Opusculum philosophica: Epictetus
An examination of the lives and teachings of three philosophers; part two: Epictetus
In this new investigation in three parts we examine the lives and teachings of three prominent philosophers who flourished during the early centuries of the Christian era, Philo, Epictetus and Proclus. In part one we examined the life and teachings of Philo. In this part we discuss the Stoic philosopher Epictetus before concluding our investigation next month with the last major Neoplatonist, Proclus. In all three articles we have emphasised the importance of discovering Truth in every direction, no matter how incomplete, concealed or distorted it may be. In this part we will apply this principle by pointing out the truths, half-truths and untruths in Epictetus' teachings.
Sources and influence
Epictetus wrote nothing down. His teachings were transcribed and compiled by his pupil Arrian after his death in or about 153 A.D. The main work is The Discourses, four books of which have been preserved out of the original eight. Arrian also compiled a short manual of ethical precepts—the Enchiridion, or Handbook. In addition we have the Fragments which consist of 36 short paragraphs, some by Epictetus, some by the compiler (Arrian), and some by Marcus Aurelius and others. Epictetus's ideas derive mainly from the philosophy of Stoicism taught by Seneca, Cicero and others, and the works of Plato. The founder of the Stoic philosophy was Zeno of Citium, not to be confused with Zeno of Elea—a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who flourished about 465 B.C., whose ideas we briefly discussed in the first of our three articles on esoteric philosophy. But Stoicism was not the only product of the philosophical speculations of this period. Two other systems of philosophy came into being alongside it—Epicureanism and Pyrrhonism, each of which influenced Epictetus' philosophy.
Epictetus' greatest admirer was Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 A.D.), who was a prominent Stoic philosopher in his own right. In the early third century Origen remarked that Epictetus was more popular with his fellow Christians than Plato. Simplicius, a commentator on Aristotle who flourished in the sixth century, composed a long philosophical appreciation of the Enchiridion that combined Stoic elements with Neoplatonism. More recently, Epictetus's teachings informed the philosophy of Spinoza, René Descartes and Thomas Paine. Today, Stoicism is undergoing something of a revival. The psychologist, Albert Ellis (1913-2007), who founded Rational Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), was heavily influenced by Epictetus' ideas. During the past few years, a number of books have appeared extolling the virtues of Stoicism authored by an eclectic bag of psychotherapists, amateur philosophers, behavioural scientists and others. It is because of this revival and the erroneous notions it is popularizing that we have chosen to examine the philosophy of Epictetus in some depth. For, as we said in our introduction, not all his ideas are correct; some are very wrong indeed. Many more are partially true and, as we have repeatedly pointed out in Spiritus Hermeticum, half-truths are considerably more dangerous than downright falsehoods.
Near-truths, half-truths and untruths
The philosophy of Epictetus is intensely practical, exhibiting a high, idealistic type of morality. He is an earnest, sometimes stern, and sometimes pathetic, preacher of righteousness. He despises the mere graces of style and the subtleties of abstruse logic and Aristotelian rhetoric. The game of life and how to live it well is the problem which overrules all other questions in his philosophy. The experienced occultists among our readers will immediately spot the flaws in this approach which, in focusing upon earthly things, risks excluding the greater, spiritual life which awaits us all after so-called 'death.' Whilst it is our duty to try to live well and bring all our worldly problems to a satisfactory conclusion—insofar as we have the ability to do this—we must not neglect the duty to strive after liberation and enlightenment. In other words let us "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," as we may read in the New Testament Gospel of Mark.
According to Epictetus, we are only concerned with the things that are under our control; all others are adiaphora (indifferent). The good is that which corresponds to reason and the general moral ideas implanted in us; the bad is that which runs counter to them. Here we have an oblique hint at the existence of two minds in man, each pulling in the opposite direction as we discussed in the first of the articles in our Occult Studies Course. Epictetus makes a rather quaint and naive statement when he says that true education lies in learning to wish things to be as they actually are. This is our first example of a half-truth which can be interpreted from several angles, not all of them correct! Taken to extremes, this advice amounts to a recipe for inaction, stagnation and ultimately tyranny. Good for dictators, less so for the unfortunates living under them who are content with things 'as they actually are.'
