This is a manual for Business Ethics 101. The following metaphor is not original to me, but imagine your life as placed on a wheel with spokes. If you focus your life in the center, the hub, then when the wheel turns, as it must, you will be moved, to be sure, but you won’t be thrown over the place.
Epictetus exhorts the reader to develop a strong inner life. This goes beyond merely getting your priorities right. It means being proactive and never reactive. It even includes a calculus for business decisions. Know your worth.
Epictetus does not paint a rosy picture for the reader. Having been a slave in a cruel world, he knows how the world can be. He does not think it will ever get any better. If Stoicism has sometimes been accused of being resigned to despair, that criticism might have some justification with Epictetus.
He does give us the basics of a Stoic worldview. There is the standard Stoic line on rationality. Man is midway between beasts and God. From the former he has a body, the latter a mind.
Man’s good is a type of moral purpose, or “a disposition of the will with respect to appearances” (1.8).
On the Gods
When Epictetus uses the term “God,” he can mean the gods, Jupiter, and/or a guardian spirit within us. He believes our souls are “parts and portions of God.” We also have a guardian genius with us.
As a good Stoic, Epictetus assumes some form of pantheism, albeit not an extreme kind. All things are united as one (I:14). He does not mean some form of Eastern pantheism. His point, so it seems, is to find a reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth. In fact, “our bodies are intimately linked with the earth’s rhythms.” We do not have to accept his mild pantheism, but that statement is not wrong.
“Impressions” is the key word in Epictetus’s epistemology. It is not always clear what an impression is. Notwithstanding that, they come to us in four ways: “things are and appear to be; or they are not, and do not appear to be, or they are, but do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be” (I.27.1).
The mind forms “ideas that correspond with the impressions” (I.14.8). That seems accurate enough, but Epictetus takes it a step further with his definition of reason: a collection of individual impressions (I.20.5). That does not seem right.
The goal of education is to bring our will in alignment with God’s reality and governance (I.12.15). As long as we understand that Epictetus does not mean the same thing by “God” as one normally does, it is a true enough statement.
One strength in his approach is that there is not a sharp line between epistemology, education, and ethics. Epistemology and education dovetail with his use of the term “impressions.” We all have preconceptions. Our reason makes use of “impressions.” Getting an education, therefore, is “learning to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases as nature prescribes, and distinguishing what is in our power from what is not” (I.22.9). That last clause connects education with ethics. The wise man understands what he can and cannot control.
The goal of virtue is “a life that flows smoothly” (12). Even though he does not use the term, he means that we should reach a state of apatheia. We can only do this by having “correct judgments about externals,” as externals are the only things outside of our control (I.29.24).
If one wants to read a primary source on Stoicism, this is as good as any. Epictetus, perhaps in line with his own philosophy of limitations, never gets to the substance of the issue. These are more conversations than logical analyses, and they should be judged as such. It even seems that Epictetus commits a logical fallacy. He writes: “God is helpful. Whatever is good is also helpful. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the divine nature and the nature of the good correspond” (II.8.1). The conclusion is certainly true, but Epictetus committed the fallacy of the undistributed middle premise. We can illustrate it in a Venn Diagram.
Epictetus lacks the nobility of Marcus Aurelius and the poetic grandeur of Lucretius. In some ways, however, he is more accessible than both.