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.


Blogger Henry Jones said...

I think you are confusing two sorts of error, here.

The first sort is exemplified in my erroneously putting pepper on my meal instead of salt. The second sort is exemplified in my making the evaluative judgement that putting pepper on my meal something bad, when really it is something ‘indifferent’, and that this is something over which it is appropriate to get upset about.

At the heart of Epictetus’ ethical system lies the key claim that (with training) it is possible to make evaluative judgements that never err, and that doing so is always in our power.

The Stoic Sage has perfected their rational faculty to such a peak of perfection that they do not even make errors of the first sort, such as putting pepper on their meal when they meant to put on salt. The charge that such an ideal of perfection never has and never will be realised is a fair one, I think. But that doesn't undermine the general Stoic claim that one can make progress towards eudaimonia by perfecting one’s rational faculty, that almost any degree of progress is better than none, and that making correct evaluative judgements is always in our power.

5:19 PM  

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