Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Epictetus: three-stage strategy to think stoically

I knew of this but hadn't really thought of it as a "thing" until I saw a reference in Julia Annas's essay "Epictetus on Moral Perspectives". Then going back to the Oldfather translation of the Discourses and there are references all over the place. Somehow it never registered with me before. Here's the explanation from Annas:


  • Firstly, you examine your desires and aversions, to weed out the bad and encourage the good
  • Secondly, you scrutinize your impulses to act, checking their appropriateness
  • Thirdly, you concern yourself with your assents to what you should do, scrutinizing your ethical beliefs for consistency and mutual support.
See Discourses III.2.1-5; cf. I.4.11; II.17.14-18; III.12. The second stage can be introduced in the context of social duties — cf. III.2.4

Here are those references and the pointers contained within which can be found in the W.A. Oldfather translation of Epictetus scans on archive.org

Discourses Vol I.p.xxi
Triple division is a pedagogical device for lucid presentation rather than an innovation in thought. See A. Bonhoffer "Epiktet und die Stoa", 1890 22ff; Zeller, p.769; especially P.E. More "Hellenistic Philosphies", Princeton, 1923, Epictetus (pp94-171), p.107f.

Discources I.4.11
What is the work of virtue? Serenity....[it is not enough to have read Chrysippus; and one who only claims to have read it "all by himself"] "...why do you try to divert him from the consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue, that he may learn where to look for his progress?" Look for it there, wretch, where your work lies. And where is your work? In desire and aversion, that you may not miss what you desire and encounter what you would avoid; in choice and in refusal, that you may commit no fault therein; in giving and withholding assent of judgement, that you may not be deceived.[These are the three spheres or fields of human activity, inclination, choice, and intellectual assent, upon which the Stoics laid great stress. See III.2.1]

Discourses I.7.1
Most men are unaware that the handling of arguments which involve equivocal and hypothetical premisses, and, further, of those which derive syllogisms by the process of interrogation, and, in general, the handling of all such arguments, has a bearing upon the duties of life. [With the Stoics, whose sole standard of judgement in problems of conduct was the appeal to reason, the proper training of the reasoning facilities was an indispensable prerequisite to the good life. Three modes of sophistical reasoning are here differentiated. "Equivocal premisses" are those that contain amiguities in terms which are intended to mean one thing at one step in the argument, another at another. "Hypothetical premisses" involve assumptions, or conditions. The last class proceeds by drawing unexpected conclusions from the answers to questions.]

Discourses I.26.18 Note
But Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination [cf Plato, Apology, 38A]

Discourses I.27.10
I cannot avoid death. Instead of avoiding the fear of it, shall I die in lamentation and trembling? For the origin of sorrow is this — to wish for something that does not come to pass. Therefore, if I can change externals according to my own wish, I change them; but if I cannot, I am ready to tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way. For it is man's nature not to endure to fall into the evil. Then, finally, when I can neither change the circumstances, nor tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way, I sit down and groan, and revile whom I can — Zeus and the rest of the gods; for if they do not care for me, what are they to me? "Yes," you say, "but that will be impious of you." What, then, shall I get that is worse than what I have now? In short, we must remember this — that unless piety and self-interest be conjoined, piety cannot be maintained in any man.

Discourses II.17.14-18
And yet what need is there for me to bring forward now our strife with one another and make mention of that? Take your own case; if you apply properly your preconceived ideas, why are you troubled [the opposite of the even flow of quiet waters], why are you hampered? Let us pass by for the moment the second field of study [the three fields: desire, choice, assent] — that which has to do with our choices and the discussion of what is our duty in regard to them. Let us pass by also the third — that which has to do with our assents. I make you a present of all this. Let us confine our attention to the first field, one which allows an almost palpable proof that you do not properly apply your preconceived ideas. Do you at this moment desire what is possible in general and what is possible for you in particular? If so, why are you hampered? Why are you troubled? Are you not at this moment trying to escape what is ineveitable? If so, why do you fall into any trouble, why are you unfortunate? Why is it that when you want something it does not happen? For this is the strongest proof of trouble and misfortune. I want something, and it does not happen; and what creature is more wretched than I? I do not want something, and it does happen; and what creature is more wretched than I?

