In his essay "Stoic Resignation to Fate," Epictetus claims we are free to change our desires by changing our understanding. Based on Stace's essay "Compatibilism: Free Will is Consistent with Determinism," we see that the compatibilists argue we are free so long as we act on our desires; they but agree with the hard determinists who say we are not free to desire just anything. That is, our desires are caused. It seems, on the face of it, that Epictetus and the compatibilists disagree. Do they really? If so, who makes more sense and why? Finally, would Epictetus’s position strengthen or undermine compatibilism?
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It can be argued that Epictetus and the compatibilists do in fact agree in their arguments. Epictetus was a Stoic teacher, and Stoics taught that the most philosophical life was one lived virtuously and in accordance with nature (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Epictetus (55-135 C.E.)"). To live in accordance with nature was to not do anything that went against the grain of what was natural to occur, such as fate. More specifically, Stoics taught to not encourage or give way to one's passions. Epictetus taught that passion was merely a result of being disappointed about not fulfilling our desires. When we feel that our desires our not being fulfilled, we also feel that we are suffering from "disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities" (Discourses 3.2.3, trans. Hard, as cited in "Epictetus"). What's more, not having our desires fulfilled "causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason" ("Epictetus"). Many things can prevent us from fulfilling our desires, particularly fate. Therefore, we eliminate any feelings of frustration simply by not wanting that which is frustrating us.
Likewise, compatibilists also acknowledge that a "causal chain of events" can hamper our free will or prevent us from fulfilling our desires. Compatibilists acknowledge that the "causal chin of events" can be "consistent with the laws of nature, with the plan of an omniscient God, or with other determinists" (The Information Philosopher, "Compatibilism"). They argue that our will is free so long our will aligns with the "causal chain" ("Compatibilism"). Hence, so long as that which we desire is in alignment with the causal chain, we are free to act on our desires; however, due to the causal chain, our abilities to act freely are certainly limited. Therefore, like Epictetus, the compatibilists would acknowledge that an inability to act on our desires due to fate would lead to sorrows and frustrations. Furthermore, if compatibilists equate freedom with the ability to act on our desires, then it could also be acknowledged that having controlled desires or no desires at all would render the most freedom. Hence, if both Epictetus and the compatibilists acknowledge that there are forces that prevent us from fulfilling our desires, then limiting our desires is the best solution to promote freedom and happiness.
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