Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Site Map - History of Philosophy

Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher

Stoicism under Rome. Epictetus (c. 50 A.D. - c. 130 A.D.) Despite their basic difference in world-picture (for Socrates "took no interest in metaphysics", but only in ethics, with logic as its workhorse), Epictetus shows Stoicism's deep roots in Socrates' thought.

Outline of this page ...


Life of Epictetus

Epictetus was a Greek born in Hierapolis in Phrygia, Asia Minor, taken as a slave to Rome, then freed there. He was lame and poor. He heard lectures of the Stoic C. Musonius Rufus [see Zeller's Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 13e, tr. Palmer, p. 269], and then taught until he was exiled with all philosophers from Italy, about 90 A.D.

Thence he taught at Nicopolis in Epirus, where "he lived in a house with only a rush mat, a simple pallet [bed on the floor], and an earthenware lamp (after the iron one was stolen)" (Encyc. Philos. (1967)). The lamp was placed beside his household gods (see Discourses i, 18 and i, 29). "In later years he took a wife to help him care for an infant that he had rescued from exposure" (W. Durant, Caesar and Christ (1944), p. 491).

The Greek philosopher and historian Arrian of Nicomedia wrote down Epictetus' words and published them in 8 Books (4 remain) of "Diatribai -- "rubbings" or copies" (Durant, p. 490) -- now called Discourses, and an Enchiridion or 'Handbook' or 'Manual' (on which Simplicius wrote a commentary), which is an abstract of Epictetus' practical philosophy ("training in virtue") in 53 aphorisms; there are also some 181 fragments.

Zeller says that Epictetus studied the logic and physics of the old Stoa, especially Chrysippus, and there found the basis "for his moral precepts -- [namely] the belief in God", in man's kinship with this Father, "in the rational ... course of the universe", and that "general moral principles are implanted in us by Nature".

God, Nature, and the natural world

Grammatical note: for Epictetus, "nature" [The double-quotes indicate that the word 'nature' is commonly used ambiguously] is nowise simply laws of nature or thoughtless elemental power -- but nature is instead thoroughgoingly informed by reason -- which is the only sense in which "nature" and God are one and the same. Thus in Epictetus 'Nature' and 'God' are synonymous (interchangeable, used indifferently), whereas 'natural world' and 'God' are not.

Texts and Translators: (in most cases): Discourses and fragments, tr. Hastings Crossley; and Manual, tr. P. E. Matheson. Many of these quotations are useful to the Socratic way of life, to how to amend one's present way of life to a life guided by thoroughgoing reason alone.


Epictetus' teaching and views

Epictetus "held that only one thing lies in our power -- our will [with respect to our own thoughts about the world, our way of looking at/seeing conditions and events (Cf. Stoicism in Hamlet ii, 2: "for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so")] ... our happiness depends on this alone". All else is indifferent: "the distinction between desirable and condemnable [events in the world] had scarcely any significance for him ... it was the Cynic [e.g. Diogenes of Sinope] whom he described as the true philosopher" ["What is my object? To understand Nature and follow her" (Manual 49)]. While teaching "unconditional surrender to the course of the world" -- since the world is directed by divine providence -- he also taught "the most unbounded and comprehensive philanthropy" [Because men are all sons of the benevolent Father, they should make their deeds resemble His]. (Zeller, p. 270)

Epictetus' exhortation to philosophy

Give thyself more diligently to reflection: Know thyself ... (Discourses ii, 12)

The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one's own mind ... (ibid. i, 26)

If a man would pursue Philosophy, his first task is to throw away conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he has a conceit that he already knows. (ibid. ii, 17; cf. Plato, Meno 84c)

... in actual life, [ignorant] men not only object to offer themselves to be convinced, but hate the man who has convinced them [of their ignorance (Plato, Apology 21c-d)]. Whereas Socrates used to say that we should never lead a life not subjected to examination [Apology 37e-38a]. (Discourses i, 26)

Plato uses the expression "conceited ignorance" (Sophist 229c); it contrasts with "Socratic ignorance". Synonyms are 'presumptuous' and 'unwise' -- 'conceited' means 'fancying oneself wise when one is not, thinking one knows what one does not know' (Apology 29a).

Compare the words of The Imitation of Christ: "Confess thine ignorance", and Augustine's "He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know" (Both these testify to the presence of Socrates in the Middle Ages).

