Friday, May 10, 2013

The Stoic Mneme - Part 4 - Four Little Words

The entire passage from which this Mneme is drawn occurs at the end of a longer conversation on the nature of good in the rational animal. In it, Epictetus is focused on the potential for goodness inherent in humans, which in his opinion has been imbued to them by God or the Gods. While explaining that we, unlike plants or animals, can choose to strive toward excellence or to fail to do so, he nevertheless encourages his hearers to avoid the mere appearance and attitude of superiority that the ‘philosophers’ tend to adopt, and instead dig deeper and reveal the truth of our personal quality, of our virtue.

He begins his closing argument by offering himself as an example.

“Such will I show myself to you: faithful, modest, noble, tranquil.”

This seemed to be the most concise definition of what Epictetus believed what being a practicing Stoic meant. I decided to begin where he did, and I looked deeper into each of the four words he offered as a summation of his character. The key to finally understanding these self-descriptions, for me, appears to be the fact that there are four of words, which unlocked the final meaning. Read on.

Striving Towards Authenticity

In all but one translation the first word πιστόν (piston) is translated as faithful. The English term carries with it a wide range of meanings stretching from the archaically religious sense to an affirmation of monogamy.

While Epictetus was not shy to encourage a spiritual connection with what he referred to as God, and in fact had spent the entire previous passage discussing what he saw as God’s place in human affairs, I didn't sense that he was using piston in a religious sense. He wasn't stating, in this passage, that the Stoic was to be ‘full of faith,’ an archaic and nearly obsolete use of the term ‘faithful’. When Epictetus wants to encourage his students into a correct relationship with God, he would use the term ‘piety’. This was not the case here. Nor did I think that was he interested in the sexual antics of his hearers, though his teacher, Musonius Rufus, wasn't shy about stating his opinion regarding marriage and sex.

Dobbin, the single holdout from the translator pack, selected ‘trustworthy’ as his understanding of the term. This helped to focus the meaning. As Dobbin rightly suggests, Epictetus was stating that he was a person in whom others could place their faith or trust.

With my trusty Liddell-Scott in hand, I turned to πιστός pistos’ and found that the word had a far deeper meaning than I suspected. A person described as ‘pistos’ was someone who could be trusted or believed. Dobbin was right on the money. This was a person who could be relied upon to fulfill their promise and keep their duty; faithful, trusted, like a trusted friend or counselor. It also means that he or she is trustworthy, that is worthy of trust that is placed in them.

This is, though perhaps marginally, an aspect of the just person. We are, all of us, provided with roles and responsibilities in our society. Whether it is simply following the laws of the land (when they do not conflict with virtue, of course), honestly distributing what is fairly owed to others, participating in the political governance of our society, or even acting as a truthful witness or judge, we are all called to be just, and to faithfully discharge our responsibilities, to be actually worthy of the trust placed in us.

As Stoics, we are to express our philosophy by our actions. The genuineness of our character is evidenced by our constant striving for personal improvement. We attempt to act virtuously, and when we fail to do so, we learn from our error, make what amends we can and continue to work. It isn't merely improvement that we seek, it is an inner change. This happens over time, and through many attempts. By being faithful, genuine, authentic, honest and just, both with ourselves and with others, we have a solid bedrock of experience and self-knowledge upon which we can continue to build our own characters toward the goal of expressing the ‘promise of our nature,’ our true inner Sage.

To say that this one little word, faithful, carries hidden depth of meaning does not miss the mark.

A Modest Reputation

The next word in Epictetus’ self-description is αἰδήμονα (aidimona), which is translated, by and large, as modest. In the Loeb edition, Oldfather curiously uses reverent to translate the term. Influenced by the depth and complexity of the first term, I was eager to see what riches lay buried under the seemingly innocuous description of the Stoic as ‘modest’. To say that I was surprised by simplicity of the initial definition would be an understatement.

The Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon translates aidimona as bashful or modest, making Oldfather’s choice of reverent an odd one. That was all. No shades of meaning, alternate definitions or variants. Modest. There were no other subtleties hidden below the word. It appeared to be simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, Epictetus considered modesty as one of the key features of being a practicing Stoic.

Perhaps I didn’t understand the English word ‘modest’ well enough? A turn to Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary provided the following helpful expansion:

modest adj. aware of one’s limitation, not vain or conceited ǁ avoiding pretension or display ǁ limited but not negligible ǁ restrained and reasonable ǁ shunning indecency

This was starting to sound more like what I was expecting. The ideas of limitations, humility, restraint and reason, were to me loud echoes of the virtue of moderation. Here we see Epictetus, seeming to enjoin his hearers to restrain themselves, to control their appetites, to act within a set of limits. But whose limits, I wondered. Again, faced with a variety of choice, I turned back to the text and thought of how Epictetus made use of the word in other passages.

Epictetus uses aidimona and its variations no less than 25 times in his works, a fact which surprised me. This was a very important concept to him, and understanding what it meant to him would be key to unlocking its application in my Mneme, and through it to my own character. In some passages he decries the loss of modesty not as a strength, but as a tragedy (Book 1, Chapter 5). He enjoins us to even eat ‘modestly’ (Book 1, Chapter 4). He reminds us that our recognition of and gratitude for providential benefits should drive us to be ‘modest’ (Book 1, Chapter 16). In fact, he goes so far as to say that being modest is, in part, what differentiates us from the other animals, and that when we lose our modesty, we become less than what we are meant to be as humans. (Book 1, Chapter 28, Book 2, Chapter 1.) He affirms, time and time again that being modest is well within our power, and frequently lists it with the other qualities he sees as belonging to the Stoic. Moreover, Epictetus credits modesty and fidelity as pillars upon which society itself is built.

