Monday, January 23, 2006

Do not attempt many things

Stobaeus has saved for us a passage from the 5th century BCE philosopher Democritus of Abdera:

The man who is going to be tranquil [euthumeisthai ] must not be busy with many things, either in public or private life, and whatever he does, he must not aspire to something beyond his powers and nature. [ Anth. IV. 39. 25]

It is interesting, and somewhat surprising, to find the ambitious Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius alluding to this passage and offering his own positive gloss on it. This is from Meditations IV. 24.

Do only a few things, he says, if you are going to be tranquil. Is it not always better to do the things that are necessary and the things that the reason of a creature born for a social life demands and as it demands? For what brings tranquility is not just doing a few things but doing them well. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary. If a man will strip off these things, he will enjoy more leisure and be less troubled. Therefore, do not forget to ask yourself on every occasion: is this one of the necessary things? We must strip off not only actions that are unnecessary but also thoughts. Only then will superfluous actions cease to follow.

Necessary things for Marcus are the things that our bodies require ( nutrition, rest, shelter, etc ) and the things we must do because we are social creatures. We have families and friends and neighbors and compatriots. All of these relationships generate duties.

So the recommendation that Marcus is extracting from Democritus is to do only the things that our bodies and communal life require, and these things are few, not many. The question of whether these things are in our power [dunamis], raised by Democritus, is discreetly passed over by Marcus.

I shall pass discreetly over the ad hominem question of whether it was necessary to defend the empire with almost 20 years of continual warfare—I think Marcus believed it was, but then consider about how stretched the concept of necessities has become—and ask a much smaller question about what is necessary. Is it necessary for us to do creative work in the arts and sciences and mathematics and philosophy? Do our physical and social natures demand it?

If they do, it is possible to envision one kind of simplification of one’s life that is not an impoverishment of it. But if not, and I do not see a reassuring argument that they do, then the simplification recommended is perhaps a fatal impoverishment of our life, removing not the means to survive, but any compelling reason to do. Do I live to eat and sleep and take carry of my relatives?

There is, you see, another kind of simplification of my life that gives me the leisure and focus to do the creative work that I love. That simplification targets my social and community life, and aims to “strip off” precisely those roles and duties that Marcus is recommending, as many of them as possible.

Do fewer things, then, and do them better. But are we are talking about a dispiriting focus on necessities or on our creativity?


Blogger Henry Jones said...

Ah... When I included in my comment to your blog --

The Indestructibility of Virtue and Happiness
[January 21, 2006]

-- the remark that >>>no Stoic, no Cynic, is telling you that you should give up externals, or reduce them to a minimum, or neglect them<<< I clearly opened myself to being rebutted by Marcus Aurelius (quoted in the current blog) when he advocates ‘Do only a few things ... if you are going to be tranquil’ (MA 4.24).

Well, I stand by my earlier remark, and I also agree with Marcus.

An explanation is obviously required.

Marcus is addressing himself, and in so far as he was a practising Stoic, his remarks might be sensibly thought to apply to any other practising Stoic also. But you are not a practising Stoic. For you, as you understand matters, your happiness would not be furthered by your reducing externals. You think that you will make yourself worse off if you tried to reduce externals. This is because you think that your happiness depends upon having externals. The Stoic thinks you are wrong, of course.

Because you think this about yourself does not make your thesis, that happiness requires externals, correct.

The Stoic reduces externals, and believes they are better off. They will explain why they believe this, and this will include beliefs about how happiness is undermined by lapsing into passions, and that doing so is more likely when they are troubled by externals. And so forth. Now, an impartial psychologist may be able to determine that the Stoic-in-training is indeed better off on a range of measurements (they feel more fulfilled, they blame their own judgements for misfortunes and not other people, and therefore the remedy for misfortune lies within their power). And the same psychologist may conclude the same thing about you: when you have more external things you also feel more fulfilled.

But the Stoic will argue that you have fooled yourself, despite your test results. If your well-being depends upon externals, then you will inevitably be unhappy (to whatever degree) when you lose your externals, or when the outcomes that matter to you are foiled by fate. The Stoic is immune to such difficulties because they place the good in their own disposition and not in external things.

And there is our impasse. Both sides think they are correct, and both sides are convinced that they have approached more closely than the other to the good life and to human flourishing,.. And I see no answer to it.

9:33 AM  

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