Saturday, December 31, 2005

Be a good actor

Just as a good actor must perform admirably [ kalos] whatever role the playwright assigns him, so too must a good man must perform whatever fortune assigns. For fortune is like a poetess, say Bion, sometimes assigning a leading role and sometimes a supporting role, sometimes the role of a king and sometimes that of a beggar. Do not, then, desire the leading role, when you are a supporting actor. Otherwise you will be creating discord.

Those of you familiar with the Encheiridion may think I have found the source passage for Encheiridion 17 ( “Remember you are only an actor…”). But in fact these remarks belong to Bion of Borysthenes, a very colorful character and sometimes follower of Crates the Cynic. They were quoted mid-3rd century BCE by Teles, whom Stobaeus excerpts. Thus the passage I quote antedates Arrian’s composition by at least 350 years.

I introduce Bion and Teles here because I wish to point out again how strongly Epictetus was influenced by the Cynics. The lives of Diogenes and Crates were a kind of moral ideal to which Epictetus aspired, as we’ve seen. It is no accident that Encheiridion 17 sounds like Bion. Indeed, as we will see, at least two other chapters of the Encheiridion ( 5, 43) could be easily thought to be lifted from the very same text of Bion and Teles. I am not of course saying Arrian was reading Teles and Bion, but the striking similiarities show how imbued Epictetus was with the ideas and ideals of Cynic forebearers.

A little later in the same passage we just quoted Bion imagines himself in a conversation with Poverty personified. To his complaints she replies,

Why do you fight against me? You aren’t being deprived of anything good because of me, are you? Not of wisdom or of justice or of courage? And neither are you wanting necessities, are you?...

If Poverty were to speak thus to you, how would you reply? As for me, I think I would be silent. Indeed, we blame everything but our own difficult character and unhappiness. We blame old age, poverty, an accidental meeting, the day, the hour, the place… Truly, many misguided men lay the blame [ for their unhappiness ], not on themselves, but upon their circumstances.

Bion expands upon the point.

Just as in the seizing of wild beasts you are liable to be bitten: if, for example, you grab a snake in the middle, you’ll be bitten, but if you grab it by the neck, you will suffer no harm, so too with circumstances. If you grab them with a false assumption [ hypolesin ], you will be distressed, but if you have the same grasp of then as Socrates, you will not be distressed. But in any other fashion, you will suffer, not at the hands of circumstances [pragmata], but because of your own character and your false beliefs.

Reading this passage we cannot but recall Encheiridion 5: “ It is not the pragmata distress men, but their beliefs about the.” And remember the metaphor of Encheiridion 43 that says everything may be taken hold of by two handles, the right handle and the wrong handle?

The most important part of the passage from Bion and Teles comes next. It gives us an argument that I think also lies at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy. From the fact that it is our beliefs about our circumstances, not our circumstances, that control our emotions, the Cynics make this deduction.

Therefore we should not try to change our circumstances, but prepare ourselves for them as they are, just as sailors do. For they do not try to change the wind and the sea, but instead prepare themselves to be able to cope with them. If there is fair weather and a calm sea, they row. If there is wind, they hoist sail. If the wind blows against them, they furl sail and give way. And so you too, in your present situation, should use it appropriately. If you have become old, do not seek the things of a young man. If you have weak, do not seek to carry the burden of a strong man…And if poor, do not seek the wealthy man’s life.

Before I comment upon this argument for acceptance ( shall we call it), I think I will you a chance to reflect upon its mix of analogies and assumptions. Acceptance of our lot, as I discussed in our last post, is at the core of Epictetus’ philosophy. Here is an argument for that view that at least is unburdened by Stoic cosmolgy.

( I take my text of Bion/Teles in Stobaeus from Ed O'Neil's 1977 minor edition, which mostly follows Hense. In O'Neil, the reference is "On Self-sufficiency ", 1-85. Hense, rev. ed., pp 5-12 )

Friday, December 30, 2005

How we should bear our illnesses

An essay under this title appears as the tenth chapter of Book Three of the Discourses. I had occasion recently to recommend it to an ailing friend. I myself have profited from reading it during bouts of ill health. I think the essay epitomizes what’s good about Epictetus and what’s missing.

What’s good is his resolute stand against any self-pitying, “why me” thinking, especially on the part of people who have decided to live their life in a certain way.

What does it mean to engage in philosophy? Is it not to prepare yourself for what is going to befall you?...What then should each of say as some hardship befalls?
“It was indeed for this that I was exercising and training.”
Now is your time to be ill with a fever.
“[I will] bear it well [kalos]”
To be thirsty.
“I will bear it well.”
To be hungry.
“I will bear it well.”
Are these things not in your power? Who can stop you
[ III.10. 6-9 slightly modified ]

What then is it to bear a fever well?
Not to blame God or man. Not to be upset at whatever happens. To await your fate in a proper and noble fashion. To do as you are told by the physician. Not to be afraid of whatever he will tell you when he comes…
[ III. 10. 13 ]

Being ill is sometimes a role we must play. It doesn’t matter that this is not a role we want to play. That part is not up to us when we have already fallen ill. Our only choice is how we shall play it, well or poorly.

Yes, indeed. So what is there to criticize here? What’s wrong with Epictetus’ message? What do you thinking is missing?

What’s missing is the determination to get well and to refuse to continue to continue to play the role of the sick person. “Very well, I’m sick. I accept that role. I don’t blame anyone. I’m not whining or complaining “ why me”? But I insist upon a short run for this engagement. I am going to do everything in my power to get well and reclaim the life I want to live. I will not play the role of the happy valetudinarian. That I refuse to accept.”

Epictetus’ message is one of acceptance. Accept ill health. Accept the unjust persecution of the government. Accept a bad reputation. Accept whatever misfortune befalls you and your family, because ultimately these things are not in your power and not important. I utterly and completely disagree. These things are important, and we are not powerless to resist what the world tries to do to us. The more resources and skills and will we have not to be consigned to an unlivable life, the better are our chances. Our efforts may fail, will probably fail, but what does it matter? What choice do we have if we are determined to live our life, and not the life of a slave? If Caesar is my enemy, I can always go live with the Hyperboreans.

Epictetus thinks we live in a deterministic universe controlled by a rational benevolent being who will see to it that “no harm befalls a good man.” His view is that what will happen to us is already ordained, and so it is both stupid and futile to fight against our fate. Go along with what happens to you. Be calm. Wish that what must happen will happen. Don’t worry. It will turn out for the best. I worry. I worry deeply about that kind of passivity, passivity in the face of evil. Did not the 20th century teaches us what passivity in the face of evil will gain us?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The dissent of Posidonius

We are not done examining Epictetus’ disciplines of assent and desire, but I want to post today on a related topic that was brought to my attention.

Diogenes Laertius inserts an epitome or outline of Stoic philosophy in his “Life of Zeno.” There we read that the Stoic philosopher Posidonius ( circa 135- 50 BCE ) dissented from the orthodox Stoic view about what is good. The early Stoics and Epictetus share the view that virtue alone is good and suffices for happiness. This is what Diogenes tells us about Posidonius:

Further, they [ the older Stoic] say that something is not good of which both good and evil use may be made. But wealth and health can be used for both good and evil. Therefore, health and wealth are not goods. Posidonius, however, maintains that these things are goods. [DL. vii. 103]

[Whilst the older Stoics maintain that virtue alone suffices for our happiness], Panaetius and Posidonius deny that virtue is sufficient. On the contrary, [ they say], we need health and a good amount of money [ choregias] and strength. [ DL. vii. 128 ]

For the Stoics, the good is that from which some advantage or benefit comes, evil that from which some harm follows.[ vii.94] Something may be good for its own sake, or for the sake of something else, or both reasons. The greatest good, it is agreed, is human happiness or flourishing [ eudaemonia ]. Whatever is necessary for or even conducive of happiness is necessarily a good. The older Stoics and Epictetus claim that virtue alone is necessary for happiness. Posidonius disagrees and stakes out a position closer to Aristotle's in the Eudemian Ethics. Health, Posidonius says, and money and even strength are things we need to live a good life.

Unfortunately, Posidonius’ philosophical works have not survived, so we do not have the arguments he employed against the older Stoics. Obviously he must have rejected the argument, noted in the passage above, that only what can always and only be used for good is good. We had occasion to look at that argument in Epictetus a while ago. We noted that many of the cardinal virtues such as courage and temperance can be put to bad use by bad people. IF so, thenvirtue is not good. I conjecture Posidonius made this same point.

I have a bigger conjecture about Posidonius and his views about what is good. I think that Posidonius, everywhere the observer and scientist in his studies of the natural world, took the same approach in studying what is good and what is necessary for happiness in the human world. He did not dogmatically echo the Stoic line that virtue is all we need for a good life, but looked at human affairs and saw what virtue can and cannot achieve by itself. If we are in chronic bad health and indigent and weak, he saw, we are just not going to be able to fulfill any of the natural roles that the Stoics recommend for a man. We shall be unable to fulfill the duties of a spouse and a parent and a citizen and a productive member of our society. Inner virtue is not enough if you lack the means and the ability to accomplish things. Health and money and strength are needed for a good life. So I believe Posidonius argued. Unfortunately, as we saw, Epictetus reverts to the older dogmatic line and seem to pay little real attention to what human flourishing requires.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The wise man does not assent.

