Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Epictetus - Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings
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4: Epictetus - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 1 The Beginnings.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
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The observations of Epictetus, a later Stoic, are of interest principally for the importance they place on self-interest. Although his Discourses and his Manual are mainly about the responsibility of man to nature, they do include many observations on the political and economic activities of men. The view which Epictetus held of virtue was so much more extensive than that of his earliest predecessors that he examined forms of conduct which had no interest whatever for them. His observations are also important for what they suggest about the proper method of examining the ethical aspect of social behavior.
THE CONCEPTION OF SELF-INTEREST
Epictetus said that men were motivated mainly by self-interest, that the propriety of self-interest depended upon the object to which it was directed and the way in which it was expressed. In making egoism his premise, he followed the founders of Stoicism who believed that men were naturally inclined to consult their own advantage. That was perfectly proper, indeed highly virtuous, because their interest consisted in conforming to nature. But Epictetus admitted that there could be incidental objects to which men might direct their attention, and on this point he departed from his early predecessors. He recognized that men were interested in political power; but instead of urging them to turn from it as from a worthless object he tried to prescribe a code for political conduct. It was highly elliptical and offered little practical assistance. From this point of view it had little to commend itself. But it is important for the contrast it provides with the early Stoic indifferences to all politics except that of a utopian character. In an interesting chapter in the first book of his Discourses, Epictetus explains “How One Should Behave Toward a Tyrant.”
“I am the mightiest of all men,” the tyrant says. The Stoic replies by wanting to know if the tyrant can enable men to will their conduct as nature would have them.
The tyrant declares, “All men pay me attention.” The Stoic answers:
Do I not pay attention to my ass? Do I not wash his feet? Do I not curry him? Do you not know that every man pays regard to himself, and to you only as to his ass?
But I can behead you.
Well said. I forgot, of course, one ought to pay you worship as if you were fever or cholera, and raise an altar to you, like the altar to Fever in Rome.14
This defiance was not unreasonable or even imprudent, although it would seem so today. In fact it was dictated by reason, because man must consult his own moral sense in order to conform to nature. But he will be doing more. He also will be acting in the interests of others as well as of himself.
This is not mere self-love: for it is natural to man, as to other creatures, to do everything for his own sake . . . in general he [Zeus] has so created the nature of the rational animal, that he can attain nothing good for himself, unless he contributes some service to the community. So it turns out that to do everything for his own sake is not unsocial.15
There is a close similarity between this particular Stoic conception of self-interest and the view of the classical economists that if each person seeks to improve his fortune he will benefit others as well as himself. The similarity is most apparent in the famous remark of Smith that the individual who intends only his own gain often is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Contemporary economists will find it curious that Epictetus was one of Smith’s forerunners; they may rightly wonder if the connection is anything more than an historic oddity. The two philosophers did not view the social advantage of self-interest in the same way; yet there was an underlying agreement which supports the verbal similarity of the two statements. Both men insisted that the individual knew his interest better than others could know it, that he could not allow his rulers (or anyone else) to dictate it or direct him to it, that he must be the ultimate judge of whether or not his interest was being served. Both made the individual the central element in society because they believed he was capable of reasonable behavior. We usually think of Smith as believing individual welfare consisted of wealth, but that is because his economic theory is more familiar than his social philosophy. Wisdom and virtue actually were his standards, and in them he found the most estimable expression of human conduct. He had a wider view of conduct than Epictetus did, but both believed that the values of the individual were supreme and that in trying to realize them the individual acted in the interest of society as well as of himself. How much aware Smith was of his relation to Epictetus, I do not know. There is a report of an unpublished manuscript of Smith entitled “Meditations on the Letters of Seneca Written Solely from the Stoic Viewpoint, etc.”16
When Epictetus urged men to defy a tyrant, he was urging them to place their integrity above their duty to the state and was reminding them that their moral sense must tell them when the two were in conflict. The idea implies that the political environment into which an individual was born or found himself had less influence on him and less authority over him than his will had. The idea is a negative one, as were most of the political ideas of Epictetus. Although he wrote much about the authority of the will, he wrote little about the explicit ends to which that authority should be directed, i.e., about the specific rights of the individual. Nor did he write in any helpful way about the methods men should employ to secure their rights. Presumably he thought government could be made into a reasonable institution, that men properly could interest themselves in such an endeavor, and that once government was made reasonable it would attend to itself. This was more than the early Stoics had said about government but was not enough to be a political philosophy or a guide to political conduct (both of which Cicero developed out of Stoicism). The probable explanation for Epictetus’ summary treatment of politics is that he did not think it was as important as the other interests of men but yet he could not, as his predecessors did, ignore it.