The modest Stoic doesn't flout societal norm and mores simply because they exist, like the ancient Cynics are believed to have done, but follows and support his or her place in the web of relationships through the roles and responsibilities handed out through birth and circumstances. That is not to say the the Stoic doesn't challenge those societal standards when they are proven to be vicious, unjust, cruel, cowardly or greedy. The Stoic must, in those cases, uphold virtuous choice when a corrupt society rejects and mocks it.

In an effort, therefore, to return to a simple understanding of the term modesty, it seems that the Stoic is to be aware of not only his or her own needs, requirements, limitations and powers, but measures those through complex interconnections with society as a whole. From that point of understanding, the Stoic then lives moderately and modestly, supporting society through a balanced participation.

Noblesse Oblige

The third term that Epictetus uses in his self-description is γενναῖον (gennaíon), which the translators have unanimously rendered as 'noble.' When I first read this, I was struck with the image of a Knight high upon a Steed... perhaps evidence of a youth spent enjoying fantasy novels. There were so many archaic overtones to this word for me that to gain anything but a superficial understanding, I had to dig deeper. As the translators were all in agreement as to what they meant by the term, I would have to resort to definitions.

Most of the dictionaries I consulted began with my image, stating that a noble person was of high birth or exalted rank, an aristocrat. The Merriam-Webster, however, shed some much needed light. To be noble was to be very good or even excellent. A noble person possesses outstanding or excellent qualities or properties. But the question remained, which qualities? A final definition provided a hint: a person's nobility arises from a superiority of mind, an excellence of character, and an adherence to high ideals and morals.

The Greek lexicon expanded this idea even further to indicate that one who is 'noble' is true to one's birth, high-minded, and an excellent example of its kind. This has a far reaching echo throughout all of Stoic thought. The Greek word αρετή (aretí̱), which means excellence of any kind, is usually translated as Virtue. The ultimate goal of the Stoic is to act, at all times, with Virtue, that is to say, with moral excellence, to be the very best example of a human being. The ultimate virtue, the crown of excellence so to speak, is wisdom. This concept of the ultimate wise person is encapsulated in the Stoic image of the Sage.

Nobility, according to these definitions, was not an external measure of excellence of character that we are called to aspire to, it is an internal potential, something we are born with, a birth-right of each individual to find and express their most excellent selves. This was exactly the definition of the Sage that I had come to adopt. This is no mere accident of birth, but rather a course of action taken by deliberate and well thought out choices. The options for action are laid before us daily, and as Stoics we are called to choose the best way, the Virtuous way, the way of true wisdom, the noble path of the Sage.

Why worry?

The final term, ἀτάραχον (atárachon) experienced far less consensus at the hands of the translators than the previous word. Carter and Higginson both selected 'tranquil' as the English term to represent this Stoic concept, while Long, Matheson, Oldfather and Hard all leaned toward variations of 'unperturbed.' Dobbin, the most recent of the translators, selected 'poised' to explain the Greek word.

The Liddell-Scott lexicon actually agrees with this odd multi-definition. It would seem that 'tranquil/unperturbed/poised/calm' all revolve around the core meaning of this term. The lexicon even adds to the shades of meaning: without confusion, steady, of soldiers. 'Of Soldiers'? Why did Epictetus select a word that was commonly used a description of a soldier?

Two passage sprang to mind when seeing these definitions. The first was from Epictetus:

"When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: “What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event.” Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being." (Manual, 16, Tr. Matheson)

Epictetus encourages us to participate with each other, even to sympathise, but at the same time, he reminds us to maintain that inner sense of calm and balance, to not get carried away.

The second passage is from Marcus Aurelius: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall." (Meditation, vii, 61)

Both passages speak of the external and internal worlds. The following two lines of the mneme actually go deeper into this, but there is a sense here of what is, and is not, in our actual control. The inner life is one over which we do have control.

Another echo of these thoughts can be found in a modern framework, the so-called Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Wisdom, according to this prayer, is knowing the difference between those things I can control and those I cannot. Serenity, calm, tranquility, is the acceptance of those things that I cannot change. The flip side of the same coin is the courage to change.

Serenity and courage are the same attitude, in different circumstances. The Stoic faces turbulence with steadiness, disturbance with solidity and disorder with calm. This is not, however, a detached, unfeeling expression of disregard for external circumstances, but rather a determined peace and unabashed firmness in the eye of the proverbial storm, but nevertheless, in the storm. And it is from this center of calm that the Stoic takes considered action, despite challenges and obstacles, working against trends, opinions and lethargy, all the while maintaining a core of tranquility.

The courage of the tranquil Sage is an active one. It isn't a passive acceptance of things as they are, but a unperturbed determination to maintain a steady center while moving forward and acting in the world.

The Core of the Four

Faithful, modest, noble
With tranquility unperturbed

These first two lines of the mneme reflect a call to action, setting for me a personal bar to reach for, to strive to reveal my inner Sage. The four character traits brought to light, faithfulness, modesty, nobility and tranquility are expressions of the Virtues that support them, namely Justice, Moderation, Wisdom and Courage.

When I recite these lines of my mneme, I am reminded of the following:
  • I am to discharge my duties as a faithful steward, not an owner, of all that is in my care and under my protection, to be Just in the use and distribution of my goods, my time, and my strength.
  • I am reminded to exercise my choice moderately, with due restraint and modest acquisition, consumption and display, to always act with an eye to the appropriate use of things and talents.
  • I am called to a higher standard, to act and speak with wisdom, always choosing the nobler path, reflecting the best that is in me.
  • I am challenged to face difficulties, setbacks and conflict with equanimity, to courageously move forward, as tranquil in tumult as I am in the silence.
There is a depth of experience and Stoic expression here. I have a long way to go to be the person described in these two line, but I have a direction.

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