The Stoicism On Fire podcast provides teaching and practical guidance for the practice of Traditional Stoicism as a philosophical way of life and rational form of spirituality. Traditional Stoicism attempts to bring the ancient practice of Stoicism into the twenty-first century without abandoning the deeply spiritual nature of this transformational philosophy.
Exploring Encheiridion 4 – Episode 34
The meaning of this profoundly important passage may be more relevant and applicable to us in modern times than it was to the young students of Epictetus almost two thousand years ago.
The remainder of the podcast transcript will be available soon.
Exploring Encheiridion 3 – Episode 33
This famous passage from Encheiridion 3 highlights the fact that this handbook is intended for practitioners who are already familiar with Stoic theory and practice. I say that because passages like this one, read in isolation, without an adequate understanding of Stoic teachings, can easily leave one with the wrong impression. In fact, absent the larger context of Stoic theory and practice, this passage in particular can appear inhumane or even pathological, and has turned people away from Stoic practice. As Lawrence Becker, the late professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary, points out:
The image of the austere, dispassionate, detached, tranquil, and virtually affectless sage – an image destined to be self-refuting – has become a staple of anti-Stoic philosophy, literature, and popular culture. It has been constructed from incautious use of the ancient texts and is remarkably resistant to correction.
However, when we place a passage like this within the full context of Stoic theory and practice, the caricatures conjured up by these incautious interpretations are easily dismissed. By focusing on several key words and phrases used in this passage, we can see this is simply another, more advanced, application of the distinction between what is up to usand not up to us. So, let’s dissect this passage, place it in context, and see if a different picture of Stoic practice emerges. First, we need to consider three important phrases in Encheiridion 3. Epictetus offers three different categories of things. In summation, these categories include everything that attracts us or has its uses or that we are fond of in life. Let’s take a look at each of them:
* A thing that “attracts you” (ψυχαγωγούντων) – amusement (Discourses 2.16.37); fascination (Discourses 3.21.23); entertainment (Discourses 4.4.4).* A thing that “has its uses” (χρείαν) – useful; can be used or put into service. This Greek word is used more than one hundred times in the Discourses and Encheiridion combined.* A thing “you are fond of” (στεργομένων) – love, affection. A form of this Greek word is used eleven times in the Discourses and Encheiridion. It is used six times in Epictetus’ lesson on family affection (Discourses 1.11).
It is important to consider the broad range of external things these three categories include because it helps us understand the meaning of this passage and avoid a mischaracterization of Stoicism this passage frequently evokes. First, it includes external things we find amusing, fascinating, or entertaining. This may be a television, computer, or other electronic device that provides mindless entertainment; it may also be a beautiful painting or other piece of artwork we admire; or it could be a collection of coins, stamps, dolls, trinkets, etc. This list is nearly endless. Next, are those things we may find useful or of service. Again, many things come to mind: a favorite coffee cup, a smartphone, computer or tablet, car, house, a comfortable chair, etc. Once again, the list of things that fall into this category is extremely long. Finally, we have those things for which we feel love or affection.
Wait a second! Did Epictetus say love and affection? To be precise, Epictetus uses a Greek word that is typically translated as “fondness,” as it is here. However, the Greek root for this word means love or affection. Interestingly, the fondness in this passage is directed exclusively at people. Specifically, this passage directs fondness toward our children or spouse. This highlights a sense of feeling and connection with loved ones that many mistakenly believe is absent in Stoicism. As we will see later, the image of the unfeeling,
Exploring Encheiridion 2 – Episode 32
Encheiridion 1 focuses on what is up to us and contrasts the tranquil psychological state of those who focus their attention and impulse only on those things and events within their control with the troubled mind of those who attempt to control what is not in their power. The second chapter of Encheiridion further defines the concepts of desire and aversion and adds another important concept: things contrary to Nature. Encheiridion 2 opens with the following advice:
Keep in mind that desire presumes your getting what you want and that aversion presumes your avoiding what you don’t want, and that not getting what we want makes us unfortunate, while encountering what we don’t want makes us miserable.