But to make the confession "I don't know" -- even if only to oneself -- is not easy to do, not at the deepest level, the level of vain pride. The expression "hubristic ignorance" (from the Greek word hýbris or 'hubris') could be used for Plato's expression as well.

The different foundations of Stoic and Socratic ethics

Nevertheless there is a basic difference between Socratic ethics and Stoic ethics, for although according to both it is only "conceited ignorance" that thinks it knows what death is, Socratic ethics is based only on the nature of man (holding that a life in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to man (namely, moral virtue under the guidance of reason) is the good for man and therefore how man must live his life), whereas Stoic ethics is based on the nature of the universe (holding that the good for man is life in acceptance of the course of nature, thus conforming his attitude towards his life to the will of divine providence), a nature -- i.e. the Stoic equation: Nature = God -- Socrates makes no claim to know. The first principle of Stoic ethics is the proposition that in order to "Know himself" man must first "Know Nature".

"Seems it to you so small a thing?" (The reward of goodness)

Know you not that a good man does nothing for appearance's sake, but for the sake of having done right?

"Is there no reward then?"

Seems it to you so small a thing and worthless, to be a good man ...? (Discourses iii, 24)

The "reward" of a morally virtuous life is being a good man. Xenophon has Socrates speak of "growing daily in goodness" (Memorabilia i, 6, 9; iv, 8, 6). If moral virtue is knowledge, then doing what is good is not a sacrifice, for no man harms his ethical self except through ignorance, through thinking himself wise when he is not (Plato, Apology 29a): through thinking himself to know what is good when he does not.

The stolen lamp

The reason why I lost my lamp was that the thief was superior to me in vigilance. He paid however this price for the lamp, that in exchange for it he consented to become a thief. (Discourses i, 29)

"... he consented to become a thief." The gravest wrong that can be done to a man is the wrong he does to himself -- by his own wrong-doing, for by it he harms his soul (Plato, Gorgias 469b), as does the robber in Epictetus' story.

As I remembered the text: "The lamp was a poor thing and did not cost much. But the one who stole it paid a very high price for it, the price of making himself a thief." Epictetus replaced the iron lamp with an earthenware lamp (Discourses i, 29), but he does not seem to find himself blameworthy for placing a temptation in front of the thief by leaving the lamp unattended.

The philosopher is an example of philosophy

Thou wouldst do good unto men? then show them by thine own example what kind of men philosophy can make, and cease from foolish trifling. (Discourses iii, 13)

Thus at a banquet, do not discuss how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought. Remember that Socrates thus entirely avoided ostentation. (Manual 46, tr. Crossley)

Let silence be your general rule; or say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things. (ibid. 33)

The philosopher and the lost sheep

A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path [cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 13-15; cf. Plato, Sophist 230b-d].... You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock [cf. Memorabilia iii, 13, 1], but rather feel your own incapacity. (Discourses ii, 12)

Service to the body versus service to the soul (which is service to Reason)

What you give to the body, you presently lose; what you give to the soul, you keep for ever. (Fragment from Stobaeus, tr. Crossley; strange to serve such a thing as the body; cf. Plato, Apology 30a-b, 36c)

Stoic self-sufficiency

... a man should also be prepared to be sufficient unto himself -- to dwell with himself alone, even as God dwells with Himself alone ... considers the nature of His own administration, intent upon such thoughts as are meet unto Himself.

So should we also be able to converse with ourselves, to need none else beside, to sigh for no distraction, to bend our thoughts upon ... what needs perfecting [in us] as Reason would direct. (Discourses iii, 13)

"... as Reason would direct." This is Socrates' life of thoroughgoing reason alone, reason being the specific excellence that is proper and unique to man, and therefore the good for man is to live according to it. And, Epictetus says, reason is all man has need of (It is the source of his self-sufficiency, as it is the source of God's as well; reason would be the "image and likeness" of God his Father in man). The Stoic is not afraid to be left alone with his own thoughts, because reason is companion in solitude (He does not need or seek to be diverted or entertained). His time is dedicated to reasoning out how he should live his life in accord with the ethical good (moral virtue) that is proper to him both as man and as an individual.

When asked what benefit he had gained from the study of philosophy, [Socrates' companion] Antisthenes replied, "The ability to hold discourse with myself." (Diog. L. vi, 6; Hicks' translation: "The ability to hold converse with myself")

By 'discourse' Antisthenes means Socratic dialectic, to cross-question one's own thoughts as if in a dialog with the truth.


