Thursday, December 22, 2005

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.


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