P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 30
21st April 2002
I. 'Epictetus and Stoicism' by Martin O'Hagan
II. Letter to Martin O'Hagan
III. A clue to the early history of the Philosophical Society of
I. 'EPICTETUS AND STOICISM' BY MARTIN O'HAGAN
Aristotle, in the 4th century before Christ, declared that men considered the
good life was one of physical pleasure, wealth and honour. During the 17th
Century Spinoza reaffirmed the Aristotelian formula, only he substituted the
word 'fame' for honour. Today 'fame' has not have been completely replaced with
the notion of 'social approval' nevertheless both are desired.
For the vast majority of ordinary people Aristotle's formula is unrealistic
because, in the words of Thoreau, they 'live lives of quiet desperation'
(Walden p5). This negative side of the Aristotelian ideal is the recognition
that frustration and disillusionment is part of the human condition.
The attainment of such goals depends only in small part on the efforts of an
individual. External circumstance can thwart him or her at any moment. Secondly
no matter how successful an individual is he or she can't be secure in their
possessions. And thirdly desire is the root of all frustration, insecurity and
painful striving. Human Beings are by nature unable to satisfy all desires,
because individual powers are limited and desires are unlimited except by life
span. Paradoxically it is quiet reasonable to have all the material benefits
and yet desire a more Spartan life style.
Philosophers have recommended strategies by which people over come frustration
generated by desire. Of the various techniques suggested to emancipate the
individual perhaps the most radical and simplest Is stoicism. It took root
among the Greeks and then influenced the Romans about whom Lecky said. "Long
before they had begun to reason about philosophy they exhibited it in action"
(European Morals, Lecky p172).
Not much is known of Epictetus's life. He was born in Hieropolis in Asia Minor
and was for some time a slave but freed by his Roman master. He was educated by
a Stoic philosopher and soon began to teach philosophy himself until he was
banned from Rome by the emperor Domitian. No written work of Epictetus has
survived and the Encheiridion was dictated to a disciple.
Western Thought categorises Stoicism within philosophy but perhaps it would be
better to label it a form of spiritual training. Epictetus dictated in his
manual, "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to but instead want
them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well" ('Encheiridion'
This notion is a reworking of the ideas of Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism,
who said that the end or telos of human life is to be in accord with nature. For
Epictetus morals become unintelligible apart from cosmology. And the term nature
becomes a term something other than what it is in either Plato or Aristotle. It
links moral laws to cosmic status. These laws, apart from local convention, and
the physical universe now have a shared source.
Attuning the individual's mind with the way the universe actually is, Is
considered the ideal human condition. Epictetus believed that the cosmos was
determined by nature which is sometimes substituted for the term God or Logos.
All events in the external world are also determined by prior states of the
The Stoic universe is an organic and perfect whole which has order linking all
its parts. The determination of events is control by an even stronger coherence
than mere casual determination of future events by past events. Stoics believed
that once an individual becomes aware of the pattern of the cosmos it is
possible to see that the nature of any local occurrence was completely fixed by
the remainder of the pattern.
Bringing the mind into line with the world as it, is one of understanding that
nothing and no event that causes dissatisfaction could possibly be otherwise
than it actually is. It is a theory that smacks of Leibniz formula 'All is for
the best in this best of all possible worlds' and which was perceptively
satirised by Voltaire's portrayal of the patient philosopher Dr. Pangloss in
the popular novel 'Candide'.
White suggests an insight into this aspect of Stoic determinism, "Given the
awareness of the places of such an event in the pattern of the cosmos it could
be unable to think of events being different" ('The Handbook', White p8). He
suggests the example of 2 plus 1 is inconceivable as anything other than 3.
with such an inconceivability of an alternative such as 4 or 14 it seems
reasonable to hold it is not intelligent to hold the wish that 2 plus 1 might
be anything other than 3.