The Stoicism of Epictetus: how to live based only on the excellence that is proper to man

What standard guides man in ethics? What is the answer to Plato's "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live"?

"My brother ought not to have treated me thus."

True: but he must see to that. However he may treat me, I must deal rightly by him. This is what lies with me ... (Discourses iii, 10)

Epictetus' motto was "Bear and forbear".

Shame is unique and proper to man

How are we constituted by Nature? To be free, to be noble, to be modest (for what other living thing is capable of blushing, or of feeling the impression of shame?) (ibid. iii, 7)

Man has a moral choice and reason with which to evaluate the choices he must make. That is why the way of life proper to man is rational moral virtue.

Attitude of mind and Freedom

"Throw him into prison!" -- What prison? -- Where he is already: for he is there against his will; and wherever a man is against his will, that to him is a prison.

Thus Socrates was not in prison since he was there with his own consent. (Discourses i, 12)

If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone. (Discourses iii, 24) ... Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgment that they are so.... know that it is your own thought that has angered you. (Manual 20)

To the objection that man is not only rational, but also an animal -- i.e. irrational and therefore torturable through his body and emotions -- is not answered by Epictetus, who points only to the ideal for man. (He ignores as well absolute evil: terrible things are done to children in this world, and the recognition of that pure evil cannot be evaded by a change of attitude. Man does not live in the world of a benevolent God.)

No man is free who is not master of himself. (Fragment, tr. Crossley)

But no man is master of his own heart. We cannot choose who or what we love, and while it may be possible to reason one's way out of loving the wrong thing, it may not be possible to reason one's way into loving the right thing. (Philosophy is love of wisdom, and ethics may have something to do with the love of virtue.)

Stoic common humanity in Epictetus

What you shun enduring yourself, attempt not to impose on others. You shun slavery -- beware of enslaving others! If you can endure to do that, one would think you had been once upon a time a slave yourself. (Fragment, tr. Crossley)

"... attempt not to impose on others." Although that precept is not a tautology (in form; cf. the religious precept of Matthew 7.12: "whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them"), a related precept is found by (what I called) Plato's method of tautologies in ethics: "If the good man harms his enemies, then what does the evil man do to them; and if both do the same, then what is the difference between a good and an evil man?" If the good man imposes the unendurable, which is evil, on others, then what does the evil man do?

"Love your friends and hate your enemies" was a maxim which nobody before Socrates ever thought of challenging. (Kitto, The Greeks (1951, rev. 1957) p. 244; compare Aesop's fable about the fox and the stork with its moral "One bad turn deserves another", which would have been the unquestioned view before Socrates, according to Kitto. In Republic 332a-d, 335b-c, Plato refutes the maxim that the just man (which is the same as the good man, for "justice" is the specific excellence proper to man, according to the Republic) does good to his friends and harm to his enemies: "to injure a friend or any one else is not the act of a just man, but of the opposite, who is the unjust" (335e, tr. Jowett))

"... ever thought of challenging." But Socrates did challenge it. The stories told by Diogenes Laertius are reflections of Socrates' principal idea in ethics -- namely, that Moral Virtue is knowledge as Vice is ignorance. It would be foolishness (the opposite of wisdom) to harm men for their ignorance of the good rather than benefit them by leading them (either through example or words) to knowledge of the good (as in Epictetus, Discourses ii, 12). In the Socratic context that would be the meaning of both 'to love one's enemies' and 'to forgive others their wrong-doing' (Matthew 5.43-45, 6.12).

Neither to enslave nor be enslaved

But what is to be done? It seems that if you have money, you enslave others, and if you haven't money, others enslave you. As if money were freedom. You yourself must serve without becoming (i.e. making yourself) a slave (Nietzsche), and you must help those who serve you to remain free, I think Epictetus would say, by your own example.

Stoicism's and Christianity's failure to unite on common ground

And this illustrates the tragic historical fact for Western civilization that late Stoicism and Christianity, despite sharing an ethics of love, were at war with one another (cf. Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, tr. Campion (1929), p. 58-59). Why? To the mind of the Christians the Stoics were pagans (i.e. without knowledge and faith in the true God), while in the eyes of the Stoics the Christians were superstitious (i.e. the holders of an irrational world-picture). Their attitude towards one another stopped them from joining in service of Stoicism's common humanity and Christianity's your neighbor.

