Nicopolis. The home of Epictetus
Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Selections. The picture above is Nicopolis, home of Epictetus.

Epictetus is more concerned with ethics than he is with the other problems of philosophy. His ethical position can be boiled down to a belief that in the face of opposition and hardship, one should remember that such things affect the body and not the true self. So he maintains that the true self is a spiritual/mental entity, and not a physical one. The translation I used, by George Long, has numerous footnotes to corresponding portions of the Bible. I don’t know if there was any influence from Christian writings on Epictetus, or if both Christian tradition and Epictetus drew from a common source, the latter position being the most probable, but I’m not going to try and follow up on these references here. The portions assigned from the reading list are highly repetitious, so I’ll probably give the headings, and comment only where there is something particularly striking.

I, 29. On Constancy. Postulates that the being of both Good and Bad is a certain kind of Will. This then moves to a consideration of materials for the will. “Perverse and distorted opinions make the will bad.” We would seek the good if we rightly knew it. He also uses the idea of injury to the body not involving injury to the real person.

II, 1. That confidence is not inconsistent with caution.

II, 2. Of Tranquility.

II, 4. Against a person who had once been detected in adultery. “Man is formed for fidelity, and he who subverts fidelity subverts the peculiar characteristic of men.” Epictetus denounces an adulterer on the grounds that his seduction of his neighbor’s wife destroys and overthrows the faithful man, the neighborhood, friendship, and the community. The man is now known as untrustworthy. Someone raises the objection that women are common by nature. Epictetus says that a pig is common by nature, but when portions are alloted you keep to your own, and don’t try to snatch someone else’s portion.

II, 8. What is the nature of the good? It is the same as the nature of God, intelligence, knowledge, right reason.

II, 9. That when we cannot fulfill that which the character of a man promises, we assume the character of a philosopher.

II, 10. How we may discover the duties of life from names.

II, 11. What the beginning of philosophy is. “The beginning of philosophy to his at least who enters on it in the right way and by the door, is a consciousness of his own weakness and inability about necessary things.”

II, 16. That we do not strive to use our opinions about good and evil.

II, 18. How we should struggle against appearances. Habits are maintained and increased by actions. In order to be a good reader, you read. In order to be a good writer, you write. I would add, which Epictetus does not, that it is not sufficient merely to practice, there should be positive and negative feedback controls as well. Positive feedback says to keep going in a certain direction. Negative feedback says to stop an action. Positive feedback that goes out of control results in infinite loops, and uncontrolled behavior.


The poor slob who follows these directions will never stop washing their hair, because they will always fall through to the repeat clause.

For i = 1 to
Next i

This will, if the compiler or interpreter accepts it, create an array that will fill up all available memory and crash the computer. (I once did this when I was fooling around with Paradox for Windows back around 1995. It displayed some interesting error messages before it crashed.)

It could be argued that Western Muslims who riot over cartoons of Mohammed are exhibiting behavior that is the result of positive feedback with no limiting condition. The result is that bad behavior is re-enforced. Instead of ignoring female circumcision, honor killings, demands for sharia law, issue firm, positive statements that such things are not tolerated in the West. Impose limits.

Epictetus, to return from my digression, takes the position that virtue is acquired by the performance of virtuous acts.

II, 22. On Friendship.

II, 26. What is the property of error.

III, 5. Against those who on account of sickness go away home. I think Epictetus is addressing those with a serious illness, though I’m not sure.

III, 12. About exercise. Exercises should be consistent with nature. Much of what he says here is unclear because I don’t have the cultural context for some of this. For example, he mentions setting up palm trees. Is he talking about planting palm trees, or is this some kind of common exercise? He talks as if it is an exercise, and not related to gardening, but I may misunderstand him.

III, 13. What solitude is, and what kind of person a solitary man is.

III, 15. That we ought to proceed with circumspection in everything.

III, 18. That we ought not to be disturbed by any news. Whatever happens to others has no effect on us. “The news is about nothing which is within the power of your will.” Nobody can tell you that you have formed a bad opinion or have a bad desire. Whatever happens to your body or to your fortune has no effect on you as a person.

IV, 2. On familiar intimacy.

Manual. This is largely a repetition of the material of the Discourses, but without the extended examples and discussion.

The next thing on the list should be Aristotle’s De Anima. I thought it was Tacitus, but there is more philosophy grouped together. In any case, I’m postponing both of those to do books VI-X of Livy. Livy’s not on the list for some reason, though Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy are on the list. I’ve already read books I-V, so in order to be prepared for Machiavelli, I’m doing Livy. I may do Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, after Livy, or go back to the list. At some point around Anselm I’ll be breaking for Pillars of the Earth.