Sunday, November 21, 2010

There is Nothing You Can Offer Epictetus

Allow me to get all preachy for a minute - as if I weren't all preachy all the time. But artist Marina Ross had something interesting to say in the comment section on that post about scams. She was describing her own experience with a similar scam, and concluded thus:

they tend to target those they think are really desperate so try your best not to be

This reminded me of a few things. First of all, it reminded me of desperation. I've had experience with desperation as it pertains to many different things in life, but this being an art blog, let's talk about desperation and artists. In other words - let's talk again about something aside from art itself.

There are few things less charming than desperation. I've seen artists desperate to sell work. Any fool can sense desperation: the unctuousness, the obsequiousness, the anxiety to stay in the face of the collector, the constant direction of the collector's attention to the work, to this or that aspect of the work - the sweaty forehead and the shining eye, the smell of need. This is a profoundly uncharismatic position to find oneself in, a position depressing to collector and artist alike. It leads later to self-disgust, to self-recrimination. What it hardly ever leads to is a sale…

Proust reminds us that we tend to receive those things we want most once we no longer want them. Of course, he was talking about Odette and Albertine, but he might as well have been talking about art sales. I am in a lucky position, an extremely lucky position: I can paint what I like and treat fairly calmly with collectors, because I have never depended on selling art to make a living. I'm not independently wealthy, I just have the best day job ever (ninja assassin)(I'm not actually a ninja assassin, although that would be sweet).

In another way, I suppose you could say that I am unlucky, because I am not hungry for sales. Hunger is a very important force in art. Hunger gets you into shows, collections, and museums. But I think I am hungry enough for the important part - I am starving to be a good artist. And I will let the rest take care of itself. Personally, I find being broke kind of paralyzing.

Now, moving on from the specifics, I am also reminded of the story of Amyclas, as told by Lucan in the Pharsalia, an incredibly turgid epic he wrote about Julius Caesar from 61-65 AD. The Pharsalia is kind of a ripoff of the Aeneid, which in itself is a ripoff of the Odyssey. This makes the Pharsalia a photocopy of a photocopy, with all the problems that go along with that:

Great epic poet.

OK epic poet.

Really not very good epic poet.

But it does have this bit about Amyclas (book V). Caesar is wandering around a beach at night in lousy weather, trying to find a boat that will take him across a body of water. He notices the very boat beside a hovel, and knocks on the door:

Amyclas from his couch of soft seaweed
Arising, calls: 'What shipwrecked sailor seeks
My humble home? Who hopes for aid from me,

By fates adverse compelled?' He stirs the heap

Upon the hearth, until a tiny spark
Glows in the darkness, and throws wide the door.

Careless of war, he knew that civil strife

Stoops not to cottages. Oh! happy life

That poverty affords! great gift of heaven

Too little understood! what mansion wall,
What temple of the gods, would feel no fear

When Caesar called for entrance?

I first learned of this episode (and of the Pharsalia) from a reference in Dante's Paradiso (XI:67-9, if you must know). Apparently this story was a big deal in the middle ages, illustrating as it does the Christian principle of poverty. And what is the principle? That he from whom you can take nothing, need not fear you. Fear, in this sense, represents being compelled to stray from virtue. Caesar, who rules the world, can do nothing to compel Amyclas to depart from virtue, because he cannot take anything from Amyclas.

This is a powerful principle, but its true scope is clarified better by Epictetus. I had the great good fortune to run into Epictetus at an early enough age to be deeply influenced by his thinking. He was born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia (now, like so much else, a part of Turkey) around 55 AD, and eventually got his freedom. His thinking as a philosopher was strongly shaped by his experience of slavery. In fact, I would nominate him as a contender for all-time best generalization of one's personal condition into a universal principle.


Here's what Epictetus has to say about life, conveniently placed at the very beginning of the Enchiridion. I wouldn't try your patience with a long quotation if it weren't worth it:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Well, that's nice. He's a Stoic (incidentally, a stoa is a porch; the stoics originally sat around shooting the shit on the porch. Me and my buddies used to get high and do that in Carrboro, but nobody called us The Porchmen).

But consider this: Amyclas is fearless because nothing can be taken from him. Epictetus is at peace because he understands that not only can nothing be taken from him, but nothing can be given to him either. His poverty is not conditional, but definitional. What is his, must be his, has always been his, and will always be his. It is inalienable. What is not his he disciplines himself out of caring much for. It comes and goes, but he never considers it as belonging to him. Many of the things he considers not his are things with which it is difficult to part: life, limb, land. He is truly fearsome in what he doesn't consider his:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

In practice, he fell a little short of this degree of detachment, abandoning his famed solitude in old age to adopt an adorable smudge-cheeked orphan and shack up with some dame.

Mrs. Epictetus

Epictetus Jr.