Having the spirit of Christ -- "Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers" -- is, in Schweitzer's view, "the only theology", a view that expresses his rationalism in religion; his view of late Stoicism would have been similar. Cf. Tolstoy's conclusion in Resurrection [ii, 40], that whenever men think that there is something more important than treating other human beings with love, that is when every cruelty becomes possible. And so in our history ideas both unite and divide mankind. Although it can be said either way, that Nothing is higher than love of God and neighbor = Nothing is higher than love of God and common humanity, late Stoicism and Christianity remained hostile to one another.

And when death overtakes?

Keep death and exile daily before your eyes ... Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure. (Manual 21, tr. Crossley)

To see the world aright

What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death?... let me at least hope for this ... that I may be found raising up in myself that which had fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility ... (Discourses iv, 10)

Above all, remember that the door stands open.... But if thou stayest, make no lamentation. (Discourses i, 24)

Discontent with the world is contrary to Epictetus' account of the world-picture of the philosopher. Not "indulging in discontent" is not a habit one needs to acquire, but rather an understanding of the nature of the world and our place in it.

What we do from habit is sweet to us

Choose the life that is noblest, for custom can make it sweet to thee. (Fragment, tr. Crossley)

I had remembered Epictetus' words this way: "Practice doing what is right until it becomes a habit, because what we do from habit is sweet to us.."

In Aristotle's descriptive account of ethics, moral virtue is habit: Virtue is "a habitual tendency [habit] towards right which makes it at the same time enjoyable [sweet]"; intellectual virtue [excellence or areté] is taught, "while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit" (Nicomachean Ethics 1102b14-20, tr. Ross) -- but how do we know whether a particular habit is good or evil, if not from knowledge of the good? That knowledge is what Socratic ethics is.

The Socratic tests of reason and experience

"From bad companions you learn bad habits" (quoted in 1 Corinthians 15.33) and "You can't touch pitch and not be mucked" (Treasure Island ii, 10). Aristotle says with Theognis, that you may learn good habits from good companions. Those observations seem to belong to ethics, if ethics is practical, i.e. if its aim is to make ethical human beings, not merely to describe them. But those observations, which are ethical theses, like all others, must be put to the Socratic tests of reason and experience, because like everything philosophical, ethics is thoroughgoingly rational.

Reason has nothing to refute the proposition that we should avoid bad companions if we wish to avoid forming good habits: its meaning is not unclear nor is it contradictory. But experience does not confirm that proposition, for it commonly happens that one is made better by revulsion at bad companions (just as one often fails to imitate good companions).

It seems that any proposition may be presented in such a way -- i.e. with or without contradiction -- as to make it stand or fall to reason ("They keep two logics"; cf. OC § 1: "any proposition can be derived from other propositions"). And that is why in many cases a test of experience is also needed. [This remark is not quite right.]


Philosophy's School

A Philosopher's school is a Surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For on entering none of you is whole. (Discourses iii, 23)

The reason you entered philosophy's school is that you recognized that you were without understanding, that you felt surrounded by vagueness and confusion and nonsense disguised as metaphor. And you confessed that you knew nothing, that your ignorance was from the heights to the depths, from the elementary to the final.

But remember that for Epictetus logic is only a tool towards understanding, that the aim of philosophy is to live the life that is the good for man. For Epictetus, as for Socrates, logic is an instrument of ethics: clarity is an aim but not the end of philosophy, as it was the end for Wittgenstein (although note that if virtue is knowledge, then logic and ethics are inseparable).

... to desire to be wise and good is not enough. It is necessary to learn certain things. This then is the object of our search. The Philosophers would have us first learn that there is a God, and that His Providence directs the Universe ...

secondly, what the nature of God is. Whatever that nature is discovered to be ... man ... must strive to be made like unto Him. If the Divine is faithful, he must also be faithful; if free ... if beneficent ... if magnanimous .... as an imitator of God must he follow Him in every deed and word. (Discourses ii, 14)

And if "the Divine" is capricious, cruel, sadistic, indifferent, amoral as the natural world is. (What is amoral cannot teach man morality.) But what does Epictetus mean by 'the Divine'? (Christianity does not explain the relationship between the ethical Father of religion with the God of the natural world.)

The inner man, or outward things

Do you suppose that if you do this you can live as you do now -- indulge desire and discontent just as before?