We have a few things to unpack in this passage. First is that we should “keep in mind” the lesson of Encheiridion 2. This means we should memorize it, remember it, and regularly remind ourselves about it. The phrase “keep in mind” is translated from the Greek word Μέμνησο, which appears sixteen times within fourteen different chapters of the Encheiridion. As I noted in the introduction to this series, Arrian created the Encheiridion to serve as a handbook that can be kept close at hand or carried in the hand. Arrian filled it with reminders that help us “keep in mind” those Stoic doctrines that are essential to our practice. So, what is so important about the lesson of Encheiridion 2 that warrants keeping it in mind? In short, this lesson defines the key distinction between true freedom and slavery in Epictetus’ teaching, which entails wanting only what is up to us, avoiding only what is contrary to nature, and treating everything else as inconsequential to our goal of developing an excellent moral character and experiencing true well-being. To comprehend this lesson's meaning and its application in our daily lives, we must have a solid grasp of several key concepts, including: desire, aversion, things contrary to nature, and reservation.
Desires and Aversions Exist in our Psyche
When we assent to a value judgment attached to an impression of a thing or event—that it is either good or bad—we create a desire or aversion that acts upon us in the form of an impulse to either seek or avoid that thing or event. Therefore, desires and aversions are not external entities that tempt us or frighten us. They do not exist out there in the world; they exist as real mental faculties in our psyche (soul) that we must restrain and ultimately retrain.
The first time I read this new translation of Encheiridion 2 by A. A. Long, his use of the word “presumes” in this passage struck me as odd. I recalled no other translation using that word, so I checked a few others. Pay attention to the language used to describe the activity of desires and aversions in each of the these translations:
desire presumes your getting what you want, aversion presumes your avoiding what you don’t want
desire promises the attaining of what you desire, and aversion the avoiding of what you want to avoid
desire demands the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion demands the avoidance of that to which you are averse
the promise of desire is the attainment of desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided
The language being used here is rather curious. It describes desires and aversions as real entities with the ability to make presumptions, promises, and demands. However, according to Stoicism, to act on us in this way, these desires and aversions and the impulses they produce must be real physical faculties in our psyche. In fact, they are. As Marcus Aurelius notes repeatedly in his Meditations, those impulses created by our desires and aversions control us like puppets (2.2; 6.16; 6.28; 7.3; 7.29; 12.19).
Exploring Encheiridion 1 – Episode 31
The Path to Freedom vs the Path to Slavery
As I noted in the last episode, the focus of this podcast series exploring the Encheiridion will be Epictetus’ concept of freedom, which is not the same as the commonly held concept of freedom as a human right or political entitlement. Epictetus designed his Stoic training program to free us from the judgments, desires, and impulses that enslave us psychologically. This program works even if we are bound in real physical chains, constrained by prison bars, or living under tyrannical rule that denies us that commonly held conception of freedom. Therefore, as we proceed through the Encheiridion, we must set aside the idea of freedom as it relates to our physical autonomy and political liberty. That is not what Epictetus is talking about. For him, enslavement does not entail chains or bars. Instead, the slave is the person bound by their passions and false beliefs. Freedom, therefore, is emancipation from those psychological bonds, and Stoic training is the path toward that true form of freedom.
