Stoic Lessons in Liberation: Epictetus as Educator


William O. Stephens

5 September


My project is to examine in detail the pedagogical method of the Stoic Epictetus and seven pedagogical themes in his philosophy in order to deepen our understanding of his vocation as a Stoic educator striving to liberate his students from unhappiness.  These seven themes or lessons are (1) how freedom, integrity, self-respect, and happiness interrelate, (2) real versus fake heroism, (3) the many roles of animals in Stoic education, (4) sport and game-playing as metaphors for living, (5) travel and progress, (6) death and fearlessness, and (7) loving as educating.

    The project divides into eight chapters.  Chapter One will study how Epictetus’ thought was shaped by his teacher, Epictetus’ impact on his students and especially on the chronicler of his lectures, and Epictetus’ pedagogical methods.  Chapter Two examines his conception of human nature, the logic of freedom at the heart of his philosophy, and how this logic connects progress toward virtue and growing self-respect to the Stoic conception of happiness.  From the discussion of the style of Epictetus’ teaching I will move to the content of his Stoic lessons.  In Chapter Three I will articulate Epictetus’ understanding of heroism.  I will study Epictetus’ comparison of Socrates with the mythic heroes Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Heracles.  Criticism of vicious human conduct by means of these heroic human exemplars is followed by criticisms by means of admirable animal traits, habits, and ‘virtues’ in Chapter Four.  In Chapter Five I will discuss how the metaphor of game-playing is used by Epictetus to illustrate the proper understanding of practical agency.  A study of how the Stoic travels by embracing whatever he encounters as providential will occupy Chapter Six.  An analysis of Epictetus’ philosophy of death and suicide will occupy Chapter Seven.  The final chapter is devoted to analysis of the Stoic sage, how the sage loves and how the sage functions as the prescriptive ideal by teaching Stoic wisdom (Chapter Eight).  The overarching thesis of this project is that Stoic education is the indispensable means of liberating the self from miserable servitude to external circumstances resulting from failure to understand, appreciate, and realize human potential.


Chapter One.  Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Flavius Arrianus, and Stoic Pedagogy


I will examine the heritage of Stoic education and pedagogy in Musonius, Epictetus, and Arrian.  My account will benefit from Lutz 1947, Geytenbeek 1963, Engel 2000, Nussbaum 2002, Wirth 1967, Stadter 1980, and Bénatouïl 2009.  Oldfather claimed that “there can be no doubt but the system of thought in the pupil [Epictetus] is little more than an echo, with changes of emphasis due to the personal equation, of that of the master [M. Rufus]” (I, p. viii, note 2).  Careful comparison of Musonius’ extant texts and Epictetus’ Discourses will support my thesis that Oldfather exaggerates.  Musonius’ student Lucius felt that he stood in the same relationship to Musonius as Xenophon to Socrates.  Yet, for his portrait of Socrates, Epictetus relies much more heavily on Plato than on Xenophon, so perhaps Arrian felt his relationship to his teacher Epictetus mirrored Plato’s relationship to Socrates.  Study of the similarities and differences of the pedagogical methods of Musonius and Epictetus will elucidate Epictetus the diatribist and the teaching techniques he employs in trying to inculcate Stoic wisdom in his pupils, and the reception of that teaching by Arrian. 


Chapter Two.  τὰ ἐφ͐ ἡμι̂ν and τὰ οὐκ ἐφ͐ ἡμι̂νThe Logic of Freedom, Self-Respect, and Stoic Happiness