Nay, you must sit up late, work hard, abandon your own people, be looked down on by a mere slave, be ridiculed by those who meet you, get the worst of it in everything [cf. Plato, Gorgias 486b-c] -- in honor, in office, in justice, in every possible thing....

you must study either your inner man, or outward things -- in a word, you must choose between the position of a philosopher and that of a mere outsider. (Manual 29)

"Do you suppose that you can live as you live now?" That is the distinction Jesus made between this world and the kingdom of God: you cannot keep a foot in both: you must decide wholly for one or for the other (Luke 17.33). For Epictetus the distinction is between the ethics of the philosopher who seeks to know the good for man and the unexamined life of one who presumes he knows what the good for man is, but does not (Apology 37e-38a).

The "inner man" is the ethical aspect of oneself.


Lame and Poor ("Attic Nights")

But the memory of Epictetus, the illustrious philosopher, that he also was a slave, is too recent to be mentioned as a thing obsolete. Two verses are said to have been written by this Epictetus upon himself, in which it is tacitly implied, that they who, in this life, have to struggle with various calamities, are not indiscriminately obnoxious to the gods; but that there are certain mysterious causes, which the investigation of few can comprehend: -- "I Epictetus, born a slave, and lame, and poor as Irus [a beggar in Homer's Odyssey xviii], am dear to the gods." (The Attic Nights Of Aulus Gellius ii, 18, tr. Beloe)

"That Epictetus was for some time a slave and always poor, and likewise lame, are things attested by many ancient writers, and need not be disputed. They are mentioned by Aulus Gellius, who was contemporary with our philosopher, but survived him: who mentions a short Greek epigram which he also ascribes to Epictetus himself, to this purpose

"A slave, in body maim'd, as Irus poor,
Yet to the gods was Epictetus dear."

Simplicius, whose authority is very good, says that Epictetus was a slave of an infirm constitution, and lame from early age, and so well satisfied with extreme poverty, that his small house at Rome needed no securities, having nothing in it but his couch and mattress upon which he lay." -- Lardner. (ii, 18, note 4)

I have neither city nor house nor possessions nor servants: the ground is my couch; I have no wife, no children, no shelter -- nothing but earth and sky, and one poor cloak. And what lack I yet? am I not untouched by sorrow, by fear? am I not free? (Discourses iii, 22)


Early Sources for knowledge of Epictetus

Simplicius. Peripatetic philosopher, born in Cilicia (Asia Minor), taught at Alexandria and Athens during reign of Justinian, and thus in 529 A.D. was barred along with all other pagans from teaching philosophy.

Among his works are commentaries on Aristotle's Categories, Physics, De Caelo, and De Anima; and a commentary on the Enchiridion, an abstract of the philosophy of Epictetus by Flavius Arrianus of Nicomedia (Arrian).

Aulus Gellius. Latin author, flor. 169 A.D., studied rhetoric at Rome, philosophy at Athens (to age 25), practised law at Rome. Author of Noctes Atticae in 20 books (eighth book lost): quotations, many from lost works, from Latin and Greek authors apropos of language, literature, history, antiquities. Work partly compiled in the winter nights during Gellius' stay at Athens; hence title, "Attic Nights". (Edito principes, Rome 1469. Loeb tr. J. C. Rolfe, 3 vols.)

Stobaeus. Crossley says that many of the fragments are of "doubtful origin", most having been preserved in the Anthology of John of Stobi (Stobaeus), "a Byzantine collector, of whom scarcely anything is known but that he probably wrote towards the end of the fifth century, and made his vast body of extracts from more than five hundred authors for his son's use".


Epictetus in Will Durant's Caesar and Christ (1944)

Somewhat like Socrates, he asked what it mattered "whether all existing things are composed of atoms ... or of fire and earth? Is it not enough to learn the true nature of good and evil?" (Fragment) "Philosophy does not mean reading books about wisdom, it means training oneself in the practice of wisdom." (p. 491) [Manual 49: "when some one says to me, "Read me Chrysippus," when I cannot point to actions [of mine] which are in harmony and correspondence with his teaching, I am rather inclined to blush."]

"... death is a minor incident in the good man's life; he may advance its coming if he finds that evil too heavily outweighs good [Discourses i, 24]; in any case he will receive it calmly as part of the secret wisdom of nature. "Regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment" [ibid. i, 2; cf. ii, 5].

