The Proper Application of Preconceptions: Curing “The Cause of All Human Ills” by Greg Lopez

Let me ask you a question. According to Epictetus, what is the main cause of human ills? Think about it for a few seconds.

If you’re familiar with his ideas, perhaps you answered  “wanting what’s outside of your control”, or maybe “failing to get what you desire and failing to avoid what you want to avoid”. These are both solid answers. However, according to Epictetus, they’re not the ultimate cause of human ills — there’s something even more fundamental:

[T]he cause of all human ills [is] that people aren’t able to apply their general preconceptions to the particular cases.

Discourses 4.1.42 (Robin Hard trans.)

This is a weird statement for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s pretty absolute — Epictetus is telling us there’s a single cause for everything that ails humanity. That’s a bold claim to say the least. But if it’s true, then it’s important to understand and utilize as a practicing Stoic, since it’s supposedly responsible for every human ill!

The second reason that it’s a weird statement is that it’s not at all clear what Epictetus is talking about. For starters, what are “general preconceptions”? And, even if you know what they are, how would you, as a practicing Stoic, apply them to “particular cases”? And, most importantly: how is any of this relevant to your Stoic practice?

The goal of this essay, based off of my workshop at Stoicon 2018, is to answer these questions. Let’s start with the first one.

What’s a preconception? The simple version.

Another question: what’s this?

Blue Square | Blue square, Clip art, Online art

You probably answered” “a blue square”. If so, you’ve applied not one, but two, preconceptions to a particular case. The preconceptions were “blue” and “square”, and the particular case is the picture.

Based on this example, what would you say  a “preconception” is? What does it mean to apply preconceptions to particular cases? Take a few moments to think this through….

What’s a preconception? The complicated version.

The term “preconception” is a translation of the Greek work prolēpsis, which literally means “before-grasping/seizing” according to its etymology. You can think of it as the stuff that happens in your mind before you consciously grab hold of an idea.

However, leaning on etymology alone isn’t a good idea. To get a better idea of what a preconception is, let’s look at how the scholars Anthony Long and David Sedley define preconceptions:

The natural accumulation of experience of perceptible objects, through ‘many memories of a similar kind’, results in generic impressions or ‘conceptions’ of man, horse, white etc. …[T]he Stoics called naturally acquired generic impressions ‘preconceptions’, using this term to distinguish them from conceptions that are culturally determined or deliberately acquired.

Long & Sedley, 39

In other words, Long and Sedley state that preconceptions seem to occur naturally when we’re constantly exposed to similar objects. Most humans’ brains are built to abstract what’s similar about things that are repeatedly encountered, put them into categories, and name them. This process was what the Epicureans1, and later the Stoics, called “preconceptions”. These are “naturally acquired”, as opposed to learned (like Python programming) or culturally determined (like what makes for palatable food). While we form preconceptions naturally, we need quite a lot of practice to actually apply them accurately and well. This is exactly where Stoic teachers, like Epictetus, can help us out.

Why did Epictetus care about preconceptions?

While the proper application of preconceptions was important to Epictetus, he doesn’t seem concerned with the proper application of every preconception we have. Instead, he emphasized those preconceptions that have something to do with the most important questions human beings can ask themselves. For example, how can we tell what’s really “good” in life? What is it to be “brave”? How can an act be “just”, exactly? Here’s one example where Epictetus focuses on preconceptions related to value and virtues exclusively:

Preconceptions are common to all people, and one preconception doesn’t contradict another. For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honourable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases, as when one person says, ‘He acted well, he’s a brave man,’ while another says, ‘No, he’s out of his mind.’ That is how people come to fall into disagreement.

Discourses 1.22.1-3 (Robin Hard trans.)

Epictetus isn’t into preconceptions because he wants to sound smart at cocktail parties; he emphasizes their application because he believes that they’re the reason why people disagree about how to live a good life and what it consists of. And since Epictetus trained his students in a three-stage program to live a good life, it should be no surprise that we find the proper application of preconceptions playing a role in these three disciplines.