In this chapter I will analyze a characteristic discourse—book iii, chapter 20—with a view to setting out Epictetus’ methodology and informal logic.  My analysis will benefit from Barnes’ study (1997) of Epictetus’ logic and Frede (2007 and 2011), Willms (2011), Braicovich (2010), and Bobzien (1998) on Epictetus, willing, and freedom.  Epictetus often describes the life in agreement with nature (the Stoic definition of the end) as the life of willing only what Zeus wills, i.e., accepting all events as divinely ordained.  Yet I will contend that the argumentative foundation of his moral theory need not rely on an appeal to cosmic providence (and thus is consonant with the contemporary attempt to secularize and naturalize Stoicism effected by Becker 1998), but rather runs as follows:  (1) All things can be divided into those things that are entirely, by their nature, always up to us, and those things that are not; (2) We are happy when we get what we want and avoid what we dislike, and we are miserable otherwise; (3) Therefore, the art of living consists in training ourselves to limit our desires to the things up to us and extinguishing our desires for the things not up to us.  From this position—that happiness is found in concentrating on the things up to us—Epictetus considers it an easy inference to the conclusion that happiness derives from the virtuous choices of the faculty of judgment (προαίρεσις).  I will argue that Epictetus does not hold that imperturbability simply consists in possession of the virtues, but rather it results from the recognition that one’s moral integrity is unassailable.  Since respect is due to the virtuous person, the person of moral integrity, once a Stoic commits himself to attaining the virtues and over time develops a virtuous character, he gradually earns self-respect.  This self-respect engenders the only kind of happiness worthy of a free person.


Chapter Three.  Epictetus on Tragedy, Homeric Unheroes, and Stoic Heroism


I will review the earlier work on Epictetus and Socrates (Schweingruber 1943; Jagu 1946; Wirth 1967; Döring 1974, 1979; Long 2002; Johnson 2012; Brouwer 2014) and develop my own analysis so as to situate the role Socrates plays in Epictetus’ account of the Stoic hero.  I begin with a discussion of Epictetus’ deflationary analysis of the nature of tragedy.  Epictetus’ treatment of Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Heracles yields several criticisms and a few praises of these four putative heroes.  From this evaluation a framework distinguishing the portrait of the Stoic hero from the figure of the tragic Homeric unhero is established.  The four features of Stoic heroism that emerge are (1) the demonstrated capacity to meet challenges head on, energetically, with courage and fortitude; (2) performance of allotted tasks without complaint, resentment, or self-pity; (3) self-sufficiency; and (4) emotional detachment from loved ones that preserves happiness wherever one goes.  I will show how for Epictetus Socrates surpasses all others in manifesting these four traits.  Moreover, Epictetus heroizes Socrates so as to present to his students a more accessible, more vibrant, and more compelling model of the Stoic wise man than is represented by Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic paragon (Epictetus’ second favorite model of virtue).  I will argue that Socrates is Epictetus’ favorite hero because Socrates, as husband, father, soldier, Athenian citizen and councilor, embodies a true Stoic exemplar in contrast to Diogenes, the childless, politically indifferent, and often indecorous bachelor.  The figure of Socrates is thus a more appropriate exemplar for Epictetus’ students, who, armed with their Stoic education, must enter conventional Roman public life.  Despite the daunting challenge of perfecting one’s own character to the degree achieved by Socrates, Epictetus offers the exhortation that those who wish to become true Stoics should at least want to be like Socrates.  That is, one good strategy the Stoic προκόπτων (progressor) can use in coping with the many difficult situations encountered in his ἄσκησις (training) is to think of how Socrates would deal with them.


Chapter Four.  Epictetus’ Zoo: Animal Examples in Stoic Teaching


Previous studies of Epictetus (Bonhöffer 1890 and 1894, Colardeau 1903, Capelle 1948) and of the Stoics’ account of animals (Dierauer 1977, Sorabji 1993) have not noticed the great frequency of the use of animal behaviors scattered throughout the Discourses and Encheiridion and have neglected to study their significance for Epictetus.  I explore the multifarious protreptic roles these texts play in Epictetus’ moral teachings.  I also discuss the extent to which Epictetus’ views of animals conform with orthodox Stoicism, and explain how his animal analogies and illustrations function within his lectures.

     Epictetus uses numerous examples of animal behavior as foils for advancing normative appeals to his students.  For example, he urges his students not to act like sheep by acting for the sake of the belly or the genitals or at random or in a filthy way or without consideration.  Yet, since sheep do not bring their fodder to the shepherds to show how much they have eaten, but rather digest their food internally and produce their wool and milk externally, Epictetus instructs his students similarly not to display their Stoic principles to laymen, but rather to show them the actions that result from these principles once they have been digested internally.  Some human beings abandon their children, but neither sheep nor wolves desert their offspring.  Another favorite example he uses is the ass.  While the natural invincibility of the ass is its stubborn immobility, Epictetus’ students must recognize that the natural invincibility of human beings lies instead in the rational, virtuous operation of the προαίρεσις.  The dog, the horse, and the crow each have their natural abilities (cp. Jennison 2005).

