PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 8

 - Flourishing and Detachment


Professor Gendler begins with a discussion of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who argued that once we recognize that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us, we can see that happiness requires detaching ourselves from our desires and focusing instead on our attitudes and interpretations. Three pieces of advice from Epictetus about how to cultivate such detachment are provided, along with contemporary examples. A similar theme from Boethius is discussed, followed by a practical example of the benefits of detachment from Admiral James Stockdale’s experiences as a prisoner of war.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 8 - Flourishing and Detachment

Chapter 1. Epictetus: Overview and Main Themes [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: So what I want to talk about in today’s lecture is a strand in the philosophical tradition that looks not at the ways in which human interconnectedness can provide meaning and the possibility for flourishing, but which looks rather at a certain sort of psychological detachment as a way of dealing with the inevitable vicissitudes of lived experience.

And the clearest articulation of the outlook that we’ll be considering today in the context of the Western tradition can be found in the writings of the philosopher Epictetus. Here’s a wonderful imaginary portrait of him from 1715, sitting at a table, famously with his cane, which he used to walk as the result of his limp.

As you know from the reading guide, Epictetus lived at the beginning of two millennia ago. He lived roughly from 50 to 130 in the Common Era. He was born in Greek-speaking Asia Minor, and spent his life living in the Roman Empire during that era. He spent the early portion of his life as a slave. There’s some dissent as to whether he spent it until the age of thirteen or until the age of twenty-seven, but in any case, a significant portion of his life was spent in slavery. But he eventually gained freedom, and at some point, either before or after gaining freedom, he studied the works and philosophical outlook of a tradition known as Stoicism.

And the works that were produced on his behalf that have survived are two. The first is a major four- volume collection of his discussions of a range of topics: questions in metaphysics, questions about the way the world is, questions in epistemology–how we should understand the world–and also questions in ethics.

And in addition to that has survived the extraordinary book that we read for today. The little forty-five-epigraph essay known as The Handbook, which was, as in the case of Aristotle, apparently recorded by one of Epictetus’s students and preserved in that way.

Now, the work that Epictetus produced in the context of The Handbook was enormously influential for most of the two thousand years that it has been part of the Western tradition. In particular, the frontispiece that I used to show you a picture of Epictetus is drawn from the library of none other than John Adams, the second president of the United States, who had this book in his collection in its 1715 Latin edition.

Wait until the eclipse passes.

Another interesting thing to know, historically, about the volume that we’re reading is that the first English translation of it was, in fact, done by a great eighteenth century woman of letters, Elizabeth Carter. Though the translation that we’re reading is a more modern version of it.

So in this work, Epictetus takes on many of the tenets of classical stoicism. So we’ve been introduced in this class so far first to the writings of Plato, who is a systematic philosopher. He has views about everything, and his commitments are to a certain kind of rationalist, formalist, idealist philosophy. And we’ve been introduced to the works of Aristotle through one of his writings, the Nicomachean Ethics.

But alongside those two traditions, the Platonic tradition and the Aristotelian tradition, the ancient philosophical world produced a number of other systematic philosophical outlooks–outlooks that had views about almost any question you could ask. And among those was the view known as Stoicism.

So Stoics held, with respect to the underlying metaphysical facts about reality, that the world itself is an organic physical totality that’s governed by what they called logos or divine reason. There is an order to the world. And that the responsibility of human beings, given that order, is to cultivate a particular kind of virtue. Virtue on the Stoic picture is acting in accord with what reason tells you nature demands. It’s going along with this grand scheme of things, and not trying to fight against what is predivined for you.

So it’s not surprising that elements of the Stoic tradition get picked up in subsequent theistic traditions. In some ways, the Stoic view that the world is a well-ordered entity governed by divine reason lies at the heart of many of the religious traditions that are familiar to you today.

The question, then, becomes, what is demanded of you prescriptively? What should you do if these two things are the case? And what the Stoics suggest is that you need to accept your fate, that it is the consequence of the power and goodness of the logos, even though the ways in which it is good for you may be unavailable to you to see, and that in order to do so, you need to moderate your desires, you need to avoid excess emotion, and thereby come to act in accord with reason.

So the contemporary use of the term Stoic, one who doesn’t express suffering in the face of pain, is picking up on the second of these prescriptive aspects. But it’s important to recognize that as with all of the philosophers that we’re reading, this is part of a systematic worldview. The idea is not, we pick a little bit here and a little bit there and we don’t worry about how they go together. The idea is we have an idea about the fundamental nature of reality, a view about how we know that, and then views about what we ought to do as a consequence.