Apropos our last post about the discipline of error and assent, there is one other important passage we should look at, preserved for us by Aulus Gellius from a lost fifth book of the Discourses. The original text is in Latin. Here,without comment, is a translation

The way things look to the mind—what philosophers call “impressions”—have an immediate effect upon the mind, and are not subject to our will. They force us to acknowledge them by their inherent power. But inner acts of approval—what they call “assent”—whereby these same thing perceived by the mind are confirmed are something voluntary and subject to our judgments. So, when a terrifying noise from the sky or from a collapsing building,…even the mind of a wise man is disturbed and shrinks back and grows pale for a moment, not because of a judgment that something evil is imminent, but because of some quick and unconscious movements that prevent the mind and reason from acting properly. Straightaway, however, our wise man does not give his approval—he does not “assent or confirm by approval”—to these impressions, i.e., these terrifying things seen by the mind. He rejects them and dismisses them, seeing nothing in them to occasion fear. And so, they say, this is the difference between the mind of the fool and the mind of the wise man. The fool thinks that the dreadful and terrifying things seen by the mind, when it is first struck by them, actually are what they seem to be. And afterwards, as if they were really fearful, he confirms them with his own assent, “ratifying them with his judgment” as the Stoics say when discussing this. The wise man, though his color and expression change for a moment, “does not assent”, preserving his consistency and firmness of judgment…[and remembering] that these things are not proper objects of fear at all, but only things that frighten with a false façade and an empty terror. [Attic Nights XIX.1. 14-21 ]

Monday, December 26, 2005

Avoiding error

There are three areas of study, Epictetus tells us at the beginning of Discourses II.2, in which the man who is going to become fully virtuous ( kalon kai agathon ) must be trained. First he must be trained in the area that concerns desire and aversion, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he wishes to avoid. Second in the area that concerns impulse to act and refrain from acting, so that he may act in an orderly fashion and after due consideration and not recklessly. Third in that area which concerns the avoidance of error and rashness in judgment, so that he may not give or withhold his assent wrongly.

We have been looking recently at the training Epictetus prescribes for desires. “On Training” ( III. 12 ) is an essay in the discipline of training desire. Some time ago I complained of the lack of a comparable essay in the discipline of avoiding errors in judgment. I had been hoping someone would challenge me with the essay that opens Discourses III, 8. I suppose I will have to spring my own trap.

In the same way as we train ourselves to deal with sophistries, we should train ourselves daily to deal with our experiences, for these too put questions to us.

So-and-so’s son is dead.
You should reply, "it is not a matter of choice, nor an evil [ aproaireton, ou kakon ]”.

So-and-so has been disinherited by his father.
What do you think of that?
"It is not a matter of choice, nor an evil."

Caesar has condemned him.
"Not a matter of choice nor an evil."

He has become very distressed by all this.
"A matter of choice and an evil".

He has borne it nobly.
"A matter of choice and a good thing".

If we make a habit of this sort of thing, we shall make real progress and never give our assent to anything except a compelling experience [ phantasia kataleptike ].

His son is dead.
What has happened?
"His son is dead."
Nothing else?

His ship is lost.
What has happened?
"His ship is lost."

He has been taken to prison.
What has happened?
"He has been taken to prison."

But what about the judgment that something evil has happened to him?
"That would be something you have added." [ III. 8. 1-5, slightly modified]

This remarkable little Stoic recitation could be the subject of a book by itself. We shall have to content ourselves with a few remarks now and later.

Before we venture into the underlying Stoic psychology of perception and judgment, let’s make sure we are clear on what Epictetus is training us to do. There is controversy and uncertainty on even this issue.

In my view Arrian’s notes have unhelpfully mixed two exercises at this point and reversed their natural order. The first exercise, presented second ( following the allusion to kataleptic perceptions ), is about remembering that whatever we experience is itself devoid of evaluation. “This is terrible” or “this a great evil” are beliefs that added by us, and we have control over them. Even if such a thought pops into my head spontaneously when I hear that someone has been dragged off to jail, I can refuse to assent to it and reject it.

He has been taken to prison.
“Yes, and hasn’t that something terrible and a great injustice? How can such things happen in a supposedly just world?”
All that I see that has happened is that he has been taken to prison.

That's the drill here. I can refuse to be carried away by such judgments as these, because judgment is always up to me. It is up to me to consider the proper way to evaluate what I'm experiencing.

The proper way to evaluate what I experience is the topic of the first exercise. It demonstrates that there is only one primary discrimination—whether the thing lies in the sphere of choice or elsewhere. If elsewhere, then it is neither good nor evil. If a matter of choice, then good or evil depending on whether it exemplifies virtue. If he allows himself to be distressed at the loss of an inheritance, then he has inflicted an evil upon himself, while if he accepts it calmly, he shows nobility of character.

So all judgments to which we should assent must begin with an answer to the question “in the sphere of choice or not?” and proceed from that primary discrimination.

Those are the two exercises I think Epictetus is demonstrating here. Exercises that will help us avoid errors in the evaluations we make of what we experience.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Failure and Unhappiness

First of all, Happy Holidays!
Despite the title of this essay, I mean it. In fact, I think I have a positive message to offer today. I want to discuss a pessimistic premise in Epictetus’ eudaemonism. Epictetus believes that our desire for externals, any externals, dooms us to frustration and failure, since externals are not in our control. And if our desires are frustrated and disappointed, we must live troubled and unhappy lives.

There are two obvious lines of objection to Epictetus’ pessimism with respect to externals. One simply denies that failure & disappointment are inevitable. Some people seem to be conspicuously successful in their pursuit of externals, and are not unhappy with their success. Granted such success is not extremely common. Many try for the brass ring and fail, but is their failure more the result of the elusiveness of the brass ring or more the result of their lack of skills & determination? Is the target then to blame if the archer shoots poorly?

Let us leave that question to another time, and consider the other part of Epictetus’ premise, the part that says if we fail to achieve the external we are pursuing we will be troubled and unhappy. This claim is clearly a fundamental motive of the Stoic abandonment of externals, but it lacks, may I say, lacks any self-evidence. We are all, I assume, familiar with failing to achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves and pursued earnestly. But our reaction to these “failures” is in fact quite varied and nuanced. Distress and despair and unhappiness is certainly one kind of reaction, typically seen in immature adults & children who have less experience of worldly successes & failures. But amongst mature adults other sorts of reactions are quite possible and even probable.

May I illustrate with a story from my own childhood about learning to deal with failure. When I was fifteen Roger Bannister’s four minute mile was not ancient history. I loved to run and decided I too would train myself to be a competitive miler. My first timed mile on the track was a very disappointing 6:24, but I was completely untrained, so I discounted it and set out over the summer and fall on a rigorous training regimen. Diet, exercise, a proper training schedule and eventually even a proper coach. I targeted the late March track meet at our high school as the first solid test of my improvement. On race day I was healthy and ran my best race ever—and lost in the qualifer! I came in third in my heat with a pathetic 5:49. I watched as two kids pulled away from me effortlessly on the last two laps and I could do nothing to reel them back in. Try as I might, I just was not fast enough. My coach candidly agreed. My mechanics were good, my fitness was good. I was just not able to bust out more than two 1:15 quarters. I was almost at full sprint at that pace.

I was of course devastated. But I resolved to try again. Five weeks later at another high school meet, the same results. Four weeks, another meet, another loss in the qualifiers. After that third meet, the coach, otherwise not a great human being, decided to sit down and talk to me. He said, “Look, you’ve learned a very important thing today. Some people are naturally gifted at some things and some aren’t. I’ve watched you train and you’ve trained as hard as anyone I could. You just aren’t built to be competitive miler. Maybe try distance or cross-country, but miling is just going to be an exercise in frustration for you.”

That was that. I had failed to become a competitive miler. Beyond question. And that failure did not feel good. But as I thought about what the coach had told me, I realized he was right. Each of us has different things we are naturally talented at. Try as I might, I was never going to be a fast miler. If I persisted in trying to compete in that arena, I was going to be very unhappy. But I could not know that about myself apriori, before the fact, could I? So I had to try, and try hard, and find out. And that was exactly the path of self-discovery I pursued. The training had done me no harm, and the competition had taught me a big lesson in life. I now understood that trying and failing was the only way in many cases to know what I was good at and not good at. Holding back and “not entering any contest at which I am not invincible”, as Epictetus recommends, would have been a sure recipe for discovering and achieving nothing.

Since failing to be a competitive miler, I have experinced other failures in pursuing externals. How did I react to them? For the most part positively, so long as I was sure that the reason I did not succeed was not that did try hard enough. That kind of failure provokes the distress and unhappy Epictetus predicts. But in general, failure has been more of any invaluable tool of self-discovery than a recipe for unhappiness. It has guided me toward the life that was right for me.

I have learned that it is important to pick your goals ( externals) very carefully, and plan your goal-seeking thoroughly, and persist with it resolutely. But a priori we can never be certain we have the right goals. What looked like something ( or someone ) that would be good for me sometimes turned out not to be. And what I thought I could do well at, sometimes I could only do poorly. So those goals needed to be abandoned and better ones put in their place. The whole process of trial & error in our pursuit of externals is not something that should or need drive us to despair & unhappiness. We fail in order to succeed. We fail in order to discover what things and what kind of life is truly good for us. We achieve happiness & success after many necessary failures & disappointments.

Epictetus’ prediction that pursuing externals will lead inevitably lead to failure & unhappiness was one of his biggest errors.
Wishing to be Brave

The apparent vulnerability of virtue to fate is not a new theme in these pages, but let’s see whether we can use an example to focus our intuitions.

Imagine a young merchant marine officer—call him Jim—serving as second mate on a dilapidated freighter sailing the Indian Ocean. This trip Jim’s ship has taken on a large number of passengers, Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca. A storm suddenly blows up and the old ship begins to founder. The crew panic and decides to abandon the ship & passengers. Jim does not panic and resolves to stay with the ship and to try to persuade the rest of the crew to do so as well. He rushes up to the deck where the crew is about to board lifeboats. He starts to address the crew when suddenly he has some kind of seizure and falls unconscious on the deck. The crew picks him up, puts him in a lifeboat, and sails away abandoning the ship & its passengers.

What do our moral intuitions say about Jim’s conduct? First of all, did he do anything cowardly since in fact he ends up abandoning the passengers? No. He was rendered unconscious by the seizure and carried off the boat by the crew. He did not abandon or desert the passengers. Then did he behave bravely? Unfortunately, no. He wished to behave bravely, and had decided to stay with the ship, and probably would have stayed were it not for the seizure. But in fact, he was unable to carry out his intention to stay with the ship and rally the crew. He did not act courageous, though he wished to.