For instance, here’s Epictetus talking about properly applying preconceptions in the first discipline (named the “Discipline of Desire” by Pierre Hadot) of his three-pronged curriculum:

[I]f you know how to apply your preconceptions properly, why is it that you are troubled, that you are frustrated? For the present, let’s leave aside the second field of study, relating to motives and how they may be appropriately regulated; and let’s also leave aside the third, relating to assent. I’ll let you off all of that. Let’s concentrate on the first field, which will provide us with almost palpable proof that you don’t know how to apply your preconceptions properly. Do you presently desire what is possible, and what is possible for you in particular? Why, then, are you frustrated? Why are you troubled? Aren’t you presently trying to avoid what is inevitable?

Discourses 2.17.14-18 (Robin Hard trans.)

The goal of the Discipline of Desire is to remove passions. If you’re familiar with Stoicism, you probably think that passions come from wanting things that aren’t under your complete control. And, while you aren’t wrong to think this, it’s not the whole story. As the quote above demonstrates, there’s actually something more fundamental going on that causes us to desire what’s beyond our control. The cause is not being able to apply our preconceptions properly. Epictetus explicitly states in the quote above that we suffer “trouble” and “frustration” when we want what isn’t fully in our control (i.e.,what  is “possible”), and he says that the cause of these misplaced desires is precisely the misapplication of our preconceptions. This suggests that in order to change our desires, it’s necessary to learn to apply your preconceptions well.

We can see how applying preconceptions plays a key role in Epictetus’ second discipline, the “Discipline of Action” elsewhere in the Discourses:

For a rational being, only what is contrary to nature is unendurable, while anything that is reasonable can be endured. Blows are not by nature unendurable.—‘How so?’—Look at it in this way: Spartans will put up with a beating in the knowledge that it is a reasonable punishment.—‘But to be hanged, isn’t that past bearing?’— When someone feels it to be reasonable, though, he’ll go off and hang himself. In short, if we look with due care, we’ll find that there is nothing by which the rational creature is so distressed as by that which is contrary to reason, and that, conversely, there is nothing to which he is so attracted as that which is reasonable. But these concepts of the reasonable and unreasonable mean different things to different people, as do those of good and bad, and the profitable and unprofitable. It is for that reason above all that we have need of education, so as to be able to apply our preconceptions of what is reasonable and unreasonable to particular cases in accordance with nature.

Discourses 1.2.1-6 (Robin Hard trans.)

The goal of the Discipline of Action is to learn how to act in the world. This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What may be more surprising is that preconceptions are essential to Epictetus’ way of teaching his students how to act.As the passage above makes clear, the preconceptions of what’s “reasonable”, “unreasonable”, “endurable”, and “unendurable” directly relate to how we act in the world. In short: we need to understand preconceptions in order to act Stoically!

Epictetus also implies that having clear preconceptions is an essential part of the third area of his Stoic training curriculum: the “Discipline of Assent”:

Against specious appearances, we should apply clear preconceptions, keeping them well polished and ready for use.

Discourses 1.27.6 (Robin Hard trans.)

This quote is relevant to the Discipline of Assent since it is directly discussing the main task of that discipline: to learn what “appearances”, sometimes translated as “impressions”, you should “assent” or agree to. Note that Epictetus asserts that properly applying preconceptions is a key part of this task!

By now it is hopefully clear why Epictetus cared about preconceptions: because their proper application is necessary to practice all three of his disciplines. But the devil’s in the details — what exactly does it mean to “properly” apply preconceptions? According to the quote above, it involves keeping them “well-polished” and “clear”. Unfortunately, it’s far from obvious what Epictetus actually means by this flowery language — you can’t exactly whip out a preconception from your pocket and buff it to a shine! So, how would you, as a Stoic student, keep your preconceptions “well-polished” in practice so that they can be properly applied? There are three steps. The first involves using our rational faculties to dig into our psychology and make explicit what we already know.

Step 1: Make your preconceptions more explicit

Recall that the ancient Stoics held that, as we gain experience, our minds naturally categorize things in the world — in other words, we naturally form preconceptions. This is enough to get us by in the world. But the Stoics would assert that it’s not enough to flourish.

That’s because they believe that a key thing that makes us human is our capacity to think things through rationally. But just because we can think rationally doesn’t mean we all do. And, even if we do it sometimes, doesn’t mean that we do it consistently.  This is where Stoic teachers like Epictetus come into play: they provide philosophical education to students to help them live their best lives, that is to say rationally and in accordance with nature.

