Monday, December 05, 2005

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.


Post a Comment

<< Home