Thursday, November 17, 2005

Discourses I. 11

One of the most poignant exchanges in the Discourses arises when a man guiltily confesses that he deserted the bedside of his young daughter when she was seriously ill. "I could not bear it", he says, and wonders, half-heartedly, if his conduct might be excusable in the circumstances since it was a very “natural” reaction to what he was confronted with.
Epictetus does not deal harshly with the man, but firmly rejects his wish to find an excuse for his behaviour. Epictetus points out to the man that it was not the circumstances that caused & controlled his behaviour but his judgment [ dogma] about what those circumstances amounted to. The man formed the judgment that it was unbearable to watch his daughter suffer while he stood by powerless. That judgment, not the fact of his daughter’s illness, caused him to flee.
Circumstances are not in our power, but our judgments are. It was in this man’s power to reject the thought that is unbearable to watch his daughter suffer. He could instead have accepted that it was his duty to stay and render whatever help & support he could. Correcting his judgment, he would have corrected his behaviour. But he allowed his fearful judgment to sweep him away. His shameful desertion finds no excuse in the fact that his fearful reaction was "natural".

One of the things that bothers me here is Epictetus’ ultimately dogmatic reply to what is clearly a complex & nuanced problem about human action and responsibility. Epictetus reasons on the basis of the assumption that the man could control the judgment he made. It is Stoic dogma that we can always control our judgments. But does dogma reflect psychological reality?
I would have much preferred Epictetus to inquire with the father whether he thought it was possible for him to have examined and rejected the belief that caused him to flee. The father was clearly inexperienced & unprepared for dealing with this sort of family crisis. In general we don’t expect people to deal courageously with frightening situations for which they have received no training or preparation. We don’t, for example, take a young man with no preparation and training and drop him in the middle of a horrific battle. People are being killed and horribly wounded all around him, but we tell him, “You must stand fast and not be afraid. Fear is just a judgment and you can control your judgments.”
A man who adopts the role of parent, we feel, should anticipate that illness and tragedy will strike his family. He should examine himself honestly and assess whether he can cope such situations. If he thinks he may not be equal to such situations, he should not assume the role of a parent.
Too late, in the middle of a crisis to say to someone unprepared and unsuited to crises, “control your thoughts and fears.” He can’t.

1 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>In general we don’t expect people to deal courageously with frightening situations for which they have received no training or preparation.<<<

This is why Stoic students are said to be in training (askêsis, meletê). How is this a criticism of Stoicism?

>>>Too late, in the middle of a crisis to say to someone unprepared and unsuited to crises, “control your thoughts and fears.” He can’t.<<<

But, with the right training, in the future he can. Epictetus' students did not go to his classes to mend their earlier failures (for that is impossible), but that they should fail less in the future.

>>>I would have much preferred Epictetus to inquire with the father whether he thought it was possible for him to have examined and rejected the belief that caused him to flee.<<<

It is this very enquiry that Epictetus is undertaking in this discourse. He starts by asking the man whether it was right for him to flee the house when his daughter became dangerously sick (Discourses 1.11.4), and the conversation goes on from there.

6:30 AM  

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