Epictetus further states—this time correctly—that true education also consists in learning to distinguish what is ours from what does not belong to us. This is not only an exhortation to simple honesty, but also has a connection with the talents with which we enter this world inasmuch as there is no profit (and may be much frustration and sorrow) in coveting talents we do not possess while neglecting to develop and exercise those we do. "But," says our Stoic philosopher, "there is only one thing which is fully our own and that is our will and purpose. God, acting as a good king and a true father, has given us a will which cannot be restrained, compelled or thwarted." But what if that will is weak, or untrained? Here we have our first untruth. The compliance of the great mass of humanity with the global fraud we have dubbed 'Mad Covid Disease' demonstrates all too clearly that our God-given will can be restrained, compelled and thwarted remarkably easily. So here we part company with Epictetus.
He says further that nothing external, neither death nor exile nor pain nor any such thing, can ever force us to act against our will; if we are conquered, it is because we have willed ourselves to be conquered! Again, no thinking person can possibly agree with this. Few persons are conquered because they wished to be, except, perhaps, in love. In this case the conquered one is he or she that conquers; and when both are thus conquered, Love stands triumphant, and conquers both. But then there is no evidence that Epictetus was ever married. Being a sickly man he was probably spared both the woes and responsibilities engendered by love as we understand it as human beings with hot blood running in our veins and not insipid, ice-cold milk! Hence, our weakly Sage could not know the great blessings and rewards of love either.
A near-truth of Epictetus is that although we are not responsible for the ideas that present themselves to our consciousness, we are absolutely responsible for the way in which we use them. This sounds very convincing; most of us would probably agree with it at first or even second glance. But upon maturer reflection we might object that we are not always able to use the ideas which come to us. Others may obstruct us, preventing us from bringing the ideas given to us to a satisfactory conclusion. There are circumstances where with the best and strongest will in the world we cannot be entirely free agents. Chapter one of book one of The Discourses begins with the words: "Wouldst thou be good, then first believe that thou art evil." This proves that Epictetus had no idea of the two beings which inhabit the human body, namely: the Higher and lower selves. It is against all reason for a truly good person to believe they are evil. Even the lower self is not so in its origins. Undeveloped—yes; wayward, ignorant, foolish and often selfish and destructive without wise guidance, but not evil. So we may pass this dogma of Epictetus by and declare it completely untrue.
The next rule laid down by Epictetus has it that "The beginning of Philosophy, at least with those who lay hold of it as they ought and enter by the door, in the consciousness of their own feebleness and incapacity in respect of necessary things." To approach Wisdom with humility is always the best course; but if we are too conscious of our own feebleness, we erect a barrier Wisdom cannot cross. We should enter upon the path to the Light with confidence and faith in our teachers, always provided that they have wisdom themselves. But to say we should recognise our 'incapacity in respect of necessary things', by which we assume Epictetus meant the elementary capacities of both mind and heart to understand occult philosophy, then, we think, Epictetus goes too far, and incapacitates the student before they have even begun their search for Truth. This rule shuts out the Light of confidence and all hope of understanding, immuring the student in quicksand which will swallow him up in utter helplessness.
After several pages of philosophical hair-splitting, Epictetus revisits his conception of what is 'good' in chapter two. After stating we have no power to exert our will or power "upon possessions, parents, brethren, children and country, in a word, our associates," he asks: "where shall we place the Good? To what objects shall we apply it? To those which are in our power? Then is health not good, and whole limbs and life? And are not children and parents and country? And who will bear with you if you say this? Let us, then, transfer it to these things. Now, can one be happy who is injured, and has missed gaining what is good? He cannot. And can such a one bear himself towards his fellows as he aught? How is it possible that he should? For I have it of nature that I must seek my own profit. If it profits me to own a piece of land, it profits me to take it from my neighbour. If it profits me to have a garment, it profits me to steal it from the bath. And hence wars, seditions, tyrannies, conspiracies. And how shall I be able to maintain a right mind towards God? For if I suffer injury and misfortune, it cannot be but He neglects me. And what have I to do with Him if He cannot help me?"
This last sentence is pure dynamite; no wonder Epictetus is enjoying a revival in these secular, cynical times! Epictetus was wrong in thinking that our body, parents, children, etc., are external to ourselves; nothing could be less true. There is an invisible bond which binds us to our relations, the same as we are bound to the body, for as long as we need such a vehicle. One cannot compare the body with a cloak or a piece of land; not even with one's country; for we can wear anything and live anywhere if needs be. And though we may be parted from our kin for a while the bond still exists, and will last as long as life, and sometimes beyond the Earth if the bond between us is forged of the spirit as well as matter. Epictetus, like all who try to determine the true nature of Good or evil, went astray. For, as John Temple explained in the fourth of his articles on the Search for Truth, apart from a few concepts of general rules of kindness and tolerance, no human mind cannot know Good or evil to the full.
