Socrates was not in prison since he was there of his own free will. — Epictetus
And freedom tastes of reality.
— The Who
We should talk about slavery. Goodness knows, it’s not a subject we hear talked about much these days. That’s my dose of irony, now for some history. If you were at school or college today in the West, you would know that no slavery existed until a man called Jim Crow had his people — probably the Ku Klux Klan, or Donald Trump’s ancestors — sail to Africa, cast black people into chains, and then bring them back to America to pick cotton and be lynched. This built America, and Negro work songs in the cotton fields were the first such ever sung. Blacks, you see, are the only people who have ever been slaves, just as Jews are the only people in history to have been killed by statist totalitarians.
But a slave born two decades after Christ’s death sang a far earlier song, one which combined reason and reverence in equal measure a very long time before St. Thomas Aquinas attempted the same task. This slave said: “Since I am a reasonable being, I must sing to God. That is my work.”
Epictetus was born in 55 AD in what is now Turkey. He was a slave when he arrived in Rome and, perhaps inspiring his later Stoicism, his master was a freedman, Epaphroditus, himself the ex-slave of a master whose domestic environment may have somewhat normalized violence, that master having been Nero. Epaphroditus, according to Celsus’ account, broke Epictetus’ leg, laming him for the rest of his life. Epictetus had warned his master that his leg would break as he was being tortured and, when it finally did, effectively said “told you so.” Perhaps this was the spiritual birth of Stoicism.
Maybe this Nero-esque brutality gave Epaphroditus pangs of guilt, because he allowed Epictetus to study philosophy under the Stoic Musonius Rufus and, with the death of Nero, the slave was freed and went on to teach the Stoical philosophy in Rome for a quarter of a century.
The three leading members of the Stoic school displayed a spectrum of social class. Marcus Aurelius was one of the wisest and best-liked of Roman emperors, Seneca was a consul and a playwright, and Epictetus was a slave. Epictetus ultimately earned the disapproval of the Emperor Domitian, his offense being to champion Domitian’s opponents, and was exiled to Nicopolis, in the northwest of Greece. His pupil Arrian recorded the lectures known as the Discourses. Epictetus also left the Enchiridion, or “handbook,” and both are available as e-books for the usual pittance. This would have pleased Epictetus, as he believed wisdom to require very little in the way of financial outlay.
I have banged this drum before, but anyone new to philosophy, or with a child new to philosophy, should begin with the Stoics, in my view. Philosophy is not easily approached, being often seen as something monolithic, a standardized way of assessing the world which travels the generations genetically, like brown eyes or the patterns on butterfly wings. It is not. Rather, it has fits and starts, evolving and devolving. And philosophy is often assumed to have a progressus, a line of development congruent with that of Darwinian evolution, where improvement is taken as a constant, as with other disciplines. If you are a civil engineer, for example, you may want to read about the methods of the great, eighteenth-century English bridge-builder Thomas Telford, but only for antiquarian value. If you are actually building a bridge, you would be better off reading the latest literature. This is absolutely not the case with philosophy.
As philosophy Stoicism is partly metaphysical, but also human in the sense that it is practical, social, and communal. Epictetus has excellent advice for people like myself, who tend to overindulge in metaphysical pursuits at the expense of more practical concerns: “If what charms you is nothing but abstract principles, sit down and turn them over quietly in your mind: but never dub yourself a Philosopher . . .”
Epictetus, if alive today, and if there are still such things as bookshops, would probably find his works in the self-help section. In fact, I have noticed, in the otherwise fairly wretched top ten philosophy bestsellers on Amazon, that there is usually some sort of compendium of Stoical sayings thereabouts. This can only be a good thing. Stoical writings are gnomic and aphoristic. There are no daunting Hegelian or Kantian labyrinths to negotiate.
Epictetus takes Socrates as his model man, just as Christians took Christ and Muslims Mohammed. He recognizes in the Athenian — he rarely mentions Plato — what I’ve called (and doubtless others) “Socratic humility.” Epictetus writes — or rather speaks, the Discourses being transcribed lectures: “If a man would pursue Philosophy, his first task is to throw away conceit.”
Epictetus no doubt views Socrates’ poverty and modesty through the lens of his own slavery, which presents as Stoicism in the same way measles presents as red spots. Nowadays, of course, we have an ummah of comfortably well off but disaffected blacks claiming — all claiming — to be the descendants of horsewhipped sharecroppers. If for nothing else, we should thank Epictetus that something constructive can come out of slavery other than just whining for reparations. Stoicism remains in our consciousness today, and has a meaning with which even the woke wreckers cannot tamper.
