in a way that is up to them. Such a claim might seem strange given that, evidently, at least some people followed Epictetus advice some of the time, but I do not want repeat all I have written above. And at times I just asked how a given statement would even be possible in actuality, aside from being counterfactually true. This is mentioned here just for completeness sake.

The real issue is that even if hard determinism is not true, and indeterminism is true, or a mix of both determinism and indeterminism, there seems no room for intervention that does not just automatically happen, and stuff is basically the same as if it were preordained. Even if e.g., a given interpretation of quantum mechanics actually correctly posits non-epistemic randomness in the realm of microphysics, this -as far as we know- averages out at medium scales and gives something very similar to Newtonian physics. Even if it would not, having a coin flipped in ones brain does not seem to give freedom. Even larger scales give us Einstein’s theories, which can easily be interpreted as superdeterministic, which might explain why he has been such a staunch believer in determinism.  Anyway, neither randomness, randomness mixed with rules, adequate determinism nor super determinism leave any room for a free agent to decide things in a way that is up to him. Every happening within any instance of time would then be seen as an outcome of precedents and/or chance and thus every outcome cannot be interfered with by a free agent, and because of that such a free agent does not seem to exist. Locating some precedents within the agent does not help, given that his life follows one trajectory, and thus those precedence/+chance stuffs that make up his very being and together with any other chance occuring determine his decisions have not been up to that agent either way. Ultimate responsibility, and ultimate control, go out the window.

If I may be allowed to post a link of my own: http://www.naturalism.org/philosophy/free-will/luck-swallows-everything

The obvious conclusion seems to be that, whatever “we” can be said to exist, seems to have at best proximate controlling “happening” (yeah, that sounds strange but I do not want to imply wrong things via correct grammar), and thus ultimately we cannot control anything. That seems to be the answer to the headline of this article.

I was already aware of these statistics. Unfortunately (!?) “reality” is not a democracy, and someone that rambles on as much as I do is unlikely to be impressed by appeals to authority 😉. Most of those people deeming themselves compatibilists redefine free will along the lines of “nobody is pointing a gun at me so…therefore I have moral responsibility”.  That is freedom of action at best, combined with defending the status quo of our intuitions about duty, etc.  But what we also want, about which I agree with Ted Honderich, is a freedom of origination. We want there to be a coherent “us” in some sense that really makes a difference, not an automaton doomed to suffer (or not) a meaningless path coming about by itself, whether there is chance involved or not.

Also, the fact that English speaking philosophers tend to equate free will and responsibility and think they can defend the former by defending the latter does not make me think highly of their majority opinion on this topic anyway. I can understand why one would try to salvage ones “freedom”, as I have already written about, but just ask yourself for the next thought that comes up: Could I have thought something different? How? What if we cannot? If that is true for the preceding moment, why would it be different for the present moment?

The fact that such an ability as being able to do and not do something at the same time seems incoherent does not change the fact that without it we seem to get the worst parts of hard-determinism, whether the latter is actually true or not. Free-will libertarians sometimes require something like that, called rational-dual control (includes the inclusion of our reasons and beliefs etc, as requirements for a free decision). While compatibilists often ridicule such notions, I am not amazed by their tricks of redefinition either. “Of course, I can prove to you 3+4 is actually 12, because and provided 3 does not mean what you think.”

Anyway, in so far as Epictetus advice is still causally effective to some extent, for some people, pragmatically speaking it is not worthless in itself. If we were free to chose, we could do worse than use this advice.

Everything that happens must happen

Was pretty sure the above is a quote from a renowned ancient stoic, yet I cannot find any reference presently.

Hard determinism is a tough cookie, and yet it adheres strictly with faith and belief in ordered timelines and thus specifically cause and effect - if the foundations crack, then so does determinism?

It is difficult to argue against consciousness/awareness of the “forward” direction of time, cause and effect and the unfolding spirals of our arbitrary existence within a block universe, (note that belief in the block universe also requires faith in overcoming the “forward” direction of time, else the most distant galaxies accelerating away from each other still subscribe to presentism, and the mathematical model breaks down, and reversal of time is still physically impossible?)

With “determined” tenacity and mindfulness I may be able to “veto”, (Libet), every impulse, want, desire, craving that enters my mind, and yet you may say this is not of my choosing either, and again, it is difficult to argue against this type of trained and disciplined “determinism”.

And yet, if a multitude of verses are emergent and reality, then every “choice” I make, (or an elemental particle takes?) does have enormous repercussions - and like the key tenet from the “Matrix” trilogy, it is entirely about the “choices” that “we” make/take, (as agents provocateur and comprising atoms of the Universe/mind/body)?