I want to consider the Stoic reaction to this story, but first notice that we could tell a very similar story about any intended but frustrated act of virtue. We could imagine someone wishing to act temperately or justly or prudently, but frustrated in the event by some circumstance beyond his control. Our general intuition about such cases seems to be that they show that virtue, which is after all primarily a mater of taking action, can be frustrated by bad luck or fate. Unlucky people like Jim don’t fall into vice because they cannot do what they wish to do, but virtue escapes them because they cannot take the right actions.

For the Stoic virtue lies in the sphere of choice. If one judges correctly and makes the right choice, then one is virtuous regardless of what actions actually follow. Jim correctly judged that his duty was to stay despite the danger, and that is what he chose to do. He just couldn’t execute that choice, because, after all, our body is not something “in our power”. But he chose bravely, and that was all the counted.

The Stoic view of virtue is counterintuitive. We agree, in the example at hand, that Jim chose commendably. But bravery and justice and the rest require actually carrying out good intentions in appropriate actions. Intentions are not enough. Maybe, or probably, Jim would have stayed if he had remained conscious. But he didn’t, and that is the final word on whether he was courageous or not. Virtue is not decided by the counterfactual.

“But actions are not in my power and sometimes, as here, my good intentions are frustrated.” Yes, that’s how it is. Jim was unlucky, and we will be unlucky sometimes in our attempts to be virtuous. Virtue in this sense is not "in our power."

Friday, December 23, 2005

No wine, pretty girls, or sweet cakes?

Training for Epictetus is not about building stronger muscles and quicker reflexes, but about disciplining our desires. Unfortunately, “disciplining” our desires for the Stoics seems to reduce to trying to extirpate them, or at least all of them that reference the external world. The inadvisability and indeed the impossibility of doing so is a theme we are exploring here. “On Training” ( Discouses III. 12) has some particular recommendations I’d like to look at today.

Next, train yourself to make a decent use of wine, not in order to drink more, for some are so foolish as to train themselves even for this, but to be able abstain, first, from wine, and then from pretty girls and sweet cakes. After a while you may venture into the arena at the proper time, as a sort of test, to see whether what you experience gets the better of you as much as it did before. But for now, remove yourself a safe distance from whatever is stronger than you. A contest between a beautiful girl and a young man just taking up philosophy is an unequal one. As they say, pot and stone do not belong together. [ 11-12 ]

The training programme here recommends complete abstinence, apparently with the hope that abstinence will somehow suppress our desires for these sorts of things. And the principal therapy seems to be removing oneself from the things that tempt you. A somewhat difficult therapy to follow in modern urban life.

It would be fun to discuss to discuss more effective strategies for combating our attraction to pretty girls & sweet cakes, but why should we--and the Stoics--put ourselves to the trouble of trying to suppress these sorts of desires? Forget for the moment the question of whether an unwilling abstinence will be at all effective. Why do we want to suppress ( versus moderate or educate) our desires for these sorts of externals? ( Neither I nor Epictetus is considering the special case where some has already developed a serious dyscontrol problem with reference to these substances or activities.)

The main Stoic position is that we must learn to make wise choices or selections in the realm of externals. Wise choices are choices that make proper use of externals with a view to sustaining the natural or normal life of a human being. Things that sustain our life are “preferred”. Health is preferred, family is preferred, a useful livelihood and civic involvement are preferred. These preferreds are plainly things we must pursue at the cost of considerable energy and expense, but somehow not desire at all, or desire only with “reservation.”

I have in a previous post commented on the psychological impossibility of pursuing big goals like family and career without a strong desire for them. I don’t want to cover that ground again. Instead, I want to ask why we are supposed to train ourselves to ABSTAIN from externals like wine and pretty girls and sweet cakes. Abstain rather than make proper use of.

Is wine in modest amounts not good for me? It is. Then why should I not enjoy it instead of abstaining from it?
Is having a family not something good for me? It is. Then I had better be attracted to pretty girls or that is never going to happen.
Are sweet cakes not good me? Well, that’s another issue.

The proper use of externals that have value is not abstaining from them but employing them in the proper measure. Enforced abstinence is a recipe for creating dyscontrol problems, not preventing them. Our normal desires need to be schooled and perhaps moderated, not suppressed. We should not train with Epictetus.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Eudaemonic pessimism ( II )

Discourses III. 14 is selection of five remarks with little or no connection to one another. Arrian’s editorial rationale utterly eludes me. The fourth remark ( 8-10) also has a major lacuna that threatens the sense of that passage. My interest in this unpromising piece of text stems from the fact that in it Epictetus addresses a doctrine that we’ve discussed before, eudaemonic pessimism. Let’s start with a translation of the text we have.

There are two things that must be rooted out of men: arrogance [oiesis] and pessimism [apistia]. Now arrogance lies in thinking that there is nothing more one needs, while pessimism assumes that one cannot live a serene life under so many adverse circumstances. Arrogance is rooted out by cross-questioning, which Socrates first employed….[ ] to see that the matter is not impossible, inquiry and search—and this inquiry itself will do you no harm. In fact, to philosophize practically amounts to this, seeking to discover how it is possible to employ desire and aversion without hindrance.

is a difficult word to translate in some passages in Epictetus, but here it pretty clearly means a conceited opinion of oneself. “Conceit” is fine as a translation, except that its use as a noun is now becoming somewhat rare, and most people prefer the noun arrogance. Apistia has a range of meaning including doubt, disbelief, mistrust, and even treachery. But here the sense is clearly a kind of despairing doubt, i.e., pessimism. “Diffidence” is wrong because that term now means primarily overt shyness.

So the sense of the passage is that there are two bad conditions that need to be remedied. Epictetus says Socratic elenchos is a great tool for rooting out arrogant self-confidence. (Let us grant that on the evidence of the Plato’s dialogues.) But what is the remedy for the other condition, pessimism regarding tranquility and human happiness? Not elenchos, to be sure, but some other philosophic discipline? What?

Here Epictetus seems to surprise us and says, well, look and see. You suspect happiness is impossible in the face of misfortunes, but look and see how some men actually manage to flourish under those conditions. The refutation of your pessimism lies in finding living, breathing counterexamples to the suspicion that happiness must elude us under difficult circumstances.

If I’ve read him corredtly, I am indeed surprised by this answer. I wonder what Epictetus is confident our research will discover. Remember the Stoic dogma that virtue alone for happiness. I wonder whether Epictetus actually expects us to find virtuous people living in bad or terrible external conditions who nevertheless enjoy a tranquil & happy life? Epictetus’ position of course entails that there should be such people, but they seem perennially hard to find, like Sages.
Homelessness as a Philosophical Ideal

I have posted on this topic before, but its importance justifies another visit. Indeed Epictetus insists that we return to his ideal of the wandering, homeless Cynic at several points in the Discourses. The most extensive treatment is his long essay “On the Cynic Calling” at III. 22, but there is also an important short passage at IV. 8. 30-33 that we will take note of shortly.

I want to take a moment to make sure everyone understands what Epictetus is recommending. It is really an incredible view of the virtuous life. Epictetus, first of all, is NOT recommending the life of the wilderness pioneer. The man who with a knife and an axe heads off into the Alaskan wilderness to prove his self-sufficiency or die trying. That kind of admirable self-sufficient character bears no relationship to Epictetus’ urban parasite. Epictetus’ Cynic must live in the city among other people so the “virtues” of his life are manifest to all. He lives on the street without a home or any possessions except for the clothes on his back. He has no family (or, I think, friends). He begs for his food. He has no occupation besides abusing people who walk by him on their way to work or school for their love of externals and neglect of virtue.

Wait! I know what you thinking. You’re thinking our streets overrun with Stoics & Cynics, except we have different names for them. The police are periodically called upon to round up bands of wandering Cynics when their violent abuse of each other and of citizens gets out of hand. And the “virtues” of their lifestyle are a frequent topic of the evening news.

But it’s time to let Epictetus speak for his ideal. The Cynic is sent to us by Zeus, he says [ IV.8 .30],

in order that you see, oh mankind, that you are seeking happiness & tranquility not where it is, but where it is not. Behold, I am an example sent you by God, having neither property nor house, neither wife nor children, nor even a bed or a tunic or a piece of furniture. But see how healthy I am! Test me and see whether you find me free from disturbance…

Forgive me, but is Epictetus joking? Is this Cynic thing a joke that I don’t understand? The alternative is that Epictetus actually believes you can have a safe and healthy and tranquil and happy life as a homeless person on the street. I don’t have statistics at hand about the mental & physical health of the homeless or their crime rates or their life expectancy, but short of trying to live in the middle of a war zone, I can’t imagine a life that is worse. And Epictetus is suggesting that we voluntarily inflict such a life upon our for the sake of "virtue".

We need to remember that living homeless on the street was a vocation that Epictetus himself declined. His recommendation of this lifestyle is innocent of any first hand experience of it. Nor did any of his teachers or the Stoics he most admired ever try to live this way. Not Agrippinus, not Rufus, not Thrasea. Nor any of the major Stoic figures from Zeno to Chrysippus to Posidonius. Epictetus’ acquaintance with homeless wandering is apparently a bookish one built around the life & legends of a very strange character named Diogenes.

But we need to let Epictetus finish his paean to homeleeness:

But consider whose work this is—that of Zeus and the person he deems worth of this vocation, such that he may never lay bare before the world anything by which he might invalidate the testimony that he gives in favor of virtue and against externals.

There is no way around it. Epictetus apparently believes that someone trying to live like a homeless urban beggar is offering some kind of important Stoic testimonial. I have to agree. Nothing to me is a surer proof of the bankruptcy of the Stoic abuse of externals than the spectacle of the Stoic-Cynic wandering the streets as an urban parasite. To any of you who think Epictetus’ Cynic is playing a virtuous role, I can only recommend that you go try it and come back (if you survive) and tell us about all the useful & virtuous things you accomplished on the street. I would love to hear your testimonial.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We must abide by our decisions.

