Sunday, January 22, 2006

Factis procul, verbis tenus.

Favorinus once told me, says Aulus Gellius [ A.N. xvii.19], that Epictetus used to say that most of those who seemed to be doing philosophy were all talk, no action. They were philosophers aneu tou prattein, mechri tou legein, or in Latin, factis procul, verbis tenus.

So Epictetus thought hypocrisy a fair charge to level at his contemporaries. A risky move, that. One would think that the Stoics in particular were wise to avoid that issue. I can hear the shouts of “tu quoque” even at this distance.

Bertrand Russell once offered an apology for several of the bad choices that marred his personal life. He said made these mistakes not wilfully but “blinded by theory.” ( The educational experiments he inflicted upon his children went disastrous wrong. )

One can’t but wonder whether we are dealing with something of the same sort when Epictetus continues to recommend to us a theory of virtue and happiness that only “sages” can manage to live. And there are no sages.

A recent comment on this site pointed that some people have reported that Stoicism helped them cope with their years of confinement as prisoners and POW’s. No doubt! People who find themselves in situations in which they have almost no control over the external conditions of their life are not unnaturally attracted to a theory of virtue and happiness that says externals don’t matter. But most of us, I assume, are not prisoners or slaves or completely disempowered people. We have some fundamental choices to make about how we want to live in the world—career, family, companions—and we believe our happiness is not unrelated to whether we are wise and successful in these choices. If we fail in our career and our marriage, if we fall into a live of poverty and hardship, we shall likely not claim a virtuous or happy life.

You can of course SAY that these externals don’t matter, but it is another thing to ACT and live as though they weren't important. You can SAY, don't value and desire and pursue these externals, but who could really manage or even want to live that way? Where are the happy Stoics offering their testimonials to Epictetean Stoicism?

2 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>Epictetus continues to recommend to us a theory of virtue and happiness that only “sages” can manage to live.<<<

But what Epictetus recommends is making progress to virtue. The fact, if it is a fact, that no one has ever completed the journey does not mean that there is not much to gain in making what progress one can.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>You can of course SAY that these externals don’t matter, but it is another thing to ACT and live as though they weren't important.<<<

Yes, that's right. The 'other thing' is Stoic training. And the way that external things don't matter has to be understood correctly. External things are the objects upon which the Stoic exercises their virtue, and it is in the exercise of virtue that true well-being is found. The precise nature of the external things simply does not matter.

>>>You can SAY, don't value and desire and pursue these externals, but who could really manage or even want to live that way?<<<

Well, I for one...

>>>Where are the happy Stoics offering their testimonials to Epictetean Stoicism?<<<

Right here. Have a look at the International Stoics forum at Yahoo Groups, and you will find more.

9:24 AM  

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