But education won’t do much if there are barriers in our way that stop it from being effective. Epictetus states that the primary barrier to our education isn’t from without, but within: namely, our presumptions. In fact, he  goes so far as to say that we can’t even start practicing philosophy until we get over a major hurdle within our own heads:

What is the first task for someone who is practising philosophy? To rid himself of presumption: for it is impossible for anyone to set out to learn what he thinks he already knows.

Discourses 2.17.1 (Robin Hard trans.)

So, which presumptions is it the first task of Stoic practitioners to rid themselves of? Those related to “good” and “bad”, “reasonable” and “unreasonable”, “endurable”, and so on. In short, Epictetus’ first task for would-be Stoic philosophers isn’t to practice the vaunted, famous dichotomy of control; it’s to to rid ourselves of the presumptions concerning our moral and value-laden preconceptions:

When we go to visit philosophers, we all chatter freely about what one should do or not do, about good and bad, or about what is right or wrong, and so apportion praise and blame, criticism and reproach, and distinguish some actions as being admirable and others as shameful. …Who among us doesn’t talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and about what is ‘advantageous’ or ‘disadvantageous’? For who among us doesn’t have a preconception of each of these things? Is it properly understood, however, and complete? Show me that it is. …In general, then, if all who utter these terms possessed more than an empty knowledge of each, and we didn’t need to set to work to make a systematic examination of our preconceptions, why do we disagree, why do we come into conflict, why do we criticize one another?

Discourses 2.17.2-13 (Robin Hard trans.)

Only once we work on our big psychological stumbling block by dropping presumptions about our moral preconceptions, are we then ready to start learning Stoic philosophy. And that learning begins by systematically examining our naturally-formed preconceptions:

Why, who has ever told you… that we don’t have natural ideas and preconceptions relating to each of these terms? But it is impossible for us to adapt these preconceptions to the corresponding realities unless we have subjected them to systematic examination, to determine which reality should be ranged under which preconception.

Discourses 2.17.7 (Robin Hard trans.)

How exactly can the burgeoning Stoic student execute their Stoic education well by systematically examining their preconceptions and then applying them well to particular cases? Fortunately for us, Epictetus actually lays out his method in Discourses 2.11, where he focuses  on the preconception of “good”:

Why don’t we seek [out a standard of judgement], then, and discover it, and after having discovered it, put it to use without fail ever afterwards, never departing from it by so much as a finger’s breadth? For that is something, I think, which, when found, will rescue from madness those who use opinion as their sole measure in everything, so that from that time onward, setting out from known and clearly defined principles, we can judge particular cases through the application of systematically examined preconceptions.

What is the subject of our present enquiry?

‘Pleasure.’

Submit it to the standard, put it on the scales. For something to be good, must it be something that we can properly place confidence and trust in?

‘Indeed it must.’

Can we properly place confidence, then, in something that is unstable?

‘No.’

Is pleasure stable?

‘No, it isn’t.’

Away with it, then; take it out of the scales, and drive it away from the realm of good things. But if your sight is none too keen and one set of scales isn’t enough for you, bring another. Is the good something that can properly inspire us with pride?

‘It is indeed.’

Is the pleasure of the moment, then, something that can properly inspire us with pride? Take care not to say that it is, or I’ll no longer regard you as being worthy of even using the scales! It is thus that things are judged and weighed when one has the standards at hand; and the task of philosophy lies in this, in examining and establishing those standards. As for the use of them, once they are known, that is the business of the virtuous and good person.

Discourses 2.11.17-25 (Robin Hard trans.)

This excerpt was long and may not be crystal clear, so let’s break it down.

The particular case that Epictetus uses as his example is pleasure. He wants to see if this fits the preconception of “good”. In other words, Epictetus wants to demonstrate a method of figuring out whether or not pleasure is actually good or not.

In order to systematically examine whether pleasure is “good”, Epictetus states that we need some sort of “standard”, or a “scale” by which we can measure such things. In the quote above, Epictetus offers two sets of standards by which to measure whether or not something is good: whether one can place confidence in it, and whether one can take pride in it.

And where exactly is Epictetus getting these two scales from? From human psychology and experience. Recall that Epictetus explicitly states in Discourses 1.22.1 that: “Preconceptions are common to all people.”

