Saturday, January 21, 2006

Another test: Is he a hypocrite?

We have spoken before about testing the ethical and eudaemonic speculations of philosophers. Philosophers want us to believe the views they put forward about virtue and happiness, and belief in this area is not divorced from action. Pursuing a bogus notion of happiness, as with ingesting a phony medicine, may have serious implications for your health and well-being. So we must test. One fair test, I think, is to inquire whether the philosopher himself believes what he wishes us to believe. Believes, not in the empty sense of mouthing some words, but in the real sense of trying to live in accordance with those words.

So, when a philosopher tells me something remarkable like “only virtue is good and vice bad”, and “virtue suffices happiness”, it occurs to me, not unnaturally I think, to question whether that philosopher has actually tried to live the good life he is recommending to all of us. At least try to walk your talk, philosopher, before you lead others astray with your speculations.

So far as we can tell, some ancient philosophers seem to have managed to live the life approximating the good life they recommended. Epicurus is first name made comes to mind and his life of tranquil hedonism. Aristotle’s life, I think, conforms broadly to the scheme of human flourishing found in the Eudemians. Socrates, for better or worse, seems to have lived his mission. And there were others

When we come to the Stoics and their remarkable eudamonism, however, the record is not as encouraging. We have of course one spectacular failure. The spectacle of Seneca scribbling his little essays disvaluing wealth and power whilst he labored day and night to become one of Neronian Rome’s wealthiest and most powerful men is too much for my stomach. We shall have no discussion of Seneca Hypocrites in these pages.

Zeno and Chrysippus are too shadowy in their biographies for us to say much about them , but we know considerably more the two most famous Stoics of antiquity, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius’ Stoicism is significantly different Epictetus’, and we shall have to leave a discussion of it to another time. I want to confine myself here to the question of whether Epictetus seriously tried to live the life his Stoic dogmas recommend.

Perhaps instead of dogmatizing on that subject myself, I should be content to raise the question with you and let you form your own judgments. The key issue, I will say, is Epictetus’ chronic disvaluing and abuse of externals. We are constantly told that no externals are goods and none of them has anything to do with happiness. Cease to value and desire and pursue them, he says, and look only to the virtues of your inner life. Only virtue is good and virtue suffices for happiness. Do the facts of Epictetus' life give us a man earnestly trying to live this gospel?

A final comment about hypocrites. I do not call a man a hypocrite who says “I believed that happiness lie in pursuing x, and I tried to pursue it, but I have found that a life of pursuing x is beyond me and leads instead to misery. Maybe others can do better with it than I did.” That man is not a hypocrite, I say, but he has confessed that his eudaemonic speculations are in one conspicuous case at least a proven failure. Speculate as you wish, philosopher, but then I demand from you the honesty of telling me whether you have tried and managed to live the good life you recommend. Is that an unfair test?


Blogger Henry Jones said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

[Sorry, I made an error, there...]

>>>Only virtue is good and virtue suffices for happiness. Do the facts of Epictetus' life give us a man earnestly trying to live this gospel?<<<

Do we know enough about Epictetus' life to decide?

And if we can find instances where he failed to live up to 'his gospel'? What then? Must we conclude that Stoicism is fatally flawed, or just that here is someone to failed to be the perfect Sage with respect to this and that?

At various places Epictetus specifically points out that he is not perfect. It is the possibility for finding, understanding, and correcting faults that matters for Stoicism to be a practical philosophy to live by.

If Epictetus once undermined his happiness by getting angry, for instance, why should this worry the exponent of Stoicism? As someone who is trying to make progress as a Stoic, when I see that I have become angry, I do not abandon Stoicism thinking that it has failed me. Of course not. I use what I have learned from Stoicism to understand my error and hopefully to correct this very fault, or at least not repeat it.

6:25 PM  

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