Now, Epictetus, in The Handbook, is concerned only with a small portion of the Stoic picture. He’s concerned, basically, with writing the very first self-help manual. He’s trying to tell you, Mr. or Ms. Citizen of ancient Roman world in about the year 100, what to do if you would like to flourish. And here’s what he tells you need to do.

You need to learn how to respond appropriately to experience by doing three things. You need to alter your perceptions of the world so that you come to apprehend things in such a way that they don’t influence you harmfully. You need to alter your desires with respect to the world. And you need to structure your life in such a way that you stay on the straight and narrow; you need to structure your social relations in ways that will help you sustain your commitments.

And in the next slide, in an attempt to help you read through the text that we have, I suggested ways of putting each of the subpassages of the book into one of these categories. So, for example, when Epictetus tells us that we need alter our perception of the world, there are three specific ways that he thinks we might go about doing it; three components to this instruction.

The first is that we need to properly classify things into two categories: things over which we have control–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment–and things over which we don’t have control. So we need to get our taxonomy down.

We need also to anticipate the way the world typically unfolds. So we need not only to know what is up to us and what isn’t up to us, but among the things that aren’t up to us, we need to structure our expectations in such a way that we are emotionally prepared for what will befall us. And again, I’ll talk more about that in a couple of slides.

And we need to recognize–in some ways this is a subpoint of the first–the role that judgment and choice play in determining whether it is the case that experiences affect us. So those are the three things that Epictetus says we need to do with respect to perception, and again, I’ll give examples of each of them in a moment.

In addition, we’ll go on to the second thing that we need to do. He tells us that we need to cultivate appropriate desires. We need to get our desires lined up with the world in such a way that we aren’t subject repeatedly to frustration. And the way we do this is by inverting the standard relation between desire and the world.

Usually, desires express a way things aren’t, but you wish they were. I desired firmly yesterday that there not be the eighth snow day in three weeks for my children. But the world refused to cooperate on that question. Had I instead adjusted my desires to the world–I desired that things go on exactly as logos predicts–then I would have been content with their presence in my office.

The second thing that Epictetus tells us we can do in strategizing how to cultivate appropriate desires is to make use of this extraordinary human capacity to assimilate things from one category to things from another. So remember when I showed you the Wason selection task, that funny thing which had an A, and an F, and a 4, and a 7, and I asked which card we had to turn over to determine whether it was true that if there’s an A on one side, there’s a 7 on the other. Doing that task was hard, but when I showed you that it was structurally identical to another task, the task of being shown four cards which had ages and alcoholic or nonalcoholic drinks, and I asked you, which cards do you need to turn over to verify the truth of, if somebody is drinking a beer, then she is over 21. All of a sudden, you were able to understand the difficult problem in light of the problem with respect which you had traction.

Epictetus points out to us that we have a skill set for letting go. We have a skill set for psychological distancing. We have a skill set for saying, “Hah! Stuff happens, and it doesn’t matter”. And what he suggests we do, and again, I’ll give an example of this, is to learn how to assimilate the things which we find hard to let go of to the things which we find easy to let go of, and thereby exploit this capacity that we have for metaphoric understanding.

Finally in this category, Epictetus points out the importance of habituating yourself to the inevitability of loss. Here’s some bad news for all of you. You’re going to die. Shelly Kagan has an entire course about this, about coming to terms with this inevitable fact about human existence. But Epictetus suggests that by taking this on board profoundly, in a way that affects you not just at the level of being able to utter the words, “I will die someday,” but at the level of really habituating it to your relations to things. All of a sudden, things that seemed incredibly important loom less so.

Finally, Epictetus points out the importance, if you’re going to act in ways that run counter to the norms of your culture, the importance of realizing that you’re going to get negative social feedback. So passage after passage describes the importance of resisting social pressure. When people say of you, “You aren’t seeking honor and glory! You must be a loser!” Epictetus says, “Let them say so, and care not what they say about you.” And as I point out here, there are almost fifteen passages that identify this strategy.

Finally, Epictetus gives you a kind of trick, a persona that he wants you to cultivate. You’re supposed to be a kind of silent type: people say stuff, and you just calmly don’t respond.

Chapter 2. How to Detach from Things [00:15:33]

So this strategy that he’s presenting to us has these three main parts. And what I want to do in the next bit of lecture is to run through some specific examples of this, looking first at Epictetus’s text, quoting it directly, and then suggesting some contemporary analogues for what it is that Epictetus is talking about.

So the opening paragraph of Epictetus’s handbook is one of the most famous bits of philosophical writing in the Western tradition of the last 2000 years. It begins as follows.

“Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, our desires, our aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. But our bodies are not up to us, that is, the physical parts of ourselves, nor our possessions, our reputations, our public offices, whatever is not our own doing.”

Now he’s going to go on and point out a mistake you can make.

“The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded, whereas the things that are not up to us are naturally enslaved, hindered, and not our own. But if you think that things that are naturally enslaved, things that are not up to you, are your own, if you think things naturally enslaved are free, or that things that are not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, upset…”

and walking around blaming the world for everything that’s going wrong with you.

The mistake of confusing that over which you have control and that over which you lack control leads to thwarted, upset, miserable, blamingness. By contrast, keeping these categories straight brings the greatest prize:

“If you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will ever hinder you. You will blame no one. You will not accuse anyone. You will do not a single thing unwillingly…”

because the only things over which you seek to have control are the things over which you actually do have control.

And as a consequence, “no one can coerce you,” because you’re only concerned about the things that are up to you. “No one can hinder you,” because nobody can get in the way of the things that are up to you.

Now, any of you who has experience with a friend or relative or an acquaintance who has taken part in one of the many contemporary versions of Epictetus in the form of a self-help program knows that at the heart of the contemporary twelve-step tradition lies a version of this Epictetan thought, articulated in prayer form, most likely first by Reinhold Niebuhr.

And that is the serenity prayer, which you can find decorated with hummingbirds and daffodils–“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can’t, and wisdom to know the difference.” If morning glories aren’t your style, you can find it decorated with a dog. Or an angel. Or a young child. You can find it on a bowl, or, most strikingly, you can find it tattooed upon your arm, or your thigh, or your side.

So clearly, there is something in the Epictetan picture that speaks to the contemporary mind. And speaks to it in a way that when I did a Google image search for “serenity prayer,” I found thousands and thousands of images like this in any language you can think of.

So this idea that we need to distinguish between things that we can change and things that we can’t, and that an attitude of acceptance is what’s appropriate towards things that we can’t change, whereas an attitude of effort is what’s appropriate towards things that we can, is a lesson that Epictetus has offered to the Western tradition.

Second example. Epictetus talks to us about the importance of emotional regulation through anticipating what will happen to you in a particular setting. So he says, suppose you are going to go to the baths. When you are about to take some sort of action, he says, remind yourself what sort of action it is.

“You’re going to take a bath? Put before your mind what happens at baths! There are people who splash, there are people who jostle, there are people who are insulting.”

If you’re going to go to the airport, remember, you’re going to have to wait in a long line. If you’re prepared for the fact that you’re going to be sitting there, needing to wait for your ticket, you can adjust your emotions.

“Say to yourself, I want to take a bath.” I want to go to the airport. I want to walk across the campus on the icy sidewalks. “I want to do so in a way that keeps my choices in accord with nature.” If you appropriately expect things to be as they are, then you will not be frustrated. I want to walk across campus. It’s an icy day. I realize that in walking across campus on an icy day, I’ll need to slide my feet rather than lift them. That which had previously been an annoyance comes to be a fact about the world which is not up to me, and consequently, something which does not perturb my feeling of calm.

Third thing Epictetus suggests we do is to recognize that what is upsetting to us are not things that happen, but rather our judgments about those things. And you’ll recall when I showed you that image from the Metropolitan Museum of Socrates’s death upon drinking the hemlock, and told you that a death done with nobility, recorded by a good PR agent–something true both of Socrates and of a carpenter from Nazareth–in such cases, one can serve as a touchstone for people’s thoughts about how to deal with human life and its inevitabilities.

So Epictetus says, what upsets people are not things, but their judgments about those things. For example, “death in itself,” he says, “must be nothing dreadful. For if it were dreadful, then Socrates, the great wise one, would have felt it to be dreadful.” What’s scary about death, says Epictetus, is not death itself. What is dreadful about death is the judgment about death that it is dreadful.

Nothing is harmful in itself. It’s up to you whether you let it harm you. When you teach your children not to be upset by the thoughtless taunts of their classmates, what you point out to them is, what their classmates say about them can’t hurt them unless it’s emotionally disturbing to them. If you don’t let it hurt you, it can’t hurt you.

And we find voice given to this–here’s Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet–in the famous Rosencranz and Guildenstern scene of Hamlet, which I put up here for you, because I understand that there’s a production of Hamlet happening in one of the colleges in a couple of weeks.