In short: Epictetus is saying that, deep down, everyone’s experience tells them that whatever’s good should be reliable and instill pride. However, we don’t hold this explicitly in our heads — Stoic education is needed to systematically examine our preconceptions, making what was once implicit become explicit. This is evidenced by the fact that Epictetus’ interlocutor readily agrees with him when he asks whether whatever’s good must inspire confidence and pride.

Epictetus also lists a couple more properties of our preconception of the good:

For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance?

Discourses 1.22.1 (Robin Hard trans)

Combining the properties of “good” from the above quotes, we now have a list of five properities that anything “good” must have:

  • We can place confidence in it
  • We can take pride in it
  • It is beneficial
  • It is desirable
  • We should always seek and pursue it

In short, by introspecting and rationally conversing with other people, we can dig up universal standards of what’s good and make them explicit. But digging up these standards isn’t the full story; it’s only the first step. These standards are indeed “scales” upon which we weigh particular cases. But we still have to know how to use the scales properly.

Step 2: Use logic to find particulars that don’t belong to a preconception

Instruments like scales are of no use if you don’t have the skill to use them. And a close read of Epictetus’ method reveals exactly what kind of skill is necessary to use his scales well, and to be able to confidently toss things like pleasure to the side when weighed against what’s actually good. The skill that’s needed is logic.

There are two reasons to think that the key skill involved in using the scales is logic. The first is the emphasis that Epictetus places on learning and applying logic throughout the Discourses (e.g., 1.7, 1.8, 1.17, 2.25). This may come as a surprise to people who recall Epictetus haranguing his students about logic. But it’s important to note that the problem Epictetus has is not logic, but people’s propensity to not put it to use to improve one’s character. Epictetus doesn’t discourage learning logic; he discourages simply stopping at learning some nifty logical tricks and calling it a day! This idea is clearly laid out in several places, including Discourses 3.6, Discourses 2.16.20, and Enchiridion 52, which is quoted below:

The first and most necessary area of study in philosophy is the one that deals with the application of principles, such as, ‘Don’t lie.’ The second deals with demonstrations, for instance, ‘How is it that we oughtn’t to lie?’ The third confirms and analyses the other two, for instance, ‘How is this a demonstration?’ For what is a demonstration, what is logical consequence, what is contradiction, what is truth, what is falsehood? The third area of study is necessary, then, because of the second, and the second because of the first, but the most necessary, and that on which we should dwell, is the first. But we do the opposite; for we spend our time on the third area of study, and employ all our efforts on that, while wholly neglecting the first. And so it comes about that we lie, while having at hand all the arguments that show why we oughtn’t to lie.

Enchiridion 52 (Robin Hard trans.)

The main takeaway from this passage and the other passages from the Discourses that are cited above is that Epictetus held that logic is essential to the goal of crafting a life worth living. However, it absolutely must be applied to that goal, or else you’ve stopped well short of your potential. Learning logic without applying it to what’s ultimately good and bad in life is like reading about working out and never actually hitting the gym, or watching videos on programming without ever writing code! Logic is a strong method or reasoning that guarantees that if you follow its rules and feed it true premises, it’ll spit out true conclusions. That’s some pretty powerful stuff! Where else in life can you get such guarantees? But if it’s left unapplied to the most important matters in life, namely what’s truly worth pursuing and avoiding, then, and only then, is it a waste of time.

The second reason for thinking that the skill needed to properly use Epictetus’ “scales” is logic is because he’s actually using logic in Discourses 2.11 when weighing particulars on them! If you’re not familiar with propositional logic, this may not be apparent. However, Epictetus’ penchant for logic (at least when it’s actually applied to the important things in life!) hopefully makes this claim plausible. But it’s probably best to break down how Epictetus uses his two scales to weight pleasure in 2.11 to make his use of logic more explicit.

Recall the first scale that Epicteus weighs the particular of pleasure on in Discourses 2.11:

What is the subject of our present enquiry?

‘Pleasure.’

Submit it to the standard, put it on the scales. For something to be good, must it be something that we can properly place confidence and trust in?

‘Indeed it must.’

Can we properly place confidence, then, in something that is unstable?

‘No.’

Is pleasure stable?

‘No, it isn’t.’

Away with it, then; take it out of the scales, and drive it away from the realm of good things.”

