Epictetus is one of the most influential of Stoic philosophers, if unfortunately not any longer a household name. He was well recognized throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and several of America’s founding fathers had a personal copy of his Enchiridion. Nowadays, however, unless you are into Stoicism, you’ve likely never heard of Epictetus. Heck, I went through an entire graduate program in philosophy, including courses on ancient philosophy, and never heard of him ether. That’s one reason last year I published my Field Guide to a Happy Life, which is both an update of and a homage to Epictetus’ philosophy.
We don’t really know much about Epictetus, even his name. “Epictetus” simply means acquired, because he was a slave. His brilliant student Arrian of Nicomedia — whose notes gave us both the Enchiridion and the Discourses — apparently wrote a biography of Epictetus, but it is lost to time (and so are four of the original eight volumes of the Discourses). Still, we know a little bit about one of Epictetus’ friends, who was also one of his students: Demonax the Cynic.
Pretty much our only source about Demonax is the Syrian satirist and rhetorician Lucian of Samosata, who lived between 125 and 180 CE (dying the same year as Marcus Aurelius). He wrote a short but fascinating Life of Demonax (full text here), from which I’ll draw all remaining material in this essay.
Demonax was born in Cyprus around 70 CE and moved to Athens, still the cultural center of the philosophical world, despite the political dominance of Rome. He apparently lived to be a hundred, dying in 170 CE.
Lucian’s Life of Demonax is written in the spirit of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, or Xenophon’s Memorabilia, or Plutarch’s Lives. It is meant not as much as a detailed biography (it is certainly not), but rather as a character sketch, heavy on anecdotes and sayings, so that we can get a vivid picture of who the subject of our attention was and why it is important to learn from his life.
Demonax, as I said, was a student and friend of Epictetus, though he also studied with other prominent philosophers of his day, including Agathobulus and Demetrius. Even though Demonax apparently rubbed the Athenians the wrong way after he moved there, they eventually came to like and admire him, and when he died he was given a huge state funeral. He is described as a peacemaker, prone to resolve disputes among locals, to help brothers or husband and wife reconcile. When he realized that he was too weak to be useful he simply starved himself to death, in perfect Cynic-Stoic fashion.
Here are my favorite chreia (anecdotes) from Lucian about Demonax, to give you an idea of the man and his philosophy. While Lucian says that Demonax was not prone to Socratic irony, I beg to differ. You be the judge.
“When Sidonius, who had a great reputation at Athens as a teacher, was boasting that he was conversant with all the philosophic systems — but I had better quote his words. ‘Let Aristotle call, and I follow to the Lyceum; Plato, and I hurry to the Academy; Zeno, and I make my home in the Porch; Pythagoras, and I keep the rule of silence.’ Then rose Demonax from among the audience: ‘Sidonius, Pythagoras calls.’ (14)
Pythagoras, famously, made his students adhere to a vow of silence… Socratic irony, anyone?
“Asked for a definition of Happiness, he said that only the free was happy. ‘Well,’ said the questioner, ‘there is no lack of free men.’ — ‘I count no man free who is subject to hopes and fears.’ — ‘You ask impossibilities; of these two we are all very much the slaves.’ ‘Once grasp the nature of human affairs,’ said Demonax, ‘and you will find that they justify neither hope nor fear, since both pain and pleasure are to have an end.’” (20)
Here you can clearly hear echoes of Epictetus. Demonax is referring to the standard Cynic-Stoic doctrine that hope and fear are both unreasonable, as they reflect our desire to want to control things that are outside of our control. Moreover, no pleasure or pain lasts indefinitely, which means that we should not make the pursue of pleasure, or the avoidance of pain, the major goal of our life (hear that, Epicureans?).
“A man once boasted that he was a wizard, and possessed of mighty charms whereby he could get what he chose out of anybody. ‘Will it surprise you to learn that I am a fellow-craftsman?’ asked Demonax; ‘pray come with me to the baker’s, and you shall see a single charm, just one wave of my magic wand, induce him to bestow several loaves upon me.’ Current coin, he meant, is as good a magician as most.” (23)
Demonax here is displaying a healthy dose of what we would today call “scientific” skepticism, that is, a disbelief in magical or supernatural powers. Such skepticism appears to be accompanied by a certain pragmatism: money will do miracles!
“When another person kept himself shut up in the dark, mourning his son, Demonax represented himself to him as a magician: he would call up the son’s ghost, the only condition being that he should be given the names of three people who had never had to mourn. The father hum’d and ha’d, unable, doubtless, to produce any such person, till Demonax broke in: ‘And have you, then, a monopoly of the unendurable, when you cannot name a man who has not some grief to endure?’” (25)
This is a standard Stoic technique for consolation: let us remember that, no matter what grief or setback we are currently suffering, plenty of others have gone through the same, and have somehow managed. It is incumbent on us to remember this so that we can shift our perspective from the narrow domain of whatever preoccupies our mind right now to the more general understanding that human suffering is both inevitable and endurable.
“A friend asking him to come to the temple of Asclepius, there to make prayer for his son, ‘Poor deaf Asclepius!’ he exclaimed; ‘can he not hear at this distance?’” (27)
Good philosophers have always been more than a bit skeptical of religious rituals…
“When Agathocles the Peripatetic vaunted himself as the first and only dialectician, he asked him how he could be the first, if he was the only, or the only, if he was the first.” (29)
“When he once had a winter voyage to make, a friend asked how he liked the thought of being capsized and becoming food for fishes. ‘I should be very unreasonable to mind giving them a meal, considering how many they have given me.’” (35)
Another example of Socratic humor, as well as of the Stoic technique of shifting perspective in order not to see things from an exceedingly self-centered standpoint.
“Even for questions meant to be insoluble he generally had a shrewd answer at command. Some one tried to make a fool of him by asking, If I burn a hundred pounds of wood, how many pounds of smoke shall I get? ‘Weigh the ashes; the difference is all smoke.’” (39)
No comment needed…
“Epictetus once urged him, with a touch of reproof, to take a wife and raise a family — for it beseemed a philosopher to leave some one to represent him after the flesh. But he received the home thrust: ‘Very well, Epictetus; give me one of your daughters.’” (55)
Ah, the student outwitting the master!
“Asked which of the philosophers was most to his taste, he said: ‘I admire them all; Socrates I revere, Diogenes I admire, Aristippus I love.’” (62)
Aristippus of Cyrene was a student of Socrates, and the founder of the Cyrenaic school. And finally, one last bit, about Demonax’s death:
“When he found that he was no longer able to take care of himself, he repeated to his friends the tag with which the heralds close the festival:
The games are done,
The crowns all won;
No more delay, But haste away.
And from that moment abstaining from food, left life as cheerfully as he had lived it. When the end was near, he was asked his wishes about burial. ‘Oh, do not trouble; scent will summon my undertakers.’ Well, but it would be indecent for the body of so great a man to feed birds and dogs. ‘Oh, no harm in making oneself useful in death to anything that lives.’” (66)