Sunday, December 18, 2005

Stoic baiting?

First of all, a word of reassurance. Rumors to the contrary, I was not as a baby kidnapped by a band of wandering Stoics and forced to listen to their ceaseless chanting of the Encheiridion. No such torture was ever inflicted upon this humble blogger, and so this site is not a place where I contrive to practice a lex talionis upon my erstwhile tormenters.

A gentleman who has already contributed many valuable comments to this site seems to have some worries along those lines. So perhaps I should pause and offer an overdue Statement of Intentions. I will at least try.

Let me give Epictetus some rest today and take my departure from a text of Marcus Aurelius:

Put an end once and for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one! [ Med. X.16 , Haines trans ]

A noble & inspiring sentiment, you say. But what exactly is it recommending to us, may I ask?
I once knew a philosopher who had a plaque hanging in his office with that motto engraved on it. One day I found the temerity to ask him what he believed it meant. He said that Marcus was cautioning against the inaction to which theoreticians are all too prone. It was not enough just to talk earnestly about goodness and the completely good man ( kalokagathos ). We also needed to take action in accordance with that ideal.

"OK, " I said," but about what the 'put an end to discussing' part? Isn’t that about putting an end to the business you are in? "

Instead of the testy reply I was bracing for, he smiled and said, “You know, I am now older than Marcus was when he wrote that passage, and even at my age I do not know how we stop inquiring about the good, as though it were a settled issue. It’s as if we knew someone planning a long, arduous trip, and we said to him, ‘stop this all debate about where you are going to go and get going!’ We cannot sit forever debating our routes and destinations and never go anywhere, but neither can we take to the road pretending that our maps & charts of the terra incognita we propose to explore are reliable. It will be a voyage of uncertain route & unknown perils, and we need to be continually discussing & replannung it.”

“So Marcus was wrong about that?” I asked.


“But you honor his error with this plague on your wall?”



Blogger Bill Vallicella said...

Very good post. "A plague on your wall" -- a nice if inadvertent touch.

7:08 PM  

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