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Re: [stoics] "Moral purpose" in the Discourses of Epictetus...

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    Hello Tim, ... Moral purpose translates the Greek term prohairesis, and this is notoriously difficult to translate... I favour moral character . Here are
    Message 1 of 5 , Apr 5, 2004
      Hello Tim,
      > 1.  In the _Discourses_ of Epictetus, what does he mean by "moral purpose?" 
      > Is this to be interpreted as "rational faculty," "reason," or something
      > else?
      'Moral purpose' translates the Greek term prohairesis, and this is notoriously difficult to translate... I favour 'moral character'.
      Here are some paragraphs from a work in progress:
      From a Glossary of Stoic terms relating to Epictetus' corpus:


      ‘moral character’; the capacity that rational beings have for making choices and intending the outcomes of their actions, sometimes translated as will, volition, intention, choice, moral choice, moral purpose. This faculty is understood by Stoics to be essentially rational. It is the faculty we use to ‘attend to impressions’ and to give (or withhold) assent to impressions. Those things which are outside the scope of one’s prohairesis are the aprohaireta, which are ‘external’ (ektos), and ‘not in our power’ (ouk eph’ hêmin); see Discourses 1.30.3, 2.16.1, 3.3.14, 3.8.1–3. See also hêgemonikon, sunkatathesis. [See Discourses 1.1.23, 1.4.18–21, 1.8.16, 1.12.9, 1.17.21/23/26, 1.19.8/16/23, 1.22.10, 1.28.1/12, 1.29.1–3/12/24, 1.30.3, 2.1.4–6/9–10/12/39–40, 2.5.4–5, 2.6.25, 2.10.8/24–9, 2.13.10, 2.15.1–2, 2.16.1, 2.22.20/26–9, 2.23.5–29, 3.1.40/42, 3.2.13, 3.3.8/14–19, 3.4.9, 3.5.7, 3.7.5, 3.8.1–3, 3.10.18, 3.12.5/8, 3.16.15, 3.19.2, 3.22.13/103, 3.23.5, 3.24.12/56/106/112, 3.26.24, 4.1.84/100, 4.4.18/23/33/39, 4.5.12/23/32, 4.6.9–10, 4.7.8, 4.10.1–2/8, 4.12.7/12/15, 4.13.21; Handbook 4, 9, 13, 30.] 
      Here is Chapter 4 from the Handbook, and my commentary which says something about prohairesis:

      Chapter 4

      When you are about to undertake some task, remind yourself what sort of business it is. If you are going out to bathe, bring to mind what happens at the baths: there will be those who splash you, those who will jostle you, some will be abusive to you, and others will steal from you. And thus you will undertake the affair more securely if you say to yourself from the start, ‘I wish to take a bath, but also to keep my moral character in accordance with nature.’ Do likewise with every undertaking. For thus, if anything should happen that interferes with your bathing, be ready to say, ‘Oh well, it was not only this that I wanted, but also to keep my moral character in accordance with nature, and I cannot do that if I am irritated by things that happen.’



      Key Terms


      irritated, to feel (aganakteô)

      in accordance with nature (kata phusin)

      moral character (prohairesis)

      task, undertaking (ergon)


      Many of Epictetus’ students probably visited the public baths in Nicopolis as a matter of daily routine, and those who did not would nevertheless have gone fairly regularly. Over and above the practical business of attending to washing the body, the public baths offered a venue where one would meet one’s friends and associates, take a snack, and indulge in light exercise. Everyday, at the conclusion of Epictetus’ classes (possibly as early as lunch-time), it is undoubtedly the case that a group of students would make their way to the baths where – at least sometimes we may presume – they would continue to debate their lessons, discuss their essays, or gripe about the hardships of student life far from home (that students wrote essays is suggested by Discourses 2.1.34, 3.26.3, 4.4.14/17, 4.5.36; that students sometimes complained about their lot is suggested by Discourses 2.21.14).