The “scale” here to measure the goodness of the particular (pleasure) is whether one can place confidence in it. This scale was derived in step one, through systematically examining our preconception of what’s “good”. But he puts that scale to use by making a logical argument. Here’s the argument’s logical form:

  1. If something is good, then we can place confidence in it (Premise, derived from systematic examination of our preconception of “good”)
  2. If we can place confidence in something, it is stable (Premise)
  3. Therefore, if something’s good, it is stable (Hypothetical syllogism)
  4. If pleasure is good, it is stable. (Instantiation)
  5. Pleasure is not stable (Premise)
  6. Therefore, pleasure is not good (Conclusion via modus tollens)

Premise 1 is in the form of an if-then statement or hypothetical proposition of a specific kind known in modern parlance as a material conditional. The first part of it (“If something is good…”) is known as the antecedent, and the last part (“…we can place confidence in it”) is called the consequent. Here, the consequent can be called a “necessary” condition for something being good, since the claim being made here is that people have to be able to place confidence in something in order for it to be good, and that if one can’t place confidence in something, that thing cannot be good. In other words: the first premise is a necessary condition for something being good. The goal of Step 1, making our preconceptions more explicit, is essentially to think long and hard about what the necessary conditions are that make something good.

Premise 1 and 2 are combined through a logically valid move known as a hypothetical syllogism. Since it’s a logically valid rule of inference, if premise 1 and 2 are true, premise 3 is guaranteed to be true, too. Premise 4 is relatively uncontroversial — if pleasure is “something”, then we can just replace “something” from premise 3 with a particular thing, like pleasure. Premises 4 and 5 are then combined to yield the conclusion in step 6 via another logically valid rule of inference called modus tollens.

In an ideal world, I’d take some time to go over all those ten dollar words I just used in a lot more detail, but this essay is already quite long, and there are lots of resources out there to teach you the basics of logic. All you need is the willingness to learn, a few hours of your time, and access to Google, YouTube, Brilliant, or an introductory logic book, and you’ll have the basics of the skills you need to use Epictetus’ scales properly.

But if you’d like some practice with logic, I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to try to put Epictetus’ use of the second scale (that of pleasure and the good instilling pride) in Discourses 2.11 into a logical form. I’d wish you good luck, but based on the fact that luck isn’t stable and we can’t place confidence in it, it can’t be good!

Step 3: Rehearse and act upon your well-polished preconceptions

After all that pen-and-paper work, it’s (finally!) time to get to what Epictetus called “first and most necessary area of study in philosophy” in Enchiridion 52 — the application of your principles, or in other words: practice!

It may be weird to a lot of readers that it took this long to get to practice. But I don’t think it would have been weird for students of Epictetus. From what we see in the Discourses, it seems like his students started with theoretical stuff before jumping into practice:

[T]he philosophers must train us first in theory, which is the easier task, and then lead us on to more difficult matters; for in theory, there is nothing to restrain us from drawing the consequences of what we have been taught, whereas in life there are many things that pull us off course. It would be absurd for anyone to say that he wanted to start off with the latter, since it is not at all easy to begin with what is more difficult.

Discourses 1.26.3-4 (Robin Hard trans.)

Calling diving right into practice “absurd” is a bit strong, but I think Epictetus has a point; it’s way easier to preach before practicing what you preach — and that ain’t a bad thing, since talking through the theory helps clarify it in your head and lets you know whether you even agree with the principles of Stoicism. After all, why bother practicing a philosophy of life when you don’t even buy its basic tenets?

Both questions that Epictetus’ students ask him in the Discourses and his Socratic and occasionally acerbic replies clearly show that getting the theory down was an essential part of Epictetus’ curriculum. And I also think it’s something that’s missing to a large degree in modern Stoicism, at least in the way Epictetus approached it. As I hope this essay made clear, Epictetus’ students first explored their preconceptions of what’s really good and bad in life in the classroom using rigorous logic to “draw the consequences” of their beliefs. Only once their preconceptions of good and evil were clear in theory was the aspiring Stoic Student ready for practice.

And how does one set about practicing? There’s been plenty written about that, including a book I co-authored, so there’s no need for details here. The typical Stoic practices like applying the dichotomy of control, journaling, or premeditating future adversity are all useful. However, understanding preconceptions and how to properly apply them can put these practices in a whole new light, and help guide you in how to use them well. In fact, I suspect that many Stoic practices are in fact rooted in the proper application of preconceptions:

  • The dichotomy of control is crafting your conscious, intentional thoughts to be in line with what’s truly good and bad in life.
  • Marcus Aurelius’ journaling was in large part a constant exercise to remind himself of his Stoic ideals of what is good and bad in life and what wasn’t.
  • Premeditating adversity aims to convince you at a gut level that what you’re afraid of isn’t as bad as you think it is (or more precisely: that it isn’t bad at all).

