Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Unacceptable Consequences

We were looking at Epictetus’ argument in Discouses I. 22. 12-17 that valuing externals has unacceptable consequences. If things like health and wealth and reputation and power were goods, Epictetus says, it would be impossible to live a happy and tranquil life.

Let’s pick up the argument at 22.13:
“And could a man [ who values externals ] continue to live as he should amongst his fellow men? How could he? For by nature I look to my own interests. If it is in my interests to have some land, it is in my interest to take it away from my neighbor. If it is in interests to have a cloak, it is in interests to steal in from the baths. This is the source of wars, rebellions, tyranny and conspiracy.”

There is a parallel passage at Discourses II. 22. 14 that we might also take note of. Epictetus is speaking of the terrible fratricidal war between Polyneices and Eteocles for the throne of Thebes. “When the kingdom, like a piece of meat, was thrown between them”, he says, did you see how those brothers spoke and acted? “ For it is a universal rule –be not deceived about this—that every living thing is devoted to nothing so strongly as its own interests. So that whatever seems to be a hindrance to those interests--whether a brother or a father or a child or a loved one or a lover—is at once hated and abhorred and cursed.…”

There is great deal to sort out in these passages, and we can only do a little of that work here, but let’s see whether we can understand why Epictetus thinks civility and morality and piety and just all about all the other virtues are doomed if we value externals. Consider the claims he makes in the first passage: if it is my interest to own land, it is my interest to seize from someone else, and if it is in interest to own something like a cloak, it is in my interest to steal.
These seem like a pair of complete non sequiturs, don’t they?

Owning a piece of land legitimately grants me the right to reside on it and to use it to farm or pasture or whatever. But seizing a piece of land does not convey any rights of use. Do I expect to get away with seizing it from the previous owner? Do I expect that other people will leave me in peace to enjoy my ill-gotten gains? The land is valuable to me only if I can use or work it, but if other people, and especially the civil authorities, do not accept my right to use that land, I will find myself in a very precarious position. And the same thing in the case of someone else’s personal property. A coat might be valuable item to have these cold days, but if I steal it someone, I am a thief and liable to lose both coat and my freedom.

I don’t see Epictetus recognizing and responding to any of these obvious objections. The value and usefulness of anything is not independent of how we acquire it; and if we steal it, no rights of legitimate use are conveyed. We have made criminals of ourselves, and invited all sort of just punishments. How is that in my interests?

Let’s look at what Epictetus says about Polyneices and Eteocles. He blames the great value each placed upon the throne of Thebes for their fratricidal war. To this extent, he certainly right: If one or the other had not wanted to and valued being King of Thebes, there would have been no war. But was it the fact that they both valued the throne that precipitated their war?

Remember they both were already joint monarchs. Their sharing arrangement had been agreed to and honored by both of them for some time. Then one brother decided to depose the other and keep the throne permanently and solely for himself. That unjust act, that injustice, was the cause of their quarrel and the siege of Thebes. Not the external, nor the valuing of it by two people, but the unjust abrogation of their agreement to joint fair use.

Blame vice, greed & lust for power, not the valuing of property and office and reputation. Unless you wish to allow that vice is also innate in human beings—and Epictetus certainly doesn’t—then you can’t claim that valuing externals will necessarily & inevitably spawn the vicious & criminal behaviour he points to. We certainly do need virtues like self-control and justice if we are going to pursue and compete for externals, but we are capable of these virtues, are we not? I’m suggesting that Epictetus’ argument gains footing only if we assume a much darker view of human nature than he would ever concede.


Post a Comment

<< Home