     From examples like these, Epictetus infers the general principle that each individual specimen’s virtue and vice must be measured by the natural powers of its species.  Yet Epictetus faults pigs, geese, worms, and spiders for not being clean in the way that horses and pure-bred dogs are; so he is not concerned with following this principle consistently.  His animal examples and analogies are intended strictly as protreptic lessons for his students, and not as any kind of coherent, systematic animal zoology.  On the other hand, it is significant that he praises the love of freedom displayed by some lions and some birds, who starve themselves rather than live confined in cages (and this idea that imprisonment, as a kind of enslavement, is worse than death connects with Chapter Five).  He scolds his students who whine and pine for people and places far away by reminding them that crows and ravens are free of homesickness.  My conclusion will be that Epictetus employs descriptions of the powers and habits of various animals to support his case for the possibility of human moral progress (προκοπή).


Chapter Five.  Epictetus at Play: Sport, Games, and the Stoic Athlete


How can the Stoic maintain both confident equanimity and at the same time exercise due care?  Epictetus replies that his students ought to imitate those who play dice (Disc. 2.5.1-3) or children playing with potsherds (4.7.5).  Game-players recognize that since the game equipment itself is indifferent, they need only concentrate on making skillful, conscientious use of that equipment.  This confident care in handling externals is similarly represented by how skillful ball-players play their sport (2.5.15-21).  The Stoic also knows when to quit playing the game (1.25.7-8; 4.7.19; 4.7.29-31) and that while we can quit the pancration, quitting from philosophy does us no good (3.10.6-9).  Epictetus compares Stoic training to the strenuous regimen of Olympic athletes (1.24.1-3; 2.18.22; 3.15.1-7; Ench. 51.2) and to Olympic competition (3.22.51-52) (see Tarrant 2003).  By examining these passages I will illustrate the power that this sport metaphor has in Epictetus’ Stoic teaching.  The upshot is that though few will be ‘Olympic victors’ in virtue, all can ‘compete’ in and benefit from Stoic training.  Mental strength, stamina, and grace are the goals of the Stoic, who very seriously trains to become a wise and fit athlete.  But the Stoic is free to be playful about games, and carefree about the outcomes of games, since neither games nor their outcomes are morally serious (see Feezell 2004 and 2013).  The Stoic thus plays both with serious sagacity and with carefree confidence.  This chapter will build upon Stephens and Feezell (2004).


Chapter Six.  The Providential Tourist: Epictetus on Journeys


How does the Stoic journey?  How does the Stoic conceive of, and strategize about, exile, homecoming, pilgrimage, emigration, immigration, commuting, and tourism?  The un-stoic traveler is an accidental tourist who seeks tranquility by trying to control features of trips that are ultimately beyond his control.  The Stoic sojourner, by contrast, wisely concerns himself only with what is up to him, leaving all factors of travel not up to him to providence.  The Stoic is thus a providential tourist.  In the ancient Mediterranean, bad weather could drown sea travelers, bandits could raid caravans, and even fellow travelers might steal, assault, abandon, or murder the unlucky.  How should one deal with the uncertainties and hazards of travel?  What judgments guide our decisions to travel?  The Stoic’s responsibilities flowing from his natural and acquired relations dictate when travel should and should not be undertaken.  When it is undertaken, the Stoic must prepare himself mentally to anticipate the kinds of setbacks and perils that may befall him.  The Stoic can adapt to whatever locales and circumstances he ventures into, since everywhere he goes he is a cosmopolitēs and so he is never lost in the world.  The Stoic does not view exile as a terrible thing.  The Stoic can make good use of whatever ‘preferred indifferents’ come his way, without foolishly allowing himself to become emotionally attached to those hotel amenities.  Whatever his actual destination ends up being, his desires can harmonize with the rational, fated, providential governance of the cosmos.  As wise travelers treat an inn as something not their own, so the Stoic treats all externals as temporary items that are not his own.  The travelers/inn simile illustrates the Stoic’s understanding of how to benefit from all of one’s sojourns and excursions and thus make good progress traversing life’s path.


