Epictetus, Freedom, and Autonomia

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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16 Responses

  1. patrick says:

    Thanks for a challenging article. A pleasure to read & think on for a while.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to patrick says:

      Thank you very much!

      (And whew! Thank goodness somebody read it.)Report

      • Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I read it. And hated it!

        No, I kid.

        It did remind me of the title of one of Montaigne’s essays, “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.”Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Chris says:

          Absolutely! This is why Socrates is such a superstar in Western philosophy. Of course, the same idea is there in the East too- I’ve read zen parables nearly identical to stories in Epictetus- if they threaten to cut off your head to demonstrate their strength, you offer your neck to them and demonstrate your strength. Of course, by none of these standards would I be enlightened!

          I kid about people not reading these things. I usually just figure people read them but aren’t incensed enough to respond. It’s not exactly political dynamite. I did think of starting one with the words: “Are the Democrats or the Republicans responsible for the budget crisis? Read to the end to find out!”Report

          • J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

            It’s more that these are the kinds of things that require intelligent response… you know, that you have to let simmer for a while, then actually double-check whether what one says in reply is comprehensible/worthwhile. In blog-time, however, these things take the equivalent of several millennia. (Unrelated note: is there a way to stop the red squiggle from showing up under “millennia”? I just spent too long over-thinking the number of Ls and Ns in the word until I realized the comment box just doesn’t understand Latinate endings.)

            Epicetus is a later than my period of knowledge … so I don’t as it happens, have much to say until something bubbles to the surface. Except that I think I may be too young to offer much up. I’m beginning to wish that I’d had, say, six months warning that I was about to recognize youthful intellectual arrogance for what it was. Just to take full advantage of it while there was still time.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall says:

              Logan- I know what you mean about the delayed response- it takes me a while to absorb the stuff you post here in fact. Actually, I wasn’t explicit about it, but a lot of this post was inspired by the thing you posted on Proust recently- particularly the bits to do with time. I’m still rolling that one around in the old noggin.Report

          • Heidegger in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Rufus, LOVED you post! I loved especially the
            Wordsworthian first third–I was completely drawn in, absorbed, the lilacs bursting with beauty and life, sublime stillness but mad frenzy as well! If you could have only kept and sustained this train of thought and inspiration, you would have been on the verge of a masterpiece. but then you had to bring in, achhh, reality. Beatific, transcendent moments are very difficult to sustain. Five seconds of this experience are worth an entire lifetime, whatever pain and suffering accompany our journey. “In every temple of delight, Veiled melancholy has her sovereign shrine…”

            And you completely blew me away with the Honorable Admiral Stockdale! A greater, wiser, more intelligent choice for Vice-President has never existed. When he opened that debate with the question “Who am I and why am I here?” That was it for me–sealed the deal. That any politician could be so utterly and transparently honest and deeply thoughtful, was extraordinary. Of course, the Liberal and Lefty multitudes went ballistic, just nuts. The smear campaign on this extremely intelligent, honorable, honest, courageous, Medal of Honor recipient, really went into overdrive. We, very sadly lost a great man and a great vice-presidential candidate. A damn, damn shame.

            ““I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man”Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Heidegger says:

              Heidegger, I cherish your words of praise, especially as I know how easily you might have a sudden mood swing in the near future. As for Stockdale, he was a P.O.W. for seven years, so probably the media was easier to deal with by comparison.Report

  2. Chris says:

    I did think of starting one with the words: “Are the Democrats or the Republicans responsible for the budget crisis? Read to the end to find out!”

    Then you could end the post with, “Yes.”Report

  3. I read it! It’s just a bit out of my area of knowledge, so I don’t feel like I have anything to contribute beyond just reading and absorbing.

    Those first two paragraphs are beautiful, though.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    Not that I am any expert on wisdom but I think that though I am unable to generate wisdom on my own part, I can recognize it when I see it (Potter Stewart-style).

    If I’ve noticed any pattern at all, it’s that wisdom presents identically to “being really tired”.Report

  5. BlaiseP says:

    I met up with Epictetus in the study of the New Testament. Both are written in koine Greek. Paul uses many of the same metaphors to describe life, the struggle to transcend desire and will, the need to live in the light of reason, the realm of the possible, the immanent God in whom we live and move and have our being.

    Paul elevates virtue beyond its basis in the Torah as Epictetus elevates his beyond the Greek gods using Stoic techniques, but both are ultimately the philosophies of once-proud cultures coming to terms with foreign overlords.

    Solzhenitsyn observed the only place in all of the USSR where men could speak their minds was in the gulags. “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to BlaiseP says:

      These are great points. The thing I thought of with Paul is that both of them have moments of clarifying the original teacher’s doctrines as less transgressive than some of their contemporaries had taken them. Both Zeno and Christ are transgressive of the current order, no doubt, and I’d say all orders of power- but both Paul and Epictetus have to directly respond to those who might take them as being fully liberating and transgressive of all orders, including precisely the new order of law/guilt that each was initiating. I’m struggling to remember what passage I’m thinking of with Paul- I think it’s in Ecclesiastes, but I’ll look tonight. But it reminded me of a whole section of Epictetus in which he struggles against a common perception of the time that the Stoics wanted a sort of shared community of wives, which some saw as the logical outcome of what they taught about indifference towards romantic objects. The big difference is that I think Paul’s corrections are generally seen as correct and strengthening the original sermons, while Epictetus is sort of just lying about what Zeno said in his Republic.Report

  6. Nathan says:

    Regarding your point in the last couple sentences of your piece, Pierre Hadot, in his book on Marcus Aurelius, makes this contrast between the Marcus and Aristo of Chios:

    “As a matter of fact, the difference between Aristo and the other Stoics bore precisely on the very notion of “indifferent.” For Aristo, that which was indifferent was completely “undifferentiated”, and no element of daily life had any importance in and of itself. Such a view ran the risk of leading to a skeptical attitude such as that of Pyrrho, who was also indifferent to everything. Orthodox Stoics, while they recognized that the things which do not depend on us are indifferent, nevertheless admitted that we could attribute to them a moral value, by conceding the existence of political, social, and family obligations, linked to the needs of human nature in accordance with reasonable probability. This was the realm of the kathekonta, or duties, of which I will have more to say later. Marcus Aurelius, like Epictetus, allowed for the existence of this entire order of obligations and duties, which Aristo had denied.”
    (from The Inner Citadel, pg. 71-72.)

    Unfortunately I haven’t read enough of the Stoics to cite the primary sources supporting this, but I do seem to remember Marcus invoking the concept of duty quite often, which I could see as a justification for the sort of “doing something” you find lacking in Epictetus.Report