How Stoicism Supports Civil Disobedience

The Stoic way of life described in Epictetus’s Enchiridion (135 A.C.E.) is characterized by a freedom from anxiety and being highly aware of the limitations of humanity. The Enchiridion is a list of 52 principles that, by following them, would allow one to become as great as the philosopher Socrates. The deconstruction The Enchiridion in this essay will show that the Stoic way of life supports the practice of civil disobedience as used by Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s civil rights movement. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963),” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defines and defends civil disobedience to the white clergymen of Birmingham, Alabama. According to King, one commits civil disobedience when “[he] breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice” (King, 7). Acts of civil disobedience that King took part in and organized during the civil rights movement include bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, and violating Jim Crow laws. He also led mass, televised marches and gave speeches that reached thousands of Americans.

At first glance, King’s actions may seem contradictory to the Stoic way of life, however, but a majority of Epictetus’s principles had to have been followed for civil disobedience to be effective, namely control, reputation, and patience. A recurring topic in The Enchiridion is control. Epictetus begins the manual by saying what things are in our control and what things are not. Things that are in are control include, “opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and….our own actions.” (Epictetus, 1). Things which are not include, “our body, property, reputation, command, and…Whatever are not our own actions.” (Epictetus, 1). Understanding that one cannot control, nor predict the actions and thoughts of others would be useful in the practice of civil disobedience. In his letter, Martin Luther King Jr. references workshops on nonviolence (King, 2.) These workshops were part of a process of self-purification in order to teach those participating in sit-ins, boycotts, and protest how to not retaliate. By understanding what is in one’s control and what is not, people are better able to come to terms with the fact that other people might try to harm them, verbally and physically.

However, by practicing Stoicism, protesters would be better at controlling their responses, as our own actions are things we control. The example Epictetus uses is of someone at the bath. Before going to bathe, one should remind themself of what happens at the bath and “if any hindrance arises in bathing” one must think, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen,” (Epictetus, 4). Before a protest or a sit-in, one should remind themself of the nature of their actions, meaning the purpose and possible outcomes of these actions. By mentally fortifying themself, one would be able to withstand any disturbances. This is key in King’s nonviolent approach to civil disobedience. According to Epictetus if you prepare yourself for the worst, you can never say, “It was not worth so much,” (Epictetus, 33). All outcomes become favorable outcomes and when you are risking your freedom, your livelihood, and your life–King sacrificed all three–for a cause such as equality for blacks, you truly have to believe that it is worth everything that must be sacrificed.

Another main theme of Enchiridion is to not worry about what others think of you, especially since reputation is out of our control. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses the different types of people he comes into contact with, and their views on his actions and those of people involved in the civil rights movement. These types of people are: the complacent blacks, who “are so drained of self-respect….that they have adjusted to segregation,” the middle-class blacks who “have become insensitive to the problems of the masses,” the black nationalists who “have lost faith” (King, 8) and “advocate violence,” the white allies who have “grasped the meaning of [the] Social Revolution,” the white racists who support the “disease of segregation,” and the white moderates who “is more devoted to order than to justice.” (King, 6). Each of these groups has a different opinion about the reputation of King and other advocates but that doesn’t stop the Civil Rights Movement from trudging on.

Epictetus believes that anyone who misjudges another person, harms someone, or speaks badly of someone, is only deceiving themself (Epictetus, 42). So the middle-class blacks are deceiving themself by not fighting for their own rights and by becoming comfortable in a system built on inequality. The white moderates are deceiving themself by thinking they are doing the right thing by telling blacks to wait and, as King writes, “paternalistically [believing] he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” (King, 6). King claims that blacks had waited for over 340 years and that the word wait, which “rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity” in actuality means “Never.” (King, 6).

Knowing when postponement is futile is another major component of The Enchiridion that is also part of civil disobedience. Some may look at Rule 15 of The Enchiridion and try to dispute the claim that Stoicism supports direct, nonviolent action but I disagree. This passage reads, “Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you.”(Epictetus, 15) Epictetus is basically saying to wait, which King does not wish to do any longer. However, when Epictetus says this, he is only referring to materialistic things such as a spouse, a public office, or riches.

