Sunday, December 04, 2005

Just as a target is not set up to be missed, so the nature of evil does not arise in the universe. [ Encheiridion 27 ]

Let me take a stab at intrepretting this passage in the Encheiridion that fully deserves its reputation for obscurity. I shall pretend that we have no textual problems and that the English translation given above if a fair rendering of what Arrian wrote.

Here's my conjecture. The archer does not create or set up a target without a purpose. His purpose is to hit what he has established as his target. So God does not create anything in the universe without a purpose. But if he were to anything evil, what would be his purpose? What thing would ever aim at realizing something evil & harmful to itself?

Arrian's "excerpts" from the Discourses have a marked tendency to omit any reference to the diety or his agency, and I think part of the problem here comes from that source. Arrian has deleted all reference to agency, both on the part of the archer and on the part of the Creator. We know Epictetus has good reasons for rejecting anything that is evil by nature. Only vice is evil, he has claimed or argued at many points. Now vice, deriving from a misuse of our faculties of reason & assent, is anything but natural or inevitable. We are born with the capacity to make good judgments and choices, and we fail to do so for want of education and understanding and discipline. There is nothing necessary or inevitable about the errors we make.


Blogger Richard said...

I probably should read more of your blog to get a better feel for where you are coming from, but ... I'll comment first and maybe regret later ;-)

You wrote: "God does not create anything in the universe without a purpose. But if he were to anything evil by nature, what would be or have been its purpose?"

Assuming your perpective is from a someone who believes in God, furthermore believes in a good God, and lastly believes that there is evil (aka a devil of some sort):

I do not view God as having created evil. I believe God created a perfect free-willed entity. Since the entity was free-willed and perfect (an image of God - to borrow from the Judeo-Christian), it had both choice and power.

For me, evil is not a creation of God, but a creation of man through the exercise of his divine heritage and his free will.

(again, apologies, if this is not where you are coming from).

3:13 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Please excuse the typos.

It was not not my intention to express any personal religious views in this posting. I was trying only to make sense of a notorious obscure passge from Arrian's precis of Epictetus' philsosphy.

I speculated the obscurity arose because Arrian had deleted a crucial reference to God in his excerpt ( as he does elsewhere ). I think Epictetus was engaged in what the philosophers call theodicy, trying to justify the existence of evil in a universe created/maintained by an omnipotent and benevolent being. Epictetus' answer was that evil is an accidental, not an intented part of the universe. Evil arises only because men miss their targets sometimes in aiming at the good. They wish to do good but end up doing/creating evil, because their judgments are flawed and sometimed badly wrong.

I think this is very close to the view you are expressing.

As an afterthought--and please don't be offended by this--may I tell you the best theodicy I ever heard? Evil in our world is not a problem because we are already in Hell, suffering condign punishment for the sins of our past life. We are already damned and deserve to experience evil!

4:29 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thank you for clarifying where you were coming from.

I thought I should have lurked longer in order to get a better feel for your blog (I do this for forums, but somehow, I throw caution into the wind and jump right into commenting on peoples blogs)

I am very hard to offend. While the classics are wonderful (although I am limited to reading only translations - since I cannot read the original tongues), I borrow one of my aphorisms from Star Trek: "There is no offense where none is taken." Something I could easily imagine Marcus Aurelius having written in his Meditations.

By the way, I came here by way of Laudator Temporis Acti.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

I find the commentary to Handbook 27 in Seddon's new book very helpful [this is Keith Seddon, Epictetus' Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes, Routledge 2005].

The gist of the argument is found in these paragraphs:

A stronger thesis, which I think Epictetus favours, takes the words ‘the nature of evil does not exist in the world’ at face value (see Discourses 2.1.4, for instance). He cannot deny the existence of illness and death, nor that property is perishable, nor that when illness strikes or when property is destroyed, people suffer distress. The whole point of Epictetus’ programme in Stoic ethics constitutes the attempt to relieve people of their distress whilst their losses and calamities carry on as usual (this is why he regards his lecture room as a hospital – he cannot take away the calamities themselves, but he can cure the distress they produce; Discourses 3.23.30). This makes the nature of evil internal to everyone’s experience, but not an external feature of the world. We create our own experience of evil by not making proper use of impressions and by assenting to false judgements – and if this is the case, everyone is already in possession of their own cure, if only they can see how to apply it (Discourses 1.6.28/37/40).