THE ECONOMIC IDEAS
His observations on economic conduct have the same summary quality. He recognized it as a proper object of self-interest and yet did not inquire much into its particular forms. One can infer from his observations a rudimentary notion of economic psychology, which was, briefly, that individuals were motivated by a desire to secure material comforts and that they also were inclined to want even more wealth than material comfort alone requires. He approved of the gratification men obtained from economic goods and of the desire to accumulate riches if such objects were kept in their proper place. By that he meant that neither comfort nor wealth should be made ends in themselves, that man’s liking for them should be subordinated to the more important, more lasting, and more “real” satisfaction which comes from the life of reason. Such a view of economic morality seems not to open the way for a lively interest in money and of course does not. Nor could the view justify the kind of preoccupation with wealth which economists of a later age occasionally assumed men to have. But it was an important concession. Material (i.e., economic) self-interest was conceded to be a valid motive of conduct. Epictetus acknowledged that men properly could be interested in something other than the life of pure reason.
He did not, one must repeat, approve of an unrestrained expression of acquisitiveness. He was tireless in admonishing men to set aside the pleasures of the world in favor of the enduring satisfaction of the reflective life. He was as scornful of men who made wealth an end in itself as he was of those who worshiped political power. One notices, however, a shade of difference. He seems to suggest that those who are preoccupied with riches suffer more from weakness than baseness while those who bow to tyranny are base.
He justified in two ways such economic conduct as he thought was proper. It was reasonable, he said, for men to do all within their power with their own, and an individual who acquired wealth was utilizing his endowments. Moreover, an individual could properly want economic goods because they were necessary and useful. The belief that men must do the best they can with their own was, as I have said, a notable departure from early Stoicism. The belief was used by Epictetus to justify economic self-interest. He did not, however, use it as extensively as other later Stoics did. His restraint was a part of his reluctance to examine social conduct in any detail. The reluctance was a source of ambiguity in his ideas.
THE POLITICAL IDEAS
The ambiguity is present in his remarks on political behavior. He urged men to defy tyrants, and the urging was done in such a way as to cast doubt on the necessity of government itself. If the government directed them to do something that their reason opposed, they were to defy the government. If it told them to do what their reason would have told them anyway, they did not need a government. One interpretation of his political doctrine is that it made the government a method by which the reason of many individuals could be brought to support those whose reason failed them. In this view, the government would express the opinion of the good and the wise, which all men had the power to be although not an equal power, and would direct each man to behave properly toward others when his intellectual faculty failed him. This interpretation, which is conjectural, makes Epictetus’ political doctrine a version of the social contract theory, all versions of which have in common the idea that the government is a mutual aid society. The theory to be helpful must explain: How can men distinguish between a legitimate government and a tyranny? How shall they conduct themselves when they are convinced the majority is wrong?—which is what happens when their reason leads them to differ with others. To the first question, the implied answer in Epictetus is that men will know the distinction if they think hard enough about it. There is no answer in his writings to the second question, because disagreement cannot reasonably occur in a universe where the reason of all men leads to the same conclusion. The questions were not managed in this way by the liberals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To them a legitimate government was one that secured the rational consent of the governed. They acknowledged that reasonable men could disagree, and if the differences were serious the consequence was crime or civil war.
There is even more ambiguity in the two ideas Epictetus used to justify economic conduct—necessity and use, and the utilizing of one’s endowments. If an individual may acquire economic goods because they are necessary, he must limit his activity to the satisfying of his needs (assuming needs can be defined in any way that is not truistic). Any accumulation of wealth beyond this amount is then undesirable and wrong. If usefulness is the standard, instead of necessity, the individual then must know to what use he is to apply his wealth in order to conduct himself morally. There is, however, nothing in Epictetus’ doctrine that suggests the proper use of wealth. The other justification which he offers—endowment—has no clear relation to the first. If an individual engages in economic activity because he wishes to utilize his endowments, he may acquire an unlimited amount of wealth; the more successful he is in caring for his fortune the larger it will become and far exceed what is necessary to existence.