Spinoza also accepted such determinism and instead of using numbers he said
that a man is born a baby. Humans accept that it can not be otherwise. If men
were born adults and some were born babies then would no longer accept the
inevitability of their fate. ('Spinoza', Hampshire, p145-p161)
According to MacIntyre the Stoics believed it possible to combine determinism
with free will to dissent or assent from the divine Logos. What is determined
is the physical world including human beings. But what escapes determination is
human agreement or disagreement to the course of things expressed in the form of
"Even if I dissent from and rebel against predetermined course of nature my
physical behaviour will still conform to it. 'Ducunt volentem fata nolentem
trahunt' wrote Seneca later on" ('A Short History of Ethics' MacIntyre p106).
Epictetus's first technique begins with the premise that to be free and happy
then we must accept that, "Some things are up to us. Our opinions.... and our
impulses desires and aversions - in short whatever is our own doing"
His Stoicism emphasises that a person must learn to differentiate between what
he or she can control and can not control if they are going to achieve an inner
freedom from egoistic emotion. This inner tranquillity leads to outer
effectiveness. Within our control are our own opinions, desires and the things
that repeal us. These areas are our concern because they are subject to our
influence. This means we always have a choice about the contents and character
of our inner lives.
According to Epictetus we have no control over what sort of body we have,
whether we are born into wealth, strike it rich, how we are regarded by others
and our status in society. These things are externals and subsequently not the
concern of the ordinary person. Trying to control or change what we can't only
results in torment for the individual. The things in our power are naturally at
our disposal and are free from restraint or hindrance; those outside our power
are weak dependent or determined by the actions of others. To attempt to
control things outside our power or to adapt the problems of others only leads
to frustration and anxiety. The individual then often becomes a fault finding
Epictetus recommends that individuals should keep their attention focused on
their own concerns and be clear, that what belongs to others is their business.
If a person does this he or she will be impervious to coercion and no one can
hold the individual back. "You will be truly free because your efforts will be
put to good use and won't be foolishly squandered finding fault with or
opposing others" ('The Art of Living').
Epictetus maintained that in knowing what concerns the individual no one can be
made do anything against his or her will. The practising Stoics can't be hurt
nor do they incur enemies. He warns that living by such principles isn't easy.
A story is told of how Epictetus warned his master, who was beating him, that
his leg would shortly break. When it finally snapped Epictetus is supposed to
have calmly remarked, "I told you you would do so" (Lecky p184).
He recommends that from the moment a person understands the above ideas he must
practise saying to anything that is unpleasant, "You are an appearance and not
at all the thing that has the appearance." Then examine it and assess it by
these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns
the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is
about one of the things that Is not up to us be ready to say "You are nothing
in relation to me" (Encheiridion C2).
Human desires are mercurial rulers according to Epictetus. Desires demand to be
pleased commanding the individual to run off and get what he or she wants.
Aversion insists that human beings must avoid the things that repeal them.
Typically if the individual doesn't get what he or she wants they are
disappointed and when they get what they don't want he or she is distressed.
Epictetus recommends that the individual avoids those undesirable things that
are contrary to the natural well being. If they are within the person's control
then he or she will never incur anything they don't want. Epictetus cautions
that trying to avoid inevitabilities such as sickness death or misfortune over
which the person has no real control, will make others around them suffer.
Desire and aversion are powerful habits but it is possible for the individual
to train him or herself to have better habits. Restrain the habit of being
repelled by all those things that are not in the individual's control and focus
instead on combating things within your power that are not good for you. Desire
must be reined in because disappointment will follow. Unless this is done it
will lead to neglect of the things that are within the individual's control
that are worthy of desire.
Circumstance do not rise to meet expectations and events happen as they do and
people behave as they are. The attuned Stoic mind sees things for what they
are. It is necessary to embrace what is actually given. Only this way is the
pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation. He suggests that one
technique of doing this is to think about what delights the individual such as
work tools or people. It is important to remember that each has its own
distinct character which is a separate matter from how the individual regards
As an exercise consider the smallest thing to which he or she Is attached such
as a favourite cup. It Is only just a cup and if it breaks in an accident a
person can cope. It is only after all a cup and can be replaced by another like
It. Next consider attitudes to other objects including a pet and then other
people to whom a person has clinging thoughts and feelings. Epictetus asks the
individual to think of his or her child or spouse and remember that it Is a
mortal that Is being embraced. If someone should die it is possible to bear it
Epictetus does not recommend cold and indifferent detachment to other people.