Discourses II.18.24 [compare to middle of III.12]

Discourses III.2.1-7 [bold is III.2.4]
The fields of study in which the man who expects to make progress will have to go into training; and that we neglect what is most important
There are three fields of study [cf II.17,15 This triple division of philosophy is the one original element in the teaching of Epictetus, and even it is rather a pedagogical device than an innovation in thought. Compare Vol I.p.xxi, and the literature there cited] in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions, that he may never fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he avoids; the second with cases of choice and of refusal, and, in general, with duty, that he may act in an orderly fashion, upon good reasons, and not carelessly; the third with the avoidance of error and rashness in judgement, and, in general, about cases of assent. Among these the most important and especially pressing is that which has to do with the stronger emotions; for a strong emotion does not arise except a desire fails to attain its object, or an aversion falls into what it would avoid [a briefer definition is given in I.27.10] This is the field of study which introduces to us confusions, tumults, misfortunes and calamities; and sorrows, lamentations, envies; and makes [The expression is not logical, for the field of study obviously can do nothing of the kind, but the fault is probably not in the MS. tradition.] us envious and jealous — pasisions which make it impossible for us even to listen to reason. The second field of study deals with duty; for I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue, but should maintain my relations, both natural and acquired, as a religious man, as a son, a brother, a father, a citizen.
The third belongs only to those who are already making progress; it has to do with the element of certainty in the matters which have just been mentioned, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness, or a state of melancholy-madness, a man may not be taken unawares by the appearance of an untested sense-impression — This, says someone, is beyond us — But philosophers nowadays pass by the first and second fields of study, and concentrate upon the third, upon arguments which involve equivocalk premisses, which derive syllogisms by the process of interrogation, which involve hypothetical premisses [See I.7.1, and note for these first three], and sophisms like The Liar [i.e. if a man says he is lying, is he really lying, or telling the truth] — Of course, he says, even when a man is engaged in subjects of this kind he has to preserve his freedom from deception — But what kind of a man ought to engage in them? — Only the one who is already good and excellent.

Discourses III.12.*
Of Training
We ought not to take our training in things that are unnatural or fantastic, since in that case we who profess to be philosophers will be no better than the mountebanks. For it is a hard thing also to walk a tight-rope, and not merely hard but dangerous too. Ought we also for this reason to practise walking a tight-rope, or setting up a palm, or throwing our arms about statues? ["Setting up a palm" may possibly mean climbing a pole with only the hands and the feet, like the climbers of palms, as Upton and Schwighauser (after Bulinger) suggest. There was a "palm-bearer" connected with the gymnasium at Tegea in Arcadia, who possibly had charge of the exercise referred to here, whatever its exact character may have been. As for embracing statues, Diogenes was said to have done that nude in cold weather, so as to harden himself] Not a bit of it. Not every difficult and dangerous thing is suitable for training, but only that which is conducive to success in achieving the object of our effort. And what is the object of our effort? To act without hindrance in choice and in aversion. And what does this mean? Neither to fail to get what we desire, nor to fall into what we would avoid. Toward this end, therefore, our training also should tend. For since it is impossible without great and constant training to secure that our desire fail not to attain, and our aversion fall not into what it would avoid, be assured that, if you allow training to turn outwards, towards the things that are not in the realm of the moral purpose, you will have neither your desire successful in attaining what it would, nor your aversion successful in avoiding what it would. And since habit is a powerful influence, when we have accustomed  ourselves to employ desire and aversion only upon these externals, we must set a contrary habit to counteract this habit, and where the very slippery nature of sense-impressions is in play, there we must set our training as a counteracting force.

I am inclined to pleasure; I will betake myself to the opposite side of the rolling ship, and that beyond measure, so as to train myself. I am inclined to avoid hard work; I will strain and exercise my sense-impressions to this end, so that my aversion from everything of this kind shall cease. For who is the man in training? He is the man who practises not employing his desire, and practises employing his aversion only upon the things that are within the sphere of his moral purpose, yes, and practises particularly in the things that are difficult to master. And so different men will have to practicse particularly to meet different things. To what purpose is it, then, under these conditions to set up a palm tree, or to carry around a leather tent, or a mortar and pestle? [reference to Cynics who carry all the simple things they need in life at all times (in an ostentatious manner). Seneca mentions a man who has practised carrying about enormous burdens on his back] Man, practise, if you are arrogant, to submit when you are reviled, not to be disturbed when you are insulted. Then you will make such progress, that, even if someone strikes you, you will say to yourself, "Imagine that you have thrown your arms about a statue." Next train yourself to use wine with discretion, not with a view to heavy drinking (for there are some clumsy fools who practise with this in mind), but first for the purpose of achieving abstention from wine, and keeping your hands off a wench, or a sweet-cake. And then some day, if the occasion for a test really comes, you will enter the lists at a proper time for the sake of disovering whether your sense-impressions still overcome you just as they did before. But first of all flee far away from the things that are too strong for you. It is not a fair match that, between a pretty wench and a young beginner in philosophy. "A pot," as they say, "and a stone do not go together." [Compare the fable about the earthenware pot and the bronze jar in Babrius 193 (Crusius) == Aesop 422]

