Friday, December 30, 2005

How we should bear our illnesses

An essay under this title appears as the tenth chapter of Book Three of the Discourses. I had occasion recently to recommend it to an ailing friend. I myself have profited from reading it during bouts of ill health. I think the essay epitomizes what’s good about Epictetus and what’s missing.

What’s good is his resolute stand against any self-pitying, “why me” thinking, especially on the part of people who have decided to live their life in a certain way.

What does it mean to engage in philosophy? Is it not to prepare yourself for what is going to befall you?...What then should each of say as some hardship befalls?
“It was indeed for this that I was exercising and training.”
Now is your time to be ill with a fever.
“[I will] bear it well [kalos]”
To be thirsty.
“I will bear it well.”
To be hungry.
“I will bear it well.”
Are these things not in your power? Who can stop you
[ III.10. 6-9 slightly modified ]

What then is it to bear a fever well?
Not to blame God or man. Not to be upset at whatever happens. To await your fate in a proper and noble fashion. To do as you are told by the physician. Not to be afraid of whatever he will tell you when he comes…
[ III. 10. 13 ]

Being ill is sometimes a role we must play. It doesn’t matter that this is not a role we want to play. That part is not up to us when we have already fallen ill. Our only choice is how we shall play it, well or poorly.

Yes, indeed. So what is there to criticize here? What’s wrong with Epictetus’ message? What do you thinking is missing?

What’s missing is the determination to get well and to refuse to continue to continue to play the role of the sick person. “Very well, I’m sick. I accept that role. I don’t blame anyone. I’m not whining or complaining “ why me”? But I insist upon a short run for this engagement. I am going to do everything in my power to get well and reclaim the life I want to live. I will not play the role of the happy valetudinarian. That I refuse to accept.”

Epictetus’ message is one of acceptance. Accept ill health. Accept the unjust persecution of the government. Accept a bad reputation. Accept whatever misfortune befalls you and your family, because ultimately these things are not in your power and not important. I utterly and completely disagree. These things are important, and we are not powerless to resist what the world tries to do to us. The more resources and skills and will we have not to be consigned to an unlivable life, the better are our chances. Our efforts may fail, will probably fail, but what does it matter? What choice do we have if we are determined to live our life, and not the life of a slave? If Caesar is my enemy, I can always go live with the Hyperboreans.

Epictetus thinks we live in a deterministic universe controlled by a rational benevolent being who will see to it that “no harm befalls a good man.” His view is that what will happen to us is already ordained, and so it is both stupid and futile to fight against our fate. Go along with what happens to you. Be calm. Wish that what must happen will happen. Don’t worry. It will turn out for the best. I worry. I worry deeply about that kind of passivity, passivity in the face of evil. Did not the 20th century teaches us what passivity in the face of evil will gain us?


Blogger Bill Vallicella said...

Good post, Phil. But I am too tired at the moment to respond.

5:34 PM  
Blogger ormondroyd said...

Don't think we're quite reaching the depths of Cynic thought here.
NOw, far more than then, people are simply slaves to their possesions and their desires for more. Not all of the Cynics were homeless, though it was held as an ideal. Nor did they intend to be after society came to its senses and there was an equitable distribution of wealth. USA 2004 The richest 3 million have as much as the poorest 100 million- great system! Ormondroyd

8:08 AM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Ormondroyd:

Thank you for the comment. I look forward to "Cynicism Today."


8:55 AM  

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