This opening chapter of the Encheiridion presents us with two paths: the path of slavery and the path of freedom. Most people choose the path of slavery and remain bound by their desires for things and events not within their control—not up to us. They desire and seek things powerless to produce true well-being, servile to external circumstances, and impeded by the actions of others. As a result, they are frustrated, psychologically pained, have a troubled mind, and blame external circumstances (God) and other people for their unhappiness. Fortunately, Epictetus provides us with an alternative path—the Stoic path toward true freedom. This path teaches us to break the bonds of those externals and to desire and seek only those things that are in our complete control and thus are naturally free from external circumstances, unimpeded by others, and unconstrained by Nature. Epictetus makes an astounding promise to those who follow the Stoic path toward that true form of freedom. He says:
No one will ever put pressure on you, no one will impede you, you will not reproach anyone, you will not blame anyone, you will not do a single thing reluctantly, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, because nothing harmful will happen to you. (Ench 1)
When we read that promise, it naturally inclines us to ask: Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want that life of ultimate freedom? Almost everyone will nod in agreement and say they want that life of psychological well-being. However, most people will not follow the Stoic path toward true freedom because it requires significant effort and entails a commitment to the transformation of our thoughts and behaviors. That commitment deters most people. Sadly, most people choose to remain enslaved by their passions and false beliefs. They lack the motivation needed to achieve these “great things” the Stoic path promises. Those who do find the motivation to embark on a philosophical way of life do so for a variety of reasons. Whatever the motive, those who embark on the Stoic path are seeking something they do not currently have, and that is psychological well-being. They may have been seeking happiness in externals such as wealth, health, reputation, etc., and now realize those things only provide the illusion of well-being. This brings us to the point of departure for the Stoic path—the choice to desire and seek only what is up to usand treat everything else as indifferent to our true well-being.
As Epictetus makes perfectly clear, the list of things completely within our control—up to us—is quite short: That list includes “our faculties of judgment, *motivation, *desire, and *aversion—in short, everything that is our own doing.” The alternative list—not up to us—includes “our body and property, our reputations,
Exploring Encheiridion (Introduction) – Episode 30
This episode of Stoicism On Fire kicks off an exploration of the powerful, poignant, and perennially inspiring Encheiridion of Epictetus. The fifty-three chapters of this Stoic handbook will provide the primary content and plan for this exploration of Stoic theory and practice. However, I will incorporate other Stoic texts and the insights of scholars where appropriate for the subject at hand. In this introductory episode, I will provide some background on the Encheiridion. Then, in the next episode of Stoicism On Fire, we will begin the chapter-by-chapter exploration with the frequently quoted chapter one.
About the Encheiridion
Origin and Authorship
The Encheiridion, like the Discourses, was written by Flavius Arrian, who was a student of Epictetus and later became a public servant under the Emperor Hadrian, and a respected historian. In a letter to Lucias Gellius, Arrian claims the Discoursesare “word for word” taken “as best I could” from the lectures of Epictetus. The Encheiridion, frequently referred to as the Handbook, is a compilation of passages drawn from those Discourses. As a result, many of the chapters in the Encheiridion can be directly correlated to passages in the Discourses; those that cannot are likely from portions of the Discoursesthat are lost to us.
The Encheiridion, more so than the Discourses, has been the historical gateway into the thought of Epictetus. For example, Simplicius, a sixth-century Neoplatonist, wrote a commentary on the Encheiridion that served as an introduction to Neoplatonist philosophy. Additionally, as Christopher Gill notes in his introduction to the Robin Hard translation of Epictetus,
The Handbook was also adopted, with some modifications (including replacing the name of ‘Socrates’ with ‘St Paul’), by Christian monks, and used for centuries by the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) Church. Through Syriac Christian scholars, Epictetus’ thought spread to the Islamic East, influencing, for instance, the teaching on ‘dispelling sorrow’ by al-Kindī, a major figure in the study of Greek texts in ninth-century Baghdad.
The fact that the Encheiridion served as the sole source of Epictetus’ teaching for many who are not otherwise interested in Stoicism produced a negative side effect. As W. A. Oldfather, the author of the Loeb Classical Library translations of Epictetus points out, the “necessary aridity and formalism” of this condensed version obscures “the more modest, human, and sympathetic aspects of [Epictetus’] character.” Unfortunately, a compendium like this can easily create misunderstanding and result in unwarranted criticism of Epictetus’ thought. This bring up an excellent point. The Encheiridion is not a substitute for the Discourses of Epictetus. Instead, its passages should serve as reminders for those who are already familiar with Stoic teachings.
