Frequestly Asked Questions (and answers) about Stoic philosophy

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Miscellaneous questions

What about things that are partially under our control?

Epictetus’s Enchiridion opens with the famous categorization of things into those that are in our control (also translated “in our power,” “up to us,” or “attributable to us”) and those that are not. In Matheson’s translation:

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.

This is commonly referred to by modern authors as the “dichotomy of control.” A common modern response to this is to object that we can often influence things like our body, property, etc. Aren’t they partially under our control? Epictetus gives the example of walking as something not under our control (Discourse 4.1). In this discourse, Epictetus explicitly states that (in Oldfather’s translation):

where there is a use of the body and its co-operation, you have heard long ago that nothing is your own.

…but isn’t it in my power to go for a walk?

To understand what Epictetus was getting at, it helps to look at the usage of the phrase being translated as “in our power” or “under our control”: ἐφ’ ἡμῖν/eph’ hêmin. It is rarely used in surviving Stoic literature from before Epictetus, and where it is, it is used in the context of discussion of determinism and free will (see this FAQ question). In particular, it designates a specific link in a chain of events: our choice (which follows from our character), as distinct from the links in the chain that come before or after: both from the events that led to us having the character we do, and the consequences of the choice. These early sources make it clear that what is ἐφ’ ἡμῖν/eph’ hêmin corresponds to that which can be considered virtuous or vicious about us. Although Epictetus rarely mentions “virtue” by that name, he also makes it clear that when he is referring to ἐφ’ ἡμῖν/eph’ hêmin (which he does throughout), he is talking about the same thing. From Fragment 4 in Matheson’s translation of Epictetus:

God has divided all things into those that He put in our power, and those that are not in our power. He put in our power that which is noblest and highest, that which in fact constitutes His own happiness, the power to deal with impressions. For this faculty when rightly exercised is freedom, peace, courage, steadfastness, and this too is justice and law and self-control and all virtue. All else He put beyond our power.

More often, Epictetus declares that what is good and bad is whether our προαίρεσις/prohairesis (moral character) is “rightly exercised” or “in accord with nature” (see Epictetus’s Discourses 1.4.18-22, 1.29.1, 2.10.25-26, 2.16.1-2, 2.23.8-19, 2.23.27, 3.3.18-22, and many other passages), and that this moral character is the only thing that is under our control (see Discourses 1.1.23, 1.12.9, 1.17.20-26, 1.19.7-10, 1.19.16-17, 1.29.24, 2.1.6-7, 2.5.4-5, 2.15.1, and many more). For example, look at Epictetus’s Discourse 1.22 (Oldfather’s translation):

Under our control are moral purpose and all the acts of moral purpose; but not under our control are the body, the parts of the body, possessions, parents, brothers, children, country—in a word, all that with which we associate.

This amounts to the same thing as declaring that virtue and vice are the only good and bad, only with different language.

To apply the dichotomy of control to things that appear to be partially under our control, analyze the chain of cause and effect that may (or may not) lead to whatever it is that is being considered, breaking down each link in the chain until every link is either completely in our control (our προαίρεσις/prohairesis/moral character, which probably takes place in the inside the frontal lobes of our brains), or completely out of it (anything other than our moral character). To apply the dichotomy of control is to set our goals and focus our desires only on keeping our moral character in accordance with nature.

The link between ἐφ’ ἡμῖν/eph’ hêmin/under our control and προαίρεσις/prohairesis/moral character means that a number of other passages from Epictetus concerning moral character are just different ways of phrasing the dichotomy of control. For example, Enchiridion 9 is a simple rewording of Enchiridion 1.

In this interpretation, Epictetus’s examples make sense: our “thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid”, etc., are activities of our moral purpose, while our “body, property, reputation, office” are only connected to it by links further down the chain of cause and effect. The declaration and examples in first passage in the Enchiridion closely parallel Stoic ethics as expressed by Epictetus’s predecessors, starting with the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium:

Of things that are, some there are
Which are good and some which are evil,
And some which are neither good nor evil.
And the good are these:
Wisdom, Sobriety, Justice and Fortitude.
And the evil are these:
Folly, Intemperance, Injustice and Cowardice.
And things that are neither good nor evil are indifferent.
And things indifferent are these:
Life and death, good repute and ill repute,
Pain and pleasure, riches and poverty.
Sickness and health, and such like.

(From Arius Didymus on the first page of his Epitome of Stoic Ethics, translated by Sedgwick.)

It’s not that easy!

Readers of Stoic philosophy sometimes read the advice and theory behind it, and become frustrated when they cannot put it into practice; they continue to be overcome by emotions, act viciously, or against their own best judgements.

