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Discourses of Epictetus Summary

Summary

The Discourses of Epictetus is a conversation that takes place between Epictetus and his student. There is a lot of information about proper conduct, but most interesting to me were the psychological insights and the critique of Epicurus near the end of the book.

Psychology of Action

1) Impression: You have good and bad impressions about things. There are things that you wish to avoid and things that you wish to get.

2) Assent: This when you have an initial impression about something, and you either confirm or deny it. ‘Salesmen are dishonest’ is an impression you can have.

3) Impulse: This is when you emotionally react to your impression and assent. If you perceive someone’s insults towards you as painful, and then you assent that they are true, you will have an impulse towards feeling anger or shame. But if you perceive insults as empty words that are not worth giving any attention to, then your impulse will be to feel nothing when insulted.

The idea is that your preconceived notions of the world determines how you emotionally react to it. If you can change what you assent to, after reflecting on your impressions, then you can change your feelings and behavior. And if you can do this repeatedly, then even your impressions of the world can change.  

Know What to Avoid

The philosopher, the enlightened or educated man, wills only to get those goods which are in his power, and that being so, his will never fails; in the same way he wills to avoid only the avils which it is in his power to avoid, and he therefore never incurs those evils. On the other hand, if a man directs his will to get or avoid what is beyond his control, he is always liable to failure and disappointment.

Education

The dull or indolent pupil will never get the best that his master has to give. Education demands time, but it is after all only a preparation for life and action, and we cannot afford to spend all our days in the lecture-room. Life is more than learning.

And education is not about memorizing the work of others, it was about using what you have learned in the real world. The purpose is not simply to consume information for its own sake, but to apply what you learn to solve problems. In fact, the Roman Stoics took this idea even further than their Greek predecessors. The Roman Stoics thought that even the sciences and the formal study of logic was a waste of time, if it did not bring Eudaimonia (the good life).

Epictetus to Epicurus

Epictetus lambasts Epicurus’ relativism. For Epictetus, there is a clear difference between what is good and bad. The Stoics, while they did understand that there were things beyond their control, did not think that everything was beyond their control, especially reason. It did not matter if you could not control the cosmos, because the gift of reason endowed you with the ability to know right from wrong.

There were at least some things that were true. To control one’s passions was better than being controlled by them. To live with integrity was better than living with shame. To serve your community was better than living only for yourself. To be brave was better than being a coward.

If then I identify myself with my will, then and only then shall I be a friend and son and father in the true sense. For this will be my interest—to guard my character for good faith, honor, forbearance, self-control, and service of others, to maintain my relations with others. But if I separate myself from what is noble, then Epicurus’ statement is confirmed, which declares that “there is no such thing as the noble or at best it is but the creature of opinion.”

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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