Reason and the Good
In chapter three Epictetus calls 'Reason' the 'Master Faculty'. But he fails to differentiate between the kind of reason which springs from the Higher Mind and the reason, if we can call it that, which springs from the lower mind; nor does he take into consideration the ways instinct and intuition reason things out. We discussed all this in our Occult Studies course article on Intelligence. Therein we said that there is a still higher form of Reason which reaches the Higher Mind directly from the Divine Soul which dwells in the reasoned realms of Wisdom in the company of the gods, angels and archangels. Epictetus' belief that Reason, as he wrongly conceived it, is all we possess is the philosophy of a misanthrope, a defeatist, a cynic and a misogynist. Such morose attitudes of mind are not for the seeker after Truth, who wants to learn the true Laws, Divine Love and Wisdom of God.
Chapter four is concerned with 'The Nature of the Good.' Our Stoic writes: "For it is the nature of every soul to consent to what is good and to reject what is evil, and to hold back about what is uncertain; and thus to be moved to pursue the good and avoid the evil, and neither way towards what is neither good nor evil." Epictetus either forgets or does not know that there are neutral things which are neither good nor evil. Need we quote the Bible in support of this? "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:16). No one need avoid neutral things or persons, but one may use them in such a way that they become good in their usefulness—or evil—if one is that way inclined. Turning neutral, lacklustre, lukewarm things—or persons—into those that have vivid life, richness or refinement, is doing the work of the gods, so that the doer of such things himself becomes a more vivid being, at the same time improving his or her chances of liberation from the toil and mishaps to which all of us on earth are liable.
Yet, later on Epictetus shows us that he is capable of clearer thinking when he writes: "When the Good appears, straightway the soul is moved towards it and away from the Evil. And never doth the soul reject any clear appearance of the good, no more than Caesar's coin. On this hangeth every movement both of God and man." But Epictetus does not seem to realize that the evil person will run away from the Good; or attack it if they think it is safe to do so. Do any of us in these times of severe test and trial need reminding that the demons of darkness, whether in human shape or not, detest the light of Goodness; which is the Light of God? Do they not cling to the Dark, which is the light of their God, whereas the true Light blinds them? In this we see how Epictetus' ignorance of the Higher and lower selves and wrong ideas about Good and evil, constantly led him into error.
The remains of the Roman Theatre at Nicopolis where Epictetus may have taught
Appearances are not what they appear
A rather sad kind of wishful thinking informs chapter five on 'The Promise of Philosophy.' Epictetus says: "Of all things that exist, some are in our own power, some are not in our own power. Of things that are in our power are opinions, impulses, pursuits, avoidances, and, in brief, all that is of our own doing. Of things that are not in our own power are the body, possessions, reputation, authority, and, in brief, all that is not of our own doing. And the things that are in our own power are in their nature free, not liable to hindrance or embarrassment, while the things that are not in our own power are strengthless, servile, subject, alien.
"Remember, then," he goes on, "if you hold things by their nature subject to be free, and things alien to be your proper concern, you will be hampered, you will lament, you will be troubled, you will blame Gods and men. But if you hold that only to be your own which is so, and the alien for what it is, alien, then none shall ever compel you, none shall hinder you, you will blame no one, accuse no one, you will not do the least thing unwillingly, none shall harm you, you shall have no foe, for you shall suffer no injury. Aiming, then, at things so high, remember that it is no moderate passion wherewith you must attempt them, but some things you must utterly renounce, and put some, for the present, aside. For if, let us say, you aim also at this, to rule and to gather riches, then you are like, through aiming at the chief things also, to miss these lower ends; and shall most assuredly miss those others, through which alone freedom and happiness are won. Straightway, then, practise saying to every harsh appearance—Thou art an Appearance and not at all the thing thou appearest to be. Then examine it, and prove it by the rules you have, but first and above all by this, whether it concern something that is in our own power, or something that is not in our own power. And if the latter, then be the thought at hand: It is nothing to Me."