Throughout The Enchiridion he dismisses the usefulness and importance of material things, preferring to attain spiritual wealth. Equality and being free from persecution based on skin color is not materialistic, it is a human right and though Epictetus writes to “wait till it reaches you” in regards to some things, he also writes “don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free.”(Epictetus, 19). King and other civil rights advocates are pushing for freedom. Epictetus encourages Stoics to, in every affair, “consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it.” (Epictetus, 29) King clearly does this as he describes waiting for the election Albert Bottwell and negotiating about the signs denoting segregated business. He then considers the extent of racism in the south as he writes about vicious mobs, lynchings, hate-filled policemen, murder, and the “twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society” (King, 6.) He considers what has to be done and what the outcome could be, whether good or bad. Epictetus writes, “When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war.” (Epictetus, 29) Civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement is that war.

Overall, practicing Stoicism would have proved very beneficial to those who took part of the Civil Rights Movement and anyone involved in any sort of civil disobedience. Despite being in jail while writing this letter, King is unabashed in the fact that once he is released he is going to continue pushing, in Alabama and throughout the South. He does not care that he does not have the support of the white clergymen and according to Epictetus he shouldn’t because, “If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life” (Epictetus, 23). King would ruin his scheme of life, and would not have been able to accomplish so much had he only been focused on pleasing those around him and giving in to the whims of men. Stoicism promotes having attainable goals with a logical path to reach them, having a clear mind and the ability to control one’s own thoughts and actions, and not focusing on the wants of others but on what is right.

Works Cited

Epictetus. (135 ace). The Enchiridion. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

King, M. L. (1963). A letter from a Birmingham jail. Retrieved from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

