The Enchiridion

Last year we got through several works of Plato's here, and I think that was time well spent. This year I want to start with something a little different: a work of Stoicism. Stoicism is an approach to philosophy deeply informed by both Plato and Aristotle, but different in character and in expression. Like Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics are concerned with virtue. For the earlier thinkers, though, virtue was about action that was meant to shape the world. For Plato, virtue might enable the construction of a good society in which the heights of the human condition might be attained. For Aristotle, courage was the virtue that won wars, and magnanimity the virtue that shone the path to the highest and noblest accomplishments. By nature, wars and honorable accomplishments are public matters, and entail striving in the public sphere and sometimes against others who are in competition. 

The Stoics are going to propose an inward looking approach to virtue, one that sets aside the outer world as being imperfectly (at best) within our sphere of influence. Thus, they will suggest, we should focus on that which we really do control: our attitudes, our reactions, our thoughts, ourselves. In this way we relinquish concern with that whose gain or loss we cannot really control, and become intimately concerned with what we can perfectly shape. Courage is not about winning wars, although you might win a war along the way. It is about learning to face danger and potential loss -- even of the body, as one might in war -- without being concerned about it. 

The Stoics did sometimes nevertheless win public honors; Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, in fact, and accounted one of the good ones. We are going to begin with a work by Epictetus, who was born a slave. He attained his freedom sometime after the death of Nero, in Rome, and began to teach; later, Rome banned philosophers and he had to retreat to another corner of the empire. 

The Enchiridion reads to me much more like Zen philosophy than the Greek philosophy from which it properly draws. There are fifty-one sections; some of them are only one sentence long. Nevertheless, like the Zen aphorisms they merit reflection and consideration. They are unlike the extended narratives of Plato, or the extended arguments of Aristotle. I do not think that I will need to comment nearly as extensively on them to make them accessible, but I will as I think appropriate. Mostly I will put them in front of you, and we can discuss them. I'll try to do one a day, which will take us through the two coldest months of the year with good thoughts as our company. 


RonF said...

"Thus, they will suggest, we should focus on that which we really do control: our attitudes, our reactions, our thoughts, ourselves."

It strikes me that this is the exact opposite of the philosophy of many on the left. They seem to hold that one's thougts, attitudes, reactions, etc. are formed via various groups we belong to (racial, ethnic, economic class) and are NOT something one can (or should?) change by one's own efforts. On that basis they demand that others who are not members of those groups must have their rights restricted and must change their behavior in order to accommodate that inability.

douglas said...

Indeed, Ron- external forces vs. internal forces is a big part of the divide. Reflected also in what they think will solve the problem of crime.

This is great, as I got the book recently, and it's by my bed, but I've not been reading it yet.

Christopher B said...

RonF and douglas, that has been my anecdotal observation as well, that people on the left tend to place a greater emphasis on external motivation than internal. Whether that is a result of a predisposition or that current left policies lean that way I'm not sure.

RonF said...

To understand that it is your responsibility to change oneself is to admit that oneself needs changing. In turn it requires effort on one's own part. But if you are a narcissist, having been told all your life that everything you do is great and that the proper object of personal endeavor is to fulfill one's own desires, then your natural reaction is going to be to seek to force others to agree that everything you do is proper, acceptable and even desirous - and to prevent them from saying or doing anything that indicates otherwise.