We have quoted this long extract because it demonstrates why Epictetus is enjoying a revival of interest today. These ideas are reminiscent of the promotional videos we may see on the Internet, in which an attractive, smooth-talking presenter is simply dying to tell you how to get Perfect Health, Wealth and Power by way of the 'law of attraction' or some similarly inept but cunningly packaged bait. New Age magazines are awash with how a gifted clairvoyant will advise you on health, happiness, sex and career. All these things mean the same thing in the end: how to improve yourself and your circumstances, if only you follow the advice given, whatever it may be—for a fat fee, of course. We hope there is no need to tell our wise readers that none of these things ever do any lasting good. Nor, if there should be a knock at your door, and you should behold the 'Appearance' of a rent, tax, or debt-collector in Epictetuan shape, will it do you the slightest good to tell the 'Appearance' that they are not the thing they appeareth to be! Let us see whether Epictetus has anything useful to say to the seeker after Truth in chapter seven, entitled 'To the Learner.'
Our saturnine Sage now returns to his previous, negative teaching that it is impossible for us to succeed in things which are not in our power. We disagree. Faith, if aided by knowledge and enterprise can achieve many things. Farther on in the same chapter we find some good advice. "But each thing is increased and saved by the corresponding works—the carpenter by the practice of carpentry, the grammarian by the study of grammar; but if he use to write ungrammatically, it must needs be that his art shall be corrupted and destroyed. Thus, too, the works of reverence save the reverent man, and those of shamelessness destroy him. And works of faithfulness save the faithful man, and the contrary destroy him. And men of contrary character are strengthened therein by contrary deeds; the irreverent by irreverence, the faithless by faithlessness, the reviler by reviling, the angry man by anger, the avaricious by unfair giving and taking." The next teaching is equally good. "Know, that not easily shall a conviction arise in a man unless he every day speaks the same things and hear the same things, and at the same time apply them unto life." We have said the same in many of our articles and every occult student knows the virtue of regularity and continuity of study. But, as there are always two aspects to everything in accordance with the Hermetic Law of Polarity, we must bear in mind that constant repetition can also lead to a form of self-delusion in which cherished fantasies take the place of truth.
Later on Epictetus says rightly: "Every great power is perilous to beginners. Thou must bear such things according to thy strength." This is also true and good advice which, if followed, will save the impetuous seeker from rushing into peril unless they are wisely restrained by their own Higher Self or a good and watchful teacher. But when, at the end of this chapter Epictetus advises: "Lead thy life as a sick man for a while, so that thou mayest hereafter live it as a whole man. Fast, drink water, abstain for a while from pursuit of every kind, in order that thou mayest pursue as Reason bids," we disagree completely with him. To consider oneself sick whilst in good health is as mad as those scientists who tell you that you should act as if you have Covid-19 even if you are as fit as a flea. Epictetus here spouts nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. Nor is it necessary for anyone to fast and drink water only. Moderation in all things should ever be our guide, not excesses of any kind as he advocates. We may safely pass by the chapters on 'The Cynic', and 'Genuine and Borrowed Beliefs' for there is nothing of occult interest in them. The second chapter of book two is entitled 'The Game of Life' which contains the usual mix of truths, half-truths and untruths we have come to expect from this tenebrific teacher.
Chapter three of book two begins with a truly Jesuitical piece of sophistry which has been swallowed unthinkingly by generations of Epictetus' admirers. Here it is; see what you make of it before reading our analysis. "Each thing that allures the mind, or offers an advantage, or is loved by you, remember to speak of as it is, from the smallest thing upward. If you love an earthen jar, then think, 'I love an earthen jar', for so shall you not be troubled when it breaks. And when you kiss your little child, or wife, think, 'I kiss a mortal'; and so you shall not be troubled when they die."
So—do you agree with Epictetus? We do not! His may be the proper attitude for a Stoic, but from the human, kindly point of view; it is a monstrous theory, not to be borne with equanimity by any right thinking person who has ever loved another. Later on Epictetus says: "A man undisciplined in philosophy blames others in matters in which he fares ill; one who begins to be disciplined blames himself, one who is disciplined, neither others nor himself." There is a great deal of truth in this of course, but we would add that the man who blames neither others nor himself is either a very wise man indeed or a very great idiot. Now here is something for you to think over...
