The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus

in five dialogues



Dialogue 4.B.1

The Proairesis


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Funzione esponenziale


Οὐ μὲν οὖν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, φάναι, ὦ φιλούμενε Ἀγάθων, δύνασαι ἀντιλέγειν, ἐπεὶ Σωκράτει γε οὐδὲν χαλεπόν.

“No, it is Truth, my dear Agathon, that you cannot contradict; Socrates you easily may”
(Plato ‘Symposium’ 201D)


The characters:



A few weeks ago Muriel was back from her vacation on a small island of the Cyclades, in Greece. She told me that she had met there two of her dearest friends: Raniero and Irene. Raniero and Irene are in the habit of meeting almost every day in a small amphitheater that Raniero built in the land surrounding their home. From there the view of the sea and of the neighboring islands is extraordinary, and this has become for them the ideal place for any discussion of ideas. Invited by Raniero to spend an afternoon with them, Muriel had then visited the small amphitheater. Their conversation had touched on various topics, and then fell on the art of living. Intrigued as I was by Muriel's hints, I asked her to tell me as accurately as possible how the conversation had taken place. Muriel gladly accepted my invitation and, with an effort of memory, reported that Raniero, as if it were a movie script, had begun to depict three scenes to which he wanted to bring the attention of Irene.
The first scene, Raniero said, might be called ‘The scene of the wind’ and is set on an Aegean island like this one in which we are now. A man, facing the sea, notices with concern that the wind blows hard, and having to leave with a small boat, asks: “Which wind is blowing?” A voiceover answers: “Boreas”. The news doesn’t make the man happy and he replies: “When will the Zephyr blow? When will it blow?” He then gets more and more worried, agitated, and thinks in anguish about his journey, wishing for it the best wind conditions. Unable to sit still, he goes to and fro on the beach and here he meets a man of indeterminate age and of very pleasing and even intriguing aspect, who asks him: “Why do you care so much about something over which you have no power at all? Whichever wind will blow you cannot choose; only Aeolus can do this, the master of the winds. This is the nature of the wind. If you rebel against this truth, you’ll get only irritation, anxiety and even despair, but you will not succed in changing the wind. You can decide to leave or not by boat, but you can decide nothing more. So remember that yours is only the faculty to control what is in your exclusive power, and accept to use the rest as it’s by the nature of things”.
Irene, at this point, asked Raniero if this short story had any ​​reference to some philosophic text. Raniero nodded, touching his head with the index finger of his right hand and said that the text to which it referred was the ‘Discourses’ of Epictetus. In fact, while doing his work as a molecular biologist in many different countries of the world, Raniero had also engaged himself in the translation from the ancient Greek language of the works of this philosopher. He also added that it was his intention to accompany Irene in reading and understanding this important, indeed crucial text for his life. 
The second scene that Raniero proposed also had Epictetus as reference, and Irene, if she wanted, could easily find its origin in the first Chapter of Book I of the ‘Discourses’. This second scene could be called ‘The scene of the soldiers sentenced to death’. We are in the courtyard of large barracks, during one of the wars that humankind experienced in the last century. Whether it’s the First or Second World War, it doesn’t matter. The firing squad is ready. The poles to which two of the convicted soldiers will be tied are already in place, and the inmates go across the courtyard between two wings of deployed soldiers. It’s a kind of procession because the two people are followed by a priest who reads his litanies. It’s his duty to do so and he seems to do it more out of habit than of anything else, because you don’t notice any emotional involvement on his face. The first condemned soldier moans repeatedly with a desperate voice: “Why should I die? I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die! I’ll never see my mother again! I’ll never see her again! No! I don’t want to die!” Next to him, the second condemned soldier is completely silent. To express his thoughts, a voiceover full of calm says: “I must die. This is inevitable and I have no choice. Perhaps it is also necessary that I groan? Is it perhaps mandatory that I complain? Who can prevent me from laughing, from being in a good mood, from being peaceful? No one! So let me choose this attitude”.
Irene was very impressed with the story. Then Raniero proposed a third scene on which they could reason.
