Epictetus, Freedom, and Autonomia
I have a very distinct memory from last summer, sitting in a chair on our back porch and taking a break from my reading. I was looking at out lilac bush, just sitting there enjoying it and doing nothing really, and there was one lilac bloom in the bunch that stood out: it was lit up by a ray of light coming through the higher branches. The light somehow sanctified and accentuated it, like an actor under a spotlight or a jewel set higher in a broach. Yet it seemed like it was standing apart of its own accord- it reminded me of a knight bowing to a lady in a dusty book. I was suddenly struck by the fact that this inert thing was very much alive: that the whole bush was teeming with life, in spite of looking quite static. Then I laughed because it occurred to me that, sitting there staring at this bush, I probably looked pretty inert myself!
Less than a year later, I can just barely remember the moment, which has long passed. There is a melancholy in these moments, a sad sense of the uncontrollable movement of time that adds weight to my chest. It all gets away from you and, the more you try to keep hold of it, the more enslaved you are by circumstance. So, you decide instead to opt out of the struggle for power, because that’s what it is- the need of all living things to control their circumstances. You try to imitate perfect stillness, become the unravished bride of quietness, a work of art. I think all spirituality begins with this inward turn against the struggle for power- renouncing the need to control anything but your own disposition. All spirituality then would be inwardly ascetic and outwardly aesthetic.
If a young man should be an epicurean, an old man should be a stoic. The first point in the Enchiridion, the ‘Manual’ of Epictetus discussed here along with his Discourses, is exactly this renunciation of the struggle for power over all “indifferent” things: the body, possessions, reputation, status, and all things we cannot control anyway. It’s interesting that stoicism is so often associated with self-discipline when so much of it is about the sort of detachment we noted in Meister Eckhart. What can be controlled is our judgment, desire, will, the mental facilities- but we can conquer that inward empire only after renouncing all outward striving. There is less of ‘discipline’ here than dissociation.
Is this a “slave morality”? It would be easy to fault Epictetus because he does counsel indifferent submission to others. If they put your leg in chains, he tells you to say ‘it is only my leg; not even God can conquer my will”. It’s easy for us free men to say this, but remember that Epictetus was a slave before he was a philosopher- maybe a philosopher because he was a slave. ‘Epictetus’ means ‘owned man’. He was owned by Epaphroditus, a former slave himself, who served Nero, and later Domitian (while free) as a secretary of petitions- thus, Epictetus was familiar with the life of a slave and the inner court of power, both of which he describes in his teachings.
Before his manumission, Epictetus came to the philosophy of stoicism, first espoused by Zeno of Citium in the third century BC, which was for Epictetus the source of first freedom- the freedom to choose our lives. Over two millennium before existentialism, the stoics came to the conclusion that we choose who we will be. In the Discourses, Epictetus says something that sounds like Sartre: “First choose who you want to be and then act your part accordingly.” But essence proceeds existence here in some sense- there is a natural causality, and our will should be in line with the natural flow of things. He still sounds more like Mencius or Aquinas than any modern. Leo Strauss seems to make this point- that ethics divorced from natural law are purely modern, highly problematic, and logically inescapable- and I might offer the Epicureans as a counterexample, if they weren’t so damned problematic themselves. At any rate, Epictetus hates the Epicureans as much as any stoic.
I think Epictetus is drawing on the widespread Hellenic notion of autonomia, or ‘self-rule’. To define this as “autonomy” simply in terms of independence is to remove the ethical dimensions from the term, although it’s clearly a facet of the idea. Meanwhile, Foucault’s notion that Epictetus was an early theoretician of “technologies of the self” skimps a bit on his emphasis on freedom. Finally, we should avoid all attempts to define this as “self-management” in a sort of materialist “Epictetus and Your Business” sort of sense. Classical “economics” was centered on the household and seems, to me at least, prior to and lower than selfhood in the “autonomia” sense. I’m not convinced that Epictetus and Poor Richard had much in common- besides, what modern could take financial advice from a philosopher who saw his house being robbed as proof that he had too many nice things? This does raise the question though of whether Weber’s Protestant work ethic, something that probably didn’t survive past the 1920s at latest, was ever in any real way an ethics of sacrifice and restraint, as others have claimed.
At any rate, the salient point here seems to be that defining ‘autonomia’ as ‘self-rule’ suggests strongly that self-hood, instead of being something given or prior to awareness is, instead, a skill that we master over time- we teach ourselves to be ourselves.
So, what we end up with after renouncing externals is a sort of irreducible and inalienable freedom. Probably the leading proponent of Epictetus was Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who survived seven years in a Vietnamese prison camp by way of Epictetus. It’s often said that military personnel are the last stoics, although I’d make a few notes here. With Stockdale’s excellent writings excluded (along with Tom Wolfe’s book about Stockdale), many of the books about the stoicism of the warrior class suggest a moral superiority of military life over civilian life in a way that is reductive and militaristic. Civilians don’t bear the same responsibilities, duties, or pressures of soldiers- and we should be grateful for that. Secondly, while it’s true that soldiers are models of self-discipline and submission to a larger calling, Epictetus is talking ultimately about submitting to the will of God, not about a military calling. An army that renounced power would cease to exist.
Now, while he frequently talks about God, Epictetus means this in a much vaguer natural order sense than we would- more like when Socrates talks about God. He also talks frequently about Socrates, who is the real hero of his teachings, even more than Zeno or Chyrissipus; his legendary death is an illustration of the stoic ideal- even in prison, Socrates was radically free. There is no hint of an afterlife in Epictetus, and the stoics didn’t seem to believe in one, but there is still freedom from death- the philosopher is supposed to be indifferent towards death.
Finally, Epictetus is talking about the last freedom- freedom from time. It is impossible to keep a moment of time and block it off like a unit of space- I can’t rent that moment staring at the lilac bush on a summer afternoon. But it is possible to think the same thoughts over and over again and perfect the moment in memory, or aestheticize it in thought. In some sense, a philosopher is able to escape the time in which he is embedded and renounce the life drive without embracing the death drive. This is why I don’t think I could live a stoic life: there is too strong an urge to create or do something, while I still have the energy. On the one hand, I strongly suspect this urge is neurotic and driven by fears of mortality. On the other hand, what Socrates and Epictetus- not to mention Siddhartha Gautama!- advocate instead sounds too much like giving up altogether.