The Three Stoic Ideals

Although Epictetus’s Handbook consists of only fifty-three points, it manages to convey clearly the main ideas of Stoicism and how to act based on those principles. Despite the fact that reading all of the points in the Handbook is important in order to get a precise picture of Stoicism, simply by looking at the way in which Epictetus talks about familial relations one can get a relatively good picture of what he wants from students of Stoicism. By looking at the passages in which familial relations are detailed, one can find guidelines to three of Epictetus’s most important Stoic ideals (which at times overlap): how important it is to live in accordance with nature, through self-knowledge (knowledge of one’s limits and finitude) and through self-control or authority over oneself.First, two scenarios that Epictetus outlines in his Handbook tie into the important Stoic theme of how to live in accordance with nature. Epictetus writes: “Appropriate actions are in general measured by relationships. He is a father: that entails taking care of him, yielding to him in everything, putting up with him when he abuses you or strikes you.” (Epictetus 20) He goes on to say that even if the father is a bad father, the child should preserve this relationship with him, because the child’s natural tie is not to a good father, but to a father. (Epictetus 21) Because nature has determined how father and child should act towards each other, the child should pursue actions appropriate to him or her as a child, despite the actions of the father. This example of how to pursue familial relations ties in with the Handbook’s overarching theme of living with nature and determining what kinds of actions are and are not in one’s power. What the Stoic should do is aim to act in the way that nature dictates he should, but not be disappointed when the outcome of those actions do not satisfy—as in the case with the son being a good son but the father not being a good father. A way to look at this is to look at a marksman aiming for a target. The goal is to hit the middle of the target, but this is not totally under the control of the marksman: his fingers could sweat and slip, the gun could aim high or low because of some internal fault, or the gun could misfire completely. All the marksman can do is shoot well, not produce perfect results; if the marksman shoots well, no matter what the outcome of the shot, he or she can view the shot with success. Similarly, a son can carry out what nature demands of him in his relationship with his father, and whether or not the outcome is positive (a good relationship), the son was still successful. The actions one undertakes should be motivated by what is demanded by nature of one’s relationships, not by how other people act. However, living in tune with nature (as the example with the father/son relationship tells Stoics to do) requires a Stoic to focus on two other things. The first of these is acknowledging mankind’s finitude and limits, which requires paying attention to the world in which one’s actions take place. Epictetus focuses on this with a few examples of familial relations, the first of which is one of his more morbid-seeming examples: at one point, he states, “If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies, you will not be upset.” (Epictetus 12) Through this example, Epictetus tries to firmly ground the Stoic in the reality of the world around him or her and the way nature operates. This is not an optimistic outlook on life: there is no mention of an afterlife or immortality; there is no guarantee against sudden illness or death or misfortune. Instead, Epictetus demands that his followers face the irrefutable fact that the way nature operates is not always the way one wishes it would: loved ones will die eventually, and in the end there is nothing one can do to prevent it. Limitation is the nature of human life. Moreover, it is important for followers of Stoicism to realize that this acknowledgement of the finitude of humans is an unflinching truth for everyone; nature does not deviate from the order of causes and effects. The importance of this truth Epictetus further emphasizes when he states: “Someone else’s child is dead, or his wife. There is no one who would not say, ‘It’s the lot of a human being.’ But when one’s own dies, immediately it is, ‘Alas! Poor me!’” (Epictetus 18-19) Loss is a neutral occurrence for everyone because everyone must face it; it is not a horrible thing for one person alone, and if it is, it is because that person failed to realize it might ever happen to him or her. It is one’s perception of the finitude that makes it horrible, not the actual limitation itself—a concept Epictetus reiterates later when he says: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” (Epictetus 13) In order not to be miserable because of disappointed hopes caused by bad judgments, we must face the true nature of mankind and of nature.If that was all there was to it, however, Stoicism could be quite simple: it is easy to bemoan the unfairness of life—perhaps too easy. What Stoicism demands, based on the realization of one’s own finitude and limitations, is a certain set of actions. It is this set of actions with which two other examples of familial relations in the Handbook deal. The first consists of someone is on a boat that has anchored in a port; that person is free to wander off of the boat and around the island to get food and water, but he must always keep his mind on the boat and the fact that it will inevitably leave at some point. He must keep his attention on the boat so that he may hear when the captain calls him to come back; when the captain does, no matter what the person on the island is doing, he must “let all those other things go so that [he] will not be tied up and thrown on the ship like livestock.” (Epictetus 13) This is how to live life in a dignified fashion: whenever death comes — as it will inevitably — one must be ready to drop everything without turning back, no matter if it’s a wife or child. If one does not, one will be tied up and thrown into the inevitable like livestock, losing dignity in what should have been a neutral situation. This is an important idea for Epictetus: struggling with or worrying about situations one cannot control is pointless and robs people of human dignity. Since death is something that will happen no matter what and cannot be controlled, nothing should stop a Stoic from facing it, not even his or her family. What one must do is align one’s will with what nature asks by complying obediently when death calls, not by demanding that nature fit its actions to what one wants by struggling and fighting against death.The second example Epictetus offers details something equally important. He states, quite bluntly: “You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours.” (Epictetus 15) This assertion is basically a reiteration of the principle that it is important to acknowledge and accept the way in which nature operates. However, Epictetus goes on to say that: “A person’s master is something who has power over what he wants or does not want, either to obtain it or to take it away. Whoever wants to be free, therefore, let him not want or avoid anything that is up to others. Otherwise he will necessarily be a slave.” (Epictetus 15) This is one of the most important points Epictetus makes: he is telling his readers exactly what it means to be free; the only way one can be free is to be free of desires, since those are dependent on beings other than oneself. Later in the book, Epictetus reiterates this by asking indignantly: “If someone turned your body over to just any person who happened to meet you, you would be angry.” (Epictetus 19) But people are not ashamed, he notes, when they allow someone else to be their master by determining their emotions and desires and aversions (Epictetus 19). Even though one cannot be master of nature and what it imposes, one can always be master of one’s own mind, desires, and judgments, and when one gives those away to someone else by desiring something only the other person can give, one allows the other person to determine one’s happiness and allows them to become master of one’s mind. The only vestige of absolute freedom is that of a person’s mind, and desires that depend on other people to fulfill render one a slave. The only way to avoid this is to avoid desiring things beyond one’s own absolute power to obtain. This relates directly to the first sentence of the Handbook, which states: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, and aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing…If you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is…you will not do a single thing unwillingly.” (Epictetus 11)These last two examples answer the question: when one finally realizes that human life is limited no matter what, when one has finally realized that there are many things not in one’s power but in nature’s, in what ways should one take action? Epictetus demonstrates that when the power is not in one’s hands but in the workings of nature, the one thing that is in one’s power is the ability to adapt oneself to all that comes about and not give into fruitless worry and desire, and in this way not spend one’s life miserable and unhappy because of frustrated hopes. In another one of his books, the Discourses, Epictetus states that controlling one’s passions in light of one’s limitations is “the most urgent…for these [the passions] are produced in no other way than by the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason.” (Aurelius 183). While it is not possible to get a complete picture of what Epictetus wanted from his Stoic followers just by looking at familial relationships in the Handbook, a very rough outline can be made of what Epictetus considered to be some of the most important points of his philosophy. Living in accordance with nature seems to be the overarching principle through which his philosophy dictates the actions of its followers, and the only way to live in accordance with nature is through both self-knowledge (realization of the finitude of humanity) and self-control (basing actions on self-knowledge, dignity, and freedom).

