Thoughts of Epictetus

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher of Stoicism who lived from 50-135AD. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus, another Stoic philosopher. He was set free at some point in his life and from there became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote little, if anything, in his lifetime and so the majority of Epictetus’ teachings are from his pupil Arrian.

In the Discourses, Epictetus focuses on the things which are in our control and the things which are not. Distinguishing between these two is crucial, and it is this distinction which is the first step to serenity. Epictetus prioritises the mind over the body (‘why do you attach yourself to what is mortal?’), and inherits the Platonic idea that the body is a hindrance to the mind (‘these chains attached to us-the body and its possessions’). Furthermore, the influence of Aristotle can be seen when Epictetus writes of one’s ‘proper end’ and of acting according the human nature-Epictetus seems to use natural law as an argument for how to act (through reasoning-phronesis).

A key idea of Epictetus is of the external and the internal. Most fundamentally, it is our own internal judgement and opinion which causes our acts and our world view, rather than the circumstances around us-he believes we have control over how we view the world and life in general (a main Stoic idea). He says that tragedy is the portrayal,, in tragic verse, of men who have ‘attached high value to external things’. We must not attach ourselves too greatly to the external, but rather focus on what is inside us. Moreover, he emphasises that rather than discussing principles and discussing certain actions, we should act and put our principles into action, as well as aiming to solve problems rather than to complain about them. The human good, Epictetus says, ‘lies in a certain quality of choice.’

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

Aristotle and Friendship

In book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses friendship.

Friendship, Aristotle writes, is ‘one of the most indispensable requirements of life.’ We would not, he goes on to say, choose to live a life without friendship, even if we had everything else that was good. Friendship, then, is for Aristotle, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, resources for mankind.

Aristotle defines friendship and divides it into three separate groups: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of virtue.

Friendship of utility is defined as a friendship in which the two people are involved in the friendship due to the benefits they receive from it. Friendship of pleasure is defined as a friendship in which the two people are friends because of the pleasure one accrues for oneself. Aristotle would say that these two friendships are not ideal friendships, and that they seem to be fundamentally selfish.

Friendship of virtue, however, which is for Aristotle the ‘perfect form of friendship’, is ‘that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue.’ This kind of friendship, in contrast to the other two, lasts longer because it is not selfish, but because the people ‘wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake.’

There is so much that could be said about this subject, but there are perhaps some key things to take from a book worth reading:

Friendship is an act of giving, rather than an act of taking, as is also viewed today, but it appears that friendship is much more important to Aristotle than we might first think. Friendships are for Aristotle equal, and just. In an individualist society today, we tend to pursue our own interests and goals, and we allow others to chase their own interests also, even though we may at times feel that they may not be making the right choices. For Aristotle, the emphasis is community, and rather than working for oneself, we should be working for each other. This may be much easier said than done, but, if we try, with Aristotle’s view on the ‘true’ form of friendship (friendship of virtue), we may become more of a giver, rather than a taker, and may eventually find more satisfaction because not only might we form deeper, more meaningful relationships with others, we may find ourselves reaching a greater understanding of both ourselves and of others.