This third scene could be called ‘The torture scene’, and has its origin in paragraph 23 of the first Chapter of Book I of the ‘Discourses’ of Epictetus. A man is questioned in order to force him to reveal some secrets that he is supposed to know. We are in a torture chamber, but it’s not important to know where this happens or who the torturers are. The dialogue takes place between the prisoner and his torturer. At the first question the man replies: “I have nothing to say”. And so begins the torture. “You have nothing to say? Then I’ll put you in chains”. But the man is not startled and says: “What do you say? Chaining me? You will chain my leg, not me”. “I’ll throw you in jail and then we will see if you continue to have nothing to say!” And the prisoner objects: “In prison? You will throw my body in jail, not me”. The torturer, who feels teased and is increasingly angry, shouts: “I’ll cut your head off!” To this threat the man replies: “Did I ever tell you that my neck cannot be cut off? You can behead me, but be aware that neither you nor Zeus can master my proairesis. I’ll reveal no secrets because this decision is in my exclusive power”.
At this point Irene opened her eyes wide and asked: “Proairesis? What does this word mean?” Raniero looked at her tenderly and smilingly said: “We really need to pick up the First Book of the ‘Discourses’ of Epictetus and read a quote. Then I’ll try to give some examples so that the concept of proairesis, which is not of immediate comprehension, may be clear; and also be clear that we use our proairesis in everyday life. In fact our proairesis works not only in critical situations such as those I have shown in the three scenes, but even in very trivial ones.
The quote was: “Among the other arts and faculties you will find none that is able to know its own general principles and therefore none able to evaluate itself positively or negatively. To what extent is grammar able to know general principles? To the extent of checking what we write. Music? To the extent of checking what we sing or play. Does either of them know its own general principles? Not at all. But, if you need the appropriate words when writing to a fellow, these grammar will tell you; yet whether you must write or not to a fellow, grammar will not tell you. This is true also in the case of melodies, because music will not tell you whether you now must sing and play the lyre or neither sing nor play the lyre”.
-You then mean, asked Irene, that our proairesis is our ability to decide?-
-It’s not exactly this, but a faculty not very far from the ability you are mentioning, answered Raniero browsing his book. You’ll see that everything will become clearer when we shall later talk about our mental representations. For the moment it’s enough to think of our proairesis as a logical faculty able to evaluate itself and having the understanding of its own use, something that no other art or faculty is able to do. Grammar can indeed assess the correctness of what is written, and music assess the harmony of what is played, but they don’t tell us when it’s time to write or when it’s time to sing and play. If it’s not music, what chooses when to sing and play?-
-I don’t know, ventured to say Irene. Maybe I?-
-Let’s call this thing that can choose: ‘proairesis’-
-I don’t understand yet, confessed Irene. But I would like to know immediately if you are talking about something that all men have or only some of them have-
-Yes, said Raniero. All human beings have a proairesis, but few of them realize that they have it and even less know how to use it-
-Why does this happen?-
-Look, continued Raniero. Your mind is full of images or, to say it better, of an awful variety of representations. You know very well how to play music. You correctly speak Italian and German and you know their grammars very well. But there is something that connects your skills and tells you when and how it’s appropriate to use them. That is our proairesis, and temporarely we will define it in a sufficiently accurate way as the faculty that allows us to use our representations-
-But, objected Irene, if we are all equipped with proairesis and we are all capable of using our representations, why are we so different, why do we do different and very often opposite things?-
The reason is that there are various ways of using our proairesis, pointed out Raniero, and in particular that there is a correct and an incorrect use of it-
-And how can I know which is the correct use?-
-When you are born and up to a certain time of your teens you don’t know that you have this faculty. The proairesis is a faculty that you naturally acquire around the time of your sexual maturity, when you start to realize that there are things that depend solely on you and things that do not depend solely on you. To summarize, the things that depend solely on you are the following:
