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.


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