God has sent me into the world to be his soldier and witness, to tell men that their sorrows and fears are vain, that to a good man no evil can befall, whether he live or die. [Cf. "... know this of a truth -- that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death" (Plato, Apology 41c-d, tr. Jowett)] ... With such ministry committed to me, can I any longer care in what place I am, or who my companions are, or what they say about me? [Discourses iii, 24; ii, 6]

Epictetus "denounces slavery, condemns capital punishment, and wishes to have criminals treated as sick men [Discourses i, 18, 19; fragment]. He advocates a daily examination of conscience [iii, 10] ... advises men to return good for evil [ii, 10] ... to fast now and then and "abstain from the things you desire" [iii, 13], and he gives the rule: "What you shun to suffer, do not make others suffer" [Fragment from Stobaeus; Diog. L. v, 21, ascribes a like rule to Aristotle]. (p. 493) It's possible for the historian to "trace all these ideas back to the Stoics and Cynics", Durant says (p. 491-93).

If a man is reported to have spoken ill of you, make no defense, but say, "He did not know the rest of my faults, else he would not have mentioned only these." (Manual 33)

"For the body is a source of endless trouble"

It is astonishing that we should love a thing to which we perform such strange services everyday. I fill this bag, and then empty it; what is more troublesome? (Epictetus, Fragment, quoted by Durant)

(The title is taken from Plato, Phaedo 66b-d)


Life Under the Open Sky

But I can point thee out a free man, that thou mayest be no more in search of an example. Diogenes [the Cynic] was free.... (Discourses iv, 1)

[A Cynic, such as Diogenes was, should be proof] that a plain and simple manner of life under the open sky does no harm to the body .... his very roughness should be clean and attractive. (ibid. iii, 22)

Others may fence themselves with walls and houses, when they do such deeds as these, and wrap themselves in darkness -- aye, they may have many a device to hide themselves. Another may shut his door and station one before his chamber to say, if any comes, "He has gone forth! he is not at leisure!"

But the true Cynic will have none of these things; instead of them, he must wrap himself in Modesty: else he will bring himself to shame, naked and under the open sky. That is his house; that is his door; that is the slave that guards his chamber; that is his darkness! (ibid. iii, 22)

The Greek climate in Goethe's eyes

[In the northern lands] Nature compels people to make provision, not merely for the next day or the next hour, but for the distant future, to prepare in fair weather for foul, in summer for winter ... For several months of the year we do not go out of doors unless we must, but take shelter in our houses from rain, snow and cold.

What Cornelius von Pauw had the temerity to say, when speaking of the Cynic philosophers in his book, Recherches Philosophiques sur les Grecs fits in perfectly with my argument. It is false, he says, to think of these people [i.e. the Cynic philosophers] as miserable; their principle of going without was favored by a climate which gave them all the necessities of life. Here, a poor man, whom, in our country, we think of as wretched, can satisfy his essential needs and at the same time enjoy the world to the full, and a so-called Neapolitan beggar might well refuse to become Viceroy of Norway or ... Governor of Siberia.

A Cynic philosopher would, I am certain, consider life in our country intolerable; on the other hand, Nature invited him, so to speak, to live in the south. Here the ragged man is not naked, nor poor he who has no provision for the morrow. (Goethe, Italian Journey: 1786-88, tr. Auden and Mayer (1982), p. 316-17)

But someone from a temperate climate may find the heat enervating and pine for the well-pronounced seasons. Many would miss the temperate zone's fall and winter. And indeed the British-sent rulers of Greece longed to return -- and did return -- home to Britain after their reign for just this reason. And while it is true that temperate man must make provision for shelter from the cold -- all men must make provision for doctors. Toothache was regarded by the ancient Greeks as the worst suffering of all, although it was an attack of ophthalmia that made the former Stoic Dionysius of Heraclea (called "the Renegade") break with Zeno's teaching.

Historians, Climate and Culture

Writing about the birth of philosophy, historians may point to the geography and climate of Greece, but if climate and geography made the Greek way of life possible -- it hardly made it necessary. Otherwise the Mediterranean would have been home to countless cultures like that of ancient Greece.

In Athens, they held the first dramatic festival of the year -- in the open air -- in February. [Such was the Attic climate that the Greek man] could and did spend most of his leisure hours out of doors ... he did not need to work in order to buy settees and coal ... three-quarters of the things which we slave for the Greek simply did without.

So, spending out of doors the leisure which he earned largely by doing without things which we find or think necessary, the Greek ... was able to sharpen his wits and improve his manners through constant intercourse with his fellows. Few people have been so completely sociable.

