Friday, December 09, 2005

Only an actor

No, this is not another screed against the governor of Kalifornia. My topic is less topical. I want to talk a little about Encheiridion 17 :

Remember that you are only an actor in a play whose story will be what the playwright wishes. If he wishes the play to be long, it will be long. If he wishes it to be short, it will be short. If he wishes you to play the part of a beggar, remember to play even that role skilfully. Likewise if your role is that of disabled person or of someone in government or of a private person. For this is your job, to play well the part you have been assigned, but the choice of the role belongs to another.

Once again, Arrian’s “excerpt’ from the Discouses has managed to avoid or delete any explicit reference to the deity, though it’s clear who the playwright is. Oldfather’s translation cleverly smuggles him back in by capitalizing “playwright” and “he” throughout.

Encheiridion 17 is the place where many people first encounter the troublesome consequences of Stoic determinism. If at least the external circumstances of my life are already fully determined, what kind of life choices are left to me? I can, I suppose, “assent” and accept that life, or I can reject it and futilely struggle against will happen to me anyway.

I think I will leave an exposition of Stoic determinism to wiser hands ( see Long and Bobzein ), and just comment briefly on some of the baleful consequences of seeing your life as a script that is in the hands of someone else. Of course the salient moral consequence is that your choices, not actions, must be the locus of praise or blame. You are responsible for those actions to which you “assent”, but you will perform those actions regardless if it is fated that you will so act. So best to focus on choices, which, I take it, is what Epictetus does. ( And what are choices? Aren't they simply impulses to which I assent? And where does impulses come from? But let’s not wander into a discussion of Stoic psychlogy either. See Inwood if you interested )

If my life is a script in the hands of another, there is a problem about why I should try to plan and direct my own life. It will not do for a mere actor to try to usurp the roles of author and director even if the play is “My Life”. My role is just to act the part as already written, or leave the stage if I can no longer stomach the part.

Does it strike you that such a passive hands-off attitude toward the course of our life is likely to be more than a little debilitating? Persistence, even to the point of relentlessness, is not a dispensible quality for success. The foundation of persistence is a belief that my efforts will eventually prevail over the obstacles I am encountering and realize a future that would otherwise be denied me. The belief is that I will be able to make the world accept MY script for my life. But if my belief were instead “ I can only choose well, what will happen will happen,” there is an obvious psychological barrier to battling for a foregone conclusion. My plans & my persistance don't really matter to what will happen.

I know that the friends of Epictetus will have things to say in his defense here. I 've said or too much. What do you think?


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