      The fact that what happens at the public baths – like much in life – can constitute a source of irritation cannot have escaped the notice of even the most dirty student who bathed there only infrequently (but see Discourses 4.11, ‘On Cleanliness’). Epictetus’ example of the baths would have related directly to the personal experience of every student, for there is no denying that attending the baths hoping for a pleasant, relaxing afternoon only to fall victim to other people’s splashing, jostling, abuse and stealing will annoy and irritate. Some students will recall feeling intensely irritated by even the most feeble abuse, let alone by finding that all their clothes have been stolen. And this is something we seek to avoid, for this is to fall prey to a passion (anger, annoyance, irritation, or what have you), to judge that something is bad when it is really indifferent, and to lapse into vice (to threaten or even hit someone, return the abuse, or curse the gods). When that happens we lose our euroia (‘good flow’), and eudaimonia is as far away as ever.


      We have already seen that the competent prokoptôn will enjoy their bath ‘with reservation’ – ‘if nothing prevents me, and if this is the will of Zeus, then I will enjoy my bath’ – and in Chapter 4 Epictetus expands further on the exercise of preparing ourselves in advance for the sorts of things that usually happen (introduced in Handbook 3). If, in this sense, we expect them, we will not be surprised and taken unawares should any of them happen. And so with anything that we undertake. For the Stoic sets about their tasks with two objectives: in this case (1) to have a relaxing bath, but also (2) to keep their ‘moral character’ in accordance with nature. If we are thwarted with respect to the first, well, that is the way of things, that is how things sometimes work out; but with respect to the second, we need never fail, and never to fail is to enjoy a euroia biou, a ‘good flow of life’, to be eudaimôn, to flourish and be happy in a complete sense.


      Just twice does Epictetus mention the orthodox Stoic principle that only virtue is good, vice is evil, whilst everything else is indifferent (at Discourses 2.9.15 and 2.19.13). Aretê, ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue’, is not used at all in the Handbook, and only fairly sparingly in the Discourses. Instead, to explain where the good for human beings lies, he employs the concept of ‘moral character’, prohairesis (see Table 4 in Appendix 2 for alternative translations). This concept plays a central role in Epictetus’ exposition of Stoic ethics, and ‘is the most noteworthy feature of his entire philosophy’ (Long 2002, 28). Our moral character is the faculty (dunamis) we use to make proper use of impressions, given to us by God (Discourses 1.17.27, 2.23.6–7, 4.1.100) to be the one thing that is wholly in our power (1.22.10, 2.5.4.) that cannot be taken away (3.26.24), and whose nature is such that it cannot be harmed (3.19.2, 4.5.23). The good for human beings lies in this one thing alone, for each of us to perfect our moral character, to bring it into harmony with nature, making it ‘elevated, free, unhindered, unimpeded, trustworthy, and honourable’ (hupsêlos, eleutheros, akôlutos, anempodistos, pistos, aidêmôn; 1.4.18). In the passages where he discusses prohairesis, Epictetus implicitly identifies virtue – the only good thing – with having one’s moral character manifest the proper disposition (see especially 1.8.16, 1.29.1–3, 3.10.18, 4.12.7–8); and with respect to the practical business of getting through life, instead of expounding dryly that ‘only virtue is good’ he explains virtue in terms of the proper functioning or quality of one’s moral character, the chief function being, of course, to make proper use of impressions – do that consistently, and you have attained virtue. At Discourses 2.23.5–29, Epictetus tells us that prohairesis is the faculty that oversees and makes use of all our other faculties. What we should look at, what we should believe, how we should speak, and how we exercise all our faculties, is determined by our prohairesis, or more precisely, by the disposition of our prohairesis, for if we can maintain this one ruling faculty in the right condition, then everything else we do by means of the other faculties will be done well – if not, they will be done badly, and we will ourselves be bad (see 2.23.28). And upon this depends our securing happiness (eudaimonia; 2.23.29).


      Epictetus identifies prohairesis with our very selves. At Discourses 3.1.40 he says to his student: ‘You are not flesh, nor hair, but prohairesis’ (see also 2.22.20). It is the locus of our self-conscious experience of the world, of our agency, of our power to act, to form intentions on the basis of our judgements and understanding of what is happening, and to carry them through. The task of the Stoic prokoptôn is to make their prohairesis beautiful (kalos), accomplished by disregarding their worthless (phaulos) judgements (Discourses 3.1.42; see also 4.8.3), and in the most general of senses this means giving up our concerns for ‘external things’ (ta ektos; Discourses 3.3.8, 4.7.10, 4.10.1, 4.12.15).