The ambiguity about economics can have a mischievous consequence. It becomes apparent when one passes from individual to social behavior. Let us suppose the ethical justification for economic conduct is that men may be diligent about their property because property is an endowment which must be utilized. Epictetus emphasizes this justification. What follows is that individuals who have no property cannot reasonably engage in economic activity. If a poor man were to try, he would not be directing his interests to a worthy object. Having no property, he would have no endowment to utilize, and his conduct would be unreasonable. Indeed, he might even be guilty of making wealth an end in itself. The difficulty can be removed by assuming that one of man’s endowments is a desire for wealth. By gratifying this desire he is utilizing an endowment. But there is no justification for such an assumption. If an individual was born into a society with an unequal distribution of wealth and if his own wealth was small, he was by the precepts of Epictetus forever confined to poverty. Yet for a rich man to attend to his wealth was altogether moral so long as he did not make wealth an end in itself. We of course do not know what is meant by making wealth an end in itself. Epictetus nowhere explained it and he did not explain what he meant by making wealth a means.
THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY
The acceptance of these ideas meant supporting the existing order of society. Whatever the distribution of wealth happened to be, that was just what it should be. The only way to change it, to reduce inequality, would have been by helping the poor to improve their position, but such assistance would have been immoral. Actually such a social philosophy was worse than one which sought to preserve the status quo. Wealth, like other forms of power, is cumulative, growing upon itself. A society which prevents the poor from acquiring wealth in order to maintain the existing distribution is one in which inequality will grow with the passage of time. A doctrine which counsels against redistribution—for the reason that wealth is less important than other values or for any other reason—is a doctrine that is indifferent to one of the major issues in most social philosophy: the distribution of power.
The doctrine of Epictetus was far from modern ideas of equality and it also was distant from the teachings of other Stoics. Although the early members of the school offered no explicit advice about economic and political conduct, they did, by insisting upon the importance of the individual, assert the absolute equality of all persons. In Zeno’s lost work, the Republic, he is said to have outlined the ideal society, and in it there would be complete equality, including equality of status between men and women. (There also would be, it seems, no economic endeavor of any kind apart from meeting the most elementary needs of individuals, nor would there be much of an organized government since courts of law were explicitly banished.) In some other of the lost writings of the early Stoics, they are said to have favored communal property. That, too, differs from the doctrine of Epictetus.
This dissection of it is not an exercise in hairsplitting (at least not intentionally) and is not meant as an analysis of his logic for the sake of analysis. My intention is to show the problems he created by his reluctance to make social behavior as real as individual behavior. They could have been avoided if he simply had ignored political and economic behavior, or if he had given it as much attention as he gave to individual behavior. This is not to say that his conclusions would have been agreeable to everyone. But they would have been less equivocal, and we should have known better what we differed about. Epictetus did neither. He raised a number of questions about social conduct—some of them very important. Having raised them, he offered complete answers to only a few. The rest he either neglected or dismissed with a cursory generalization that seemed in the Stoic vein but actually was irrelevant.
The probable reason for the ambiguity in Epictetus is not hard to discover. He was influenced by the early members of the school, and they were interested only in individual behavior. The close attention he gave to such conduct is a mark of his indebtedness to them. But their ideas were not the only ones that affected him. He belonged to the period of Stoicism when it became a social philosophy—notably in the work of Cicero—and he showed an interest in social conduct. But the way he wrote of social problems and the peremptory manner he disposed of some indicates he thought they were less important than individual behavior.
There is one more observation to be made about Epictetus. Although he unduly subordinated the social aspect of behavior, he nevertheless did not commit any great error in what he did write about it. In particular, he avoided the egregious mistake made by so many of the ancients. That was to believe that when individual engaged in market activity they were doing something that either was wrong or was pointless. Aristotle, for example, stated that the exchange of commodities produced nothing of value, that it was “spurious” and “unnatural” behavior, and he strongly suggested that what one person gained from exchange another person necessarily lost; that is, exchange is immoral. The mistake is of more than antiquarian interest. It occurs throughout the history of social thought and is discernible in discussion of economic policy today.
Discourses, i, 19.
 Luigi Einaudi, Saggi Bibliografici e Storici Intorno alle Dottrine Economiche (Rome, 1953), p. 54. The title is my translation of the Italian and may not be the English which Einaudi translated into Italian.