Chapter four begins: "There are three divisions of Philosophy wherein a man must exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns his pursuit and avoidance, so that he may not fail of aught that he would attain, nor fall into aught that he would avoid. The second concerns his desires and aversions, and, generally, all that it becomes a man to be, so that he bear himself orderly and prudently and not heedlessly. The third is that which concerns security from delusion and hasty apprehension, and, generally, the assenting to appearances." These wise and sensible precepts reconcile us to a large extent to the many shortcomings in Epictetus' teachings. This is followed by several examples of right thinking and conduct which we will skip. But his warning against the fear of death in chapter five is worth quoting. He asks: "What is death? A bugbear. Turn it round; examine it: see, it does not bite. Now or later that which is body must be parted from that which is spirit, as formerly it was parted." Quite true of course to those of us who know that death is merely the transition from one state of consciousness to another. With reference to this Epictetus asks: "Shall I, then, exist no longer? Nay, thou shalt exist, but as something else, whereof the universe hath now need. For neither didst thou choose thine own time to come into existence, but when the universe hath need of thee." This is another of those half-truths we keep harping on about. True as regards most of us who are compelled to reincarnate against our will. Untrue in the case of the great Messengers of Light who arrive here willingly so that their message of Hope and Deliverance shall benefit the few who hearken to it. Chapter six treats briefly of folly and wisdom but as all this has been covered in much greater depth (and wit!) by John Temple we will pass it by.
If you wish to read books three and four of The Discourses you can easily find them on and offline in various editions; we have neither the time nor inclination to point out all the inconsistencies, half-truths and untruths they contain. We have said enough to show you the main tendency of Epictetus' philosophy, such as it is. If you do read more beware lest you are deceived and ensnared by specious arguments Epictetus uses to support his dogmas. These bewilder rather than enlighten; and this applies to the whole of his teachings, and to all other teachings by such philosophical hairsplitters, ancient and modern. It only remains for us to conduct a rapid survey of the rest of book two.
To those who are tired of life and fed up to the back teeth with the shortcomings of humanity, he says: "My friends, wait upon God. When He himself shall give the signal and release you from his service, then are ye released unto Him. But for the present, bear to dwell in this place, wherein He has set you. Short, indeed, is this time of your sojourn, and easy to bear for those that are so minded. For what tyrant or what thief is there any longer, or what court of law is terrible to one who thus makes nothing of the body and the possessions of it? Remain, then, and depart not without a reason." Sound advice, don't you agree? Sadly, what follows is completely unsound and this is why it has such a magnetic appeal for our modern generation. For Epictetus goes on to condone suicide so long as we "do it not unreasonably, not cowardly, nor by making every common chance an excuse." What thoughtless, ignorant, and even evil advice this is! Truly—the dwelling places beyond this world stand ever open to receive all who depart from Earth; but Epictetus fails to give even the slightest hint of what may be expected in them. This is an instance of the blind leading the blind to their destruction.
Chapter ten is entitled 'Know thyself', but, we ask, how can a man who does not know the most elementary laws of Life and Death teach others how to know themselves? So we will pass this by. The opening of chapter 20 contains one of the best teachings in the entire book; here it is: "Remember that thou art an actor in a play, of such a part as it may please the director to assign thee; of a short part if he choose a short part; of a long one if he choose a long. And if he will have thee take the part of a poor man or of a cripple, or a governor, or a private person, mayest thou act that part with grace! For thine it is to act well the allotted part, but to choose it is another's." This echoes the Wisdom Teachings of the ancient Egyptian Sage Amen-em-Apt who lived 1,600 years before Epictetus. What a treat it is to find such gold among the dross we have explored with you in this part of our investigation. Here is another gem from chapter 22 of book two. "If it shall ever happen to thee to be turned to outward things in the desire to please some person, know that thou hast lost thy way of life. Let it be enough for thee in all things to be a philosopher. But if thou desire also to seem one, then seem so to thyself, for this thou canst."
Book two ends with a piece of advice every student can profit from, regardless of the subjects they may choose to study. "In every work you will take in hand mark well what must go before and what must follow, and so proceed. For else you shall at first set out eagerly, as not regarding what is to follow; but in the end, if any difficulties have arisen, you will leave it off with shame." Here we must leave Epictetus, having shown you how to read and judge his teachings and so gain the greatest benefit from them. Next month we shall conclude this series of three articles with a discussion of the life and teachings of the last major Neoplatonist, Proclus
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 24 October 2021.