      External things are specifically identified as being aprohairetos, outside the scope of our prohairesis, not in our power (see Discourses 2.5.4–5, 3.12.5), and these things are ‘nothing to us’ (1.30.3), neither good nor evil (2.1.4, 2.13.10, 2.16.1). Seeing that this is the case is the first step towards maintaining our prohairesis in accordance with nature. Although external things are beyond our power to influence directly and completely, obviously we should do our best to do things responsibly, appropriately and to the best of our abilities (virtuously, no less; see especially Discourses 2.5.6–9). But it is not the outcomes of our actions that matter, but the attitudes, outlooks and intentions that find their expression in our actions, and constitute our own experience of being.


      Keeping one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature is to maintain it in a state that is best suited for living – as a human being – as nature intends (and for the Stoics, nature, construed as intelligible, intelligent, rational and purposive, is identical with Zeus), and this can be accomplished by anyone who models their outlook and their conduct on Stoic principles. For one’s prohairesis to be in accord with nature means accepting and being always mindful of a specific set of judgements – that some things are in our power and that those that are not are ‘nothing to us’ (Handbook 1.5), that everything happens as Zeus wills with respect to which we are wholly accepting, that only the disposition of our prohairesis is truly good or bad, and that harm to our undertakings and possessions is absolutely no harm to us (and further, that as sociable creatures with obligations to others we should set about fulfilling our responsibilities in ways appropriate to the roles we have, and to do this in good spirits, understanding that doing so is how we should discharge our service to God; see for example Handbook 17, 30, 43; see Introduction to Epictetus 5.5.2 on the Discipline of Action).


      Back at the baths things are not going well. We have been splashed, jostled, insulted, and now we find that our clothes have been stolen. For today at least, we have failed in the first thing we aimed at: a relaxing bath. But shall we also fail at the second thing the Stoic prokoptôn must always strive to secure – a well disposed prohairesis? Whether other people splash us, bump into us, behave rudely, or steal our possessions is not in our power. Sometimes such things happen, for no matter how puzzling this might seem from our individual perspectives, this is the will of Zeus. But how we respond is in our power. Thus we can do as most people are apt to do: hurl abuse back at those who splash us or insult is, give a good shove to the person who jostles us, and curse the gods as much as the thief when our clothes are stolen. But where does that get us? About as far away from a good flow of life as is possible.


      The worst thing that can happen is that we fall prey to the passions and become angry, frustrated and irritated; that is the only harm we need ever fear. So when we face irritation, disappointments and failures, such as what happened at the baths, we should be able quite spontaneously to affirm that what we prefer is for our undertakings to succeed, but what we want is for affairs to transpire as Zeus wills, even if this frustrates our preferences, and for our moral characters to maintain a disposition unaffected by passion (apatheia), distress (alupia), fear (aphobia), and troubles (ataraxia), and therefore free (eleutheros) (Discourses 4.3.8). All we have to do to achieve this state of mind is to use our impressions properly, and upon hearing an insult, or seeing that our clothes have gone, to immediately and automatically refuse to assent to the judgement that anything bad is at hand, for it is not.


      (For more on baths and bathing see Balsdon 2002, 26–32; Carcopino 1991, 277–86; Dupont 1992, 263–4; Fagan 1999; Guhl and Koner 1989, 396–406, 507–11; Johnston 2002, 265–77; Shelton 1998, 309–14. For Epictetus on why the Stoic prokoptôn should care for their body and keep it clean, see Discourses 4.11. For references to prohairesis in the Discourses see the entry in Glossary A. For more on prohairesis see Brittain and Brennan (Simplicius) 2002a or 2002b, 22–4; Dobbin 1991 and 1998, 76–7; Inwood 1995, 123, 240–2; Kahn 1996, 251–5; Long 1996b, 162, 275–7, 281; Long 2002, 210–20; Rist 1969, 228–32. For a table of various translations of prohairesis adopted by scholars and translators see Table 4 in Appendix 2.)