1- the ability to ‘impel’, that is instinctively to push yourself towards something or someone; and the ability to ‘repel’, that is instinctively to get away from something or someone;
2- the ability to ‘desire’, that is rationally to push yourself towards someone or something; and the ability to ‘avert’, that is rationally to get away from something or someone;
3- the ability to ‘assent’, that is to say yes to something or someone; and the ability to ‘disagree’, that is to say no to something or someone.
Is it enough for you to have power only over these things, which have the character of being exclusively yours, in your exclusive power?-
No, protested Irene, no! This is not enough for me! I don’t care, I don’t find any comfort in them. It is of no help to me to have these skills if I cannot have what I need right now. That is to say: a comfortable home, a decent job, a sufficient amount of money, the satisfaction that comes from what I do and especially from love! Do you understand what I mean? What I want to know is how I can achieve these things that can make me happy-
-So, replied Raniero in a serious tone, you rate the things you’ve said much higher than your proairesis, that is the faculty itself that allows you to evaluate and say the things that you are saying?-
-Yes, because you’re talking about an abstract concept, namely the power to evaluate, while I talk about concrete things. And you’d better pay attention to what I say because I don’t speak only for me, since we humans all think in this way!-
-You really consider what makes you say what you’re saying now an abstraction? The proairesis is an abstraction? This is a very interesting statement indeed! As for the rest: yes, I know. You really are a large crowd. And you all think you are right only because you are so many? You can believe me or not, but I assure you that there exists something that is entirely independent of the opinion of the crowd, that does not change according to people’s wishes, that is valid for us all and whose name is ‘the nature of things’.
This is the only nature we have to confront ourselves with and if you don’t acknowledge its existence I will not tell you any more words, because it would be a useless effort. You must get the point yourself, and get it gradually-
-Maybe I need some more examples or some more explanations, said Irene. I don’t understand why you are now so severe and why I should know something with which I’m getting familiar only now. You should not be surprised of the fact that I don’t know something, but if you no longer want to talk to me we can stop here ... I am curious, though. Tell me: who decides which is the nature of things when there are different opinions? For example, if you and I have a different perception of a certain reality, how can we decide which is the nature of that thing? -
Come with me, Raniero invited her, and let’s carefully analyze the three scenes. In the first scene, what is the fellow complaining about? Is he perhaps complaining about the wind? His proairesis has chosen the departure, but the departure is countered by the northern wind. Ask yourself what happens if the proairesis of that fellow chooses not to leave the island anymore. Would he still have the same opinion of the strong wind? The cause of his behavior is therefore the wind, as he says, or rather his plan to sail in those circumstances? Don’t you think that in this way he is condemning himself to anxiety and perhaps to despair, and that neither will solve his problem?-
-Who is the person who comes to meet him on the beach?-
-That person could very well be the personification of his proairesis operating in the right way and suggesting to him the correct action to take-
-It’s normal to be anxious and perhaps even to give in to despair when things that are planned cannot be realized. There is nothing wrong with that: it happens to everyone!-
- I can concede, even though I doubt it very much, that anxiety and despair are not a bad thing, but I am certain that to know how to master both anxiety and despair is definitely a good thing-
-Sure, admitted Irene, but if I always force myself to self-control I’ll become a very insensitive person, someone unable to feel anything anymore!-
-If you say this you equate our precious ability to be happy with the impossibility of being happy, because you are declaring that we can be really alive and sensitive only provided that we experience anxiety and despair. Let me further explain my argument, in order to get rid of such a contradictory statement. A person’s life is like a journey that can end up in three different towns. Those who end up in the first town believe that all external objects, like work, money or honours, are by themselves the goods or evils of men. Those who end up in the second town believe that every aspect of our body, like physical integrity, health or prettiness, are by themselves the goods or evils of men. You can agree with me if I suggest to call all these things ‘aproairetic things’, as they are not in our exclusive power. On the contrary, those who end up their journey in the third town believe that the right judgments about external objects and about our body are the only goods of men and therefore the sources of their happiness, as well as the corresponding incorrect judgments are the evils of men and the sources of their unhappiness. You can agree with me that in this third town the goods and evils of men are definitely ‘proairetic things’-