He argues that when something serious happens the only thing in an individual's
power is his or her attitude towards it. A person can either accept the
situation or resent it. Epictetus insists that what frightens or dismays the
individual is not external events themselves but his or her attitude and the
way events are thought about. It is not things that disturb us but the way
their significance is interpreted. This amounts to a call for the individual to
stop scaring him or herself with impetuous notion or reactive impressions with
the way things are.
Even attitudes surrounding death are no longer terrorising when it is realised
that such notions can be dealt with rationally. There are many ways to think
about death that it is important to scrutinise attitudes questioning whether
they are true and what is their real effect on the individual.
Death and pain need not be dreaded, what is dreaded is the fear of death and
pain. External circumstances can't be changed but It is possible to choose how
to respond. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and Stoic, following an example that is
ascribed to Pythagoras made meditating on death a special mental exercise.
Epictetus was in no doubt that our feelings are the main source of much misery.
It follows that blaming others is silly. When a person suffers setbacks or grief
it's futile to blame others when it is attitudes that are at fault. "An
uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated
person accuses himself; an educated person accuses neither someone else nor
himself" (ibid. C6). One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress Is the
gradual of extinguishing of blame. The more the would be Stoic works on himself
the more stormy emotions are not allowed to overshadow and intervene in rational
Epictetus is not encouraging a cold indifference to fellow human beings.
Stoics adapted the Cynic doctrine that all humans are 'citizens of the world '
implying that everyone is radically equal and presumably are treated as such.
In the Encheiridion he dictated "When you see someone weeping in grief take
care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved
in are bad and be ready to say immediately "what weighs down" in this man is not
what has happened (since it does not weigh down on someone else) but his
judgement about it. Do not hesitate to sympathise with him verbally and even to
cry with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to cry inwardly" (ibid.
This may suggest the lost of ordinary human emotions but Epictetus accepts that
other people's attitudes towards their circumstances are often irrational and
diseased. Vice is to the mind what disease is to the body and that a state of
virtue is a state of health. "A mind distracted by passion and vice may be
avoided not so much because it is an obstacle in the pursuit of prosperity, as
because it is in itself essentially painful and disturbing" (Lecky p179).
In the 'Encheiridion', Epictetus is very much engaged in practical advice
giving and that interest in working out philosophical problems is relatively
small. He shows that the only thing in our control and what really makes us
human is the way we deal with our minds. It is the capacity of the human mind
to receive impressions and experiences consciously and not to waste inner
energy on things that we have no power over.
In recent years Stoicism and especially the writing of Epictetus has had
growing numbers of adherents among modern westerners who appreciate that his
non religious way is very much in tone with western psychic. In a godless world
many to day are turned off by religious jargon. The nearest Stoicism comes to
God is the use of the term to represent the mind of the universe. "The universe
is at one divine and material. The primary material fire is transmuted to the
physical states by the universal rational principle, the Logos which is the
deity" (MacIntyre p105).
As a spiritual technique becomes a way of life that requires practical acts
which may be likened to monastic living. In contrast, Stoicism can help people
to search for that inner freedom in the midst of stress care and pressures of
modern bourgeois society. Freedom here is recognising the limits of the
According to American philosopher Jacob Needleman, Stoicism gives the
individual a way of stepping back and not get swallowed up by life. It creates
a philosophical and spiritual paradox that Epictetus shows the westerner that
the more a person steps back the more he or she is able to humanly engage in
life. "It doesn't mean the person doesn't care in fact it is the opposite and
the person cares too much. Such people are full of passion but it is not
egoistic passion," says Needleman ('Art of Living').
This idea of a person not engaging fully in life causes suspicion within modern
way of life. People equate agitation and annoyance as a sign of passion and
feeling. According to Needleman it is a sign of confusion and ego tripping.