The name “Stoic” comes from the Ancient Greek term stoa poikile, designating the porch under which early schools later associated with the Stoic school would meet. The word “Cynics,” however, denoting the other great Classical philosophical school founded by Antisthenes, and established by the more famous Diogenes, came from kinykoi, the ancient Greek word for dog. A dog and a porch: It all sounds very 1950s Middle-America. And perhaps the 1950s — first in the United States and followed, as ever, by its faithful mutt Europe — were the last time the West could pretend to anything like Stoicism. It was the 1960s that lit the fuse of disaffection with all the gains that the white West had made. Cynicism triumphed, and Stoicism, as a lived philosophical attitude, gets harder when you can’t accept what life throws at you because you are told that you have a right not to accept what life throws at you. But this makes Stoicism more philosophically vital now, not less. Never read the philosophy that chimes with the times; not now. The Stoics are becoming the new samizdat.
I have three rules for anyone approaching philosophy for the first time, or anyone with a child doing the same thing, and you ignore them at your peril. Firstly, don’t get yourself a “History of Western Philosophy.” These are fine and good as long as you already know something about the history of the discipline — and it is a discipline — and wish to connect the dots and see a history of the subject emerge. If you use one of these books — and there are many and good ones at that — as an introduction, then the tide will be too strong and you won’t go swimming again. You have to go to the source texts, which brings me to my second rule.
Don’t start with anything much less than 2,000 years old. Classical philosophy was not about system, but about the vagaries of everyday life. It is far closer to being approachable existentialism than the rigorous tomes the West produced from St. Thomas Aquinas onwards, and philosophy is too daunting if you dive straight in with empiricism or metaphysics.
My final point is really public relations for the Stoics: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are mellow and autumnal, wise words from a wise man who became a wise Emperor. Seneca’s letters to Lucilius, perhaps precisely because they are letters, have a mature friendliness about them, and an amiable engagement in problems everyone faced then and still faces now. Seneca’s subject is always how best to approach life in order to make it less irksome than it has a tendency to be. And do not be a slave to those things which do not really enslave you, one of which is the urge to be a slaver, whether metaphorically or literally. Epictetus again: “You shun slavery — beware of enslaving others!”
As for the worship of riches, perhaps today’s political class ought to read Epictetus, and possibly the greatest dismissal of avarice in all of philosophy: “Your vessels may be of gold, but your reason, your principles, your accepted views, your inclinations, your desires are of earthenware.”
As many classic texts have pointed out — not least the Bible — slavery to money is perhaps the most oppressive bondage of all, and a free man is not free if his master is formed of gold. “Do not embrace statues,” Epictetus writes.
Freedom is hardly a concept unknown to philosophy, and not confined to the argument between proponents of free will and those of determinism (and the Stoics were broadly deterministic). The sixteenth-century debate between Erasmus and Luther is the exemplar of this. But there is also physical freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre famously described man as “condemned to be free,” but he may have lacked perspective. Epictetus wrote about freedom as an ex-slave, Sartre as a man who never suffered a day’s bondage in his life (and probably never did a day’s work in his life), unless there is something about Simone de Beauvoir they are not telling us.
Epictetus is comfortable to read. There is nothing to chew over, as with Seneca and Marcus, but plenty to savor on the palate. Some of the advice is specifically social, as when Epictetus advises us against vanity in conversation:
In company avoid frequent and undue talk about your own actions and dangers. However pleasant it may be for you to enlarge upon the risks you have run, others may not find such pleasures in listening to your adventures.
Clearly, I can’t speak for you, gentle reader, but I recognize in that mild admonishment both memories of being in the company of others doing just what is warned against, alongside memories of myself doing exactly the same thing.
Epictetus lived a long life, dying at the age of 80, and it may be that aomw works of his are lost. That is the great memory-hole we can never escape when it comes to the classics. But the little he did leave us will be far more beneficial to a reader, particularly a newcomer to philosophy, than what passes for the modern discipline. We all know that nothing is inevitable except death and taxes, to quote the very practical Benjamin Franklin, but something else was painful to the Classical intellect — a fate (although not quite as ultimately gruesome) Epictetus shared with his fellow Stoic, Seneca:
Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes, with all else that men deem terrible, but more especially death. Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure.
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