No one doubts this. No one doubts that when we’ve decided upon the course of action that seems best for us, we must stick to our decision. But if we are to stick to our decisions, our decisions must themselves be of the kind & quality that we can confidently and stick to. We can stick to our decisions only if they are "stickables." This obvious point seems lost on some people.

Epictetus tells the story of a friend who had for no apparent reason decided to starve himself to death. Epictetus went to the man and asked what had happened to provoke this decision.
The man replied, “It doesn’t matter. I have decided [ kekrika ].”
Epictetus said,” Well, yes, but let’s examine your decision. If it was correct, I will try to help you accomplish your purpose; but if it was unreasonable, you must change your mind.”
“Oh no,” said the man, “ I can’t change my mind. Keprika. And that settles it.”
“But not all of our choices are good choices,” said Epictetus. “Surely you accept that, and we cannot abide by every choice we’ve made regardless of how bad it is.”
“Kekrika,” said the man again, “and one must abide by one’s decisions.”

I am paraphrasing somewhat freely an exchange that occurs at Discourses II.15.4-12. Epictetus tells us that somehow he eventually was able to persuade this fellow, whom I call the Kekrika man, to reconsider his suicidal fast. He seems to have jarred the man back to reality by asking him this question. “And suppose for no reason you had decided to kill me. Would it now be necessary to do that? Because you had decided to and ‘one must abide by one’s decisions’.”

I think Epictetus has made his point about the difference between being resolute & steadfast in one’s decisions and clinging obstinately to a choice that never made any sense in the first place. Everyone who reconsiders a choice he has made is not automatically akratic or weak-willed, as the Kekrika man seems to believe.
But this exchange also points to another, deeper difference between Epictetus and Kekrika man. Epictetus comes to him and says “show me your decision and we will review it and make sure it’s a good one.” Kekpika plainly has nothing to show him. He just keeps saying "kekrika". At some point he had apparently said to himself “ It’s time to die and I will starve myself to death.” That was his decision. Uttering or thinking those words. And now he thinks that because he said those words, he has made a decision that he must abide by.
I was quite surprised when Epictetus did not make this sort of a reply to him:

“That’s not a decision, my friend! Why is it time to die? What are your reasons for choosing death? Are those reasons more weighty than those that speak for life? If you have problems, are there no other or better remedies than death? Why is death the best answer here? And what about all your responsibilities? Have you considered and weighed all these things and still arrived at the verdict that death is best? That is a decision. That is how a man must decide such matters as these. So show me that you have made a decision , and we will review it together and perhaps honor it. But otherwise, abandon this foolish, impulsive course of action you have embarked without a deciding anything, and in any case, stop babbling kekrika, kekpika, kekrika.”

Monday, December 19, 2005

Where are all the boulophils?

Boulophils love to make decisions. They aspire to excellence in decision making, a virtue Aristotle called euboulia. Boulophobs are people who don’t mix well with boulophils. They fear and hate making decisions.

As it happens, I have taught decision making for more years than I care to remember. About 15-20% of my students were borderline or full-blown boulophobs. Oddly, I cannot attest to the existence of one true boulophil. Rara avis! Some people I taught were certainly good at making decisions, but none of them would ever confess or agree that they were boulophils.

Stoics should be boulophils. Judgments and choices are the primary things that are up to us and our business. Choices and judgments alone are good or evil. We cannot be hindered or frustrated in our choices or judgments if we make the right choices & judgments. We are fully responsible for our choices & judgments. Judging and choosing well should be the cardinal Stoic virtues, even more so than for Aristotle.

So where does Epictetus discuss the art of decision making? That is not a rhetorical question. Epictetus was, I think, a closet logician, though he repeatedly professes a lack of interest in the logical problems he seems to know so well. He taught syllogistic and Chrysippean propositional logic to his students, and at several points in the Discourses ( e.g., I.17 ) he gives a qualified endorsement of the value of these logical studies. But where is his treatment of the logic of decision making? Where do we glimpse his distinctively Stoic logic of decision making?

“A distinctively Stoic logic or art of decision making, you say? What's that? Why would there even be such a thing?”

Because decision making will be different if the most important thing is the decision process itself and not anything aimed at or actually obtained. Good decisions will not be those that achieve some sort of maximal return of externals, preferred or otherwise. Good lies in flawless execution of the process of identifying the objective(s), compassing and comparing the alternatives, selecting the best one by the appropriate decision rule, etc

“So a good decision for a Stoic does not aim at or achieve anything good? Is that what you’re saying? That sounds odd.”

Think about the implications of saying that our choices and judgment are the only things are good. What do my choices aim at? If at externals, then not at things that are good or evil. Obviously a choice amongst externals must prefer some external to others, but the primary thing must be to choose well, not to obtain whatever is chosen. In Aristotle’s language, deciding is more of a doing than a making, and doing for its own sake, like a performance. ‘I have just performed a wonderful choice of a new job.’ Well, congratulations. By the way, what job did you select?

“I see. The Stoics & other boulophils value decisions primarily as a kind of performing art, and they see themselves as artists in this discipline. That’s different.”

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Stoic baiting?

First of all, a word of reassurance. Rumors to the contrary, I was not as a baby kidnapped by a band of wandering Stoics and forced to listen to their ceaseless chanting of the Encheiridion. No such torture was ever inflicted upon this humble blogger, and so this site is not a place where I contrive to practice a lex talionis upon my erstwhile tormenters.

A gentleman who has already contributed many valuable comments to this site seems to have some worries along those lines. So perhaps I should pause and offer an overdue Statement of Intentions. I will at least try.

Let me give Epictetus some rest today and take my departure from a text of Marcus Aurelius:

Put an end once and for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one! [ Med. X.16 , Haines trans ]

A noble & inspiring sentiment, you say. But what exactly is it recommending to us, may I ask?
I once knew a philosopher who had a plaque hanging in his office with that motto engraved on it. One day I found the temerity to ask him what he believed it meant. He said that Marcus was cautioning against the inaction to which theoreticians are all too prone. It was not enough just to talk earnestly about goodness and the completely good man ( kalokagathos ). We also needed to take action in accordance with that ideal.

"OK, " I said," but about what the 'put an end to discussing' part? Isn’t that about putting an end to the business you are in? "

Instead of the testy reply I was bracing for, he smiled and said, “You know, I am now older than Marcus was when he wrote that passage, and even at my age I do not know how we stop inquiring about the good, as though it were a settled issue. It’s as if we knew someone planning a long, arduous trip, and we said to him, ‘stop this all debate about where you are going to go and get going!’ We cannot sit forever debating our routes and destinations and never go anywhere, but neither can we take to the road pretending that our maps & charts of the terra incognita we propose to explore are reliable. It will be a voyage of uncertain route & unknown perils, and we need to be continually discussing & replannung it.”

“So Marcus was wrong about that?” I asked.


“But you honor his error with this plague on your wall?”


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Nothing is in our control ( eph’ hemin )

One useful way to explore and test an ethical philosophy like Epictetus’ Stoicism is to detach certain parts of it—parts that strike us as the least defensible --and see whether the remaining edifice is still , literally, viable.

Epictetus believes that there is strong and absolute difference between the things that are in our control ( eph’ hemin) and the things are are not. Externals, including our body, are not in our control; internals are. But be careful with this term “internals.” For Epictetus much of our inner life is also not in our control. Perception isn’t, memory isn’t, imagination isn’t. The only part of our inner life that is in our power is the activities of ruling faculty, reason. Reason forms judgments and makes decisions. These alone are in our power.

Epictetus uses the concept of eph’ hemin in a very strong sense. Something is eph’ hemin for me only if I can never be hindered or frustrated in the whatever use I wish to make of it. No external is in my control in this strong sense. Perception and memory aren’t reliably under my control. But Epictetus thinks the functions of reason are. Nothing can ever frustrate me when I wish to judge or choose in an appropriate way. Reason is somehow held immune to the disturbances & pathologies of the brain that we know wreak havoc with our own judgments & choices. ( Epictetus nowhere addresses this major problem in our surviving texts. )

Suppose then we reject Epictetus view that reason is eph’ hemin, and conclude that indeed nothing is eph’ hemin ( in his strong sense ). We continue to accept the rest of system, and in particular, his view that good & evil lie solely in the activities of reason. What then follows?

“Well, if choice & judgment aren't in our power, then neither are good and evil, and happiness too, since it depends upon our securing the one and avoiding the other.”

Correct. And what else?

“The primary task ( ergon) of a human being will then become to try to secure and maintain as much inner control as is possible, and hope that it suffices at least for the major choices in his life. Because if a man chooses badly out of a failure of reasoning part to work well, then he will be troubled and the goal of a serene life will escape him.”

Absolutely. And will he succeeed?

“No. That’s the terrible part. Despite our best efforts and through no fault of our own, many of us will still fail because fate decrees that things will go wrong and effect our reasoning part. We will choose badly and earn an unhappy life.”

Yes, that does indeed follow. And so, what do you think, is that kind of life livable? But before you answer, consider one other thing. How would such a life be different from the life we believe we are already living?We've undermined the Stoic promise that virtue and happiness were eph' hemin, but did our experience of the world ever persuade us that they were more than a longshot?
Conditional Desires and Impulses

It appears to be the case that for Epictetus our ruling part (reason) can do more than simply reject or approve (assent) to our desires & impulses. On occasion, it can apparently also assent, but only with reservations, i.e., conditionally. What is the practical effect on a desire or impulse of being approved by and guided by a conditional assent? Is it supposed to be less intense and perhaps easier to withdraw in the event that it fails to achieve its purpose? Suppose I have elected (“selected”) to pursue some appropriate external in accordance with an impulse to do so, but find that it escapes me. If my assent was only conditional ( “pursue it provided that…” ), am I supposed to be undisturbed at my failure? Is this what the Stoics are trying to set up here: a way to fail with valued externals yet remain untroubled?