Epictetus’ claim is that good and evil are found in the condition of one’s moral character (prohairesis), and that one’s being subject to evil cannot depend upon facts about anything external (ektos) that lies beyond one’s moral character (and is therefore aprohairetos; see Discourses 1.8.16, 1.29.24, 2.1.4, 2.16.1, 3.10.18, 3.20.1).

The prokoptôn [stoic student] therefore must constantly remind themselves of the distinction between their prohairesis (moral character) on the one hand, the condition of which constitutes the only source of good and evil, and ta ektos (external things) on the other hand, whose continued presence and character matter as the material upon which their prohairesis operates. What matters is the way in which one makes use of external things to engage in one’s undertakings, not the success of the undertakings themselves. Since the disposition of our own moral characters is in our power (eph’ hêmin), and since that disposition correlates precisely with our experience of good and evil, it follows that our experience of good and evil is completely in our power. All we have to do in the face of any supposed evil is to remind ourselves that this cannot be an evil for us, though it may, of course, prove detrimental to some undertaking or other. In failing to make proper use of impressions, and in judging incorrectly that we have been harmed, we will fall prey to a pathos (disturbing or violent emotion) and lapse into some vicious action; and letting that happen is the only evil we can suffer.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry,

Thank you for your interesting post.
First of all, I must confess that I’m not acquainted with Prof Seddon’s book ( or much of the recent secondary literature on Epictetus) . I find nothing in the passage you report to disagree with, but I don’t see how it explains the problem(s) of Encheiridion 27.

Encheiridion 27 sees a connection between a ( purposeless, non-existent) activity and the non-existence in the universe of what is “evil by nature”—whatever that is. The purposeless activity is setting up a target just to miss it. I assume it that if the sentence is to make sense the second clause must also be alluding ( tacitly) to some other kind of purposeless activity. My only conjecture as to what that activity could be is God’s creation of what is evil or harmful by nature. Arrian has for some reason, as he does elsewhere, deleted a critical reference to the divine.

Everything aims by nature at what is good & beneficial for itself ( happiness or flourishing, if you wish ). Nothing aims at what is evil or harmful to it ( suffering & unhappiness ). Evil & unhappiness arise for Epictetus when we misjudge the good and mistakenly desire/choose/pursue what is not in our interest. There is nothing necessary or “natural” about that kind of error, so Epictetus can deny that there is anything necessarily or by nature evil. That's what I think the point is.

I don’t think it would be very useful to dig into the notion of what is "evil by nature”. What I’ve been challenging Epictetus on is the idea that things like disease and disabilty and dire poverty aren’t evils. Evils are things that harm us greviously, and it seems to me that these “misfortunes, as Epictetus calls them, are capable of maiming & detroying the kind of human inner and outer life he recommends. If they can, they are evils, and Epictetus is wrong.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

Hello again.

I do not follow your point. Handbook 27 states: 'Just as a target is not set up in order to be missed, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world' (trans. Seddon).

I have always assumed that this means: just as no one sets up a target with the purpose of always missing it, Zeus has not created the world with the purpose of bringing evil into it. My understanding of Seddon's commentary is that this can be read either of two ways: either (a) Zeus did not create the world with the intention of bringing evil into it, but that evil has been brought into it, and that Stoic training will show us to bear this evil, or (b) there is in fact no evil in the world; the experience of evil is internal to each agent who experiences it, because they are failing to make the proper use of impressions (specifically, by judging some things to be bad, when they are indifferent) – and Stoic training will show us how to make proper use of impressions, so that we will never again suffer the experience of evil. Seddon suggests that this latter interpretation is what Epictetus means in this Chapter. I feel somewhat swayed by that view.

3:28 PM  

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