Saturday, November 26, 2005

Encheiridion 1

Some things are under our control, others are not. Under our control are belief, determination to act, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is our own doing. Not under our control are our body, property, reputation, employment, and in a word, whatever is not our doing.

Forget about the underlying Greek text for a minute and just consider the credibility of these claims as we would understand them in ordinary English. Our immediate reaction is incredulity, is it not? My body is not under my control? Under whose control is it then? My property is not under my control? Who then owns it? How in the devil have you come to this list of things I can and cannot control, philosopher? What kind of research and investigations have you conduct? I know that disease can impair my control of my body. I know the government asserts eminent domain over most of realty. My control is nowhere complete or certain or infallible, but I do try to control some externals with apparently some success. What are you trying to tell me? That I over-estimate my control or its reliability? Well perhaps, but then don’t just say these things are not in my control. Forbear to treat me to your dogmas, if that is what they are, but if you know anything useful about the actual limits of our ability to control things, I am all ears.

What does Epictetus mean by “under our control? The Greek phrase is “eph’ emin”, which could as well be translated “in our power” or “up to us.” It turns out that for Epictetus nothing is eph’ emin unless nothing can prevent or hinder our bringing it about or achieving or acquiring it. Since under some circumstances our control over all externals fails, Epicteus concludes that no externals are in our control. If not in unfailing control, then not in control at all. I don’t think I need to comment on that argument by definition. But I would put one additional question to Epictetus: what makes you think desire and choice and belief are in our control on this absolute standard? You think what you believe and choose and desire are always up to you, and not, for example, sometimes at the mercy of the fragile health of our brain & nervous systems? What is your evidence that this is so?

Several other passages in the Discourses and Fragments repeat this same story without the theology that Arrian’s summary sees fit to delete. See Discourses I.1 and IV. 7, and Fragment 4. A provident God has placed some things in our power and other things beyond our power, we are told there. Does that help, or does it make it even more obvious that we are dealing with (religious) dogma, not scientifically based and sustainable argument?

1 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

Epictetus' claim is not that not a single external thing is ever in your control, but that the control you do have is never complete.

>>>My body is not under my control?<<<

No it is not. It might drop dead of a fatal stroke in three seconds from now. Can you control that? No, of course not. If you have bad eyesight (as I do), this also is something you cannot control. You do not control how tall you are, nor how many ribs you have. When you last went to the dentist to have a cavity fixed, why didn't you simply take control of the tooth decay and stop it? Because doing so is not in your power. You hope to be healthy, I presume, and take sensible precautions to remain so, but whether your precautions are effective is not in your power. You may visit a doctor when you feel ill, but whether the doctor diagnoses your illness properly and provides the best treatment are things not in your own control.

But by and large, our bodies are usually under our control, and Epictetus is not denying that. After all, he controlled his own body to arrive in time for giving his lectures, and he controlled his voice and mouth to say the things he did. But his control, as it is for everyone, is not guaranteed. As a Stoic, if he turned up at school and found that he could not speak because of a stroke, he would not have been dismayed or upset; he has know all along that this is one of the things that can happen, and he carries on as a Stoic teacher always acting with reservation, always saying, 'I will do these things so long as it is in my power to do so.'

>>>My property is not under my control?<<<

My suspicion is that you have misunderstood Epictetus' point about external things not being in our power. Have you never had anything broken, stolen, or destroyed by accident? Can you stop your paperback books from going yellow with age? Can you prevent the earthquake that will flatten your house? Tell the flood victims in New Orleans that all along it was in their power not to have their houses flooded and their property destroyed -- and then see how much your body is in your power when they try to lynch you.

>>>My control is nowhere complete or certain or infallible, but I do try to control some externals with apparently some success.<<<

Then you believe exactly what Epictetus' believes. Show me a passage in the Discouses where Epictetus says that we never control anything to any degree at all!

>>>Since under some circumstances our control over all externals fails, Epicteus concludes that no externals are in our control.<<<

No he does not. His claim is only that we cannot guarantee our control over external things.

>>>You think what you believe and choose and desire are always up to you, and not, for example, sometimes at the mercy of the fragile health of our brain & nervous systems?<<<

Epictetus would not disagree with you. If our brains and bodies are not working to a certain standard of normality, then of course we cannot believe, choose, and desire in the usual way. Did Epictetus never see a person so drunk that they were incapable of any rational function at all? Well, of course he did.

>>>A provident God has placed some things in our power and other things beyond our power<<<

Yes, indeed. Epictetus happens to believe that the world, and everything in it, has been made by God. But this foundation of being is not necessary to the validity of Stoic philosophy of mind and Stoic ethics. So you don't believe on God? Nevertheless, human beings are constituted one way rather than another. And we are so constituted that external things are not invariably and always completely in our power.

5:44 AM  

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