The texts are not very forthcoming. Unfortunately, the only explicit reference I can recall to approving our impulses with reservations ( meth’ hypexaireseos ) comes at the end of Arrian’s Encheiridion 2:

For the present then totally suppress desire….Use only impulse and aversion, and even these lightly, with reservation and without straining.

A problem that we immediately face with this text is the distinction between desire and impulse. Desire is a kind of impulse that apparently can be completely rejected, leaving only impulses toward what? Simpler, safer, more basic things such as food and shelter? I can only conjecture.

If we lack explicit references to “reserved impulses” in Epictetus/Arrian, perhaps we have at least several examples of how they are supposed to work. I’m thinking , for example, of Encheiridion 16. The topic there is how we should react to someone who has suffered the death of a parent or a child and is grieving. Reflexively (“impulsively”) we want to express sympathy. And that’s OK, says Epictetus, so long as we remember that the loss was not really an evil. “As far as words" , express sympathy, but do not let these words or the other’s behaviour persuade you that something evil has befallen him. So, we elect to response with sympathy--albeit a kind of feigned, half-hearted sympathy- on the basis of assenting to what judgment? "I may sympathize with this misguided person who believes something bad has happened beacuse...'' You see at once the problems we encounter here.

[ to be continued]

Monday, December 12, 2005

Freedom from error

Some days we have need of Stoic optimism. Even a small dose will do.
Stobaeus preserves for us thirty-three longish excerpts from a Stoic/Cynic philosopher known as Musonius Rufus. ( This may be the teacher of Epictetus, but more likely a Greek philosopher of the same name who flourished in Athens in the second quarter of the second century CE. )
The incipit of the second excerpt in Hense’s collection reads

We are all, he used to say, endowed by nature to such a extent that we are able to live without error and nobly. Not some of us and not others, but all of us.

The adverb in Greek that I have translated as “withour error” is anamartetos, from the verb amartano, which has as at least as broad a meaning in Greek as our “to err” or “to make a mistake” or “go wrong.” Every kind of error and going wrong falls within its compass.

I have question about living anamartetos. Never mind the Olympian challenge of living nobly ( kalos). I would be content just to pull off a life undisgraced by major “errors.” But is even that in our power ( eph' hemin)? And if it is not in our power, are we doomed then to commit blunder after blunder, error after error?

Nothing disturbs my peace of mind ( you may have guessed ) more than errors in judgment. My judgment about errors in judgment is that they betray a feeble intellect and a flawed character. We almost always err because we fail to take care and check and recheck what we are doing.

Has the data in landing programme been entered in kilometer or miles?
"I assume it must be kilometers. What idiot would mix in non-metric units?"
And we miss the entire damn planet ( Mars) by 3000 miles with our billion dollar piece of spacejunk.

Did you bid on that painting in euros or in sterling?
"I thought I was bidding in euros."
Your bid was entered in sterling and you just overpaid $5000 for the piece, fool.

These are not the errors of Medea, but they drive me crazy. In principle, the Stoics would say, I can and should be errorless in these matters. But “in principle” is no help. Can I actually, by availing myself of some discipline, free myself from the galling regret of making these kind of blunders?

“My life is too busy. I have too things to do, too many decisions to make, too much info to swallow and digest. Too many things too check.”

Is that suposed to be a plea in mitigation? These things may be part of the problem, but other people are busier and do a better job. Your brain has not yet turned completely to mush, has it?Then you should consider the possibility that your errors are not entirely accidents. You are placing recklesss bets on the truth and losing. Why are you gambling when you could put the matter beyond doubt?

"I don't know."

Epictetus seems to echo Musonius' optimistic view that our judgments and our choices are without exception up to us. We need not go wrong and fall into disturbance and unhappiness because of our mistakes. That's the dogma, but then there is the reality. Each of us must speak for himself here, but the more I reflect on errors that I keep driving me crazy, the less sanguine I am about their ameloriabilty, at least by any discipline or therapy I know of. I still like to hear Musonius say that we are all capable of living anamartetos, but it is harder & harder to believe.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Choice and Selection

One of the things I am puzzling over is the degree to which Epictetus preserves the Old Stoa’s distinction between choice and selection. The distinction is not a conspicuous theme of the Discourses, and without it we have some difficulties understanding Epictetus’ attitude toward “choosing” and pursuing important externals like health & family. Choice, according to the Old Stoa, always aims at something which is truly good, while selection tries to find an appropriately preferred external. We would never “choose” to pursue a healthful diet and fitness regimen, for example, but we should probably select them over the alternatives.

Cicero at De Finibus 3.22 gives us an example to illustrate the distinction. Imagine an archer competing in a contest with a great reward for the winner. If our archer is a Stoic, his agenda is a little complicated. He aims of course to hit the bullseye and win the prize, but that favorable external result is something he strictly only selects with a conditional desire or impulse. Successfully hitting the bullseye is not something “in his power.” In Epictetus’ sense, it is not a result he can guarantee however skillfully he shoots. The proverbial gust of wind or wayward bird or latent defect in the arrow can ruin his shot. So his wish to hit the target & win can and sometimes will be frustrated. But since it a was only a conditional desire to hit & win, provided that God or fate has arranged the uncontrollable variables in his favor, he will not be disturbed if his shot goes astray due to one of them. The prize, at all, was only a preferred external.

As I said, his agenda is a little complicated because, besides wishing to hit the bullseye, he also has another and much more important objective. That objective specifies the good which he genuinely chooses. What it is? Well, to make the perfect shot by considering all the variables he can control and judging what he must do and planning & executing his shot without error. This goal is something completely in his power and so can never be frustrated or hindered by winds or birds or such. He need never be disappointed & unfortunate in this unconditional desire for the good of planning his shot perfectly.

That is Cicero’s account of the distinction. As I said, to my knowledge there is nothing comparable in the Discourses. Nor do I recall any talk about conditional or “reserved” desires for preferred externals. It is easy to draw the conclusion that for Epictetus any desire for & pursuit of externals is a mistake and bound to lead to disturbance. But then how are we going to undertake the natural roles he so often commends? A family is not something that arrives COD at my door one day, and I accept or reject it.

Let me stop and hear what others have to say on this problem. I would like to close this piece with one remark on the Stoic decision maker. There is an obvious problem with saying that the only good in choosing is a making good choice. We do not make choices for the sake of making choices. If there was nothing we wished to obtain or avoid, we would not be at pains to plan and deliberate and choose carefully. The decision is for the sake of obtaining that end ( viewed as a good ) and depends upon it. The decision is always a practical thing in Aristotle’s sense and never an artful thing treasured for its own sake. A good choice is certainly a good ( and euboulia a virtue ), but it is a good aimed at realizing the good for which I am making the choice. ( Imagine someone who gets up this Sunday morning and says, " Gee, I feel like making a good hard decision today. I think I'll deliberate and decide whether to propose marriage to my girl friend or join the Foreign Legion. I don't particularly want to do either but what a decision!" )

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Grab it by the other handle, stupid!

Some of you have hinted that I have been pressing Epictetus a little hard of late, so let us pause this Sunday morning and honor one of his minor masterpieces, Encheiridion 43 :

Everything has two handles. By one it is capable of being carried, by the other it cannot. If your brother wrongs you, do not take hold of the matter by the handle that says he is wronging you. By that handle it cannot be handled. Take hold of it by the handle that says he is your brother and you were raised together. If you do that, you will be taking hold of it by the handle by which it can be carried.

There is no need to explain this metaphor. I don't have a brother, but I have a spouse and a daughter and friends, and sometimes they do things that strike me as thoughtless and disrespectful. That is the first judgment that forms in my mind ( proving that I am a long way from sagedom). But then a second judgment arises-- if I am lucky-- and this one says that this is a person I love or care for, and although he or she has done something unfotunate and caused me some problems, there are no grounds for ascribing to her an intent and desire to do hurtful & disrespectful things. My own actions no doubt sometimes appear as thoughtless and rude to her.

Whichever judgment I listen to will clearly give rise to very different actions. The choice is up to me. Why should I not grasp what has happened by the first judgment? Perhaps in fact the behaviour was intended to offend and hurt me! No, I should not go down that road because that leads to anger and the retaliatory actions anger refuses to forbear. My anger will in turn fuel a angry counter-reaction, and the familiar red blossoms of conflict will burst forth aplenty. Is this the result that I desire? Think about it. Much better for one who prizes inner peace and a smoothly flowing life to avoid this whole angry cycle of accusation and attack.

"But maybe it was intended to hurt me!" And so? What then do you wish accomplish ? Is this to be a lesson in power & retribution? "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." Is this your gospel, and one your wish to preach to your own family and friends? Are you so unsure of everything and everyone that no possible insult may be allowed to pass unrequited? Who are you?

Grab it by the other handle and say to yourself, "this is my daughter, and though I wish she had not done this foolish thing, I will live with it. No one of us is wise and clear-thnking all the time."

Whenever I have been able to follow Epictetus’ advice, I have never regretted it; whenever I have ignored it, I have always found the costs too high. You, of course, must make your own judgment.
I do not play Iago.

The noble-spirited man, we are told [ Fragment XI ], plays well whatever role the Deity assigns him. Oedipus the proud king or Oedipus the blind beggar & outcast. Odysseus in purple or Odysseus in rags.

That’s fine, I suppose, but what if the roles assigned to me are of a somewhat different character. Suppose I am assigned to play an Iago in this life. Or maybe I’m given a choice: you may play either an Iago or a MacBeth or a Richard III.
No, I refuse to play any of these roles.

“God would never assign any such roles to a good man.”
Really? Well, he seems comfortable assigning them to millions of others. He assigns the roles of thief and pervert and murderer and war criminal to millions of otherwise ordinary people who never wished for them. Why I am immune to such an assignment?

“What impiety! I bet you'll turn out to be the next Ted Bundy or William Calley.”
Sorry, I don’t do mass-murderers or war criminals either.
“ But if you are assigned one of those roles, you must and will play it, and probably play it very well."
No, I don’t think so.

