Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dr. Fleming: "To put this discussion on track I propose two things, 1) a brief list of definitions, and 2) some texts, beginning with Epictetus, then perhaps Chrysostom and St. Thomas."

The first part: Defining Terms. As for Epictetus, he writes:

Epictetus was a former Greek slave and an adherent of Stoicism, a philosophical school established by a Phoenician merchant named Zeno, who, to be frank, borrowed a good deal from Aristotle and dressed up his borrowings with fancy terminology. Although Stoics developed a logic and a physics, they are mainly known for their ethics. The key Stoic principle is to live life according to nature, that is, to live consistently with what we rationally can determine is the purpose established by the gods. They very radically and dangerously distinguished between that which is good–those virtuous actions and attitudes that we rationally determine–what is bad–the opposite–and a vast realm of the indifferent, which would include health, wealth, prestige, success, and even friends and family (though here, they are somewhat subtler). Later Stoicism, especially preached by Romans, had a strong emphasis on doing one’s duty according to one’s station, and in this form, Stoicism had a great impact on Christian moral theology. Many older writers have emphasized (quite correctly) the similarities between Seneca the Younger and St. Paul, who actually was haled before the court of Seneca’s half-brother Gallio.
We can talk later about Epictetus’ life and how his discourses came to be written down by the historian Arrian (famous for his life of Alexander), but for the moment, let us read some parts of Book I. Because these are snippets of discourse, it is not important to read everything or in sequence. I’ll be using the Loeb edition, but a readable text is online at:

http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.1.one.html

Let us look at chapters 1-4, 9-23. Make sure you download the text version, because what is posted on the site is only the first half of Book I. I do not intend to make this a long discussion or even to give Epictetus the serious treatment he deserves, only to show how an ancient pagan viewed ethical questions relevant to our discussion here. I should say that Epictetus does seem to be a wonderful teacher and while perhaps not an original thinker he is an excellent gateway to the Stoic tradition. Like the other great popular Stoics (Marcus Aurelius and Seneca) he has been read and enjoyed by non-philosophers more than by the professionals.

Edit. On Epictetus -- Epictetus against Consumerists and Other Cowards

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