The first thing to recognize is that Stoicism does not attempt to eliminate emotions altogether, but rather to prevent them from overcoming one’s reason, so that one can act virtuously. See this question, and the longer wiki page on the Stoic theory of emotions.

The main thing to recognize is that the Stoics viewed the art of living not just as a theory, but rather a skill. As such, benefiting from Stoicism is not just a question of learning facts, but of practicing the application of the theory. From Epictetus’s Discourse 2.9:

Now deeds that correspond to his true nature strengthen and preserve each particular man; carpentry does that for the carpenter, grammatical studies for the grammarian. But if a man acquires the habit of writing ungrammatically, his art must necessarily be destroyed and perish. So modest acts preserve the modest man, whereas immodest acts destroy him; and faithful acts preserve the faithful man while acts of the opposite character destroy him. And again, acts of the opposite character strengthen men of the opposite character; shamelessness strengthens the shameless man, faithlessness the faithless, abuse the abusive, wrath the wrathful, a disproportion between what he receives and what he pays out the miserly.

That is why the philosophers admonish us not to be satisfied with merely learning, but to add thereto practice also, and then training. For in the course of years we have acquired the habit of doing the opposite of what we learn and have in use opinions which are the opposite of the correct ones. If, therefore, we do not also put in use the correct opinions, we shall be nothing but the interpreters of other men’s judgements. For who is there among us here and now that cannot give a philosophical discourse about good and evil? It will run like this: Of things that be, some are good, others evil, and others indifferent; now good things are virtues and everything that partakes in the virtues; evil are the opposite; while indifferent are wealth, health, reputation. Then, if we are interrupted in the midst of our speech by some unusually loud noise, or if someone in the audience laughs at us, we are upset.

Epictetus also emphasizes the difficulty of such practice and training, and warns against expecting quick results. From Discourse 1.20:

When, therefore, you wish to realize how careless you are about the good and the evil, and how zealous you are about that which is indifferent, observe how you feel about physical blindness on the one hand, and mental delusion on the other, and you will find out that you are far from feeling as you ought about things good and things evil. “Yes, but this requires much preparation, and much hard work, and learning many things.” Well, what then? Do you expect it to be possible to acquire the greatest art with a slight effort?

and also Discourse 1.15:

What I seek to know is this, how, even if my brother refuses to be reconciled with me, I may yet be in accord with nature, Epictetus replied: Nothing great comes into being all at once; why, not even does the bunch of grapes, or a fig. If you say to me now, “I want a fig,” I shall answer, “That requires time.” Let the tree blossom first, then put forth its fruit, and finally let the fruit ripen. Now although the fruit of even a fig-tree is not brought to perfection all at once and in a single hour, would you still seek to secure the fruit of a man’s mind in so short a while and so easily?

Even with this effort, however, the Stoics did not clain to have achieved their ultimate ideal of becoming a sage, but only to have improved. From Discourse 1.2:

Why then, pray, if we are endowed by nature for such greatness, do not all men, or many, become like him? What, do all horses become swift, all dogs keen to follow the scent? What then? Because I have no natural gifts, shall I on that account give up my discipline? Far be it from me! Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest.

Sources for exercises can be found in this FAQ question. One of the primary ones emphasized by Epictetus is regularly critiquing ones own reactions and judgements using philosophical principles, as described (for example) in Discourse 2.1:

Did not Socrates write? – Yes, who wrote as much as he? But how? Since he could not have always at hand someone to test his judgements, or to be tested by him in turn, he was in the habit of testing and examining himself, and was always in a practical way trying out some particular primary conception. That is what a philosopher writes

By “testing his judgements”, Epictetus meant studying his own thoughts and reactions, and testing them against his philosophy, just as analysis of one’s one execution is part of the development of any other skill. To be “practice,” this must be done not only when encountering a difficult situation, but in regular, day to day life, just as a piano player begins by learning simple songs, and practices without an audience, before learning more complex pieces and trying to play them under more stressful conditions.

Isn’t anger sometimes useful?