      I see that Chapters 9 and 13 also mention prohairesis:

      Chapter 9

      Illness interferes with one’s body, but not with one’s moral character, unless one so wishes. Lameness interferes with one’s leg, but not with one’s moral character. Say this to yourself regarding everything that happens to you, for you will find that what happens interferes with something else, but not with you.




      Key Terms

      body (sôma)

      moral character (prohairesis)


      Some of the things that happen will of course concern our bodies, so in adopting the outlook discussed in Chapter 8, if this is to be accomplished in a thoroughgoing manner, the Stoic prokoptôn must also commit themselves to wishing for whatever happens concerning their health and physical constitution. Epictetus presses a strict dichotomy between what is truly ours, what is completely and always in our power, and everything else that is external to our agency; and our bodies are external to our agency, belonging to that part of Zeus’ cosmic plan over which we have no direct control. The prokoptôn will of course make every effort to stay in good health and avoid physical harm to their body, but if, despite their efforts, they become sick or disabled (whether that be permanently or temporarily), they will not mind. They will not mind because their prohairesis (moral character) – their capacity to assent to impressions as they should, to form intentions to fulfil their duties and to virtuously pursue what is in accordance with nature – has not been harmed. As Epictetus says, and we believe he is talking from personal experience, lameness interferes with one’s leg, and not with one’s moral character.


      The things external to our agency are the adiaphora, the indifferent things – indifferent with respect to being good or bad, because, so the Stoics say, the only thing that can be good or bad is the condition of our moral character and how we use it, how we exercise our power of agency in our disposition and conduct.


      Illness and disability may affect what we do in a practical sense, but they cannot affect what we do in a moral sense, and as we have seen, it is what we do in the moral sense that constitutes our eudaimonia. Illness and disability cannot prevent us from striving to act wisely, from dealing with others justly, from maintaining self-restraint and facing our difficulties with courage. Similarly, no illness or disability, just in the fact of our suffering it, can cause us to lapse into any of the pathê (violent or disturbing emotions), and this means that a good flow of life (euroia biou) is no less attainable by those who are sick or disabled than it is by those who are fully fit.


      I am inclined to the thought that Epictetus needs to qualify his remarks in this Chapter with the proviso ‘all things being equal’. Sometimes they are not equal, as would be the case for the person who suffers the misfortune of an illness or accident that does affect their moral character – for surely that occurs in the case of advanced dementia, a head injury sufficiently traumatic to result in serious brain damage, or a major stroke. This person truly is unfortunate. Their condition is hopeless; eudaimonia, or progress towards it, is permanently beyond their grasp. The plight of this pitiable person is not discussed in Stoic writings, and the reason is perhaps a simple one – there is no point. The person whose mental faculties are diminished or disrupted beyond a certain point falls out of the moral sphere: they cannot make proper use of impressions because they cannot assent to their interpretative and evaluative judgements, and possibly they do not even have these judgements, but respond to events more in the manner of animals. We are all vulnerable to this catastrophe, but until it falls upon us, if ever it does, we must – when it is our lot – care for those who have already suffered it and support others who do so.


      So, all things being equal, anything and everything that happens to us can never interfere with our moral character. The only harm that can occur is harm to our undertakings, and if we ever become frustrated at some undertaking being obstructed this is because we have made the error of failing to distinguish between what in essence we are, agents, and the objectives we strive to secure as agents. The only objective that truly matters is that of making progress towards aretê, moral excellence, the condition of our moral character that secures eudaimonia. If we conduct ourselves as we should, we have already attained complete success regardless of what happens in consequence of our actions and whether or not we obtain the results we had hoped for.


      Chapter 13

      If you want to make progress, submit to appearing foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Do not wish to appear knowledgeable about anything, and if others think you amount to something, distrust yourself. For you should know that it is not easy both to keep your moral character in accordance with nature and to keep secure external things, for in attending to one, you will inevitably neglect the other.



