Feb 24, 2011

Epictetus on Anger (part 1 of 2)

Returning to my series of earlier posts discussing various aspects of, and theories about, anger, today it is a Stoic philosopher I've selected to write about:  Epictetus -- who, if anyone had some good cause to feel anger in his lifetime, was certainly the guy.  A freed slave, lamed, most likely sometime during his servitude, who became a philosopher and taught in Rome until by edict that entire profession was banned from the Eternal City, he certainly had enough experiential material to reflect upon! He is credited for steering Stoic philosophy away from its sophisticated and voluminous theoretical literature and inquiries towards a seemingly exclusively practical focus.

There is much truth to this, to be sure -- strongly reinforced in the educated public's mind by the fact that typically in a college education, or in great books courses or discussions, one does not encounter and grapple with the whole of Epictetus' writings (or, more strictly speaking, those of his student and admirer, Arrian, to whom we have to thank for transmission and our possession of nearly any of Epictetus' words).  Instead, the typical work is the Enchiridion (i.e. "in-hand-book"), or as it is sometimes otherwise fancifully termed, the Golden Sayings of Epictetus -- a sort of "cliff's notes" or "best hits" of the much larger Discourses, we're often told.  This little condensation has proven as popular as it is portable, particularly among military people.  Frederick the Great carried it with him,  supposedly on his person.  Admiral Stockdale, who has written some interesting things (available here) about Stoicism, carried the Enchiridion with him into a Vietnamese prison camp in the only way possible -- in his memory -- and found its lessons quite valuable in that terrible environment.

There's more to Epictetus' thoughts than one can find in that little handbook, however, so in order to unpack his theory of anger here, I rely instead on his Discourses as a whole.  The practical is not co completely disengaged as one might suppose from the theoretical.  One needs to understand human nature and its faculties, how these work, to what extent we are free -- all metaphysical as well as moral philosophy.  One also needs to develop an understanding of reasoning processes and how they go astray, how to "make use of appearances" -- matters in which epistemology and logic overlap with moral philosophy.


Stoicism,  Emotion, and Anger

What bearing does all this have on Epictetus' theory of anger?  Well, quite a bit -- but that needs be spelled out. The more or less "standard take" on Stoics is that they viewed the emotions as bad (whether all of them were so, Stoics did vary on), and that since anger is an emotion, anger is going to be bad.  This is a correct deduction, but trivial, uninteresting, unilluminating  -- we want to know why anger is bad, how anger works precisely, what means exist or have to be acquired for dealing with anger well.

We want to understand anger, and in the case of Epictetus, this means we have to place the fragmentary remarks he makes about anger -- like many of the other thinkers whose thought on anger I've been blogging and making public speeches about, Epictetus discusses it but not in a systematic manner -- into a broader, more systematic framework of his moral theory in general.  So, let's start there.  I'll be  -- admittedly a bit out of laziness -- reproducing Oldfather translation of Epictetus' passages, rather than providing my own (ironically because that the one in the Loeb Greek-English facing page edition I use to read my Epictetus in Greek!) in order to fit this within my time constraints.

One of Epictetus' core ideas is that of a faculty or portion of ourselves -- and a corresponding partly teachable discipline -- which, as opposed to others, is able to reflect upon itself and to determine itself.  It also reflects upon, orders, agrees or disagrees with, rules or allows itself to be ruled by, the others.  He calls this by different names in different places, reflecting perhaps that he is focusing on different aspects of the same thing:  the rational faculty, the ruling part (to hegimonikon), the portion of ourselves that is like God (actually, at one point he calls it "a fragment of God"). This is the faculty that (determines how we) makes use of "external impressions" (phantasiai), common ideas (whether experiential derived or innate) we operate with, or our opinions, thoughts, and judgments.  This part of ourselves also ultimately possesses (though often does not rightly use) some degree of control over our desires and aversions, what we choose and pursue, and what we choose against and avoid. 

Prohairesis (Moral Principle) and Progress towards the Good

This portion of our selves partly overlaps with a broader conception that is even more a focus of Epictetus's philosophy, a polysemous term rich in associations for Greek philosophy -- prohairesis -- typically translated in Epictetus' texts as "moral principle," even as "character," but alternately rendered as "moral choice" in translation of Aristotle's writings. The very term  by itself mimetically hearkens back to physically "taking" something "before" another thing, i..e preferring it, setting it as a higher value.  Prohairesis is something which occurs in a determinate circumstance, when I choose X rather than Y.  This is undoubtedly why some of Epictetus' translators render it as "will" or volition" (a bit problematic as a translation, given all the connotations of those terms). But it also refers to the larger and more lasting pattern of choices, habits, structures of action, thought, desire, ultimately our being, who and what we are.