-And you, Raniero, in which town did you live till now?-
-I lived all my life a bit in the first and a bit in the second town. Then one night I came home and went into my room, where I was seized by a splitting headache. And now here I am. But tell me, Irene, what do you see in the second scene?-
-A great tragedy, said Irene; the tragedy of being sentenced to death-
-Look closer, suggested Raniero, and you’ll see that besides the death sentence, which is a fact, two people are living the same situation in completely opposite ways. One soldier is condemning himself to desperate unhappiness. The other soldier, on the contrary, makes a totally different choice and gets rid of unhappiness. The circumstances in which the two inmates find themselves are exactly the same. What is that makes the difference between them?-
-What makes the difference between them is the fact that, facing the same circumstances, the first one uses his proairesis in a certain way, while the second uses his proairesis in a completely different way-
-Well said! smiled Raniero. The first one gives to those who kill him not only what is of the killers, that is his body, but also empowers them to make him happy or unhappy. Happy, if by any chance the execution should no longer be performed. Unhappy, because he is desperate, he complains and does not want to die. The second one, like the first one, gives to those who kill him what is of the killers, that is his body, but remains the only master of his proairesis. He firmly holds in his hands with marvelous dignity what the killers could never take off him without his consent: the high, noble and free attitude of his proairesis in such a situation-
-Sorry, said Irene, but why do you say that my body belongs to those who kill me? Those who kill my body at the same time kill also my proairesis. My body and my proairesis are closely united, even if they are not the same thing-
-You are right, said Raniero, but keep well in mind how little our body itself is free. You cannot deny that our body is a slave of fever, of cancer, of dysentery, of a tyrant, of fire and of iron; in short of everything stronger than it is. On the other hand, it’s also true that in order to kill the proairesis of a man you must not necessarily also kill his body. Proairesis can kill itself simply by giving up its freedom and entering into unhappiness-
-You mean that in order to get rid of unhappiness we must accept anything that happens to us?-
-When you play cards you cannot refuse the cards that chance gives you. Your skill lies in the ability to make the best possible use of the cards that you have. Right is therefore only the use of proairesis which allows you to be happy in circumstances of life that you have not chosen. But this we will discuss later. Tell me now: what do you see in the third scene?-
-I see, said Irene, a brave man and one consistent with his own ideas. Of course, he could make a compromise and save his life, which is the most important thing ...-
-In your opinion, asked Raniero, which are the secrets that the torturer wants to know?-
-Well ... I think he wants to obtain crucial informations about some political agitators, or the names of the heads of some underground organization-
-It may be so. However, the more I think about it the more I am convinced that what the torturer wants to know is not the name of some conspirators but the secret that allows this man to behave in the way he behaves and to remain calm. The torture puts the proairesis of the torturer in a position of serious weakness, as his happiness or unhappiness, so to speak, will depend on the responses of the victim. Happiness, if the tortured reveals what he knows. Misery and unhappiness should that not happen. Like a blind bull, the torturer is forced to increasingly brutal beatings and increasingly serious threats. In fact the secret of the victim is exactly the mastery he has of his proairesis. If the proairesis of the tortured surrendered to the corporal torments, having lost control of himself the man would condemn himself to death even if he remained physically alive-
It was the sunset. The sun was diving into the Aegean and its light gilded everything. We all were looking to the West.
-Excuse me, said Raniero after a long silence, are you two not hungry?-
-We are, said Irene. Let’s stop our conversation here, and go to dinner at Irini’s restaurant-




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