Sunday, November 13, 2005

The door is open.


This is one of Epictetus’ favorite retorts to someone who complains that he has suffered too many misfortunes and his life is no longer worth living. If that is your judgment, says Epictetus bluntly, then stop living. But whatever you choose to do, stop whining. Choose to live and endure what must be endured, or choose to die.

Fair enough, but we should also remember that there are people living horrific lives that they wish to end but cannot. I’m thinking of people permanently paralyzed by strokes and accidents. Some of these people quite reasonably wish to die but cannot elect to do so, because they no longer have the means to kill themselves. The decision whether they shall be permitted to die has escheated to relatives and physicians and insurance companies, each with their own agendas. So for these people at least Epictetus’ advice is not very useful. The door was open, but now it has slammed shut.

( Consider: Were these people not harmed when they were deprived of this fundamental choice? And is not what harms us an evil? )

But let me ask Epictetus another question about his "the door is open" recommendation. Is being dead supposed to be something good? It may be a better choice than continuing to live a horrible life, but it is something good? I thought the Stoic view was that living virtuously, or at least choosing to live virtuously, was the greatest good? If that is so, consider this. Suppose we take a talented young person who aspires to a worthwhile career, a family, a position of civic and community leadership—all the roles you Stoics commend--and then frustrate all of these aspirations by inflicting dire poverty or ill-health or unjust imprisonment upon him. Denying him the possibility of pursuing the good life he intends, we also deny him the possibilty of electing or choosing such a life. We cannot choose what we know is impossible for us.

“But you have not harmed his faculty of choice,” replies Epictetus. I think I have. If there is nothing good left to choose, what good is choice? How can I make a good choice? Have I not deprived him of possibility of choosing to pursue a worthwhile life? Have I not greviously harmed him, ruining what could have been a good life, by inflicting upon the evils of poverty or confinement or disabling ill health?

3 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>Denying him the possibility of pursuing the good life he intends, we also deny him the possibilty of electing or choosing such a life. We cannot choose what we know is impossible for us.<<<

What's your point?

>>>“But you have not harmed his faculty of choice,” replies Epictetus. I think I have. If there is nothing good left to choose, what good is choice? How can I make a good choice?<<<

You can choose to live virtuously, exercising your faculty of choice upon the situations you are actually in.

>>>Have I not deprived him of possibility of choosing to pursue a worthwhile life?<<<

No, you have not – not if he's a Stoic. It is not in your power to make him choose vice instead of virtue. Your atttempt to deprive someone of something that would otherwise come to them appears to be a manifestation of vice. It is you who are in a bad way, not him.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry,

Let's suppose--God forbid--that the police show up at your door and, claiming you are a terrorist, haul up away and lock you up in some military prison where you will rot until you die. Haven't you been greviously wronged and harmed?
No, you say."I'm a good Stoic and I can live virtuously under any conditions."
This morning you were livingly virtuously as a spouse, parent, neighbor, teacher, citizen, etc. Now you are permanently cut off from all those opportunities for virtuous and worthwhile living. Now you are prisoner 349851 in permanent solitary detention as a suspected terrorist. Tell me about the good & virtuous life of prisoner 349851?
You say "It's not in your power to make me choose to act disgracefully here." Well, who knows what we can be forced to do if our keepers are determined to break us?
What I find it very hard to understand in all of this is the claim that no real evils been inflicted upon you.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

Well, my human rights have been abused (which is a line of discussion that Epictetus could not have pursued), and I may hope for redress. But my well-being does not depend upon getting such redress. If the redress is successful then I may well return to my former roles and pick up my old life pretty much where I was forced to leave off. But whilst I am a prisoner, it is my undertakings that have been harmed (my commitments as a spouse, parent, neighbour, teacher, citizen, etc.), not myself. The things that I had were always on loan, and Zeus will determine the manner and time of their being taken back.

>>>What I find it very hard to understand in all of this is the claim that no real evils been inflicted upon you.<<<

This is because you locate good and evil in external things. When you have certain external things, and have them in some preferred condition, you view this as something good for you (and conversely for viewing something as evil). But as a Stoic, I reject this way of valuing things. My good consists not in what I have or do not have, but in the manner with which I deal with whatever I do happen to have.

Your point about psychological torture is well taken. The Sage, perhaps, is indestructible, excepting only his falling under the adverse affects of drugs, brain injury, and the like. Yet he remains indestructible whilst he has a functioning prohairesis, and I do not think that Epictetus means to claim any more than that. But I am not a Sage, and I am sure that I would not last long under the influence of torture. But this is not a problem for Stoicism. It simply contributes to making clear the notion of make progress, that progress is almost certainly only ever partial, and that the dedicated Stoic possesses a certain quality of robustness that inevitably must fall short of indestructibility.

But none of this persuades me to the slightest degree that I would be better off abandoning Stoicism for another philosophical or spiritual path, or no path at all.

5:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home