What society but Athens could have produced a figure like Socrates -- a man who changed the current of human thought ... simply by talking in the streets of a city ...?

[In a different climate Athenian culture and democracy] could not have developed as it did. (Kitto, The Greeks (1951, rev. 1957), p. 36-7)

"His eye is on the sparrow" (Matthew 10.29)

Every winter millions of birds starve or freeze to death here among us in the north. For the most part that goes unknown or unnoticed by us. However, no one with an eye to our actual experience of the world would make the following claims, either in the north or in Athens.

To have God as our maker, father, and guardian -- shall not this suffice to keep us from grief and fear? And wherewithal shall I be fed, asks one, if I have nothing? But what shall we say of ... the animals, every one of which is sufficient to itself ...? (Discourses i, 9, quoted by Durant, op. cit. p. 493)

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.... Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 6.25-26)

Could Epictetus have said things like Discourses i, 9, if he had faced winter snow up to his knees? Could there have been a Diogenes in the Nordic world? Men have lived in caves during the winter.

Questions of climate and culture are like Dulcinea's existence, not something you can demonstrate conclusively one way or the other.


The Stoic Ideal of Public Service

The Roman emperor Trajan (c. 53-117 A.D.) wrote to Pliny the Younger:

I have received from Gabius Bassus the letter you mention, acquainting me that the number of soldiers I had ordered him was not sufficient; and for your information I have directed my answer to be hereunto annexed. It is very material to distinguish between what the exigency of affairs requires and what an ambitious desire of extending power may think necessary. As for ourselves, the public welfare must be our only guide ... (Letter xxxiii, tr. Melmoth rev. Bosanquet)

That would be the "imperial we", but the letter implies that the emperor's representative authority, as Pliny was, must also be guided in his decisions by only concern for the public good.

The rulers of this world according to Paul

The paths of the Apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca -- two men whose thoughts, although belonging to very different world-pictures, resemble each other's in the way Stoic and Christian ideas do, but who never met -- did cross in a strange way.

Among the fixed dates Albert Schweitzer gives for Paul's life and Letters is "the proconsulate of Gallio, brother of the philosopher Seneca, in Achaia, before whose judgment-seat Paul was dragged by the Jews (Acts 18.12)" (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, tr. Montgomery (1931), p. 46-47). "In Corinth he is dragged before the Proconsul Gallio, brother of the philosopher Seneca, who, however, refuses to have anything to do with religious controversies of the Jews among themselves (Acts 18.12-17)" (ibid. p. 148).

How does Paul come to ascribe this remarkably high ethical value to earthly governments [in Romans 13.1-7: "For there is no authority that is not from God, and the existing authorities are appointed by God.... For rulers are not a tyrant to well-doing but to ill-doing." (ibid. p. 314)]? Its parallel can only be found in antiquity in the consciousness of their office among the great Stoic Emperors, who felt themselves to be truly the servants of the State for realization of good. This Late-Stoic conception of rulership was at that time in process of growing up [and therefore cannot have been the source of Paul's thinking, but Jews had gotten used to living under foreign rulers and so long as these kept the peace and did not interfere with the practice of their religion, this rule was acceptable to them]. It was put into practice in the rule of Trajan (98-117). It is documented in the Correspondence of Trajan with Pliny the Younger ... But from the point of view of the subject [as opposed to the point of view of the ruler whose subject he was] this valuation of rulership was expressed by no other writer in antiquity ... Neither Socrates, Plato, nor Aristotle carry the idea of obedience to authority so far. (ibid. p. 315)

Schweitzer says that Paul might have cited his experience "that whatever justice was maintained in the world was the work of Roman authority, and that its representative at Corinth, Gallio, the brother of Seneca, had refused to condemn him when the Jews brought accusation against him (Acts 18.12-16)" (ibid. p. 317).

Eschatology's view (Jesus' view) of the rulers of this world

For Jesus [on the other hand] rulers are not those charged with the maintenance of order; they are the mighty, those who are not humble, those who do not serve [Luke 22.27]; as was for eschatology the natural way of regarding them ... [Mark 12.13-17] was meant ironically [because] there would soon be no [Caesar to render anything unto]. (p. 314)

"This world and all it loves is passing away" (1 John 2.17). Render -- i.e. abandon -- to this world, therefore, what belongs to this world -- and render to God what belongs to the coming kingdom of God (the kingdom of Caesar will soon be gone).

