Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5
This fifth chapter of book 1 is, in my view, a short but powerful message on how to save the soul. Arrian describes how Epictetus looks at the reasoning of the Academic Sceptics, where they differ, and how they are wrong. This chapter sure packs a punch and it shows us more than the struggle the Academics and Stoics had. It can be applied to modern-day living where we are sometimes so stubborn that we know we are wrong but will not even attempt to admit it. This is a discourse on impressions and knowing what is true or not.
“Most of us fear the deadening of the body… but the deadening of the soul concerns us not a bit.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5.4
The soul concerns us not a bit. Harsh words by Epictetus, but true in many aspects. Looking at how we now live and what we are after. Many of us are seen stepping over our moral values to try to grasp external wants and desires. Some of this is geared towards opinions and knowledge and how we hold on to them out of a sense of pride or shame. We can see both of these ideas come back in this chapter. Epictetus captures them in the frame of petrifications. A turning into stone of the person being caught in a contradiction and unwilling to look at alternatives. We will first explore why he is so harsh against the Academic Sceptics. Then see what we can learn from him to improve our lives.
The Academic Sceptics
Deriving from Plato’s Academic, the philosophical school of the Academic Sceptics focused on what we could know and if there was something we are able to know for certain. Whereas the Stoics believe that one can assent to a true cognitive impression. The Academic Sceptics said that it’s impossible to know whether such an impression is true or false. The example Epictetus uses in this chapter against the Academics is if we can understand whether we are awake or dreaming. The followers of the Academic school answer that one can’t know. There is no way to distinguish between the two states.
“Is there no difference, then, between that impression and the other? – ‘None.’ – Can I argue with this man any longer?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5.6-7
Epictetus sees no way of even discussing with someone who takes on a view like that. A petrified mind unwilling to examine other avenues to find the truth. He even asked what tools he could use to revive these deadened people. But if we look at what the Academics believed, we can see that this is their truth. For them it was possible to have two of the same, identical objects. Take people, animals, flowers, celestial bodies, and so on. Since we are unable to know which one is which, we run the risk of giving in to a false impression. One that identifies one object as the other. Therefore, it is impossible to know what is right and we should then question everything. The Stoics take a different view.
The Stoic take
The Stoics understand that if you delve deep enough, or get as close as you can get to the Sage example, then you will see differences and you can find the truth. If the truth is out there, it is also possible to find it. The fact that there are false impressions to be observed, should caution us to assent to the wrong ones. But if we persist and seek the truth, we can find it. To go one step beyond, it is our duty to do so.
All four virtues come into play here, Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. We should temper ourselves to give in to impressions before knowing the truth. Apply courage to go beyond and keep looking. We need to be just to ourselves and the world around us to learn the truth. And the final one, Wisdom, is the pillar on which this all rests. To gain wisdom and become better at figuring out what true and false is. This is the way to save our souls and live in accordance with nature.
Saving our soul
“Such petrification takes two forms: the one, a petrification of the understanding, and the other of the sense of shame when a person has obstinately set himself neither to assent to evident truths nor to abandon the defence of contradiction.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5.3
Starting with the first one relating to understanding. We can see this happening more and more if we look at our society. We fail to understand or try to understand common truths. It is possible not to understand something, this happens to me all the time. But then it’s up to me to either admit to it or try to understand it. But if we shut ourselves off from either of those, then what good are we? How just are we then to our soul and the community around us? We become a burden or even a menace if we drag people along. Like a stone attached to the world preventing it from growing or reaching the truth.
Then there is the case of shame. Without it, the soul is trapped in a state of being wrong, while lacking the courage to admit that it is assenting to a false impression. An ego with no sense of shame or modesty will never be able to advance and grow. Shame is a tool of self-reflection, it is a signal that our actions have not been right. And if we shove this away, then we will never understand or see that we have been wrong. Once we are able to accept that we can be wrong and welcome those moments to learn from them, we start to save our soul. Our sense of shame will diminish in the proper way, but we will always keep it safe. For it will keep us humble and courageous if we wish to become wise and just.
A worse state for the soul
“One man does not see the contradiction; he is in a bad state. Another does see it, but he is not moved, nor does he improve; he is in an even worse state.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5.8
Now we get to the meat of the conversation. How striking is it that this is still so relevant in our present day. Epictetus talks of two different people here. One who is ignorant of being wrong. For she is in a bad state but can improve if she is willing to learn and be open to seeing the truth. The Stoics tell us that people don’t do bad things willingly, but they do this out of ignorance of what is right. It’s then up to us to show them the correct path, and the best way to do this is by setting the right example.
Then there are the people who are even worse off than those who don’t see they’re wrong. Those who know that they are admitting to a false impression, but chose to go along that path anyway. Their ignorance lies on a deeper level. It is the soul that is in peril and needs saving. They have stepped away from Nature and are venturing into turbulence. Having become slaves of externals, of their ego, it is the soul that pays the price. They are no longer applying reason and rational thinking, but are taken by the side that we share with the rest of the animals. The problem here is that he knows the state he’s in, but refuses to improve.
“He is aware of it, but pretends that he is not; he is even worse than a corpse.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 5.7
Where lies our responsibility then? First, with the truth. It’s our duty to save our soul to keep the Rational Universe protected. The critique that is often aimed towards Stoicism is that it is egocentric. Yet, if we manage to live a virtuous life ourselves, we can show people the right course of action. And society will benefit from us by doing so and living in accordance with nature, for our actions will be the right ones. Let’s not forget where it all starts, within our sphere of control. That’s the only thing we can influence, our opinions and actions. Our focus lies here, to keep our soul safe and alive. To show Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice and live in accordance with nature. Our soul will then become at peace and can experience all the wonders of life in its true colors.