Sunday, December 04, 2005


“Shall you and I talk a little about things good and evil? While we have a few minutes this morning and before the business of the day sweeps us away. I see you often carrying around a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses . You must know it well by now. So what does the philosopher say, my friend?”

Well, Epictetus says some things are good and some things are bad and most things are neither. Good are the virtues, evil are the vices, and all the rest, such things as health and honor and wealth and even life itself, are neither.

“Yes, a remarkable view. Only virtue is good, only vice evil. And doesn’t he also say that virtue and vice are completely up to us, so it is fully in our power to attain the good and avoid all evils?”

Oh yes, that is one of the most attractive points of his philosophy. What really matters is in our hands.

“So, what do you make of Epictetus’ views? Have you set about testing them yet?”

Testing them? How do you mean? How would you go about testing a philosophy? Do you mean who agrees with him? I’ve also started reading Plato, and Socrates seems to agree with him, and of course the other Stoics do. Aristotle disagrees and allows that some externals are necessary and good for us. Epicurus—

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. We don’t test a theory or a hypothesis by taking a survey and counting up who agrees and who disagrees. Poverty is not an evil if twelve philosophers say it isn’t and only eight say it is. That’s not testing anything about the effects of poverty on how we live our life. I mean testing in the same way that we’d go about checking out any other recommendation presented to us. Suppose a trainer recommended a certain diet to you and a certain exercise regimen, would you automatically believe that it must be right for you and plunge ahead with it? Maybe would you take time to investigate it first, asking other people about their experience with it , and then, if those reports seemed satisfactory, cautiously subjecting yourself to the programme? Is this diet and fitness program working for me, or does it make me ill and tired all the time? If the latter, then it isn’t good for me, is it?”

No, you’re right. We can’t just accept, we must investigate things for ourselves. Well, I guess I haven’t gotten around to testing Epictetus’ views yet. You know, I’m remembering, he even tells us to that, to test them in our lives. Observe yourself, he says, and see whether you’ve begun to actually live these precepts, not just talk about them or recite them like some religious dogma.

“Good. Now let’s focus on a specific precept of his. How do you think we might go about testing in our lives his view that vice is the only evil? That view has always struck as very difficult. Things that are evil or bad harm us. That’s the fundamental point, but the philosophers insist on a qualification: harm us not trivially, but in our capacity to live rational, self-directed, moral lives. So a flat tire is not an evil even if causes me to miss my tennis match. Let’s grant that to the philosophers.”

Yes, that seems right. Some minor things, some inconveniences, seem too petty to call evils. A flat tire is a good example, but what about a serious auto accident? What about an accident that ends up crippling you?

“Epictetus would insist that that was not an evil. Ill-health or accidents are not evils.He says that over and over, doesn’t he?”

Yes, he does. Many times.

“ But now let me tell you a story, and you can probably match it with one of your own. I knew this fellow named John who worked for the Navy doing some kind of advanced electronic research. One day, riding to work on his motorcycle, a pickup truck ran a stop sign and clipped John’s motorcycle. John was thrown head first into a cement curve. He was wearing his big Bell helmet as he always did, but at 50 mph the force of the impact cracked it open like an egg, and John suffered significant head trauma. Making a long story short, John lived, and won a big insurance settlement, but he was never the same. He could not do the work he had previously loved to do. It was now beyond him intellectually. He developed a range of emotional problems, especially dyscontrol problems when faced with any challenge. He could not socialize well and a serious personal relationship was out of the question. He became reclusive and distrustful of others and eventually focused his life on collecting Canadian postage stamps.”

Yes, that’s a terrible story and you are right, I could tell you one of my own about a relative who had a head-on collision with an drunken driver and got thrown through the windshield, and unfortunately, he too survived as a walking shell of what he had been. But I don’t want to thinkabout that anymore. Why are we talking about these terrible accidents?

“Because Epictetus says that such things are not evils and that we are not fundamentally harmed by such tragedies.”

He’s wrong. let me tell you, he is wrong. That man in the car accident, it would have better for him and for his family if he had just died in the accident. Before the accident he was one man, after it another, and all the changes were for the worse. Intellectually, emotionally, and morally. I saw it, but I cannot imagine what it felt like to be living his life. He tried to kill himself several times with his pain meds but they didn’t kill him. I remember—

“My friend, you’re right, I think we’ve remembered enough about these events of our past. Most people, I fear, could tell similar stories about some friend or family member who suffered this kind of life-altering tragedy. Either in an accident or as the result of some illness. I coild tell you about an artist I knew who had a serious stroke at thirty-two. Thirty-two. Couldn’t paint. Couldn’t…but enough of this, as you say. I think we agree that we must disagree with Epictetus on this matter of the evils to which we all are prey. Not just vice, but accident or illness can utterly ruin the life we had and any hopes for any kind of decent life. If this isn’t grevious harm, nothing is.”

Yes, I agree.

“So at least one external, as Epictetus calls them, can harm us, wrecking havoc with not just the external circumstances of our life, but with our mind and character as well. But we need to go on and consider our experience with other externals, and whether they too can do us grevious harm . Let’s take poverty next.”

Please. another time. Yes, I think we shall find that poverty warps and deprives lives too, but I’ve had enough for right now. I see what you mean by examining or testing the views of philosophers. I see now I could never live with Epictetus’ view that only vice is an evil. The man I spoke of did nothing wrong. He was not careless or reckless or negligent in any way. He was just driving to work and a drunk hit him. That accident ruined him and did horrible things to his family as well. A great evil.

“As you say. Let’s stop then. I think it’s time to go work anyway. Philosophers like to tempt us with views that promise us a happier, safer, better life. But we cannot believe some strange views about the nature of good and evil just because it would make us feel safer & happier if we did so. We need to examine and test these views. If indeed no evil could befall us except the vice we inflict upon ourselves, then our life would be at once a much safer and happier affair. Would that it were so, but, as we began to see, our life seems vulnerable and prey to many evils over we have no real control. That’s is not news, is it, but merely a return to reality from an illusion that the philosopher likes to spin for us. A vulnerable, fragile , perilous existence, not life the happy providential universe of the Stoics, seems to be what we must face, perhaps stoically.


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