The problem here, I hope you can see, is that the concept of “ the role in life assigned me by God” is useless, or even meaningless, as some philosophers would say. God does not show up at rehearsal and say to the actors, “These are the parts you play, willingly or unwillingly. Whatever you want or think or choose doesn’t matter. You WILL do as I say.” God does not "assign" us roles. Other people try to.

Our parents, our teachers, our friends, the state, society at large all try to pressure us into assuming certain roles. “You will go college and med school and become a successful doctor like your father. If you do, we will support you and give you a car & nice apartment and pay your tuition. If instead you wish to persist with this artist thing, then I think it’s time you moved out and found yourself an apartment and got a job to pay your own bills. Try that and see how you like living in poverty and squalor. The world needs doctors, not artists.”

And so it does. But I will not be “assigned” that role. I have chosen for myself the role of an artist. And if my parents and society and God don’t like, that’s tough.

“You will fail and suffer for your hubris.” Maybe. Probably. But I will fight relentlessly and without compromise for the life I WANT.
“Your life will not flow smoothly and tranquilly. The roles we occupy are not something in ourn power.”
I don’t expect it to, and we shall see whether I have the power to create the life I want. What I wish to do, you see, is to create something beautiful & true, not repose with the Lotus-eaters in a Prozac-fueled serenity. Conflict with the cultureless money-worshipping culture that surrounds me is an inevitable fact of life, but I have chosen that conflict and I am proud of it.

Do you see the attitude I'm trying to illustrate? A life is a terrible thing to waste. We run straight at that danger when we start thinking in terms of “accepting the roles assigned to us” by anyone. This is not a play, it’s real life. We will accomplish with our life what we go after relentlessly with all our resources and skills and heart. Do not accept anything.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Only an actor

No, this is not another screed against the governor of Kalifornia. My topic is less topical. I want to talk a little about Encheiridion 17 :

Remember that you are only an actor in a play whose story will be what the playwright wishes. If he wishes the play to be long, it will be long. If he wishes it to be short, it will be short. If he wishes you to play the part of a beggar, remember to play even that role skilfully. Likewise if your role is that of disabled person or of someone in government or of a private person. For this is your job, to play well the part you have been assigned, but the choice of the role belongs to another.

Once again, Arrian’s “excerpt’ from the Discouses has managed to avoid or delete any explicit reference to the deity, though it’s clear who the playwright is. Oldfather’s translation cleverly smuggles him back in by capitalizing “playwright” and “he” throughout.

Encheiridion 17 is the place where many people first encounter the troublesome consequences of Stoic determinism. If at least the external circumstances of my life are already fully determined, what kind of life choices are left to me? I can, I suppose, “assent” and accept that life, or I can reject it and futilely struggle against will happen to me anyway.

I think I will leave an exposition of Stoic determinism to wiser hands ( see Long and Bobzein ), and just comment briefly on some of the baleful consequences of seeing your life as a script that is in the hands of someone else. Of course the salient moral consequence is that your choices, not actions, must be the locus of praise or blame. You are responsible for those actions to which you “assent”, but you will perform those actions regardless if it is fated that you will so act. So best to focus on choices, which, I take it, is what Epictetus does. ( And what are choices? Aren't they simply impulses to which I assent? And where does impulses come from? But let’s not wander into a discussion of Stoic psychlogy either. See Inwood if you interested )

If my life is a script in the hands of another, there is a problem about why I should try to plan and direct my own life. It will not do for a mere actor to try to usurp the roles of author and director even if the play is “My Life”. My role is just to act the part as already written, or leave the stage if I can no longer stomach the part.

Does it strike you that such a passive hands-off attitude toward the course of our life is likely to be more than a little debilitating? Persistence, even to the point of relentlessness, is not a dispensible quality for success. The foundation of persistence is a belief that my efforts will eventually prevail over the obstacles I am encountering and realize a future that would otherwise be denied me. The belief is that I will be able to make the world accept MY script for my life. But if my belief were instead “ I can only choose well, what will happen will happen,” there is an obvious psychological barrier to battling for a foregone conclusion. My plans & my persistance don't really matter to what will happen.

I know that the friends of Epictetus will have things to say in his defense here. I 've said or too much. What do you think?
Epictetus on Marcus Aurelius

I have a question for those of you who are familiar with the stoicism of the Marcus Aurelius. We have been discussing lately Epictetus’ view that you cannot be devoted to both externals and your inner life. As he says at Discourses IV. 10. 18, you cannot wish for a consulship or land or wealth, and also attend properly to what lies in the sphere of choice.

I think it’s fair to say that Epictetus did not imagine someone who professed to be a Stoic reigning as Emperor of Rome. But within 30 years or so of this death that did happen. You cannot but wonder what Epictetus would have thought of Marcus. Would he have said, “That man is no Stoic!” Or would he have changed his views about the compatibility of temporal & spiritual devotions?

I want to register my dissatisfaction in advance with one interpretation of Marcus’ career that I think does not fit the historical record. Epictetus and Marcus both speak piously of fulfilling the role fate or God has assigned us. Some of us are destined to be emperors and some of us to be slaves. That is not in our hands, only how well or poorly we play the role we have been assigned. ( Vide Encheiridion 17 )

No doubt both men believed this to a degree, but the career of Marcus is not the portrait of someone drifting along on the winds of fate “wherever God wishes is fine with me”. Marcus was no accidental emperor, no Claudius from behind the curtain. He clearly wished to be emperor, he struggled to secure his ambition, and then he fought almost continuously for 20 years to suppress rebellions and attacks upon his empire. His visit to the Quadi & Marcomanni, noted in the Meditations, was not a goodwill outing!

The Meditations strike me as the record of a man trying to combine just what Epictetus thought you could not combine: a devotion to a fragile, unstable external good ( the Empire, his Empire ) with a tranquil inner life. Does it seem to you that Marcus was reasonably successful in this, or are his life & reign evidence in the end that Epictetus was right?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Still trying to have it both ways

At one point in Discourses IV. 10, Epictetus considers an objection I have been raising lately to his claim that one cannot pursue both externals and things in the sphere of choice. Epictetus imagines an interlocutor voicing the objection very laconically. “Ergon ergo”, he says in the Greek, alluding to a proverb meaning one thing has nothing to do with other. His interlocutor is saying that he sees no necessary conflict between attending to one matter and also the other. He’s what Epictetus replies:

You cannot devote your attention both to externals and your ruling part. If you crave the former, let go of the latter, or you will succeed at neither, being pulled in two directions. On the other hand, if you want the latter, you must give up on externals things. The oil will get spilled, the furniture will be damaged, but I shall be free from passions [ apathes]. [ IV. 10. 25 ]

He goes on to describe other domestic disasters. There will be fire while I’m away and all my books & papers will be lost. In the face of all these disasters, the Stoic alone will be “apathes”. That term , I think, is the key to understanding Epictetus’ response here. Epictetus does not think it possible that if we can value externals and then when they get damaged or lost or stolen—as they must inevitably-- that we can remain tranquil, calm, undisturbed, “apathes” in the face of these losses.

“Pathe” is the technical term Stoics use to refer broadly to any negative emotion. If I am afflicted with pathe, I cannot enjoy the tranquil and smoothly flowing inner life that is my goal. So much we must grant, but the question remain why the lost of valued externals MUST inflict sorrow and anger and such on me? Granted I have lost something good and something I valued, and that I did not want this to happen, but still, must I be devastated & grief-striken & inconsolable at its loss?

“Of course you must and will. You cannot help be grieved at the loss of what you think is good.”
But I knew my books & papers were flammable. I did what I could to protect them, but then there was a lightning strike and a big fire and they were lost. There was nothing I could do. They are gone. I would rather they weren’t, but my memory is good and I had insurance and some vital pieces of work were back up on disks I keep at the bank. I will cope.
( Is this beginning to sound like a true story?)

Let me stop here and just state what I’m trying to show. I do not see why we must accept Epictetus’ claim that we must necessarily be afflicted with pathe in the face of losses of what we consider good. Valued externals will be lost. We can & must learn to cope. Pursuing and trying to protect some externals is not incompatible with an inner devotion to tranquility.
What is in our power

This is an important point raised by a commentator [ see below ] , and I think it deserves more than a brief comment.

The Greek phrase “eph’ hemin” is conventionally translated as “ up to us” or “in our power” or “in our control”. And so I translate, for a want of better idiom, but caveat lector! The term, originally from Aristotle, has a technical meaning for Epictetus. Something is not “eph’ hemin” if our use of it can ever be hindered or frustrated in any way. Can the use we wish to make of our body or our property or any external sometimes be frustrated or hindered? Yes. Then no external is “eph’ hemin”. Epictetus says that more times than I can count, and we translate those passages as “ no externals are in our control or in our power.”

But there is a problem with this translation, isn't there ? It sounds counterintuitive to say “ our bodies are not in our control.” But this is what Epictetus is saying with the idiom “eph’ hemin”, not meaning, I think ,to deny the fact that we seem to be mostly in charge of what we do, but meaning only to deny that we have a level of control or power that cannot be overridden.

Don’t think of Epictetus as someone keen on scientifically exploring the limits and degrees of the voluntary control we do exert over ourselves and things. That is not his game in the Discourses. He thinks it self-evident that externals are not “eph’ hemin”.

One question I have been asking Epictetus is why he thinks that internals are “eph’ hemin” in his strong sense? We have the familiar phenomema of drugs and alcohol and brain injuries dramatically interfering with and altering our ability to reason and choose and behave well. Character and virtue and intellect are vulnerable. I can think of nothing, within or without, that is “eph’ hemin” in Epictetus strong sense. Remember, once again, that this is not to deny that we have some, perhaps a significant amount of internal control.
Our Principal Duties

Epictetus usually prefers to speak in terms of the roles ( prosopa, personae) we should adopt—spouse, parent, citizen, etc—but occasionally he reverts to a more traditional Stoic idiom and speaks of our duties ( kathekonta). Thus at Discourses III. 7. 25 he says

With man it is not his material being that we should honor, his bits of flesh, but principal duties. What are these? To engage in public affairs, to marry, to have children, to worship God, to take care of our parents,…

The question I keep asking in these pages is how we going to do these things without resources and, in particular, money? How will we take care of our parents and family, how will we support our church and community, if we lack the material means to do so? With words? And if we need externals like money to fulfill our duties, isn’t it also our duty to assiduously pursue these things?

