Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is in our power

This is an important point raised by a commentator [ see below ] , and I think it deserves more than a brief comment.

The Greek phrase “eph’ hemin” is conventionally translated as “ up to us” or “in our power” or “in our control”. And so I translate, for a want of better idiom, but caveat lector! The term, originally from Aristotle, has a technical meaning for Epictetus. Something is not “eph’ hemin” if our use of it can ever be hindered or frustrated in any way. Can the use we wish to make of our body or our property or any external sometimes be frustrated or hindered? Yes. Then no external is “eph’ hemin”. Epictetus says that more times than I can count, and we translate those passages as “ no externals are in our control or in our power.”

But there is a problem with this translation, isn't there ? It sounds counterintuitive to say “ our bodies are not in our control.” But this is what Epictetus is saying with the idiom “eph’ hemin”, not meaning, I think ,to deny the fact that we seem to be mostly in charge of what we do, but meaning only to deny that we have a level of control or power that cannot be overridden.

Don’t think of Epictetus as someone keen on scientifically exploring the limits and degrees of the voluntary control we do exert over ourselves and things. That is not his game in the Discourses. He thinks it self-evident that externals are not “eph’ hemin”.

One question I have been asking Epictetus is why he thinks that internals are “eph’ hemin” in his strong sense? We have the familiar phenomema of drugs and alcohol and brain injuries dramatically interfering with and altering our ability to reason and choose and behave well. Character and virtue and intellect are vulnerable. I can think of nothing, within or without, that is “eph’ hemin” in Epictetus strong sense. Remember, once again, that this is not to deny that we have some, perhaps a significant amount of internal control.


Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>We have the familiar phenomema of drugs and alcohol and brain injuries dramatically interfering with and altering our ability to reason and choose and behave well.<<<

Of course. Epictetus would not deny this. He did not lecture to drunks or to people under the influence of drugs, nor to people with brain injuries. There would be no point. Such people cannot be helped by Stoic ethics. I very much doubt that a practitioner in any tradition would want to make the attempt to get through to someone half cut or stoned out of their mind.

But this is not a problem for Stoicism, is it?

Stoicism presupposes in its students a functioning capacity for rationality. It does not hold it a necessary truth that every living human being possesses such a capacity.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry,

Thank you again for the comment.
What I think is a problem for Epictetus is the vulnerability of our inner life to tragic accidents.
Epictetus wants to maintain that our intellect and character and inner calm are "up to us" in a way that our control of externals can never be. But the findings of modern neuropathology seem to oppose this optimistic assessment. Sustain some significant trauma to your anterior frontal lobes, or to your amgydala, and you will likely become a very different person. Your ability to make good reasoned choice will be gone. Your self-control will be severely impaired. Your behaviour will become inappropriate in many contexts.
I conclude that my grasp on things in the sphere of choice is no more secure and "up to us" ( in Epictetus' strong sense ) than is my possession of externals.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

I don't see this as a problem for Epictetus. He would surely not object to your general point that our rational faculty is vulnerable in the ways you mention. Whilst this faculty is working properly, it need never fail in making proper use of impressions. But external things are persistently prone to doing what we do not want. All things being equal – and how else are to proceed (in any endeavour)? – our faculty of rationality can be trained to function perfectly day after day (until such time as it packs in). External things, on the other hand, are prone to doing what we do not want minute by minute, and there is no let up to this. Most people muddle along, getting upset when external things prove unreliable, and getting excited when they get what they want. The Stoic believes that this is a silly way to carry on, and demeans us as truly rational beings.

But you pays your money and you takes your choice...

3:52 PM  

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