The Universal Happiness Available to Man Acording to the Encheiridion by Epictetus and Christian Gospels

hroughout the ancient world, there are distinctions drawn between different groups and hierarchies of people due to this. The Jews were the chosen group of God and because of that, the gentiles were separate from them and since unable to follow the Old Law, could not be saved. Aristotle writes of the possibility of slaves in the Politics and talks of the various slaves that the Greeks hold. Even if Aristotle does not actually believe in Natural Slavery, he still presents the views of the his contemporary culture and his contemporaries draw a distinction between themselves according to honor and status and between themselves and slaves, and barbarians. These various distinctions are due to either differences in physical nature, geographic location, or social rank. Both the Stoic and the Christian texts describe an dignity that is universal to mankind and makes every man equal, which consequently gives a foundation for happiness and due respect to each human being.

Through exploring the worldview of the Stoics and the Christians, the differences in what entails ultimate happiness becomes apparent. The Stoic worldview is composed central to man’s reason, attributing all happiness in man’s life to the proper relation to passions and rationality. As Epictetus says in the first part of the the Encheirdion, Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you… (Epictetus, 430)This introduction to the text holds the quintessential Stoic argument within it, that one ought to be concerned with what it is they may control, that being how they relate to their passions and their reason. As he states, all of our reactions are in our control. There exists the external world which dictates fortune, position, etc. and then there is our response to that, as he says our “opinions…impulses, desires, aversions”. These reactions, either accepting, resilient, or what not, to how the external events occur are what define us. Thus if we give in to events and are in despair because of things out of our control, we will always be miserable. Anything in the external world could lead us to unhappiness, if we,humanity, were to be dependent on position or honor for happiness, then we might never be happy as their always exists more honor to be gained or positions higher to be held. The conferring of honor and position is given by others and just as easily as good words might be spoken of one, they are just as easily spoken about another or taken away. But the reaction to the words is something which may remain constant within you and never taken away which guarantees an internal peace.

Epictetus also notes that things such as bodies (and necessarily then athletic ability, outward appearance, and physical prowess) and monetary status are given by fortune, so since one can not control their physical distinctions, their happiness and position ought not be based off of it. This eliminates class distinction strife and any ethnic strife and exchanges it with a distinction of merit and reason entirely in one’s control. Epictetus continues to describe what this control looks like in one’s daily life and prescribes how one ought to act in various situations. By examining these various circumstances, certain peculiarities or flaws with Stoicism are made clear. For example, when Epictetus describes going to the bathhouse he states When you are about to undertake some action, remind yourself what sort of action it is. If you are going out for a bath, put before your mind what happens at baths- there are people who splash, people who jostle, people who are insulting, people who steal. And you will undertake the action more securely if from the start you say of it, “I want to take a bath and to keep my choices in accord with nature;” and likewise for each action For that way if something happens to interfere with your bathing you will ready to say “Oh, well, I wanted not only this but also to keep my choices in accord with nature, and I cannot do that if I am annoyed with things that happen.” (Epictetus, 431) This seems reasonable, as the main goal in each action, is not even the fulfilment of each proximate circumstance (bathing), but that each choice is in line with reason. Thus peace can be achieved through the proper mindset of choices and not the fulfilment of external circumstances. The poor decisions of others can not affect the peace of the Stoic because while their decisions may affect his bathing for instance, his reason in no way is controlled by them and so he can disregard them in his reaction.