It is one thing if you aspire to the life of a hermit or a street person. Then you can consistently denounce the pursuit of externals as a waste of time. And you will have plenty of time to do so! It is another if you are trying to live a responsible and worthwhile life. The pursuit of externals is at the heart of such a life. How can the philosophers urge us to neglect externals and yet hold that it is our duty to pursue a life that requires externals? Someone please explain this to me.
A Nameless Vice

Aristotle tends to identify virtue with moderate activity, activity that finds & establishes a mean between vices of excess and of deficiency. Thus generosity is a tendency to give moderately and appropriately, avoiding both the imprudent extreme of prodigality and also the vice of meanness or miserliness. Courage is a virtue that avoids both cowardice but also the reckless extreme of utter fearlessness.

Greed—pleonexia in Greek, avaritia in Latin—is the vice associated with an excessive devotion to acquiring wealth and money making. The Aristotelian virtue associated with wealth & money is plainly a moderate and appropriate concern with one’s financial health. What then is the vice of deficiency associated with wealth & money-making? It is nameless vice , as far as I know, but Aristotle says vices are often nameless if it is rare that people fall into them. It isn’t miserliness, which refuses to part with money, or injustice, which makes and uses money in bad ways. It is the vice of being deficient or derelict in pursuing one’s financial interests.

“There is no such vice!” Can you hear the Stoic saying that? “There is no vice of being insufficient attentive to externals. On the contrary, that is the road to virtue.”

But can the Stoic afford to say that, I wish to ask. Suppose I utterly neglect gainful employment and fall into poverty. Never mind the quality of life I inflict upon myself. Consider the kind of life I am now capable of if as an indigent in society. Can I function in and fulfill any of the responsibilities of a spouse or a parent or a neighbor or a teacher or a citizen? No. I survive ( if I do ) only as some kind or parasite or homeless street person. Can I fulfill any of the “natural” roles Epictetus so often recommends? How can I function as a parent or teacher or citizen living the life of a street person? Lack of externals like money and a job and a home consigns me to a worthless life. Is it not shameful to fail to struggle to avoid such a life?

“All our difficulties and problems arise in connection with externals,” says Epictetus at the beginning of Discourses IV. 10. I agree. If we either overpursue them, neglecting our inner life, or underpursue them, inflicting a worthless parasitic life upon ourselves.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

One road leads to serenity—keep this thought before you morning, noon, and night—and that is to stand aloof from things that lie outside the sphere of choice, to regard none of these things as your own, to surrender all of them to the divine and to fortune, to allow those persons to watch over these things whom God himself has allowed to do so. And then you must devote yourself to just one thing: that which is your own and which is free from all hindrance... [ Discourses IV. 4. 39-40 ]

Inspiring words, are they not? But reflect on their message. Do you believe that the only goods are right desire and right choice and right judgment? Would that they were perhaps, and that their opposites were the only evils, but as it is, do you think that what you want and believe and choose will guarantee you even a livable life, much less a good and happy one?

Some externals seem to be essential. Their presence in our life indisputable goods and their absence grave evils. It seems that I must assiduously pursue some of these things as the necessities of life. And that I must tiredlessly avoid others, things like illness and disability and real poverty. If I have no resources, if I am too ill or unfit to do anything worth doing, if I must live in hunger in bad places among bad people, I have no choices, or if you insist, only greater & lesser evils to choose between. Should I choose to die now or suffer another day? Is this a choice on the road to serenity?

I wish that a philosopher who tell us to stand aloof from externals had actually first done what he preaches. I wish he had lived the life he recommends. If he survives this experiment in living, let him come back and report to us on the quality of the life he has experienced. Let him tell me then that the hunger and poverty and illness that he suffered were not evils, and I shall listen to him more earnestly.

As Bertrand Russell once confessed, "Blinded by theory, I did not realize how foolishly I spoke and acted".
Unacceptable Consequences

We were looking at Epictetus’ argument in Discouses I. 22. 12-17 that valuing externals has unacceptable consequences. If things like health and wealth and reputation and power were goods, Epictetus says, it would be impossible to live a happy and tranquil life.

Let’s pick up the argument at 22.13:
“And could a man [ who values externals ] continue to live as he should amongst his fellow men? How could he? For by nature I look to my own interests. If it is in my interests to have some land, it is in my interest to take it away from my neighbor. If it is in interests to have a cloak, it is in interests to steal in from the baths. This is the source of wars, rebellions, tyranny and conspiracy.”

There is a parallel passage at Discourses II. 22. 14 that we might also take note of. Epictetus is speaking of the terrible fratricidal war between Polyneices and Eteocles for the throne of Thebes. “When the kingdom, like a piece of meat, was thrown between them”, he says, did you see how those brothers spoke and acted? “ For it is a universal rule –be not deceived about this—that every living thing is devoted to nothing so strongly as its own interests. So that whatever seems to be a hindrance to those interests--whether a brother or a father or a child or a loved one or a lover—is at once hated and abhorred and cursed.…”

There is great deal to sort out in these passages, and we can only do a little of that work here, but let’s see whether we can understand why Epictetus thinks civility and morality and piety and just all about all the other virtues are doomed if we value externals. Consider the claims he makes in the first passage: if it is my interest to own land, it is my interest to seize from someone else, and if it is in interest to own something like a cloak, it is in my interest to steal.
These seem like a pair of complete non sequiturs, don’t they?

Owning a piece of land legitimately grants me the right to reside on it and to use it to farm or pasture or whatever. But seizing a piece of land does not convey any rights of use. Do I expect to get away with seizing it from the previous owner? Do I expect that other people will leave me in peace to enjoy my ill-gotten gains? The land is valuable to me only if I can use or work it, but if other people, and especially the civil authorities, do not accept my right to use that land, I will find myself in a very precarious position. And the same thing in the case of someone else’s personal property. A coat might be valuable item to have these cold days, but if I steal it someone, I am a thief and liable to lose both coat and my freedom.

I don’t see Epictetus recognizing and responding to any of these obvious objections. The value and usefulness of anything is not independent of how we acquire it; and if we steal it, no rights of legitimate use are conveyed. We have made criminals of ourselves, and invited all sort of just punishments. How is that in my interests?

Let’s look at what Epictetus says about Polyneices and Eteocles. He blames the great value each placed upon the throne of Thebes for their fratricidal war. To this extent, he certainly right: If one or the other had not wanted to and valued being King of Thebes, there would have been no war. But was it the fact that they both valued the throne that precipitated their war?

Remember they both were already joint monarchs. Their sharing arrangement had been agreed to and honored by both of them for some time. Then one brother decided to depose the other and keep the throne permanently and solely for himself. That unjust act, that injustice, was the cause of their quarrel and the siege of Thebes. Not the external, nor the valuing of it by two people, but the unjust abrogation of their agreement to joint fair use.

Blame vice, greed & lust for power, not the valuing of property and office and reputation. Unless you wish to allow that vice is also innate in human beings—and Epictetus certainly doesn’t—then you can’t claim that valuing externals will necessarily & inevitably spawn the vicious & criminal behaviour he points to. We certainly do need virtues like self-control and justice if we are going to pursue and compete for externals, but we are capable of these virtues, are we not? I’m suggesting that Epictetus’ argument gains footing only if we assume a much darker view of human nature than he would ever concede.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Historical Note on Eudamonic Pessimism

According to Diogenes Laertius [ II. 94 ], Hegesias Peisithanatos was a Cyrenaic hedonist who developed a short-lived following in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Hegesias maintained the usual hedonistic view that pleasure was the good and pain the evil, but he came to the somewhat unusual & surprising conclusion that happiness was therefore impossible. The body and mind are forever prey to suffering and disturbances to which there is no effective remedy. Pleasure escapes us, suffering envelops us, happiness is unattainable. The practical consequences of his view were apparently not lost on some of Hegesias’ unfortunate students—whence his name “the advocate of death.” When a number of them began to feed themselves to the grateful Nile crocs, Ptolemy eventually intervened and required Hegesias to find residence elsewhere.

I tell you this tale from the doxographers to make you aware that eudaemonic pessimism was a view some ancient philosophers openly embraced. Many others—and I think especially of Aristotle—fought unenthusiastically to avoid a drift toward it. Who of us has a realistic chance at eudaemonia on either the account in the NE or in the EE? Happiness is not impossible, just extremely unlikely for almost all of us.
The Stoics do want to avoid eudaemonic pessimism, but they have their own problems with it. If the happy life is the life of virtue, and only the sage is virtuous, and there are no actual sages…. You see the inference. So when Epictetus says any philosophy that locates good & evil in externals is doomed to be a philosophy of kakodaemonia, he needs to worry about a charge of Tu Quoque. "Yes, but what are my chances of finding happinesss listening to your Stoic line, Epictetus?"
Hegesias argued that ataraxia was unattainable because the ills & failings of the body infect and compromise our mind & character. The facts he alludes to are undeniably, but the Stoics seem to revert to the superstition that mind can flourish as the body suffers. It is hard to see how serenity & happiness can be found by pretending that the state of our health isn't of vital concern.
Eudaemonic Pessimism

Eudaemonic pessimism is the view that human happiness is unattainable or nearly so. The gods may be a happy bunch, a few sages may glimpse happiness, but for the rest of us a happy & flourishing life is out of reach. We have a better chance of making it to the summit of K2 blindfolded than stumbling into a happy life.

Epictetus argues at several places in the Discourses that if we accept externals as goods, we must fall into eudaemonic pessimism. Epictetus considers this a strong reductio ad absurdum argument against anyone who would locate good and evil in things beyond the sphere of choice.
Why Epictetus considers eudaemonic pessimism a completely unacceptable position is an issue that would carry us into the heart of his view of the universe a rational, benevolent, providential place. I would rather look at his argument that if externals are good or evil, we are doomed to kakodaemonia.

