Where is the Captain?


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

The poem above has become popular for many reasons. Among those who are practicing Stoicism, the last two lines seem to resonate strongly. Yet, in the framework of a causal universe, can we really be 'masters of our fates, captains of our souls?' In this next segment of the Stoic mneme, we will examine exactly how and to what extent we can make this claim.

While the first two lines of the mneme remind us of the centrality of the virtues in the Stoic's life, the next two drive even closer to the core of Stoic practice: control. We need to bear in mind that these two phrases are part of a larger passage though, so let's take a look at the bigger picture. Epictetus begins the passage with the listing of the four attributes of a Stoic, dealt with in the previous post. There is a brief discussion of immortality and death, which we will look at towards the end of this series. Following this is a description of control (This is in my Power, this I can do . The other is not in my Power, nor can I do it.)

This theme is often repeated throughout Epictetus' teaching. Arrian, in his summary of Epictetus' teachings, famously begins the Handbook with the following phrase:

"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing."

In our passage, Epictetus follows this assertion of control with the question that informed the Title of this whole mneme, which we explored in Part 3.

Shall I show you the Nerves [Strength] of a Philosopher?

The section preceding this question, describing attitudes and virtues, explains to the listeners what a Stoic is. What follows, then, is an exploration of what a Stoic does, or how a Stoic demonstrates that he or she actually possesses the virtues listed above.

What Does the Heart Want?

Much has been said about desire. Some hold that desire is involuntary, that we are drawn to things and it is beyond our control to deny them. Much of our economy is based on the generation of desire, to buy, to sell, to experience. Is this true? Does the heart want what the heart wants? A closer examination of what Epictetus is saying here will serve us well.

The mneme itself uses Carter's phrasing: "a desire undisappointed." Long closely echoes this. Oldfather, mirrored by Hard, expands somewhat on this by adding: "a desire that fails not of achievement." So at fist glance, it would seem that Epictetus is telling us that the Stoic should possess such strength of character, some superpower, which would grant all desires.

Is Epictetus really telling us that if you desire it strongly enough, then you will achieve it? If so, then this is the worst of 'The Secret' type of wish fulfillment, the 'Think and Grow Rich' mentality, the Pat Robertson 'If you pray hard enough' type of magical thinking. This is most certainly not what Epictetus is teaching. It flies in the face of all of the cosmology of the Stoics, their understanding of causality, and for modern Stoics, the growing awareness of the strange mechanics of the universe. Of the things under our control, how the universe responds to our desire is not one of them.

To understand a little more of what Epictetus might have meant, we can turn to Higginson's translation: "A will undisappointed." Matheson continues the thought: "Will to achieve that fails not."  Dobbin, the most recent of the translations, is even more pointed: " A will that never fails to get what it wants."  A quick look to the Greek in this passage offers yet more insight: 'όρεξιν ἀναπότευκτον (hórexin anapótef̱kton) can be literally translated as a desire unerring in its aim. There must be an aim to our desire, one that we select.

The key here isn't some desire that draws us, this is not about the things we crave, but rather it is something we will for. It is a choice. That is what is in our control, our choice. But this is a very special kind of choice. It is a choice that we somehow never fail to achieve!

So what is that a Stoic could choose and unfailingly achieve?

Watch-out for Warning Signs

The next phrase in the mneme is also lifted from Carter's translation: "an aversion unincurred." Like the concept of 'desire' above, this isn't merely the concept of things that you inherently dislike, like spiders or pickles (despite Dobbin's unfortunate translation). Long, echoed by Oldfather and Hard, introduces another facet to the Stoic attitude here: "an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid." Note the key word here: avoid.

Once again, it is Higginson that informs us of what we should be avoiding, namely "evils." Matheson is clearer: "will to avoid that falls not into evil." The will, once again, is called to choose. As Stoics we are to choose to avoid "evil." That seems intuitive enough, but more is needed now. What, precisely IS this evil we should be avoiding? Is this meant to be an instruction to avoid evil conditions, such as poverty or pain, or some other sort of evil?

Once again, the original Greek sheds a little more light. The original text is a warning against turning out of one's course, specifically towards a 'moral declension' without careful consideration. So this is a question of moral evil. Let's define moral evil then.

Epictetus, in  a previous section of this passage, gives us a idea of what he means by good. Perhaps we can extrapolate what he means by evil from that? For the Stoic, good is what human can be, what they are uniquely qualified to be. To be good is to make choices based on "intelligence, knowledge, right reason," or to use the Stoic shorthand, Virtue. Stoic 'good' is Justice, Courage, Moderation, Wisdom. Modern Stoics would add Humanity (Rational Compassion) and Transcendence (Rational Interdependence). In short, for the Stoic, 'good' means actual human excellence.

By contrast, for the Stoic evil would be its polar opposite, Vice. More precisely, those things that would make us fail to reach out potential, such as injustice, cowardice, greedy, ignorance and intolerance. They fracture us as humans, as communities and societies. They draw us away from individual and collaborative excellence.

Summing up then, when Epictetus speaks of desire and aversion, he is referring to Virtue and Vice. A desire undisappointed is a desire for our own virtue, which is always in our power to achieve and in fact our virtue is really the only thing that completely is. An aversion unincurred is an aversion to vice, but more specifically our own vice and it is always in our power to avoid a viscous act.

We can now return to the initial question. In what way can I be 'master of my fate, captain of my soul?' It is in choosing Virtue over Vice that I can say that I am living my life under my control. This is how my desires can be undisappointed, and my aversions be unincurred.

But what about EVERYTHING ELSE!?!

If desires should only be for virtue, aversions for vice, what about the rest of our lives? If we were to stop here, it would make for a very solitary, self-focussed life. A life such as this would be unlivable, undesirable, ineffective, and would matter very little in the world. But that is not what the Stoics did! The ancient Stoic were involved in their societies. Stoicism had evolved (and continues to evolve) a deep sense of community and interdependence with our 'fellow travelers.'

Above, and in the last entry, we examined what the mneme teaches about the virtues and the very real possibility of attaining them. In the next several entries, we will answer the question of 'What about everything else?' by examining what the virtues are for.