In eschatology's view the rulers of this world render unto themselves the things that are God's. Their kingdoms are ruled by worldly power, whereas the kingdom of God is to be ruled by love. Regardless of whether God's kingdom is Stoic or Christian, the rule is the same: "to love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself" in a neighborhood without boundaries.

They swear to hold no other dearer than Caesar: you, to hold our true selves dearer than all else beside. (Discourses i, 14; cf. Socratic "care of the soul")

Plato: the state as a father to whom obedience is owed

About the state's rulers, Plato says nothing in the Crito. It is the laws of the state to which one owes obedience. As to the men who are called "statesmen", for the Athenian rulers Plato has little regard: From the point of view of ethics, did the rulers make the people better -- i.e. morally virtuous? is all he says about them; his question is rhetorical and its answer is "No". Plato has the laws cross-question Socrates:

SOCRATES: "... since you were brought into the world and raised and educated by us, how, in the first place, can you deny that you are our child and our slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this be so, do you think that your rights are on a level with ours?

"Or are you too wise [The laws mean the word 'wise' ironically] to see that your country is worthier, more to be revered, more sacred, and held in higher honor both by the gods and by all men of understanding, than your father and your mother and all your other ancestors; and that you ought to reverence it, and submit to it, and to approach it more humbly when it is angry with you than you would approach your father; and either to do whatever it tells you to do or to persuade it to excuse you; and to obey in silence if it orders you to endure flogging or imprisonment, or if it sends you to battle to be wounded or to die?

"In war, and in the court of justice, and everywhere, you must do whatever your state and your country tell you to do, or you must persuade them that their commands are unjust ..."

What answer shall we make, Crito? Shall we say that the laws speak the truth, or not?

CRITO: I think they do. (Plato, Crito 50e-51c, tr. Church, rev. Cumming)

And so Plato's metaphor: the state is like a father to whom one owes everything and must obey in everything. But is that metaphor apt, because neither all states nor laws are in all cases just (and not deaf to persuasion) -- and is not only what is just that one owes the reverence that is owed to one's father? Confucius on the reform of language: "If a father who is not fatherly were not called 'father' ..." The state is not the loving Father Jesus speaks of. Plato writes as if he were thinking of the ideal state.

Should the Crito be read as directed only to the particular circumstances of Socrates and why Socrates should or should not escape into exile rather than let the Athenian state put him to death (so the question is specifically about the Athenian state, not all states)? Is Plato defending the rule of law, i.e. civilization, as being in all circumstances better for man than the rule of the individual, the tyrant?

But isn't it the view of philosophy, contra Plato's words here, that it is only to the true and the good (or, in other words, to God) that man owes loyalty, and to nothing else? (Sophocles' Antigone says to the state: "Your laws do not outweigh the laws of God", the eternal laws.)

[According to Solon "an orderly and well-constituted state" is] When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws. (Durant, Life of Greece (1939), v, p. 118; Durant cites (p. 685n77) as his source Diog. L., "Solon" xvi, tr. unnamed (1853) (p. 674), but this is not found in Diog. L. i, 45-67)

Will just laws make the people just (Gorgias 517b)? Does the just statesman make the people better? Will just laws make just men, i.e. men who obey the law regardless of whether there is an authority (e.g. policeman) to enforce the law or not? [Plato questions whether moral virtue can be taught (Protagoras 319a-b and Meno 93b-94e), and Xenophon defends Socrates against the charge that he made his companions morally worse rather than better (Memorabilia i, 2, 24).]


Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Emperor

Roman Emperor from A.D. 161-180, composed his Meditations (in the Greek language) in twelve books in aphoristic form. For Epictetus he had a lively admiration ... [He] laid [stress] on Divine Providence and a wise ordering of the universe, the close relationship between man and God [God is man's Father], the duty of love towards one's fellow-men.

It is man's special gift to love even those who fall into blunders; this takes effect the moment we realize that men are our brothers, that sin is ignorance and unintentional, that in a little while we shall both be dead, that, above all, no injury is done us; our inner self is not made worse than it was before. (Meditations [Meditations or To Himself] 7, 22)

Source: Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome (1947) xl, 3, p. 435-436 [p. 508].


Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 17 February 2022 : 2022-02-17 (First version: 16 April 2010)

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/epictetus.html

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map