Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Nothing is in our control ( eph’ hemin )

One useful way to explore and test an ethical philosophy like Epictetus’ Stoicism is to detach certain parts of it—parts that strike us as the least defensible --and see whether the remaining edifice is still , literally, viable.

Epictetus believes that there is strong and absolute difference between the things that are in our control ( eph’ hemin) and the things are are not. Externals, including our body, are not in our control; internals are. But be careful with this term “internals.” For Epictetus much of our inner life is also not in our control. Perception isn’t, memory isn’t, imagination isn’t. The only part of our inner life that is in our power is the activities of ruling faculty, reason. Reason forms judgments and makes decisions. These alone are in our power.

Epictetus uses the concept of eph’ hemin in a very strong sense. Something is eph’ hemin for me only if I can never be hindered or frustrated in the whatever use I wish to make of it. No external is in my control in this strong sense. Perception and memory aren’t reliably under my control. But Epictetus thinks the functions of reason are. Nothing can ever frustrate me when I wish to judge or choose in an appropriate way. Reason is somehow held immune to the disturbances & pathologies of the brain that we know wreak havoc with our own judgments & choices. ( Epictetus nowhere addresses this major problem in our surviving texts. )

Suppose then we reject Epictetus view that reason is eph’ hemin, and conclude that indeed nothing is eph’ hemin ( in his strong sense ). We continue to accept the rest of system, and in particular, his view that good & evil lie solely in the activities of reason. What then follows?

“Well, if choice & judgment aren't in our power, then neither are good and evil, and happiness too, since it depends upon our securing the one and avoiding the other.”

Correct. And what else?

“The primary task ( ergon) of a human being will then become to try to secure and maintain as much inner control as is possible, and hope that it suffices at least for the major choices in his life. Because if a man chooses badly out of a failure of reasoning part to work well, then he will be troubled and the goal of a serene life will escape him.”

Absolutely. And will he succeeed?

“No. That’s the terrible part. Despite our best efforts and through no fault of our own, many of us will still fail because fate decrees that things will go wrong and effect our reasoning part. We will choose badly and earn an unhappy life.”

Yes, that does indeed follow. And so, what do you think, is that kind of life livable? But before you answer, consider one other thing. How would such a life be different from the life we believe we are already living?We've undermined the Stoic promise that virtue and happiness were eph' hemin, but did our experience of the world ever persuade us that they were more than a longshot?


Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>One useful way to explore and test an ethical philosophy like Epictetus’ Stoicism is to detach certain parts of it — parts that strike us as the least defensible — and see whether the remaining edifice is still, literally, viable.<<<

This is a very strange methodology. Does anyone use it elsewhere to obtain satisfactory results?

Epictetus’ ethical system depends on the validity of the distinction between what is in our power and what is not. The very idea that we can test his system assuming that that distinction is false sounds just silly to me. Why not cut to the chase? If the distinction between what is in our power and what is not is false, his ethical system fails.

But the claim you attack is not the claim that Epictetus makes.

>>>Reason is somehow held immune to the disturbances & pathologies of the brain that we know wreak havoc with our own judgments & choices.<<<

That is not what Epictetus claims. He nowhere claims that it is necessarily the case that every human being for the entirety of their lives possesses a properly functioning rational faculty. Such a claim is manifestly not true, and Epictetus surely recognised this as something obvious.

>>>Epictetus nowhere addresses this major problem in our surviving texts.<<<

Of course not. There is no need. Everyone knows that having a rational faculty that works properly is dependent upon the presence of a set of sufficient conditions. And making it the case that those conditions hold is not in our power. I cannot accept that Epictetus would have challenged that. The single example of a serious head injury is adequate for proving the point.

Epictetus’ ethic system holds true for people who happen to enjoy a properly functioning rational faculty. ‘Do you have a properly functioning rational faculty?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then all this follows...’

This assumption about a properly functioning rational faculty is found in other settings: in the law, for instance. The notions of crime, responsibility, guilt, and punishment make sense and can be applied only against an assumed background that the accused person has a properly functioning rational faculty. You cannot object to the present western criminal justice system on the grounds that sometimes some offenders do not have a properly functioning rational faculty (when that fact is taken into account on a case by case basis).

6:42 AM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry ( if I may):

Thank you again for the comments.

I agree that Epictetean stoicism is going to look fairly strange if we try to excise any central reference to what we can control. I do not propose that. My concern is that the version of the distinction Epictetus puts forward in the Discouses, his distinction between things eph’ hemin and not eph’ hemin, is not useful. It is a distinction between what is completely and reliably in my control and everything that is not in my control to that extent. I believe that nothing is in my control to that extent. The activities of reason such as judgment and deliberation, we seem to agree, are subject to breakdowns and lapses of control. Then reason is not eph’ hemin.

In place of Epictetus’ essentially apriori distinction I would suggest an empirical approach to the issue of the extent and limits of our control over things external and internal. Let us investigate and see what we actually can & cannot control with some reliability. Let us try to get clear on where we need control and what degree of control. I agree that trying to control what we have little hope of controlling is a primary cause of our distress & unhappiness. So I would suggest that we focus on trying to control the things we really need to control to the extent that we can control them.

Can we, for example, control the lapses in judgment and cognitive errors that give us so many problems in daily living? Don’t dogmatically say “yes’”, or “no”, but let’s see how we might try to do so and what actually works ( or doesn’t). That's what I propose to do here.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>Then reason is not eph’ hemin.<<<

I feel the point is so obvious that Epictetus simply does not need to address it. Of course, whether any of us has a reasoning faculty in good working order is not something in our power. For that we need a working brain, and whether or not we have one is not in our power. As it is for everyone, my brain is something external to my prohairesis, and is not in my power. But whilst it functions well enough, I have a reasoning faculty, and it is what this faculty does, says Epictetus, that is in my power. I use it to form intentions and make judgemnents, and doing so is always in my power (all things being equal).

The notion of all things being equal applies to anything you may wish to discuss, and the fact that sometimes all things are not equal, may not supply any weight to your argument — and that, I think, is what has happened in this case.

You may just as well criticise Epictetus’ notion of eph’ hemin on the grounds that the universe might end in the next instant, after I receive an impression but before I make a judgement about it — so how can my making this judgement really be ‘in my power’?

Well, this is starting to look rather silly.

Epictetus’ ethical system shows what is the case for people who have functioning rational faculties, and explains how people so blessed (for so long as they are blessed) may make progress towards eudaimonia.

Do you really think that Epictetus thought that someone with serious brain damage, or someone half dead with fever, or someone suffering advanced dementia had within their power the capacity never to lapse into a pathos because they could always make the correct judgement!?

You have set up a straw man, tossed it down, and claimed that Epictetus makes a fundamental error.

4:56 PM  

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