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.


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