Epictetus Reaction

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Reading through Epictetus’s Handbook[1] reminds me a lot of reading Eastern philosophies which suggest a detachment from all things in life and an attempt to master those things within one’s control while letting go of those that one cannot.  For the most part, I tend to have a problem with such philosophies because they are unrealistic in regards to human nature.  It is human nature to grieve at the death of a loved one or even to sympathize with another’s loss. Yet, in Rule 16 Epictetus suggests we act outside of our very nature by not even sympathizing with another’s grief.  Rule 17 is one that particularly upsets me because it sounds exactly like the reasoning for a caste system such as the Hindus maintain.

17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

Reasoning such as this disgusts me for it is oppressive of human nature and its tendency to strive to be greater than its current condition.  To deny human beings the right to strive, to tell them they should simply be happy as poor men is as stupid as telling a flower not to grow or blossom.  In some cases he seems to say some wise things like Rules 28 and 33.  In these, he mentions the importance of prescribing moral law to oneself, and not allowing one’s mind to be controlled by others. But, for the most part, I cannot find his philosophic attitude of detachment to be admirable. Such a life would be devoid of emotion. Then, what would separate a human from a machine? Sure, Epictetus’s Handbook is trying to establish a practical philosophy rather than merely a theoretical one, which is great, but the rules created for such a practical life must be practical themselves. Memory is a function of emotion. Devoid of emotion, experiences in life would become memories of rule following and procedure.

[1] ** Note: I used the translation of The Enchiridion by Elizabeth Carter from the following website: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html **

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