Stoicism lasted for almost 500 years and was the main spiritual discipline for
the warring and class torn Romans. But it was not confined to classes. For one
the one hand the most powerful man in the Roman world Marcus Aurelius and the
least powerful Epictetus, a slave, both espoused the same philosophy.
Objectively Hegel criticised Stoicism as a false solution to human frustration
which masked the real relationship between Master and Slave. The acceptance of
necessity and identification with universal cosmic reason hides the real
The Stoic and to a large extent the Spartan systems of antiquity and later the
asceticism of the Middle Ages belong to time when social movement is static.
The doctrines taught people to endure. pain, repress desires and establish what
Lecky described as an 'absolute empire over their emotions' (ibid. p188).
The emotional side of human life was banned from the empire of reason. Human
will is educated to act in the service of reason. Emotions that can initiate
action are proscribed. Seneca elaborated at great length the difference between
clemency and pity. The later is described as a 'weakness of the feeble mind that
flinches at the sight of suffering' (ibid. p189). Whereas clemency is an act of
judgement, pity would disturb that same judgement.
The Stoic obsession with human emotions as some sort of disease is found in all
their attitudes. Friendship is preferred rather than love, hospitality rather
than charity, magnanimity rather than tenderness, clemency rather than pity or
The Stoics carried suppression of the emotions further than any other school of
thought. They tried to compensate for the lost of their emotional side by
teaching the fraternity of men and the duty of each man to the welfare of
others. It was an age when women were invisible to the cold male and even
colder Stoic eye. The Stoics even extended the Socratic maxim that no one
knowingly commits evil to their treatment of criminals. They urged that a basis
of punishment must be prevention.
But despite their benevolence, the declared war on the emotions is seen as a
practical and a psychological evil. When Anaxagoras was told that his son had
died retorted, "I never supposed that I had begotten an immortal." And Stilpo
who had just lost his family, his city and country said the sage is above such
circumstance. In both examples human virtue is reduced to some kind of majestic
Even Epictetus taught that a person should look on with pretended sympathy in
order to console a suffering friend. Empathy has been abandoned. A person who
refuses to look on pain and suffering as an evil are scarcely likely to help
relieve them in others. The Stoic theory of benevolence might be acted but the
animating spirit appears to be absent.
If all virtue was conformity to nature what is implied is nature as a composite
thing comprising many facets. Similarly human nature in conformity with nature
is also composite To deny one part of that nature or to make part of that
nature our whole nature is not to affirm but to mutilate humanity.
'An Introduction to Existentialism' Robert G. Olson (Dover 1962)
'Epictetus, The Handbook' ('Encheiridion') Nicholas P. White Tr. (Hackett 1983)
'Candide' Voltaire (Wordsworth Classics 1993)
'Classic Thought, A History of Western Philosophy' Terence Irwin (Opus General
'Spinoza' Stuart Hampshire (Pelican Books 1953)
'The History of European Morals' W.E.H. Lecky (3rd edn Longman 1876)
'A Short History of Ethics' Alasdair MacIntyre (2nd edn Routledge 1991)
'Encheiridion' in 'Classics of Western Thought' ed by S. M. Cahan (3rd edition
'The Art of Living' read by Richard Bolles, translated by Sharon Lebell (Audio
Literature). Interview with Jacob Needleman
(c) Marie O'Hagan 2001
Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM
II. LETTER TO MARTIN O'HAGAN
24th June 1998
I am feeling a little guilty for not responding more quickly to your essay on
Epictetus, which I received on 16 June. In terms of Stoic philosophy, that
might seem to pose a problem. I shouldn't blame myself for what is in my
nature. My actions (or inactions) like every event in the universe follow the
iron rule of cause and effect. Yet I could do something about my laziness and
tendency to procrastinate - if I were sufficiently motivated to try.