The best formulation, albeit still only a brief sketch, comes at Discourses I. 22. 12-17. Let’s look at the first part of argument which gives us Epictetus' most general grounds for predicting that kakodaenia awaits if we pursue externals.
"What then? Are not health and an undamaged body and life goods? Aren’t children and parents and a native land? Who will have any patience with you if deny these things?
But let us assume that they are really goods. Is it possible for a man who is harmed and fails to obtain good things to be happy? It is not. "[ 22. 12-13 , slightly modified ]

The argument is severely enthymatic. Let’s try to reconstruct it.
1. Assume (some) externals are good or evil.
2. We are harmed when we are deprived of something good (or fail to achieve it).
3. If (some) externals are good, we will harmed if we are deprived of them.
4. We will be deprived of external “goods” (or frustrated in our pursuit of them ).
5. We will be harmed
6. If we are harmed, we cannot be happy
7. Therefore, we cannot be happy.

Consider premises 4 and 6.

Premise4 is a factual claim about the way the world will treat us. The world will frustrate our pursuits of critical externals and snatch away those we have been fortunate enough to obtain. A somewhat paranoid view of a benevolent universe, is it not? Epictetus is apparently predicting that this will inevitably happen to all of us . Not just that some or many of us will be unfortunate with externals, but that all of us will be. Does this agree with your experience of the world?

Premise 6 says that if we are in fact harmed by the loss of important external “goods”, we cannot be happy. We cannot be happy because we cannot be serene and tranquil in the face of the loss of real goods. What do you think? It obviously depends upon the severity of the loss, but are we incapable of dealing with ill-health or financial losses or notoriety or legal problems if we accept that these are real evils? Serenity in the face of real evils that can befall us is certainly a challenge, but is beyond us? Denying that many misfotunates are evils , as does Epictetus, could be seen as trying to taking refuge in an illusion.

There is a modal version Premise 6 that we should briefly acknowledge: if we CAN always and at any time be harmed by being deprived of vital externals “goods”, we cannot be happy even if we are not actually deprived of them. This is quite different from the factual claim that we will be deprived of externals. This is the claim that recognizing how fragile and precarious our hold is on anything external in life, we are condemned to a state of perpetual anxiety & dread that we will lose what we cannot protect.

To Epictetus I would offer two comments on this version of the argument. You are right, but more right than you think, for our grasp on internals like intellect and character and virtue is just as fragile & vulnerable to accident. Let one little blood vessel in the brain rupture suddenly, and we will never be who we were before. The challenge remains the same: to cultivate a serenity & happiness based on a realistic view of our terrible mortality & vulnerability to the fate. Better that, I think, than trying to build and move into a benevolent fantasy universe where no evil may befall a good man.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Just as a target is not set up to be missed, so the nature of evil does not arise in the universe. [ Encheiridion 27 ]

Let me take a stab at intrepretting this passage in the Encheiridion that fully deserves its reputation for obscurity. I shall pretend that we have no textual problems and that the English translation given above if a fair rendering of what Arrian wrote.

Here's my conjecture. The archer does not create or set up a target without a purpose. His purpose is to hit what he has established as his target. So God does not create anything in the universe without a purpose. But if he were to anything evil, what would be his purpose? What thing would ever aim at realizing something evil & harmful to itself?

Arrian's "excerpts" from the Discourses have a marked tendency to omit any reference to the diety or his agency, and I think part of the problem here comes from that source. Arrian has deleted all reference to agency, both on the part of the archer and on the part of the Creator. We know Epictetus has good reasons for rejecting anything that is evil by nature. Only vice is evil, he has claimed or argued at many points. Now vice, deriving from a misuse of our faculties of reason & assent, is anything but natural or inevitable. We are born with the capacity to make good judgments and choices, and we fail to do so for want of education and understanding and discipline. There is nothing necessary or inevitable about the errors we make.

“Shall you and I talk a little about things good and evil? While we have a few minutes this morning and before the business of the day sweeps us away. I see you often carrying around a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses . You must know it well by now. So what does the philosopher say, my friend?”

Well, Epictetus says some things are good and some things are bad and most things are neither. Good are the virtues, evil are the vices, and all the rest, such things as health and honor and wealth and even life itself, are neither.

“Yes, a remarkable view. Only virtue is good, only vice evil. And doesn’t he also say that virtue and vice are completely up to us, so it is fully in our power to attain the good and avoid all evils?”

Oh yes, that is one of the most attractive points of his philosophy. What really matters is in our hands.

“So, what do you make of Epictetus’ views? Have you set about testing them yet?”

Testing them? How do you mean? How would you go about testing a philosophy? Do you mean who agrees with him? I’ve also started reading Plato, and Socrates seems to agree with him, and of course the other Stoics do. Aristotle disagrees and allows that some externals are necessary and good for us. Epicurus—

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. We don’t test a theory or a hypothesis by taking a survey and counting up who agrees and who disagrees. Poverty is not an evil if twelve philosophers say it isn’t and only eight say it is. That’s not testing anything about the effects of poverty on how we live our life. I mean testing in the same way that we’d go about checking out any other recommendation presented to us. Suppose a trainer recommended a certain diet to you and a certain exercise regimen, would you automatically believe that it must be right for you and plunge ahead with it? Maybe would you take time to investigate it first, asking other people about their experience with it , and then, if those reports seemed satisfactory, cautiously subjecting yourself to the programme? Is this diet and fitness program working for me, or does it make me ill and tired all the time? If the latter, then it isn’t good for me, is it?”

No, you’re right. We can’t just accept, we must investigate things for ourselves. Well, I guess I haven’t gotten around to testing Epictetus’ views yet. You know, I’m remembering, he even tells us to that, to test them in our lives. Observe yourself, he says, and see whether you’ve begun to actually live these precepts, not just talk about them or recite them like some religious dogma.

“Good. Now let’s focus on a specific precept of his. How do you think we might go about testing in our lives his view that vice is the only evil? That view has always struck as very difficult. Things that are evil or bad harm us. That’s the fundamental point, but the philosophers insist on a qualification: harm us not trivially, but in our capacity to live rational, self-directed, moral lives. So a flat tire is not an evil even if causes me to miss my tennis match. Let’s grant that to the philosophers.”

Yes, that seems right. Some minor things, some inconveniences, seem too petty to call evils. A flat tire is a good example, but what about a serious auto accident? What about an accident that ends up crippling you?

“Epictetus would insist that that was not an evil. Ill-health or accidents are not evils.He says that over and over, doesn’t he?”

Yes, he does. Many times.

“ But now let me tell you a story, and you can probably match it with one of your own. I knew this fellow named John who worked for the Navy doing some kind of advanced electronic research. One day, riding to work on his motorcycle, a pickup truck ran a stop sign and clipped John’s motorcycle. John was thrown head first into a cement curve. He was wearing his big Bell helmet as he always did, but at 50 mph the force of the impact cracked it open like an egg, and John suffered significant head trauma. Making a long story short, John lived, and won a big insurance settlement, but he was never the same. He could not do the work he had previously loved to do. It was now beyond him intellectually. He developed a range of emotional problems, especially dyscontrol problems when faced with any challenge. He could not socialize well and a serious personal relationship was out of the question. He became reclusive and distrustful of others and eventually focused his life on collecting Canadian postage stamps.”

Yes, that’s a terrible story and you are right, I could tell you one of my own about a relative who had a head-on collision with an drunken driver and got thrown through the windshield, and unfortunately, he too survived as a walking shell of what he had been. But I don’t want to thinkabout that anymore. Why are we talking about these terrible accidents?

“Because Epictetus says that such things are not evils and that we are not fundamentally harmed by such tragedies.”

He’s wrong. let me tell you, he is wrong. That man in the car accident, it would have better for him and for his family if he had just died in the accident. Before the accident he was one man, after it another, and all the changes were for the worse. Intellectually, emotionally, and morally. I saw it, but I cannot imagine what it felt like to be living his life. He tried to kill himself several times with his pain meds but they didn’t kill him. I remember—

“My friend, you’re right, I think we’ve remembered enough about these events of our past. Most people, I fear, could tell similar stories about some friend or family member who suffered this kind of life-altering tragedy. Either in an accident or as the result of some illness. I coild tell you about an artist I knew who had a serious stroke at thirty-two. Thirty-two. Couldn’t paint. Couldn’t…but enough of this, as you say. I think we agree that we must disagree with Epictetus on this matter of the evils to which we all are prey. Not just vice, but accident or illness can utterly ruin the life we had and any hopes for any kind of decent life. If this isn’t grevious harm, nothing is.”

Yes, I agree.

“So at least one external, as Epictetus calls them, can harm us, wrecking havoc with not just the external circumstances of our life, but with our mind and character as well. But we need to go on and consider our experience with other externals, and whether they too can do us grevious harm . Let’s take poverty next.”

Please. another time. Yes, I think we shall find that poverty warps and deprives lives too, but I’ve had enough for right now. I see what you mean by examining or testing the views of philosophers. I see now I could never live with Epictetus’ view that only vice is an evil. The man I spoke of did nothing wrong. He was not careless or reckless or negligent in any way. He was just driving to work and a drunk hit him. That accident ruined him and did horrible things to his family as well. A great evil.

“As you say. Let’s stop then. I think it’s time to go work anyway. Philosophers like to tempt us with views that promise us a happier, safer, better life. But we cannot believe some strange views about the nature of good and evil just because it would make us feel safer & happier if we did so. We need to examine and test these views. If indeed no evil could befall us except the vice we inflict upon ourselves, then our life would be at once a much safer and happier affair. Would that it were so, but, as we began to see, our life seems vulnerable and prey to many evils over we have no real control. That’s is not news, is it, but merely a return to reality from an illusion that the philosopher likes to spin for us. A vulnerable, fragile , perilous existence, not life the happy providential universe of the Stoics, seems to be what we must face, perhaps stoically.