The Stoic psychological concept of the preconceptions of good and evil not only helps put many Stoic exercises in their proper context, but may also help you derive your own!

The next time you engage in your favorite Stoic exercise, I recommend you stop and think about how it relates to applying the preconceptions of good and evil properly before engaging in it. It may help clarify exactly why you’re doing the exercise, and even bring to mind some ways you can do it better.

Epictetus’ practical program in a nutshell

This has been a pretty long journey, so let’s summarize Epictetus’ three-step program of applying your preconceptions properly. While these steps below focus on what’s “good” since that’s the preconception Epictetus focused on in our primary source for this method (Discourses 2.11), this process could be applied to any value-laden preconception such as what’s “reasonable” or “brave” or “praiseworthy”:

Step 1: Drop your notions about what things are good and bad in life, and instead spend lots of time exploring what makes something good or bad. Create a list of properties that good and bad things must have. In short: make your preconceptions of good and bad explicit.

Step 2: Look at things that you or your society think are good or bad and “put them on the scales” you derived in step one. Do the things that you pursue in your day-to-day life or that other people tell you are good or bad actually have the characteristics that necessarily make them good or bad that you derived in Step 1? If not, they’re not actually good (and need to be pursued to live a happy life) or bad (need to be avoided to still live a happy life). Spend some time on this step making sure you’re convinced of your reasoning. You don’t have to feel that your conclusions are true at this step — just make sure you believe your reasoning by making sure all your premises are true in your view and your logic is valid.

Step 3: Now it’s time to practice! Rehearse your reasons for ruling out certain things you pursue or avoid that actually aren’t good or evil through whatever methods work best for you, from journaling to graded, safe, consistent exposure. Attempt to act more and more consistently with the values you derived in step 2, and try to pursue and avoid more and more things that survive their “weighing on the scales”. If you find yourself unconvinced on an intellectual level at any point, don’t be afraid to revisit steps 1 and 2!

Step 4: ???

Step 5: Profit! Well, probably not profit, but a few human ills weakened or even removed is even better.

Happy theorizing and practicing!

Acknowledgements

A special thanks to Kai Whiting for his very helpful input concerning this essay.

Select resources

Dyson, H. (2009). “Prolepsis and Ennoia in the Early Stoa”, in Sozomena: Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts, 1st ed..Walter de Gruyter.

E., Hard, R., & Gill, C. (2014). Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford World Classics) (Critical ed.). Oxford University Press.

Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press.

Greg Lopez is the founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. He is also on the team for Modern Stoicism, and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci, with whom he co-authored A Handbook for New Stoics.

9 thoughts on The Proper Application of Preconceptions: Curing “The Cause of All Human Ills” by Greg Lopez

  1. Jeffrey Allen says:

    This recapitulation of Epictetus’ attack on Epicurean pleasure fails to take note of Epicurus’ distinction between kinetic pleasure (the momentary, active kind of pleasure) and katastematic pleasure, which is the more stable and reliable pleasure of being in a certain state. Katastematic pleasures—which Epicurus advocated as the only pleasures truly worthy of pursuit—are the more enduring states resulting through the simple joys of friendship and the ongoing pleasure brought about through philosophical contemplation. Epicurus agrees that kinetic pleasures, on the other hand, are unstable and frought with the possibility of producing future pain—these are to be avoided. With this distinction in mind, it seems that Epictetus—and Lopez—are attacking a straw man with this argument. It is much easier to criticize a parody of the Epicurean view than the actual philosophy, which is far more nuanced and deserving of serious consideration.