According to Simplicius, Arrian wrote a letter to Messalenus that describes the Encheiridion as a “selection” of those passages from the Discourses that are “most timely and essential to philosophy, and which most stir the soul.” Simplicius further suggests:
The aim of [the Encheiridion]—if it meets with people who are persuaded by it, and do not merely read it but are actually affected by the speeches and bring them into effect—is to make our soul free, as the Demiurge and Father, its maker and generator, intended it to be: not fearing anything, or distressed at anything, or mastered by anything inferior to it.
Characteristics of Good and Bad People (Part 3) – Episode 29
In the last episode of Stoicism On Fire, I focused on the Stoic doctrine of an excellent human life and the fact that such a life requires agreement with both human nature and cosmic Nature. The corollary of that doctrine is that human reason alone is not enough to lead us toward an excellent moral character; we must bring our human reason (logos) into agreement with universal Reason (Logos). As I pointed out, the concept of human reason as a fragment of the Logos permeating the cosmos relates to the inner guardian the Stoics referred to as a daimon. With those concepts in mind, we are ready to continue with Marcus’ list of characteristics of a good person. When Marcus reminds himself not to defile his daimon, he notes the good person will exhibit the characteristic of:
following God in an orderly fashion, never uttering a word that is contrary to the truth nor performing an action that is contrary to justice.
We see three related characteristics here; they are: following god, speaking truth, and acting justly.
Following God in an Orderly Fashion
First, what does it mean to follow God in Stoic practice? The instruction to “Follow God” may inspire curiosity or provoke resistance among secular moderns. This is not equivalent to following the commands of a sacred text; the Stoics had no such texts. Recall that God is equivalent to Nature in Stoicism. Therefore, to follow God is to follow Nature. However, we misrepresent this aspect of Stoic practice if we remove the divine and providential characteristics of Nature the Stoics attributed to her. Nature devoid of providence is not the cosmic Nature with which the ancient Stoics tried to live in agreement. Absent providence, some version of a chance universe like that of the Epicureans remains. The Stoics opposed this model and found it inadequate as a guide for ethical human life. That is the reason they emphasized the relationship between us and a purposeful (providential) cosmos. Throughout the Meditations, we see Marcus seeking a relationship with cosmic Nature and attempting to align his life with its universal Law. In several passages, Marcus expresses this as following God:
Hearten yourself with simplicity and self-respect and indifference towards all that lies between virtue and vice. Love the human race. Follow God. (Meditations 7.31)
And he has put aside every distraction and care, and has no other desire than to hold to the straight path according to the law, and by holding to it, to follow God. (Meditations 10.11)
In the final passages of his Meditations, Marcus instructs himself to constantly consider,
those who have been greatly aggrieved at something that came to pass, and those who have achieved the heights of fame, or affliction, or enmity, or any other kind of fortune; and then ask yourself, ‘What has become of all that?’ Smoke and ashes and merely a tale, or not even so much as a tale. (Meditations 12.27)
Then, he reminds himself how “cheap” those things are we strive for and reminds himself of those things that are worthy of our pursuit such as wisdom, justice, temperance, and obedience to the gods. Marcus then imagines a dialog with those who doubt or deny the existence of the gods. He writes:
To those who ask, ‘Where have you seen the gods, or what evidence do you have of their existence, that you worship them so devoutly?’, I reply first of all that they are in fact visible to our eyes, and secondly, that I have not seen my own soul, and yet I pay it due honour. So likewise with the gods; from what I experience of their power at every moment of my life, I ascertain that they exist and I pay them due reverence. (Meditations 12.28)
Finally, he asks himself a deeply probing question and provides himself with an answer.
What is it that you seek?
Wish I found this sooner
Fisher does a great job explaining the principles of stoicism in an interesting, engaging way
very educational & excellent complement to Holidays work
Take your stoic learning to the next level!
Incredibly useful. Well done!
Incredible! Thank you, sir!
Incredible! Thank you, sir!