I finally finished reading Epictetus’ Discourses, which I highly recommend, despite major criticisms I have with it. Since I rarely see criticisms of Stoicism in personal development blogs, I’ll go through them here before I get around to writing about the good points (which you can find anywhere on the web).
Admittedly, my criticisms are focused specifically on what’s mentioned in Epictetus’s “Discourses, Fragments, and Handbook”.
1.) It’s focus on God.
I found it quite surprising how the beginning of the book places such a high value to reason and logic, yet resorts to the classic and flawed argument of we don’t know how the universe be made… therefore god(s) made it. Without addressing who makes the maker.
Later chapters also emphasize to suspend judgement for things we don’t know about, yet at the same time jumps to Gods again (Zeus in particular). I was expecting agnosticism in this philosophy, but instead found Zeus, Demeter, and other Gods.
In addition, it also asserts that since God is good, anything made by Him/Them must also be good (given how terrible the Romans could be, I’m surprised how this is even asserted).
Also: Because there’s gods, you must live virtuously to appease them. This is a presumption of what they want, and if gods are so perfect and complex, I find it reprehensible for people to presume what God(s) wants from us, assuming their existence.
God/Gods are used interchangably based on the context.
2.) It’s ambiguous focus on Nature
Living “in accordance with Nature” is a constant theme throughout Stoicism, yet it is a phrase lost to time, with no explanation to be found despite many historians looking and philosophers debating about it. It is also unclear if this means Nature, as in the Natural World, or nature, as in the inherent character or construction of a person/thing, or as a surrogate of God’s will.
This leaves a lot of wiggle room to either make Appeals to Nature (a logical fallacy) if the context is about the natural world such as laws of physics, biology, etc. to straight up dogma and all the human-created problems it creates among us.
There is plenty of room this and Epictetus wastes no time to rant about the proper way a man should or shouldn’t cut his hair, what kind of clothes to wear, etc.
3.) It’s anachronistic ideas (and lack thereof)
I’ll give Stoics some slack, since they were writing thousands of years ago. Regardless, here are outdated notions in the book.
Slavery is mentioned, but Epectitus makes no mention of how the institution of slavery is injust at all (despite being raised as a slave himself, by a man that was a former-slave).
In this context, the institution of slavery is not “a bad” thing, since it is not something they could control (aside from willingly releasing your slaves). However, being a slave to your emotions and passions is certainly a bad thing, and will bring unhappiness even if you’re a free man. There was never any admonishment for owning slaves or even suggesting they shouldn’t be treated badly.
Sacrifices are encouraged, particularly before sailing due to its hazardous nature. To them it is quite rational to give sacrifices to the gods to ensure a safe voyage, since that’s all you can do in your power.
Instead of reproaching superstitions, Epictetus just warns you about getting emotional when going to a diviner (like someone that predicts the future by “reading” bird entrails).
Epectitus believes that, although he agrees that women are common property, it is basically rude to their boyfriend/husband if you sleep with their woman. (Discourse 2.4).
4.) Obvious evil’s/injustices are left addressed.
It is tempting to list this in #3, since the genocides of Native Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, and Tutsi’s happened WAY after the Roman Empire.
But, the Romans did fucking terrible things like crucifying not just Jesus, but also crucify enemy soldiers (who they’d put on display in front of a besieged city). I’m sure they’ve conducted a variety of unimaginable horrors in their quest for domination and power. I’ll let you google Commodus, the son of the famous stoic emperor Marcus Arelius.
The only mention of torture was about being tortured, and that it’s beyond your control, so it ought to be indifferent to you because of it. What’s of utmost importance is being virtuous even when being tortured so you can be happy. This is so easy and simple to assert when you’re not being crucified.
I already mentioned slavery.
For a book that goes into ethics and morality, I was surprised at the lack of speaking against evil actions. Particularly when there are multiple large chapters and mentions railing against Epicureans and adulterers….
5.) It *can* provide an excuse to ignore other people’s suffering.
There is very little in this book about charity, alleviating poverty, helping the unfortunate. It does however emphasize that wealth/poverty can be well beyond your control, and not to worry, since you’ll find a way to make everything work out. Furthermore, if your poverty is outside your control, then it is indifferent.
He asserts that animals don’t go around worrying about food or shelter, since nature provides them with everything they need. I’ve travelled enough to remote areas to see this is nonsense.
What matters most in Stoicism is your virtue, despite any suffering you have. Your virtue is the only thing you can control. I think this is great advice for typical situations in modern 1st world life where everything is generally easy. If something we perceive is outside of our control, do away with any judgement of it since we’ve only encountered it by chance.
Other peoples poverty is mostly out of our control, although we could give to charity. How much charity? What kind of charity? Based on these writings, charity is also indifferent. What’s really important is showing people virtue, that is really all in their control, not mine.
I think this is good advice, depending how it is applied, but there’s the rub. Justice is not explained (likely because I haven’t read enough), but given the framework of what I’ve read, Stoicism will take a dogmatic approach to it… and dogma makes room for slavery, racialism, mass murder, and irrationality.