I am still working my way through Epictetus’ Dialogues and Selected Writings. One thing about the material itself – it is incredibly dense with ideas in every sentence. What makes that density so powerful, however, is that it is not based on complex concepts and hard-to-define abstractions. Stoicism is not, thus far, and I have gotten a decent way into the text, all that interested in the absolute bedrock level of reality. There is a large element, at least in Epictetus’ Dialogues that must be taken for granted or accepted, akin to a postulate in geometry, such as faith in God or gods, the definition of a few terms, and certain maxims about life. But even with the academic “imperfection” of the philosophy, it remains one of the most compelling moral philosophies I have ever encountered.
Simultaneously Epictetus is able to rationally explain why it is paramount to tend to one’s own, and yet also explain how this does not conflict with the need to do the best one can by all others. It is not meant to be a complex code of regulations for life, but a set of sparse precepts for managing the situations that most often befall human beings. The “end goal” in Stoicism is not, then, to question all things to the point of inscrutability, nor is it centered around maximizing any one trait but personal “goodness,” for a mutable value of “goodness,” but rather to overall strive to be the best person that one can in any sort of life circumstances. Absent are the imprecations about afterlives and specific practices found in Buddhism, but the overall theme of moderation and self-restraint is, if anything, more pronounced in Stoicism. Epictetus leaves the mystical to the mystic and godliness to the gods – at no point do I imagine Stoicism in some alternate timeline spawning a pantheon of bodhisattvas with myriad arms and incarnate cosmological concepts riding unknowable steeds.*
As far as advice for living, the Dialogues are very much “old man” advice. I can see how many, if not most people, upon first encountering such a curmudgeonly tone, would be quick to dismiss the validity of the words, but if you look at what he is saying, it makes more sense than the soaring dreams of a younger man or woman’s emotionally-derived thought problems. Upon reading it, really, it seems so close to “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” that the novelty of seeing it spelled out and amassed is almost greater than that of a Wittgensteinian or Hegelian maelstrom of terms, classifiers, contingent phrases, and attempts at answering questions that, to Epictetus, would seem wasteful and unnecessary to ask.
One of the things that I find most difficult to take up as a personal creed is the idea of not seeking better “place” and social standing. Growing up, I always felt so painfully outside of the world of normal socializing and interactions, that one quest for me has always been to develop the skills to blend in in nearly any sort of situation, to be accepted by as many people as possible and, when able, to garner praise or admiration even on a small scale. In Epictetus’ eyes, this is a waste of time and almost the closest that one can come to a “sin.” Alternatively, however, I do not gather from his text that he feels it is morally wrong to accept, earn, or receive such honors, but that making them the object of your life is a life mostly wasted.
That concept seems very much in line with some folk wisdom from my own father, who has always pointed out that if you are successful and passionate in whatever you are doing, then people will come to you and praise you or find you captivating without you even having to expend any extra social effort. I always took this to be a naive reading from someone whom I knew to be socially successful in his youth and maturity, but the more that I see of life and the more I think about it, that is accurate, useful, and true.
I have more thoughts on all of this, but I think for tonight that is all I will tap out on the blog.
*I mean, it is possible to imagine such a world, but it seems counterintuitive to everything in Stoic philosophy to allow it to transform, barring incorporation into some other, alien tradition of religion or mysticism, into something full of “woo” and extreme supernaturality. So far the most mystical references in the work have been to auguries, performed ritually on animals, and how they show the designs of the gods/God. Even then, Epictetus seems to allude to the fact that these are not really anymore concrete than imagination.