      Key Terms

      external things (ta ektos)

      foolish (anous)

      in accordance with nature (kata phusin)

      moral character (prohairesis)

      progress (noun) (prokopê)

      stupid (hêlithios)


      ‘External things’ were introduced in the commentary to Chapter 12: ta ektos are coextensive with ta aprohaireta, those things that lie outside the scope of one’s prohairesis (moral character), comprising everything other than one’s own ‘opinion, impulse, desire, and aversion’ (Chapter 1.1), that are ‘not in our power’ (ouk eph’ hêmin). To make progress (see commentary to Chapter 12) the Stoic prokoptôn will have to adopt an outlook towards external things that will make them vulnerable to appearing foolish and stupid in the eyes of uneducated people. And to this they will have to submit; being condemned, ridiculed, or just the object of puzzlement on the part of others are just minor items in the vast array of external things that contribute, just in themselves, nothing whatever of value or disvalue to the wise person’s eudaimonia and ‘good flow’ (euroia) – thus, external things, including the jibes and criticisms of other people, are also adiaphoros, ‘indifferent’ with respect to being good or bad.


      The gulf in outlook between the Stoic wise person (whom the prokoptôn is striving to emulate and become) and the uneducated person arises from the fact that for the uneducated person external things are everything (or almost always so). Such people live their lives in pursuit of them, wishing to have possession and power over them; they measure their status against what and how many they have, and they believe that their well-being is determined by the success of this enterprise. When well-being eludes them (as, according to Stoic teaching it must often or always do) they immediately believe that this results from some deficiency in the external things over which they struggle to maintain power, or from a specific lack of this item or that which now they pursue, in the belief that in acquiring it they will also secure well-being. It is this desire for external things that the prokoptôn is trying to extinguish, and which is the subject of Epictetus’ ‘first topic’ of study (see Introduction 5.5.1; Discourses 1.4.1, 3.9.22, 3.13.21, 4.4.33).


      Of course, if people generally measure their own value and the value of others in terms of their possessions and the attitude they have towards acquiring material goods, then in their eyes the Stoic prokoptôn will look very odd indeed. The prokoptôn’s training consists largely in the endeavour to throw off this outlook. And over and above looking odd with respect to their outlook on material possessions, the prokoptôn will also look odd with respect to their attitude towards their body and matters of health. Enduring poor health, for the uneducated person, is likely to be a matter of distress and possibly fear, and a serious injury, such as the loss of a limb, is likely to be judged a sheer catastrophe. Not so for the well-advanced prokoptôn. Sickness and injury, certainly, are dispreferred indifferents and are contrary to nature, but need not compromise one’s ‘good flow’ (euroia); one’s well-being – understood in terms of the condition in which one keeps one’s moral character (prohairesis) by means of which one maintains one’s service to God – is independent of the body and its health (see Handbook 9 and commentary).


      When Epictetus warns against not wishing to appear knowledgeable about anything, he may mean this in a wholly general way – to have knowledge is one thing, but to have a desire to show it off and be regarded as a knowledgeable person is altogether something else, and is inappropriate for the Stoic prokoptôn – for placing one’s well-being (to however small a degree) on the satisfaction of this desire is to rely on something that is not in one’s power, something external and indifferent, and risks undermining one’s ‘good flow’ (euroia). But I suspect Epictetus means ‘knowledgeable’ to refer only to knowledge of good and bad, moral excellence, the indifferent and external things, and of Stoic ethics as a whole. However advanced our progress, it is unlikely ever to be complete, and to impose our views on others is not fitting, for however severe their faults may be, even if our faults are less, our efforts should be applied to diminish our own faults, not theirs. (However, a different rule must apply, I am inclined to think, when other people specifically ask the prokoptôn for advice – and such advice will be offered not with even half an eye on appearing knowledgeable or as someone who amounts to something, but with a genuine concern for the other person’s welfare and an alertness to the responsibility that one is taking up when responding to such a request.) The Stoic prokoptôn will demonstrate their Stoic outlook not in words, but in deeds, and those interested to learn will see for themselves how someone set on making Stoic progress goes about the business of living (see for instance 3.13.23, 3.24.118).


