The Stoic Citizen-politics Of Epictitus Essay, Research Paper
The majority of authors reviewed in this course attempt to either describe an ideal state or to advise the reader on matters of ruling. This provides for interesting reading and speculation and may be helpful for politicians, but not for the majority of people. Most of us will likely never hold any political office. For us these works are of questionable value as guides for action.
Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine were all wealthy men and this is reflected in their writing. Both the Republic and the Politics put their idealistic governments under oligarchical rule. This is understandable; Plato and Aristotle saw society through the eyes of the upper middle class. They feared the poor rising up and taking their power and property more than they feared abuses of power from the rich. They probably believed that these fears were justified; that the poor pose a greater threat than the powerful. The author who deals most with the political problems faced by those who are ruled is Epictitus.
Epictitus was a slave. He alone of the authors we have read sees the world from this viewpoint. For him, as for most people, theories regarding rulership and evaluating governments are, for all practical purposes, useless. Epictitus concentrated on trying to control the one thing that he felt he could control; his own mind. The Stoic philosophy of Epictitus starts from the assumption that nothing outside of oneOs own will can be controlled. All of these OexternalsO are to be met with indifference. Instead, he taught that people should direct their energy towards learning to control their own emotions and desires. In this view, the concepts of good, evil, justice and virtue discussed at length by Plato, Aristotle and Augustine become definable only in terms of the individual seeking to define them.
In the Stoic philosophy good and bad are seen as states of mind. Happiness, satisfaction and serenity are good and sadness, anger, envy, etc. are bad. The externals which stimulate these states of mind are neither good nor bad, they are irrelevant. By recognizing that the vast majority of circumstances in life are completely beyond our control and by not concerning ourselves with them, the task of finding criterium for right action is made clearer.
The idea of reason controlling oneOs desires and emotions was expressed by Plato in the Republic. In his analogy of the city, he suggested that the intellect, personified by the philosopher king, should rule over the passions and desires represented by the guardians and citizens. A similar view is expressed in the second Noble Truth of the Buddha; that all suffering is caused by desire, and is also expressed within the Aristotelian virtues. In controlling oneOs own desires and emotions, the disappointment felt at not attaining them can be eliminated, either by consciously eliminating the desire or the disappointment.
If we assume that Aristotle was correct in stating that the goal of human life is satisfaction (I find this term more fitting than OhappinessO which better describes a transitory emotional state than a stable mind set) a simple answer is given by the Stoics for the question of how to live rightly; Be satisfied. Unfortunately, it is not solved so easily. The ODo what thou wiltO school of philosophy has been tried unsuccessfully for centuries under a hundred different names and mythologies. The problem lies in the tremendous amount of self-discipline necessary to gain this control over oneOs emotions and desires.
I believe that Aristotle was correct in observing that the best way to internalize virtue is by its practice. Before controlling oneOs emotions, one must learn to control oneOs actions. Behaviour associated with strong desire or emotion; violence, cowardice, belligerence, theft, lamentation, lustfulness should all be eliminated. Most people would find their lives much more satisfying after doing so. Many of the unpleasant situations people find themselves in are the result of a hasty emotional response. This is not enough, however, to truly master the will. That, I believe, must be accomplished by a focused thought process such as contemplation or meditation (or whatever term or method suits the individual.) Again, most people will find that the closer that they come to the Stoic ideal the more satisfied they are. By controlling emotion and desire one need not face the difficulty and uncertainty of attempting to change his situation but can change his own mind and be satisfied with the situation as
Even some things which were considered external by Epictitus can be affected for the good of the individual in this way. In dealing with others, the Stoic (or `protostoicO), never acting out of greed, anger, or envy, is not likely to make many enemies. This does not eliminate the possibility of wrong-doing against him but it certainly does decrease the probability. Coming to AugustineOs realization that a man can do no more than a mushroom, he is not an appealing victim for threats and extortion. The Stoic also functions as EpictitusO Opurple threadO, leading others by example.
The question of morality becomes mute in the Stoic view. The Stoic commits no evil actions because all evil acts are initiated from desire or emotion. He will not be tempted to steal, roused to kill or coerced to behave badly by fear. It is no loss for him to give help when asked by the needy because his possessions are irrelevant. He would be the ideal citizen were it not for the fact that the state is never ideal. In a practical, political scene, the Stoic is a terrible citizen. He can not be coerced to do the will of the state if it does not suit him. But I donOt believe that any state will ever be in danger of having an over-abundance of Stoics.
In Stoicism, we are presented with a straight forward, if ambiguous guide for just action. By eliminating all concerns outside of the self, it redirects the individual to take responsibility and improve the self, something ignored or under emphasized in many schools of thought. Although it may appear to be too fatalistic, escapist, or nihilistic at first glance, I believe it is a valid, sensible and effective response to our helplessness within society and the natural world.