    • Tyrrell McAllister says:

      Epictetus’s argument claims to show only that pleasure as such can’t be what makes something good. At the very least, you must say “enduring pleasure” to avoid the problem that Epictetus points out. The fact that Epicurus agrees does not, by itself, undermine Epictetus’s argument.
      It’s true that “enduring pleasure” would pass that particular test for being good. But these tests are only necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions. Epictetus and Epicurus would disagree about whether providing enduring pleasure is a sufficient condition for being good. This is a genuine point of disagreement, but it’s not one that the argument here purports to address.
      Instead, Epictetus is addressing those people who think that providing even momentary pleasure suffices to make something good. Epictetus’s argument should at least cause them to modify their views to match Epicurus’s more sophisticated position. Epictetus does not, in this passage, contend with the more sophisticated position, nor does he claim that he has.

      • Jeffrey Allen says:

        To be fair to the Epicureans, we should also question whether virtue can be considered to be a “stable condition.” Since absolutely no one is perfect in their practice of virtue, even with the best of intentions, virtue is just as subject to the charge of instability as pleasure. The “Stoic Sage” is a wonderful ideal, but is never attained in practice. The daily Stoic practices of scrutinizing one’s conduct against the standard of perfect virtue acknowledge this. These exercises will never come to an end, even for the most diligent. Everyone, without exception, will falter now and then. Therefore, virtue is unstable and does not meet Epictetus’ own criterion.

        • Alex says:

          I view virtue as stable in the sense that it can be practiced and leveraged no matter the situation. Whether or not it is practiced properly is up to us, but that’s an inherent instability in virtue, but in us as people.
          Let’s say we get in a heated argument with a friend or spouse and end up saying or doing something rude in a fit of anger. Now, at any point in that event we could have calmed ourselves and used virtue to try and solve it, but in our anger we chose not to and instead indulged our emotions and impulses which lead to only more problems.
          That’s the way I see it. Virtue is a guiding tool that we can use to help navigate and solve life’s problems, but like any tool, it’s only as good as the one using it.

        • Tyrrell McAllister says:

          The Stoics agree with you that nonsages don’t have stable virtue. The Stoics also allow the possibility, or even the likelihood, that there are no actual sages.
          But this is another one of those cases where one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.
          You take it as a premise that some nonsage has some virtue. Therefore, you validly conclude, virtue must not need to be stable.
          The Stoics instead assume that virtue must be stable. Therefore, they conclude, no nonsage has any virtue.
          The Stoics accept the consequence that no actual person has any virtue at all (assuming, as seems likely, that there are no actual sages).

  2. Leo Frank says:

    Really enjoyed this article. My stoic practice seems to be focusing more and more around training myself to make accurate and adequate perceptions of reality and this article certainly helps with that.
    I did find the mention of living a happy life in step 2 of the conclusion jarring. I view happiness as unstable and therefore not necessarily good. There are innumerable examples in my life of activities that bring about at least a certain form of short term happiness but could not be categorised as good – selfish might better describe them.

    • Tyrrell McAllister says:

      “Happiness” is an imperfect but standard English translation of “eudaimonia.” Happiness, in this sense, isn’t a subjective feeling, mood, or attitude. It’s not about whether you like or enjoy or want more of whatever’s happening to you.
      Happiness is what you have when your life is in that condition in which a human life ought to be. If your life is a good example (in the normative sense) of a human life, then you have a happy life.
      Roughly speaking, a happy life is one that’s worthy of admiration. If you would admire someone who maintained equanimity while being tortured to death, then, the Stoics would say, you should call such a life happy.

  3. Ian Faulkner says:

    Thanks.
    The article prods or reminds us that preconceptions subconsciously structure the framework within which thoughts and judgments occur. Being aware of our preconceptions provides a method for bringing that subconscious to the conscious level of thinking so that rather than just having a judging thought mindlessly, or even noticing and then applying reasoning to an arising judging thought, we can assess the very axioms we hold from which these judging thoughts arise, and over time, try to change them.
    My question is more to the concept of ‘universal standards’.
    Yes, each individual can assess their own preconceptions and ‘polish’ them over time to be more rational, but I am unsure whether this can ever escape the closed loop of individualized personal experience, together with emotions occurring before reason kicks in, resulting in the standards only ever being relative (to the person, where they are in life when the event occurs, and the specific context of that specific event) rather than universal.
    Which leads me to …….. how does one live in a world where every person has their own definition of what living a good life should be? Down the ‘social contract’ path we go I suppose.

  4. Jimmy Thrasher says:

    Sanity check: the final section mentions Discourses 2.11 as the primary source for this article. Is that actually supposed to be 2.17, which supplies the majority of the references?

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