So Hamlet is in conversation with these two emissaries, and complaining about what a rotten place Denmark is, and they disagree. They say, Denmark doesn’t strike us as so bad, and famously, Hamlet says back, “Why then, ‘tis none to you! For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

When you walk around the world, things have shape and sizes. This table is rectangular. These walls are white. The temperature is such and such. These are facts about the world. Things in the world don’t have valences attached to them. It’s not attached to an event that it is good or bad. It is your assessment of the event that gives it that valence. That’s the third Epictetan point.

Fourth point. Epictetus points out that there are two ways of having desires. One can, on the one hand, ask the world to conform to what you want, or one can ask what you want to conform to the world. Epictetus favors the second. “Do not want to have events happen to you as you want them to, but instead, want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Here’s a way to get a 100% guarantee that you’ll get what you want. Want what you get. If you want what you get, you will get what you want.

So contemporary philosophy has a way of describing this. And one of the ways of thinking about it–they use this notion that they call direction of fit–is to think about what a shopping list is.

So because I had some parchment left over from that contract that we signed with the devil a few weeks ago, I thought I’d use it for my shopping list. So here I am, unenlightened by Epictetus, and I write on my shopping like that I would like apples, broccoli, and lemons. And so I go to the store, and the fulfillment of my desire depends upon there being apples, broccoli, and lemons.

You, enlightened by Epictetus, go to the store, look and see what’s there, pull out your parchment paper, and make your list. Apples, broccoli, and lemons.

So far there’s no difference between us, even though your strategy was to shape your desire to fit the world, and my strategy was to try to shape the world to fit my desire. But what happens to us when the store is out of broccoli?

I have on my list: apples, broccoli, and lemons. But there is no broccoli. I’m set up for frustration. You, by contrast, conform you desires to the world. You want what you get. So you change your shopping list, and everything is fine. The Epictetan idea here is that if you shape your desires to the way things actually are, you will never be frustrated.

Fourth suggestion. Fourth? Fifth? One of you must be keeping count. Proper perspective. So Epictetus offers this extraordinary analogy in paragraph seven. He says, “On a voyage when your boat has anchored, if you want to get fresh water, you may pick up a small shellfish and a vegetable by the way. But you must keep your mind fixed on the boat, and look around frequently, in case the captain calls. If he calls, you must let all those other things go, so you will not be tied up and thrown on the ship like livestock.”

The idea is, sure, go around, enjoy stuff in the world, but don’t let yourself get attached to it. When a major priority occurs, keep things in order in your mind. “But,” he continues, “This is how it is in life.” You know how to relate to shellfish and tomatoes. “This is how it is in life, too.” I’m quoting again. “If you are given a wife and a child, instead of a vegetable and a small shellfish, that should not hinder you either. But if the captain calls, let all things go and run to the boat without turning back.” Take the strategies that you have available for you for dealing with things whose transience you recognize, and adopt those attitudes towards things who’s transience is painful to you.

“When your jug breaks,” he says, “you say: That is but a broken jug. When your child is lost, say: That is but a lost child.”

This is the logical consequence of the outlook that I’ve been presenting to you from Epictetus. It sounded really good when it was the serenity prayer. It sounded pretty good at the grocery store. It sounds pretty disturbing when it’s the wife and child. What is it that’s going on?

Chapter 3. Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy [00:31:34]

I leave that for you as a question, and turn now to the second text that we read for today, a great work composed in the sixth century, in around 524, by somebody whose life trajectory went almost invertedly to the way that Epictetus’s did. Epictetus, you’ll recall, was born a slave, and tried to make sense of his life experience of suffering once he became free. Boethius, by contrast, was born into a noble family, was enormously successful politically in his early years, had two sons who went on to be enormously successful political figures. And in his later years, was imprisoned for treason.

And because The Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most widely read and reproduced works of its era–it was read for centuries and centuries by almost everyone–we have gorgeous illuminated manuscripts that show us the story. So in this one, here’s Boethius beforehand, teaching people, and here he is afterwards, locked up in jail.

Now in jail, in prison, where he is tortured and suffering, Boethius consoles himself by engaging in an imaginary conversation with a figure that he calls Philosophy. So here is Philosophy, come to visit Boethius in his prison.

And what Philosophy says to him is, in many ways, like what Epictetus was talking about. There is, she says, a wheel of fortune. Sometimes things start off badly and get better. Sometimes things start off better and get bad. But there will inevitably be a circle to what comes to you and to what is taken from you. And recognizing that there is nothing to be done, other than to recognize that this is the pattern that life takes, is, to Boethius, enormously liberating. Recognizing that what goes along with having things is the possibility of losing them allows him to come to terms with the experience of having lost all that he previously had.