The Stoics said no; that being virtuous – being prudent, just, and courageous – is better than anger for every worthwhile pursuit. From Seneca’s On Anger book 1, sections 9 and 11:

In the next place, anger has nothing useful in itself, and does not rouse up the mind to warlike deeds: for a virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the assistance of a vice: whenever it needs an impetuous effort, it does not become angry, but rises to the occasion, and excites or soothes itself as far as it deems requisite, just as the machines which hurl darts may be twisted to a greater or lesser degree of tension at the manager’s pleasure. “Anger,” says Aristotle, “is necessary, nor can any fight be won without it, unless it fills the mind, and kindles up the spirit. It must, however, be made use of, not as a general, but as a soldier.” Now this is untrue; for if it listens to reason and follows whither reason leads, it is no longer anger, whose characteristic is obstinacy: if, again, it is disobedient and will not be quiet when ordered, but is carried away by its own willful and headstrong spirit, it is then as useless an aid to the mind as a soldier who disregards the sounding of the retreat would be to a general. If, therefore, anger allows limits to be imposed upon it, it must be called by some other name, and ceases to be anger, which I understand to be unbridled and unmanageable: and if it does not allow limits to be imposed upon it, it is harmful and not to be counted among aids: wherefore either anger is not anger, or it is useless: for if any man demands the infliction of punishment, not because he is eager for the punishment itself, but because it is right to inflict it, he ought not to be counted as an angry man: that will be the useful soldier, who knows how to obey orders: the passions cannot obey any more than they can command.

“But,” argues he, “against our enemies anger is necessary.” In no case is it less necessary; since our attacks ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. What, indeed, is it except anger, so ruinous to itself, that overthrows barbarians, who have so much more bodily strength than we, and are so much better able to endure fatigue? Gladiators, too, protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry. Moreover, of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger. When so many thousands of Cimbri and Teutones poured over the Alps, what was it that caused them to perish so completely, that no messenger, only common rumour, carried the news of that great defeat to their homes, except that with them anger stood in the place of courage? and anger, although sometimes it overthrows and breaks to pieces whatever it meets, yet is more often its own destruction.

Note that the first paragraph above also has some relevance in the discussion of what Stoics meant by πάθος/passions (such as anger) and “feelings” or impressions. (See this question.) Indeed, one of the clearest discussions of the difference between the two comes from the first four sections of On Anger book 2.

While the Stoics did object to anger partially on the basis that it can cause you to act irrationally, they objected to in on a more fundamental level as well: they believed that anger only ever arises due to mistaken moral judgments. In a way, it is less the anger itself that is bad than the moral judgment behind it. This affects the Stoic approach to dealing with anger. What a modern person considers “repressing anger” might be considered somewhat analogous to ignoring the pain from a broken leg, or perhaps treating a broken leg with anesthetics. Yes, you might behave as if you didn’t have broken leg for a little while, under some conditions, but they do nothing to address the actual problem.

How should I read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations?

Some find that the disorganized and fragmentary nature of the Meditations makes it challenging to read. There are several things it is useful to keep in mind.

The most important is that he did not intend for anyone to read it but himself.

He sometimes doesn’t really explain his references to Stoic philosophy in a way that someone not already immersed in it would easily understand. Some translators just leave the references cryptic, while others try and come up with a rough approximation in English. The IEP entry on Marcus Aurelius provides a good short summary of the parts of Stoic philosophy that seem most important to interpreting the Meditations.

Another is more speculative, but which many find helpful. The Stoics are known to have practised philosophical exercises, some of which were written. Our evidence for exactly what these exercises were is really limited and indirect.

It has been conjectured (and most widely popularized by Pierre Hadot in The Inner Citadel) that the Meditations were examples of such written exercises. The act of writing and composing forces one to think about a concept or idea. Meditations VI.48 may be a description of what he was doing when he wrote book I (Smith translation):

When you would cheer your heart, consider the good qualities of those about you—the energy of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and other virtues in others. Nothing is so cheering as abundant exemplifications of the virtues in the characters of those with whom we live. Let us, therefore, have them always ready at hand.

Writing many variations on the same theme is an exercise in forcing ones-self to contemplate certain ideas in certain ways, and writing down philosophical principles regularly is intended to help one think of them regularly, or even habitually. So, to help yourself become a more grateful person, you might make a habit of writing down to whom you’re grateful, and why, etc. The result is a book, this conjecture goes, that is rather repetitive, showing the direction in which Marcus Aurelius was trying to change his thinking, the kind of perspective he wanted to encourage himself to take, etc. It doesn’t necessarily indicate what he did think, just how he was trying to get himself to think.

For assistance in understanding specific passages, consulting an alternate translation and commantary can often be helpful. The translation by A. S. L. Farquharson, which is available for free online at wikisource, is particularly good for this. Farquharson’s translation is not eloquent, but it is clear, highly regarded for its accuracy, and includes extensive commentary on most passages.

Finally, it’s worth knowing ahead of time that the first “book” (about 10 pages) is of a very different character than the rest of the book; if you have trouble with the beginning, skip to book 2, and come back to book 1 later.