Thursday, December 08, 2005

Still trying to have it both ways

At one point in Discourses IV. 10, Epictetus considers an objection I have been raising lately to his claim that one cannot pursue both externals and things in the sphere of choice. Epictetus imagines an interlocutor voicing the objection very laconically. “Ergon ergo”, he says in the Greek, alluding to a proverb meaning one thing has nothing to do with other. His interlocutor is saying that he sees no necessary conflict between attending to one matter and also the other. He’s what Epictetus replies:

You cannot devote your attention both to externals and your ruling part. If you crave the former, let go of the latter, or you will succeed at neither, being pulled in two directions. On the other hand, if you want the latter, you must give up on externals things. The oil will get spilled, the furniture will be damaged, but I shall be free from passions [ apathes]. [ IV. 10. 25 ]

He goes on to describe other domestic disasters. There will be fire while I’m away and all my books & papers will be lost. In the face of all these disasters, the Stoic alone will be “apathes”. That term , I think, is the key to understanding Epictetus’ response here. Epictetus does not think it possible that if we can value externals and then when they get damaged or lost or stolen—as they must inevitably-- that we can remain tranquil, calm, undisturbed, “apathes” in the face of these losses.

“Pathe” is the technical term Stoics use to refer broadly to any negative emotion. If I am afflicted with pathe, I cannot enjoy the tranquil and smoothly flowing inner life that is my goal. So much we must grant, but the question remain why the lost of valued externals MUST inflict sorrow and anger and such on me? Granted I have lost something good and something I valued, and that I did not want this to happen, but still, must I be devastated & grief-striken & inconsolable at its loss?

“Of course you must and will. You cannot help be grieved at the loss of what you think is good.”
But I knew my books & papers were flammable. I did what I could to protect them, but then there was a lightning strike and a big fire and they were lost. There was nothing I could do. They are gone. I would rather they weren’t, but my memory is good and I had insurance and some vital pieces of work were back up on disks I keep at the bank. I will cope.
( Is this beginning to sound like a true story?)

Let me stop here and just state what I’m trying to show. I do not see why we must accept Epictetus’ claim that we must necessarily be afflicted with pathe in the face of losses of what we consider good. Valued externals will be lost. We can & must learn to cope. Pursuing and trying to protect some externals is not incompatible with an inner devotion to tranquility.


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