Volition and Free will may be an illusion, such like the “Self”, but it is a useful illusion to subscribe to regardless, and the expressions and emergence of fickle morality still hold value for ethics and humanity, no matter how many, many tentacled alien species may scratch their heads - if they in fact have heads?

All in all, the “miracle” is that this deterministic Universe has evolved life, mind and thoughts to reflect and question it’s own existence - the bonus is the accidental and continuing evolution of intelligence and technology, (systems), language, mobile phones and the internet all merely happenstance without any meaning and totally irrelevant to the block Universe.

Stoicism and Buddhism seem to be not so distant cousins, and I ponder how much of ancient greek philosophy is derived from ancient indo philosophies, including atomism, (upon which Stoicism and determinism must rely heavily)?

 

 

@ CygnusX1
“Hard determinism is a tough cookie, and yet it adheres strictly with faith and belief in ordered timelines and thus specifically cause and effect - if the foundations crack, then so does determinism?”

The problem is not just with hard determinism per se.
1.If all is determined then there is no room for any free agent controlling things.
2.If all is random…randomness does not bestow freedom.
a.)Btw: Indeterminism seems even harder to reconcile with free will than determinism.
3.In any mix of the two you still do not get free agents.
4.Some tertium quid aside from randomness seems necessary.
a.)Tertium quid? Agent-causality models tend to contain muddy, esoteric, or incoherent ideas that run counter to modern science. E.g. if something magically self-causes itself within an agent, how can the agent be said to be controlling it?
b. Non-syntactical views of visible physical things doing stuff does not explain nor hint at free agency, or free will.
C.etc. Free will seems impossible. Of course we can redefine it in a way that allows us to feel kinship with rocks, digestive systems, batteries, the stars and dead bodies. Each thing acting according to its nature + external conditions. Even hard determinism cannot scratch that (pure event or process based views are incoherent, as Mario Bunge has shown in his work on ontology). Then we have to call ourselves compatibilists.

Btw: Saying something depends on faith does not defeat a claim, and defeating determinism does not establish free will, the same way taking poison out of a poisoned and additionally rotting apple does not transform the latter into gourmet food.

@ Mr.X

My use of the term faith is not to belittle, nor is it to imply any mystical/theological conviction - I readily employ faith, or trust in belief in numerous activities from waking up tomorrow, to popular scientific hypotheses.

Perhaps what causes most friction is indeed the terms “Free” and Freedoms. If we replace the hypothetical Free agency with indeterminacy as you imply, does this make the notions of “choices” any more palatable? Most likely you would say no - yet I know my own “powers” to “veto” impulsiveness are real, and I can, and do practice them - so agreed, although not entirely “Free” of causality, I still have very limited ability to oppose circumstances, and moreover become emotionally disturbed when I cannot, (downside).

Buddhism is much clearer in it’s message as to avoid suffering by understanding the root causes as clinging and grasping, and thus with stoic determination, avoid wants and desires - For the individual this can be enlightening, yet for humanity, progress and survival, Stoicism is hardly sufficient?

What disturbs most from all of the above, is now thoughts of a singular time-line of humanity through space-time that could not have emerged any other way than we perceive it already has, which appears even more unsavory than many worlds theory?

So let’s agree on the unfathomable complexities of quantum indeterminacy as impossible to “determine” at very least?

Mr X - I glanced at some of your writings on determinism and they are sophisticated indeed. You quote major contemporary philosophers like Ted Honderich and Galen Strawson so its obvious you are an expert in the field. Unfortunately, while I know the free will problem well enough to teach it to undergrads, I am not an expert on the issue.

And I am sympathetic with your strong case against free will. None of us set their initial conditions so it is very hard to see how the “genome in an environment” explanation of any human behavior isn’t exhaustive. And again if you are right about determinism then your advice about stoicism “Epictetus advice is still causally effective to some extent, for some people, pragmatically speaking it is not worthless in itself” is probably spot on.

The only thing I might say as food for thought for the committed determinist is something like this. We are different in some way than rocks. And to the extent that consciousness is an emergent property of evolution it is possible that what we call free will emerges alongside this consciousness to a limited extent. That is, with consciousness deliberation and choice begin to make their appearance on the scene. I know this isn’t much, but perhaps it provides a small opening for free will.

To CygnusX1

I like your appeal that “Volition and Free will may be an illusion, such like the “Self”, but it is a useful illusion to subscribe to regardless.” Daniel Dennett argues along these lines and it does seem that we might as well believe in free will. To the extent that we don’t, say by accepting the fatalism you referred to, then we are actions seem pointless. After all, why learn to swim when “if we’re going to drown, we’re going to drown.”

So in the end perhaps it is pragmatically useful to believe in just a bit of free will, remember that 99% of what we do and think is probably determined.

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