      To conclude this Chapter, Epictetus reminds us of something already stated (in Chapter 1.4), that one cannot have two objectives at the same time, to secure external things and to keep one’s moral character (prohairesis) in accordance with nature: these aims are not compatible, and we must pursue either one or the other (4.10.25–6). To attempt to perfect one’s moral character requires abandoning one’s belief that external things can be truly good and can have genuine value, and if one can do that one no longer has a motive for pursuing external things, not as things that have primary value, to be sure, though even the Stoic Sage will – all things being equal – seek to obtain sufficient nourishment, and have clothing, shelter and friends, for these things are preferred indifferents, in accordance with nature, and number among a whole range of preferred indifferents that it will be rational for the wise person to pursue in relation to the roles and undertakings that they adopt. Obtaining these preferred indifferent external things is of course advantageous for the undertakings themselves; but the wise person’s ‘good flow’ (euroia) does not depend upon the success of their undertakings, but only ever upon the disposition in which their undertakings are pursued (2.16.15). The undertakings may be obstructed and frustrated, but never the wise person themselves.


      To keep one’s moral character in accordance with nature means for Epictetus, above all, making proper use of impressions and not assenting to any false evaluative judgements prompted by one’s impressions. When something is evaluated incorrectly one immediately opens the door to the pathê, the violent or disturbing emotions that destroy one’s eudaimonia and ‘good flow’ (euroia). A moral character that is maintained in accordance with nature will be elevated, free, unhindered, unimpeded, trustworthy, honourable (hupsêlos, eleutheros, akôlutos, anempodistos, pistos, aidêmôn; 1.4.18); unconstrained (ananankastos; 1.17.21); serene, fearless (atarachos, aphobos; 2.1.21, 4.1.84); patient, abstinent, co-operative (anektikos, aphektikos, sunergêtikos; 2.22.20, 4.4.18); gentle, kindly, forgiving (praos, hêmeros, sungnômonikos; 2.22.36); steadfast (eustathês; 3.3.9); dispassionate (apathês; 3.5.7); noble, magnanimous (gennaios, megalopsuchos; 4.7.8); tranquil, happy, secure, and reverent (euroos, eudaimôn, ablabês, eusebês; 4.7.9). Why are these qualities of moral character said by the Stoics to be ‘in accordance with nature’? Because in possessing them someone is better able to flourish as nature intends, is better able to approach their full potential as a human being, and is better able to align themselves to God’s will and contribute to the unfolding of the universe as He plans. Stoic training makes all these qualities of character available to us, and the degree to which we acquire them and maintain them consistently, no matter what comes our way, and no matter what provocations urge us to give them up, is the degree to which we approach the Stoic ideal of the sophos, the fully wise person blessed with unshakable eudaimonia and serenity (ataraxia).

      I hope some of this helps!
      If anyone would like to review my 'work in progress' on Epictetus, I have put all my files (up today, today) in a zipped folder in the files section of the Forum. If you can't find it, but would like it, email me off-list and I will send you a copy.
      This is a large file (almost 1mb), so right-click and 'Save Target As', and be patient while it downloads. Alternatively, right-click here, and download from my own site http://www.btinternet.com/~k.h.s/epictetusworkinprogress.zip
      Best wishes,
    • Dave Kelly
      Hello Keith, ... have put all my files (up today, today) in a zipped folder in the files section of the Forum. If you can t find it, but would like it, email
      Message 2 of 5 , Apr 6, 2004
        Hello Keith,

        >>If anyone would like to review my 'work in progress' on Epictetus, I
        have put all my files (up today, today) in a zipped folder in the files
        section of the Forum. If you can't find it, but would like it, email me
        off-list and I will send you a copy.

        This is a large file (almost 1mb), so right-click and 'Save Target As',
        and be patient while it downloads. Alternatively, right-click here, and
        download from my own site
        http://www.btinternet.com/~k.h.s/epictetusworkinprogress.zip <<

        Thanks very much for making available this preview of your Epictetus.
        I've printed out and read your commentary for Handbook 1-29. It's very
        rich. I think that you've been especially successful in providing a
        careful, detailed examination of each chapter within the context of
        Epictetus' main themes and the whole of his philosophy, of which you
        have a very firm grasp. I'm looking forward to much close study and
        contemplation. I believe that many will want to keep your version of
        the Handbook ready to hand.

        In my reading, only one typo has popped up so far; on page 153:

        "The one thing to be careful about beyond all others [is] this � not to
        get so involved with any of your former companions or friends, as to
        compromise your character for [their] sake. (Discourses 4.2.1, trans.

        Best wishes,

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