Two points about moral principle or prohairesis are really fundamental in Stoic moral theory. One is that what a person's moral principle is at any given time is the product in part of what they have done with their ruling part, the faculty of reason, what that person has chosen to do with their endowment.  The other is that the most fundamental good for human beings is in fact a certain kind -- or perhaps more precisely, a certain type of habitual structuring -- of prohairesis, one "in harmony with nature."

This last qualification, Epictetus is quite clear, does not mean doing whatever "comes naturally," but rather what is really appropriate to us, the kinds of beings we are, rational beings, beings who realize their potentiality only when the ruling part of the soul is really governing -- understanding itself, the other parts of the soul, the whole of the human self, the person's relationships, and other external things and events -- rightly placing its value, its desires and aversions, with those things that it has some control over -- bit by bit, choice by choice, day by day amending, improving, integrating the human being in all its dimensions.  The ultimate goal and reward is freedom, a state of being untroubled by what occurs or happens to one, and also a state in which one is fully able to act as one ought to, to fulfill one's roles.

The course of moral (intellectual, affective, and active) inventory, progressive development, consciousness and modification of habit, outlook, and behavior Epictetus outlines in the Discourses bears striking similarities to certain approaches in psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (including Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and the like) in particular.  They share and offer similar insights into the interconnection between emotions, desires, and other forms of affectivity on the one hand, and beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, and more comprehensive cognitive structures (as would Aristotelian, Augustinian, or Thomistic approaches in moral philosophy). They provide useful and interesting interpretations of anger.  Having been through the CBT approach myself with several therapists, and read (and worked) my way through some of its literature, I wonder if perhaps those psychological approaches do not lack the depth and consistency Stoic philosophy brings to the seemingly always-in-need-of-fixing relationship between emotions and rationality.  I know that the CBT-based texts I've used did.

Philosophy's Origin (or Original Reason)

Epictetus explicitly reflects on the beginnings of philosophy, articulating starting points quite different from those of, say, Aristotle before him, but rather similar to Descartes much later (though there is no methodological doubt, no razing things to the ground to rebuild, but rather starting from the physical and social world and the bodies we do inhabit).
Behold the beginning of philosophy! -- a recognition of the conflict between the opinions of men, and a search for the origin of that conflict, and a condemnation of mere opinion, coupled with a skepticism regarding it, and a kind of investigation to determine whether the opinion is rightly held, together with the invention of a kind of standard for judgment . . . 
Philosophy had already long ago become a profession and cultural product by Epictetus' day.  He asks his own students:  "What do we go to the philosophers for?  To learn what we do not think we know.  And what is that?  General principles?" Actually, we are already well equipped with some conceptions of what he calls general principles.  We know, for instance quite a bit about anger, experimentally and experientially, by reflection, through passed-down proverbs and on the spot judgments.  Why do we need the philosopher then?  What does he or she have more experience and discipline in?
It is impossible to adjust our preconceived ideas to the appropriate facts without first having first systematized them . . . So it stands here also, in the affairs of life.  Who among us has not upon his lips the words 'good ' and 'evil,' 'advantageous and disadvantageous'? Who among us does not have a preconceived idea of each of these terms?  Very well, is it fitted into a system and complete?
The philosopher -- or at least the Stoic philosopher -- introduces some right ordering and structure to these moral notions which we already possess, showing their connections with other notions, calling the student's attention to their own contribution and responsibility for their condition, both the thoughts and the feelings they possess or are possessed by, including those of anger.

We all know anger to some extent -- as a matter of fact, Epictetus even assumes in his Greek-speaking audience a certain richness of vocabulary of anger, employing a range of anger-terms (orge/orgizein/orgilos, thumos/thumikos, hkalepainein, etc.) and other related vocabulary for being irritated, upset, pained, envious, contentious or combative.  But, what is anger?