Chapter 4. Stockdale and the Practical Significance of Detachment [00:34:51]

What I want to do in the final section of the lecture is to return to a theme that we discussed previously, the question of what philosophical utility there is to these works during times of extreme duress. So my hope, because you read an essay by him, is that even if you don’t recognize this gentleman, you can guess who he is. This is Admiral James Stockdale, who was, among other things, imprisoned alongside John McCain in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and who was also the Vice Presidential candidate running on the independent ticket, I understand, before you were born.

So James Stockdale, as he explains to you in the incredibly moving memoir that we read for today, studied the works of the classical tradition. He read Epictetus. He read a bunch of the other Stoics. He read the Iliad. He read the Odyssey. And all of these were part of his cognitive and emotional repertoire when, in Vietnam, the following thing happened to him.

“It was September 9, 1965.” I’m reading now from his book. “I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap at treetop level in a little A4 airplane, the cockpit walls not even three feet apart, which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire. Its control system shot out. After ejection, I had thirty seconds to make my last statement of freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead, and so help me, I whispered to myself, ‘Five years down here, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology, and entering the world of Epictetus.’

“Ready at hand,” he said, now quoting from The Handbook, “Ready at hand from the Enchiridion,” The Handbook “as I ejected from that airplane,” was that opening paragraph that we read a few moments ago. “The understanding that a Stoic always keeps separate files in his mind for A, those things that are up to him, and B, those things that are not up to him. Another way of saying this,” says Stockdale, “is those things that are within his power, and those things that are beyond his power. Still another way of saying it. Those things that are within the grasp of his free will, and those that lie beyond it.”

All of the things over which you do not have control, which, in the contact of tortured imprisonment, are a huge number, are external. And, says Stockdale, it will doom me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. I need to let go of the thought that those things will change.

However–and this is crucial–everything in category A is up to me. Within my power, within my will, and those are the things that are properly subject for my total concern and involvement. These matters include “my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my grief, my joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, my own evil. My internal character,” says Stockdale in circumstances which are almost unimaginably difficult. “My character and my response to those things are up to me.”

And he goes on to describe the experience of torture using a trope that we’ve seen repeatedly in the texts we’ve read. He says, “When tortured, and released from the torture, what we contemplated was that we had engaged in a certain sort of betrayal of ourselves and what we stood for. It was there that I learned what Stoic harm”– echoes of the moral harm that we talked about when we discussed the Jonathan Shay work–“a shoulder broken, a bone in my back broken, a leg broken twice, were peanuts in comparison.”

Epictetus: “Look not for any greater harm than this destroying the trustworthy, self-respecting, well-behaved man inside you.” Situations of extremity that force people to discover in themselves aspects of what they are capable that they don’t wish to see, are what is most harmful.

When Plato says, “It will do you no good to gain gold by selling or enslaving your daughter. Why, then, gain gold by selling or enslaving your soul?” he’s expressing the thought that we hear here. When we read in the discussions of Jonathan Shay about the experience of feeling that one has betrayed what one stood for–that is what led to a feeling of moral harm. And when Milgram’s subjects found themselves doing things that they felt repulsive to them, they shivered, they shook, they felt a disorder in their soul. Here, again, is an answer to Glaucon’s challenge.

But notice that though Stockdale is taking on board much of the Epictetan picture, he’s rejecting the bit about the tomato and the wife. That is, he rejects in Epictetus the idea that social relations aren’t important. In the paragraph following the one that I just read to you, he writes as follows.

“When people are released from solitary confinement, when put back in a regular cell block, hardly an American came out of that experience without responding something like this, when first whispered to by a fellow prisoner next door. ‘You don’t want to talk to me. I am a traitor.’ But,” says Stockdale, doing this sort of listening whose importance Shay emphasized in our reading for last week, “But because we were equally fragile, it seemed to catch on that we all replied something like this. ‘Listen, pal. There are no virgins here. You should have heard the kind of statement I made. Snap out of it. We’re all in it together. What’s your name? Tell me about yourself.’”

To hear that last, to hear that you are accepted and that there are others around you willing to listen to the experience which you found painful, was for–I’m now quoting again, “most new prisoners just out of initial shakedown and cold soak, a turning point in their lives.”

So the question that Stockdale’s text raises for us is the question of whether it is possible for us to take on board some of the Epictetan picture without taking on all of it. Is it possible to regulate our desires so that we don’t expect more from the world that it’s possible to get, but to do so in such a way that we don’t thereby lose the possibilities for the most profound types of human connectedness? To that, I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s worth thinking about as a question.

I look forward to seeing many of you at 2:30 this afternoon.

Are there questions? We have a minute.

[end of transcript]

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