STOICISM: EPICTETUS:
FREEDOM IN THE WALLED CITY OF THE MIND

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Epictetus (50 A.D. - 125 A.D.) was a freed Roman slave. According to the Stoics, one can be enslaved on the outside, "externally" (have one's body in chains) and be free "internally" (be at peace with oneself in aloofness from all pleasure and pain). Dualism of mind (soul) and body: the inner realm is a realm of freedom (unless we let externals affect us or let events disturb our thoughts); the outer realm is a realm of determinism (things outside of our mind, including our own bodies, are determined by factors beyond our control). We have control over our thoughts and our will, but we do not have control over external fortune. Thus virtue does not consist in external performance, but in inner attitude. Not what we do or what happens to us, but how we judge or think about those things is the essence of good or evil. No external event is good or evil. Only the attitude or will of a man is good or evil.

Question: The Stoics had high regard for Socrates. In the light of what you know about Socrates, explain how the "inner" and the "outer" were distinguished by Socrates.
2. The private is better than the public; the inner self is better than the outer self; the hidden character (steadfast and detached) is superior to the manifest deed (changing and subject to circumstances beyond our control). The inner self can be free; the outer self (or body) is determined by events. Enemies can harm the body, but not the soul. A man can be peaceful and self-composed even while being tortured or in great illness; the mind can detach itself or "shut off" external events. Our duty is to make our minds master over desires and needs. We should depend not on external events for our happiness, but upon reason (inner continuity and stability). Our duty is to order our thoughts logically and to steady our will in accordance with the reason and order and stability (and lawfulness) we find in Nature. God is reason or soul or principle within Nature. Human beings ought to imitate the reasonableness of God and leave external fate up to providence (acceptance or resignation). God is the detached calm of reason within ever-changing nature; the human soul should remain calm in the midst of active ethical and political involvement.
Question: Explain how the "individualism" of the Stoics goes beyond what Socrates might have intended. Remember that for Socrates the polis or the city or one's immediate social context (and nomoi) were very important. Keep in mind that for the Stoics the Roman Empire, not individual Greek city-states, was the backdrop for moral and political action.

3. Stoicism is based on a Heraclitean-like (following the philosopher Heraclitus) interpretation of Nature, for whom the logos (reason) is the stable ordering principle within the flux of a constantly changing and moving universe. God (reason) in nature is like the calm eye of a hurricane. The Stoic resolves, in his life, to be calm in the midst of activity, to cultivate an attitude which is free, detached, and dispassionate. The happy life is a life free of desires (cravings) and attachments. Such happiness (peace) is possible because external events need not affect one's internal mind. One's mind should give orders, not take them. Stoicism is a dualism (view that radically separates mind and body, freedom and determinism into two compartments). We are affected by the external only if we foolishly choose to be so affected. The door between the mind and the body (as well as outward events) can be opened or closed only from the inside (from the mind's side). One becomes disturbed if he opens the door and lets the storm of external suffering and events rage inside.

4. Thus, the Stoic does not have to seek refuge in a safe haven apart from political affairs. His "garden" is his mind. He can immerse himself in practical affairs and still remain mentally calm, as God involves himself in Nature but remains aloof and detached. One can be mentally withdrawn and politically active at the same time (though Epictetus chose to avoid politics). Disturbance is due, not to external events, but to our judgment with regard to (attitude toward) external events.

Question: Explain the difference between the "garden" of the Stoics and the "Garden" of the Epicureans. What is the basis of their difference?

5. Stoicism calls for a universal benevolence towards all humans. It is our duty to help our fellows. This duty is cosmopolitan, or goes beyond particular cities (the earth is our city). On the other hand, our duty to others should be free of emotional entanglements. It is dangerous to become dependent on anything or anyone outside of ourselves; we should avoid attachments. The lives of others, even our "loved ones" (wife and children), are beyond our control. If we love them too much, we will suffer and lose composure when they are taken away from us (in death). The key to peace is detachment. Let our outer actions be as benevolent as possible, but let our inner attitude remain free, calm, detached, and self-sufficient (autarchia) and independent of external "goods." Mind and body are separate compartments. See Manual of Epictetus, XVI.

6. Mental disturbance is caused by wanting and craving what is beyond our power. Bring an end to such wanting and craving, and you bring an end to suffering; you will be happy. (Compare this to Buddhism that teaches that the cause of human suffering is craving or grasping. In Buddhism, to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate craving, desiring.) External attachments cause both pleasure and pain. Virtue or peace is detachment from external attachments, even from attachment to one's own body (the well being of which is not entirely in our control). The harmony of the soul is above the flux of pleasure and pain, as the harmony of nature is above all the opposites found in nature. Stoicism is the dualism of internal stability and external flux. Inside the mind, there can be calm; outside the mind there is constant movement -- coming to be and passing away. Dependence on what comes to be and passes away brings disappointment and pain. Dependence on reason or natural order (which is constant) brings peace and freedom. See Seneca, "On the Happy Life."

Questions for Review: Epicurus and Stoicism

1. Criticize this statement from an Epicurean point of view: "We can never have too much of a good thing."

2. State and explain briefly the three classes of desires discussed by Epicurus.

3. How does a Stoic protect himself against adverse circumstances? What distinction must he keep in mind?

4. In what three ways are Epicureans able to secure themselves against unfriendly humans?

5. Explain the "dualism" that is the basis of Stoicism.

6. According to Epicurus, there are two bad ideas that cause mental anxiety and there are two good (Epicurean) opinions that spell relief. State the two bad and the two good opinions.

7. Describe the Epicurean and Stoic views regarding friendship, politics, peace of mind, bodily pleasure, and "nature."

8. Explain the relationship between happiness and pleasure for the Epicurean and the Stoic.

9. What is pleasure for Epicurus? Is it excitement or lack of excitement? Explain.

10. What is the relation between external events and internal thoughts for the Stoic?

11. Criticize this statement from an Aristotelian, an Epicurean, and a Stoic point of view: "We can never be happy in this life."

12. Explain how for Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics (such as Epictetus and Seneca), the best human life imitates, mirrors, and is modeled after the life of God.

13. Label Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus as aesthetic, intellectual, practical, or a combination thereof. Give reasons for your classifications.

14. Discuss the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus in the light of attachment and detachment.

15. Discuss the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus in the light of individuality (or private good) and community (or common good).

16. Discuss thinking as escape versus thinking as strategic withdrawal in the context of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus.


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© Copyright 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.