After your desire and your aversion the next topic [Upon this division of the field of philosphy, which appears to be peculiar to Epictatus, see note on III.2.1] has to do with your choice and refusal. Here the object is to be obedient to reason, not to choose or to refuse at the wrong time, or the wrong place, or contrary to some other similar propriety.

The third topic has to do with cases of assent; it is concerned with the things that are plausible and attractive. For, just as Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination, [See note on I.26.18] so we ought not to accept a sense-impression unsubjected to examination, but should say, "Wait, allow me to see who you are and whence you come" [cf II.18.24] (just as the night watch say, "Show me your tokens" [A token or mark of identification was frequently called for in ancient times by the police (especially at night), much as in some of the occupied and annexed districts of Europe since the Great War] "Do you have your tokens from nature, the one which every sense-impression which is to be accepted must have?" And, in conclusion, all the methods which are applied to the body by the persons who are giving it exercise, might also themselves be conducive to training, if in some such way as this they tend toward display, they are characteristic of a man who has turned toward the outside world, and it is hungting for something other than the thing itself which he is doing, and is looking for spectators who will say, "Ah, what a great man!" It is this consideration which renders admirable the remark that Apollonius used to make: 'When you wish to train for your own sake, then when you are thirsty some hot day take a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out — and don't tell anybody about it!"

interstitial footnotes are in brackets

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thoughts from a Navy guy

Had a chance to hear former Secretary of the Navy and former Mississippi Governor, Ray Mabus, speak the other day. Very intersting guy. In particular, these quotes stood out:

  •  When discussing his goal of promoting diversity in the Navy, it was predicated on not having a force that all look the same, act the same and think the same, for "A predicatable force is a defeatable force" 
  •  One more note on the Navy: "We defend a democracy but we are not a democracy". Simple but thought-provoking. 
 Interesting guy

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A rose by any other name...

Reading David Oshinsky's book about the history of Bellvue hospital. Near the beginning there is a quick summation:
Bel-Vue, a few miles from New York, on the East River is now considered by the people at large as A House of Death," wrote a popular pamphleteer. "So odious is the idea of being put there as to lessen one's chance of recover." Almshouse, pesthouse, death house -- these are the indelible roots of Bellevue Hospital, thrust deep in the bedrock of America's fastest-growing city.

This was at a time when most people went their whole lives without ever seeing a doctor of any description; their whole lives... get it?

Someone needs to trademark all these wonderful hospital names: Almshouse, pesthouse, death-house

People are dying to get in!!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The later life of St. Francis of Assisi

Reading a review of Reluctant Saint in First Things.
Ruined physically by blindness, malaria, cancers, and leprosy, and unable to govern his own Order, which was already breaking into factions, Francis’ spiritual mettle was truly tested. Earlier, he had told his brothers that God “wanted me to be a new kind of fool in this world.” At the end, Francis was anything but a carefree troubadour.
Don't really know too much about him, but as he's a founder of such a long-lived movement, I guess I should

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Wisdom by Byron Herbert Reece

I recently stumbled on this lyrical Southern poet from a mini-biography in a 1960's issue of The Georgia Review made up principally of letters he wrote to a friend. He lived up in the North Georgia mountains and has nothing left in print that I could find. His first collection was called "Ballad of the Bones" (Dutton, 1946) and this poem is called "Wisdom"

Though aimless as the sun or wind
Observe how agile is the mind.
A silver fish with silver fin
The roving mind moves out and in
Among the roots of things to learn.
A swimmer in an earthen urn
The mind goes slyly on its way,
But by what paths it does not say;
And sounds that it will never tell
Trouble the water, like a bell
Warning the mind that it should shun
A shore already touched upon.

In all that I have read of his, he revels in the world of nature and flowing thoughts. I haven't checked out everything he published, but it seems like his work would make an excellent volume of complete works along side these letters. I'm looking at you University of Georgia Press and Mercer College Press.





