Saturday, November 19, 2005

Desiring health and wealth and other externals

I am pressing Epictetus on the issue of whether it is appropriate to desire & pursue some externals such as health and (moderate) wealth and a safe, pleasant physical environment in which to live. This business of needing & wanting externals is not a minor or peripheral issue to Epictetus or other Stoics.
Epictetus and I agree that desire should be directed toward the true good and aversion toward real evil. I am suggesting to Epictetus that he cannot deny that those things are true goods which are indispensable conditions of a good life, and in fact the kind of good life he recommends. The good life, Epictetus often reminds us, is not the life of a statue or an animal. We should aim to fulfill our natural roles as a human being, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a citizen, etc.
But conditions like abject poverty and chronic ill-health & lack of fitness utterly disable us from being able to undertake or sustain these roles in a responsible and reliable fashion. If a man is so poor that he cannot feed and clothe and shelter his family, if he must live in an environment where he cannot protect them or see to their other material needs, if his poor health & fitness makes him a burden to them instead of a provider, then that man cannot fulfill the roles of parent and friend and citizen. He is in fact unsuited to fulfilling any worthwhile roles or living any kind of a life worth living.
So, in failing to desire and pursue and secure certain indispensable externals like health & wealth, I seem to doom myself to a worthless life unfit for any of the roles that Epictetus agrees makes life worth living. How then can I fail to desire or pursue these externals?

“But externals are not in your control, and if you desire things not in our control, you will be hindered and frustrated, and in your disappointment fall prey to the passions like anger and envy which deny you the great good of an untroubled & tranquil mind.” ( See, e.g., Discourses III.2 )
I agree, philosopher, that when we go in pursuit of externals like wealth & fitness, we open the door wide to frustration and failure. Probably we will and eventually we must fail in finding and keeping some of these things. But we have no choice, do we? Unless we wish to be content with an empty life that fulfills none of the proper roles of a human being, we need to pursue and secure some externals. So are we therefore doomed to a troubled and untranquil life as we chase after things we cannot secure? How does this follow?
I would propose to Epictetus that our pursuit of the right externals in the right amounts, though risky and liable to failure & frustration, need not be the cause of the tranquillity-robbing emotions he predicts. Anger and envy and fear need not attend everything we try to secure for ourselves in the world and every lack of success we experience. Failure is inevitable: get used to it! And what is my alternative? Failing to pursue the right externals will absolutely doom me to an unlivable, untranquil, worthless life.
That, in any case, is the argument I would present to Epictetus.


Post a Comment

<< Home