Chapter Seven.  Bugbear and Open Door Policy: Epictetus on Death


Death, like pain, sickness, ugliness, and poverty, is among the dispreferred indifferents of Stoic ethical theory.  Yet non-Stoics commonly regard it as the worst evil.  In Plato’s Apology, Socrates holds that (for him) death will be a blessing, since it is either the end of consciousness and so like an eternal, dreamless sleep, or else a relocation of the soul to an afterlife where he can philosophize with deceased heroes.  Either way, Socrates finds no reason to fear death.  Epictetus adds several new twists to Socrates’ argument against fearing death.  Following the Stoic rejection of the possibility of the soul’s surviving the death of the body, Epictetus matter-of-factly reasons that all living things die, and that death is nothing tragic, but merely a necessary part of a natural cycle.  Epictetus holds that death is a mere bogey that did not frighten Socrates, and so it is not to be feared by rational adults.  I reject Erler’s view (2007) that Epictetus interprets Socrates to hold that only if the immortality of the soul can be proved can it be shown that death is a bugbear which is not to be feared.  In fact, Epictetus does not believe that personal consciousness survives the dissolution of soul and body upon death.  Both soul and body disintegrate upon death and the constituents of each are recycled by nature.  Indeed, Epictetus maintains that death is really a haven, since it is always an exit through which we can escape circumstances in life we judge to be intolerable.  For this reason Epictetus concludes that nothing that befalls us in life is intolerable; suicide remains a viable option.  Yet Epictetus thinks that some grounds for suicide are justified, while others are not.  Bonhöffer’s (1894) Christian sensibilities engender his judgment that Epictetus’ various remarks on suicide do not form a consistent doctrine on suicide that coheres with other Stoic principles. I argue that Epictetus endorses these eight assertions: (a) the cosmic perspective on death is essential for understanding why death is an indifferent; (b) a person can be justified in deciding not to take steps that increase the likelihood he will survive; (c) a person can be justified in deciding to exit life; (d) the justification of such life or death decisions is autonomous; (e) the identity of a human being is a union of a particular body with a particular soul, neither of which survives death; (f) knowledge that we mortals can opt for death is comforting; (g) understanding assertions (a) through (f) frees us to pursue the virtuous life fearlessly, whereas (h) the false belief that death is bad grounds the fear of death, which, as the epitome of all human evils, cripples our ability to live virtuously.  These assertions constitute a coherent thanatology, including a consistent doctrine on suicide, Epictetus Open Door Policy.


Chapter Eight.  The Stoic Lover, Educator, and Liberator


This chapter will respond to Inwood (1997), Becker (2004), and Reydams-Schils (2005), and defend Stephens (1996).  There I show that in Epictetus’ view (1) the Stoic sage (wise person) genuinely loves and is affectionate to her family and friends; (2) only the Stoic sage is, properly speaking, possessed of the power to love (philein); and (3) the Stoic sage loves in a robustly rational way that excludes passionate, erotic love.  Justice motivates the sage to show compassion to others by, for example, when appropriate, providing them a helping hand or material aid, but not to internalize their mistaken opinion that material possessions are comparable to virtue or moral integrity.  Stoic happiness arises and grows as one gains (approaches) virtue, recognizes this progress, and becomes increasingly justified in having self-respect.  Stoic happiness is not promoted by a mere feeling of compassion for others that fails to motivate actions that externalize in the world the justice internal to the sage.  I suggest that the love of the Stoic sage for others manifests itself secondarily in striving to improve their material conditions, social circumstances, and/or civil liberties, but primarily in transmitting to them her inner wealth, i.e., her wisdom.  In making this argument I critique Nussbaum (2003).  The Stoic of modest means loves others best by teaching them Stoicism and fulfilling her familial, social, and civic roles.  If a Stoic were somehow, against the odds, to stumble into affluence, her philanthropy would materialize in prudent, just, and generous donations.  My position is thus more optimistic about the possibilities of Stoic love than Inwood (1997).  Stoicism taught and learned in a loving manner coupled with tough training (askēsis) allow for moral progress (prokopē) and ultimately self-liberation.  I contend that Epictetus’ philosophy inspires a conception of the Stoic sage as a worthy prescriptive ideal for educators.


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