Sunday, April 9, 2017

Procession of the Sciences

I've been getting to know the many books of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prolific writer and founder of Riverside Church near Columbia University in NYC. He's a thoughtful guy who wrote insightfully about all facets of spirituality in the middle of the 20th Century. One of his many collections of sermons, Successful Christian Living (Harper, 1937), most famous for "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism", also includes "When Each Man Cleans Up His Own Life". During the course of that sermon, he has this to say about science growing as mankind grows:

An interesting revelation of human nature is presented in the chronological order in which the great sciences developed. Which science came first? Astronomy. Our first scientific knowledge concerned the things farthest away. And after that came Geology, a little closer in, the story of the ancient background of our earth; and after that Biology, somewhat closer in, the story of the world of life which has preceded us; and after that Sociology -- in any scientific sense -- still closer in, the story of the human setting into which our lives are born. And, last of all, emerging only yesterday, postponed for centuries by our emotions and prejudices about ourselves, making us unable or unwilling honestly to face ourselves, came Psychology. The realm farthest off came first, the realm nearest at hand -- ourselves -- came last. It is as though even in science men for centuries had fought against coming to grips with themselves. Look inside your own life and see if this is not a true parable of human experience. The last man any of us wants to meet, so clairvoyantly seen that his real problems stand plainly out, is himself.

I like the flow of that. Speaking of science, a little bit from his autobiography mentions when Mr. and Mrs. Einstein  moved to the US, Fosdick toured them around the beaufiful new church he and Rockefeller had built which included a sculpture depicting Einstein who said upon seeing it: "That could not have happened anywhere except in America." Finishing with "I will have to be very careful for the rest of my life as to what I do and what I say."

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rules of thumb for critical thinking

There are two things that can help with complex challenges without knocking your head against the wall: "rules of thumb" and the ever-popular "cargo cult". The latter is a set of steps, recipes, shortcuts that you don't really understand but usually get the job done, God help you if something goes wrong along the way because you really don't know why it works. The former is when you basically grok what's happening where a rule of thumb acts as a sharp knife, cutting through extraneous fluff to get down to what really needs to happen.

I prefer rules of thumb.

This essay offers a few tips to help with various philosophical problems. First off is a simple test to refute a claim:
Let's begin with a heuristic that is easy to use, but quite fertile. The word ‘the’ is the most common word in English. A locution of the form ‘… the X …’ – what philosophers call a definite description – typically comes with an assumption that there is exactly one X. We might be able to challenge that assumption, in two ways: perhaps there is more than one X; perhaps there are no Xs. So the heuristic here is to see the word ‘the’ in neon lights, as it were – by italicising it, underlining it, or otherwise mentally highlighting it – and to try each challenge.
and goes on to show how effective it can be with various problems. Eventually leading to this nice example of the short-comings of philosophy. Given the proof: 1)If God exists he would have created the best of all possible worlds 2)This isn't the best of all possible worlds, therefore God doesn't exist
... perhaps God exists, but didn't create anything. Yet one might insist that he must have, perhaps regarding that as a part of the meaning of ‘God’. This brings us to the second premise. Again, note the contrast: our world, as opposed to other worlds. This prompts a different response: God did not create our world, but he created the best of all possible worlds (instead). This suggests that the argument is invalid: we can imagine premises 1 and 2 being true, without being committed to the conclusion. Or imagine that God did create the best of all possible worlds; and the second best; and the third best… Eventually, we get to our world, which is way down the list, but he created it nonetheless – perhaps because there is still a net balance of good over evil. Again, this suggests that the argument is invalid – only ‘suggests’, mind; perhaps it is impossible for one God to create multiple worlds, for reasons given by David Lewis in On the Plurality of Worlds (1986). It presupposes that God faces a world limit.

Where does this leave us? Well, we did not manage to prove the existence of God, nor prove his non-existence. (I hope you are not too disappointed!) But that’s par for the course in philosophy – it rarely proves anythingconclusively. Instead, I hope I have given you some sense of what philosophical reasoning is like, and how that reasoning can be stimulated and enhanced by the use of various heuristics. Along the way, we saw some instances of what followed from what (or not), exposed some sophisms, spotted some fallacies, and policed some of our reasoning.
Worth a read

Epictetus: three-stage strategy to think stoically

I knew of this but hadn't really thought of it as a "thing" until I saw a reference in Julia Annas's essay "Epictetu...