I like to do nothing. I like to sit at my desk, watch the clouds go by and
groove along with the universe. The trouble is that, all too often, inactivity
leads to boredom and boredom to sharp stings of anxiety and the cold fog of
depression. Should I try harder to perfect my laziness, or should I treat it as
a bad habit to be got rid of? - The question is not meant simply to be
facetious, but to make a philosophical point.
I enjoyed your essay. There is much to think about here. What I would have
liked to have seen, however, is more awareness of the philosophical problems
raised by the Stoic doctrine. I was also hoping for some concrete indications
of how the study of Stoicism points the way forward to the kind of renewal of
philosophy Joseph Needleman appears to have been looking for - a philosophy
centred on practical concerns, a 'philosophy of life'.
There also seemed to be a lack of awareness of the enormous influence of
Stoical ways of thinking on contemporary psychology, especially in analytic
psychology of Freud and Klein. We can't always avoid the things that make us
unhappy, but we can do something about neurotic unhappiness, by 'working' on
ourselves. Its an attitude that has filtered down to the Agony Aunts' (and
Uncles') columns. What do I do about all the things my wife does that annoy me?
- Remind yourself of all her good points, and try to get rid of the habit of
saying, 'If only she would...' because she never will.
Freud talks modestly of seeking to transform neurosis into a state of
'generalised unhappiness'. In 'Civilization and its Discontents', he paints a
depressing picture of the necessary violence done to our instincts in forging a
human society - a picture that Wilhelm Reich reacted to by his call for a
'sexual revolution'. Since the heady days of the late 60's, Freud seems to have
won over Reich.
In terms of the history of philosophy, Spinoza is important, not simply because
of the strong Stoic influence but because he seems to point a way forward. The
dilemma posed by the first two paragraphs above might be approached by
considering which course of action would be the most rational. To be free is to
be determined to act by one's reason, rather than by one's passions. The
rational thing to do is to attempt to see the whole picture, rather than just a
part of it.
It's quite a feat to reduce Hegel's criticisms in the section of the
'Phenomenology of Mind' on 'Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness'
to just four lines! There are obvious links to your last paragraph - but you
could have said a lot more here.
Two central philosophical questions concern fatalism and determinism. There are
obvious problems with the formula 'Even if I dissent from and rebel against the
predetermined course of nature my physical behaviour will still conform to it'.
I go to the fridge because I want a can of beer. If I hadn't wanted the beer I
wouldn't have gone to the fridge. How can my physical action have been
determined - as the movement of a natural object within a world of nature - if
my desire was not determined? Suppose I know that there's no beer in the
fridge. That knowledge is sufficient to prevent me from going, but not to
prevent me from wishing I hadn't drunk all the beer last night. At what point
are we dealing with things outside the realm of cause and effect? Wishing,
self-blame etc. are themselves part of what we do, part of what we are.
According to fatalism, if it will be the case in two minutes time that I give
into the temptation to abandon this letter to play the latest computer game
downloaded from the Internet, then whatever happens in the meantime, and
whatever psychological ploys apply to myself, that event will occur. That is
simply logic: if P, then P. - Well, we know that something's got to be wrong
with that argument! In the Second World War, fatalism gave rise to the infamous
'air raid shelter' argument. 'Either I am going to be hit by a bomb or not. If I
am, then the bomb will find me, even if I hide in the deepest air raid shelter.
If not, then I won't be hit even if...'
The conflict between free will and determinism is a different problem from that
of fatalism. (You could be a fatalist even in an indeterministic universe.) It
is not clear to me from your essay what Epictetus' approach was, or would have
been to either question.
Our fear of death raises another range of philosophical questions. Epicurus
argued that 'death is nothing to us' because, unlike pain or injury, it is not
something that happens to a person, not something that one encounters. Death is
simply the dissolution of the material elements of which my body is composed.
(In the well-known formula, rather than his own words, 'Where I am, death is
not; where death is, I am not.') Here is an example of where it is reason that
overcomes fear or aversion, and not simply the desire to be rid of troublesome
How does Epictetus point the way forward to a philosophy of life, or of living,
given the criticisms that can be made of the Stoic recipe for a good life? Or,
what are the philosophical issues that we should be addressing in seeking to
solve the problem of how to live?...