But as a model of living, his idea is compelling, and some several people do seem to reach it.

I have not reached it. However, among the many things flitting around my mind, there is always some measure of Epictetus' idea that we are slaves with regard to many things, and ought to cultivate the detachment of slaves. In this lies freedom - freedom from desperation, freedom to choose and act.

I think this is important for the artist as well. Your art belongs to you. It is inalienable - it runs deeper than Epictetan action because it is, in fact, who you are. But all else is not yours. Sales and lack of sales - recognition and lack of recognition - respect and a good name or their absence - mortality and immortality - these do not belong to you, and you do yourself no good in depending too much on how they turn out. So long as you retain your sense of possession of your art - possession in the sense that you possess your soul - then you have everything you need.

I apologize for the sermonizing; I am not trying to teach you, but rather, to teach myself.


  1. Thank you, Fred. Thanks for saying so.

    There was one thing I regretted not being able to include in the post, and my mom has added another. Briefer and more poetic presentations of the same idea. So I'll just put them here.

    First, courtesy of my mom, a poem that meant a lot to Nelson Mandela:

    William Ernest Henley

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    And second, a paragraph from chapter 7 of Moby Dick. Ishmael is in a Nantucket church, contemplating the memorials to sailors:

    It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems- aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling- a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

  2. Great post. Now I know where Max Ehrmann got some of his inspiration:


    Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
    and remember what peace there may be in silence.

    As far as possible, without surrender,
    be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
    and listen to others,
    even to the dull and the ignorant;
    they too have their story.
    Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
    they are vexatious to the spirit.

    If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain or bitter,
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
    Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in your business affairs,
    for the world is full of trickery.
    But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
    many persons strive for high ideals,
    and everywhere life is full of heroism.
    Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
    Neither be cynical about love,
    for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
    it is as perennial as the grass.

    Take kindly the counsel of the years,
    gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
    But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
    Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline,
    be gentle with yourself.
    You are a child of the universe
    no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here.
    And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

    Therefore be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be.
    And whatever your labors and aspirations,
    in the noisy confusion of life,
    keep peace in your soul.

    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world.
    Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

  3. What a wonderful poem! Thank you for sharing that - it's amazing how many poems have a line or two that you've heard before, and never thought to wonder where it came from. Amazing and a frequent occurrence for me, anyway. Perhaps not surprising, I hardly ever read poetry. Maybe I oughta.

    I'm starting to think that you don't actually have to read Epictetus to cook up an Epictetan outlook. It just makes a lot of sense, especially when things suck, as they have for most of history. Epictetus isn't even the only classical philosopher with these sorts of ideas. Epicurus, who's up there with Machiavelli with guys whose names have gotten linked to stuff they didn't stand for, has a fairly similar outlook. Not so much, "Stuff your fat face," as "Appreciate food when you're lucky enough to get some."

  4. I'm afraid there is a real problem with Epictetus' philosophy, given that he accepted the Stoic doctrine of fate, viz., that everything is fated (which, however, does not mean necessitated, at any rate as these things were defined by the greatest Stoic, Chrysippus). The problem is this: roughly speaking, the Stoics argued that all events are fated, fate being the same as god, the divine principle of reason, and providence. That is, everything is fated for the good. Some of these fated events are also actions, performed by particular individuals, who thereby become part of the chain or web of fate. Since a given event is fated, it is going to happen whether we like it or not, or, the Stoics would put it, where the event is also an action of yours, whether you assent to it or not. But if the same thing can happen either with or without your assent, your assent cannot be necessary for its occurrence. Therefore: Either you can control your assents, but in some cases, at least, this control will have no effect on actual events, which is not very comforting, and will not lead to "positive feedback" about the value of controlling one's assents (what't the point?). It may also contradict the doctrine of fate, if assents count as events or if they are necessary for certain events to occur (and as they are fated to occur, your assent will be given to them, whether you like it or not). But (the other alternative) if you cannot control your assents, since they are needed for certain events to occur, wherever those events are (also) your actions, and all this sermonising about inner freedom is so much guff. The problem repeats itself with regard to "appearances", mental states of awareness to which assent is or is not given, as being true or false/unclear. If these are fated, I am going to have them whether I like them or not, and, given that fate needs me to assent (or not), I am going to assent to them (or not), whether I like it or not; or these appearances are not fated, in which case not everything is fated.

    In short, Epictetus can't take refuge in his inner freedom if fate knows no boundary between inside and outside or if his choices are not practically relevant. But if things are not all fated, and fated for the good, resignation doesn't look so attractive.

    (I realise this is a bit technical, but I think one should see ancient thinkers in their own contexts, and evaluate their ideas as wholes. Some subtle distinctions will have to be made between necessary and fated things, etc., plus careful definitions of all the modal concepts, if there is to be any hope of saving his view, and I am not sure Epictetus is up to that, even if it can be done.)