A Stoic Theory of Anger

Anger is one of the strong disturbances of the soul, a passion, a state we feel and suffer.  It is also a condition stemming from our thoughts, judgments, beliefs, opinions (whether considered individually, or considered as matrices).  Through the pressure of habit and repeated thought and action, the affective response can become an integral part of our disposition, a sort of default worn-down groove in which feelings, conceptions, and judgments, given weight and impulse by our desires and aversions, slide to their typical results, if one does not make deliberate and conscious effort to change (or at least challenge) their course. In fact, Epictetus uses anger as a prime example in discussing the force and significance of habit.
In general, therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it; if you want not to do something, refrain from doing it, and accustom yourself to something else instead.  The same principle holds true in the affairs of the mind also; when you are angry, you may be sure, not merely that this evil has befallen you, but also that you have strengthened the habit and have, as it were, added fuel to the flame.
The key is to use the governing, rational part -- putting to work its capacity to determine itself (and thereby at least partly the human subject as a whole) and to understand itself and everything else -- to properly judge, and to rightly commit itself for or against, acts, feelings, thoughts, desires.  If one chooses to use the rational faculty as fully as one can, one realizes what is at stake, one practically reasons out that one has to do or not do, consent to or oppose something -- including emotions and their associated responses.  Then:
the passion is stilled and our governing principle is restored to its previous condition; but if you do not apply a remedy, your governing principle does not revert to its previous condition., but, on being aroused again by the corresponding external impression, it bursts into the flame of desire more quickly than it did before.
The governing, rational portion of one's soul becomes entangled with the habit-structured desires, associated experiences, and emotional or otherwise affective responses (which are accompanied by certain trains of thought).  This poses dangers, and the imagery Epictetus uses -- keep in mind that he was for a good portion of his life, a slave -- captures them well:
Certain imprints and weals are left behind on the mind, and unless a man erases them perfectly, the next time he is scourged upon the old scars, he has weals no longer but wounds.
Again, anger, now with its remedies, furnishes an example:
If, therefore, you wish not to be hot-tempered, do  not feed your habit, set before it nothing on which it can grow.   As the first step, keep quiet and count the days on which you have not been angry. . . . If you go as much as thirty days without a fit of anger, sacrifice to God.  For the habit is first weakened and then  utterly destroyed.
Still, what is anger?  In two seemingly contrasting discussions, Epictetus answers this by focusing on different aspects of the emotional response.  In one of them, anger appears to be something entirely irrational.  In the other, it clearly involves a reasoning process.  The first starts out with the definition of human being and our difference from the animals:
for what is a man?  A rational mortal animal, someone says.  To begin with, from what are we distinguished by the rational element? From the wild beasts. . . . See to it, then, that you never act like a wild beast; if you do, you will have destroyed the man in you, you have not fulfilled your profession (epangelia) . . . When we act pugnaciously and injuriously, and angrily, and rudely, to what level have we degenerated?  To the level of wild beasts.
As a side note, though Epictetus does not adopt a tripartite Platonic division of the soul into rational part, spirited or irascible part (thumos), and appetitive or desirous part, in the fuller passage from which I culled those quotes above, he refers also to acting like a different sort of animal, a sheep, by allowing desires for food and drink, sex, sensual desires unconnected with rivalry or anger, to become one's preoccupying object.


Anger, Reasoning, and Rationality

But anger also stems from evaluation of what occurs, what lies before one, what befalls a person, an evaluation that one has been injured, that what has taken place or has been done is wrong, bad, harmful, or evil.  For Epictetus, what this really comes down to are situations in which our desires are stymied or not fully met, or where something we are averse to is imposed upon us.  Depending on where we set value, and what we consider to be in some way our business, we can be vexed about things as close to us the appearance of our own skin, or a blow, an unkind word, a lack of respect by another person standing right before us, or as far off as fictional characters (he uses Medea in the Euripides play as an example of someone people get angry with -- and for the reason that she is gripped by anger and takes revenge herself!).  It is because we make judgments -- incorrect ones, for we do have to judge, just judge rightly -- that we reason our way to the emotion of anger. 
Why then are we angry?  Because we admire the goods of which these men rob us.  For, mark you, stop admiring your clothes and you are not angry with the man who steals them; stop admiring your wife's beauty, and you are not angry at her adulterer.  Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among the things that are another's and that are not under your control.  If you give these things up and count them as nothing, and whom have you still ground to feel angry?
Anger does bear a complex relationship with rationality in Epictetus' theory, just as it does in so many others.  And, Epictetus' policy towards anger, which for him, is always something bad, is to keep anger from sucking in and subverting rationality through a process of rational inquiry, resolve, and reform, thereby not only freeing the rational part, disentangling it from the knots allow external things outside of one's control to pull one's cords, but strengthening it, making it more fully rational, making the person more fully human.

 "To the rational being only the irrational is unendurable," Epictetus tells us -- but the problem is determining what is in fact rational and what irrational. For, there is a problem of appearances and and evaluation:
the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable, are different for different persons.  It is for this reason especially that we need education, so as to learn how, in conformity with nature, to adapt to specific instances our preconceived idea of what is rational and what is irrational. 
Interestingly, this involves not only a process of studying and applying philosophy, but also the yet more concrete activities involved in the social roles or relationships one inhabits.  Stoics are often misrepresented as if they advocated emotional withdrawal from everything and everyone -- an idea one might get in just reading the Enchiridion.  As Epictetus points out, "for determining the rational and the irrational, we employ not only our estimates for the value of external things, but also the criterion of that which is in keeping with one's character."  The term rendered as "character there" is actually prosopon: character to be sure, but in a different sense than prohairesis, for among its core meanings is the actor's mask, the persona, the social role, the person in a matrix of relationships. 

Whether there might be roles in which one could rightly exhibit something like anger, that is a topic I leave for the next installment, along with fuller exploration of Epictetus' views on how we become angry and how we extricate ourselves from it, particularly through understanding not only ourselves but also other people.