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 1998
III. A CLUE TO THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL
SOCIETY OF ENGLAND (CONTD.)
Issue No 10 of the Pathways newsletter (17th June 2001) included a piece about
Alfred H. Welsh, who was a member of the 'Victoria Institute, The Philosophical
Society of Great Britain', established by James Reddie in 1865 during the reign
of Queen Victoria. When I wrote the piece, I was under the impression that the
Victoria Institute had ceased to function long ago. However, last month, I
received a belated response to the article from Martyn Berry, giving me the
address of the current Secretary of the Victoria Institute, Brian Weller.
According to the official History of the Philosophical Society of England, 'in
1913, a meeting was convened, primarily by the Rev. Elphinstone Rivers, (Vicar
of Eltham from 1895) who was "a prominent figure among the members of the old
society in order to draw up the rules and constitution of the new scheme."'
Was this 'old society' the Victoria Institute? Is it possible that the
Philosophical Society of England arose as the result of a schism within the
Philosophical Society of Great Britain? The question has never been
After getting his telephone number from directory enquiries, I telephoned Brian
Weller. He had never heard of the Philosophical Society of England, and could
shed no light on the schism theory. However, he was very interested to hear
about Pathways and the Philosophical Society of England. Subsequently, I
received a letter from Mr Weller with a copy of their brochure and a
photocopied article on 'The Victoria Institute: The First Hundred Years'.
Here is what Mr Weller wrote:
"Dear Dr. Klempner,
"It was a pleasure to speak with you on Saturday and to learn a little of the
work which you undertake on behalf of the above Society. Do please send me
"I particularly noted your mention of increased interest following your
establishing a website under the auspices of the University of Sheffield, where
you were previously a philosophy tutor, and in addition the Society also
operated under a second address, these being philosophypathways.com
"Regretfully, it was impossible for me to throw any light on what might have
transpired between our respective Societies during the first half of the last
century as the writer was not aware of the existence of your Society until you
telephoned him. A photocopy of the report of V.I.'s First Hundred Years is
enclosed as this may be of interest, especially if it throws up the names of
contributors who may feature in your Society's records.
"Also enclosed are other items which will provide a fuller picture of our aims
and activities. Please feel free to make mention of our work in any of your
current fortnightly Newsheets, since V.I. maintains an open membership. It's
Christian foundation and testimony is preserved through insistence upon every
trustee being avowedly Christian. The Lecture following our AGM next month is
also open to all interested parties.
"I can report that we are now getting to grips with the establishment of a web
site, but it will not be connected to the writer's personal computer. The
Institute will need to purchase one of its own if it cannot secure the services
of a web master from within the ranks of its members.
Brian H. Weller."
Here is a short extract from the Victoria Institute's pamphlet:
The Institute's meetings and publications are aimed at
presenting and interpreting, for the non-specialist,
important work in any academic field (except pure theology)
which has a bearing on the Christian faith.
In conjunction with Christians In Science the Institute
produces a journal, 'Science and Christian Belief'. It
publishes 'Faith and Thought Bulletin' which addresses
topics of broader interest.
- It is tempting to hypothesize that a schism, if such occurred, was for
religious reasons. Certain members, under the leadership of Rev. Elphinstone
Rivers, were dissatisfied with the emphasis on Christian evangelism, and
decided to form a Society to promote the study of philosophy and its practical
benefits in every aspect of life, rather than with the single aim of supporting
Without hard evidence, however, that theory remains idle speculation. It is
possible that we shall never know the truth about the relation between the two
The address of the Victoria Institute, for those interested in getting further
Brian H.T. Weller
41 Marne Avenue
Kent DA16 2EY
Telephone: +44 (0)20 8303 0465
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2002
Philosophy Pathways is the electronic newsletter for the
Pathways to Philosophy distance learning program
To subscribe or cancel your subscription please email your
request to email@example.com
The views expressed in this newsletter do not necessarily
reflect those of the editor. Contributions, suggestions or
comments should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org