This mindset is then further developed when Epictetus speaks of grief and death. You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours… When you see someone weeping in grief at the departure of his child or the loss of his property, take care not to be carried away… and even moan with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to moan inwardly. (Epictetus, 432-33) This might seem peculiar as the desire for loved ones to not be harmed seems natural, but since the Stoic system is built around knowing what is in one’s control (their reason) and out of their control (externals), this reaction would fit in their belief properly. The desire for loved ones to live forever seems to be perfectly natural, as it is naturally good for one to be alive and the destruction of a life is the not apart of the end of man, thus grieving over a loved one seems natural. But the Stoic philosophy does not seem to account for a good, only a way to stay at peace. If reason is good, then it be a wrong for one to die, as their reason is abolished. This seems to be a discrepancy in Stoic Thought. This discrepancy seems further demonstrated in the call by Epictetus to imitate sorrow with one’s fellow man. For why would one pretend to grieve and moan with another if it is truly not bad. Instead it seems that if it is truly good to not grieve a loved one, then the Stoic would not lie to his fellow man. Perhaps, Stoicism provides a way to have peace, if peace is the elimination/reduction of stressful concern or strife. Though this elimination seems to occur through a reduction of the world, so that the externals almost hold no good, and the world is only as big as one’s own reason. What good is enjoying externals if one must not care about them unless they are good to one’s self and pain is ignored.

The Christian texts seem to provide a way in which there is peace and peace for everyman and the world, an order, while not sacrificing concern for externals. The Christian texts also hold a peace and good for each and every man, similar to the philosophy of the Stoics, without the reduction of concern that the Stoics hold. The Christian can be happy living in a world of pain, is ordered in a world of disorder, and each man has value to him. The essential belief of the Christians seems to be held in a few tenets. Peter, one of the Apostles, states “ “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). This is developed later on with, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one wholoves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13.8). These commandments, to live in line with the new law, open to both Gentile and Jew, Slave and Master alike, and to love God by loving Man, essentially provides a new nature and a new hope for man. The incarnation of Christ gives a new order to the Cosmos so that peace is not found within oneself but in the omnipotent, omniscient, and also loving God that any man can access. Thus instead of ignoring externals and focusing simply on the controllable internal, the Christian finds solace in the the fact that he can influence the externals through love and that all is within God’s hands.

There do seem to be some similarities, in terms of how the Christian is not of this world even if he is in it as the Stoic does not allow himself to be affected by outside things. This is evidenced by the Temptation of the Jesus and the following interaction where the devil proclaims “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”( Matthew 4.3) and Christ replies “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”(Matthew 4.4) . In this passage, we see Satan offering material good to the Christ and Christ proclaims that for the good, material things are not what fully sustain man but also the spiritual is necessary for happiness. So the Christian worldview agrees with the Stoic worldview in so far as material circumstance is not the determining factor in happiness as well as the fact that their include some internal factor, where the Stoic factor is the reason, the Christian internal factor is one that receives God’s word and which loves. This is further developed in the Temptation with the Third Temptation of Christ. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdomsof the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for itis written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. “(Matthew 4.8-11) This temptation again provides a certain rejection of the material and external world, not because the it is not within Christ’s control but because it is not lasting and the highest point for the Christian is the Lord. This shows that the Christian and the Stoic differ in the reliances or foundations like so; the Stoic relies on his reason because it is the only thing that is his own and the Christian founds himself on something better. His source of happiness is something unchanging and above time. So both of them rely on something that is not fickle, either something there own or God. But the Stoic’s reason also has it end and does not make sense of the world in the same way that the Lord does. Also more importantly, even though God is external, unlike reason which is an internal power, one becomes closer to God and even part of the body of Christ when one loves and follows the way. As Peter says, believers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus the foundation for happiness for Christians is not only transcendent but integrates and perfects their own nature. Thus, it is not a simple dependence on your soul and your soul alone but a communion of your soul with the Unchanging. Another difference between Christianity and Stoicism is that Christianity seems to be necessarily social whereas Stoicism allows for detachment from even family and says to remember that living beings pass as all other things do. As is evidenced by the fact that the reading concerned with Christian life is titled Acts, the Christian life is necessarily connected with the life of others and treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is further supported by the fact that Christian text accounts for living within a society.

Stoic and Christian thought seem to be similar in that they both account for happiness in a way that is non discriminatory in a physical or external manner but rather it is concerned with the internal life and the way in which our soul acts. They both consider external things as less pertinent to one’s life than the soul though they also diverge on this point. Stoicism is ultimately limited in that it allows for peace through reliance purely on reason but in that same act, it limits the world to oneself. Christianity is self-reliant from the actions of others for one’s own happiness as Stoicism is, but that because it presumes an order for other’s action and knows that there is a self-evidence to divine love.