Friday, January 27, 2006

Quit the gym, cancel your health insurance, and don’t worry if you can’t walk to the mailbox: advice from the Stoa

A reader objects that Epictetus does not counsel the neglect of externals that I have characterized as extreme and dangerous.

I want to revisit an early chapter of the Discourses to show, first, that progress for Epictetus is nothing but progress in ceasing to desire and pursue externals misperceived as goods, and in ceasing to be averse to and flee externals misperceived as evils. Ceasing to pursue and avoid externals, we spurn and disvalue and neglect them, as we shall see in detail in a minute. I also wish to show that Epictetus’ condemnation of externals rests on a double fallacy concerning failure and unhappiness.

Let’s return to the beginning of Discourses I. 4 “On Progress.”
[ Ti ouv prokoptei ; ]
That man is making progess who has learned from the philosophers that desire is for things good and aversion for things evil, and who has learned that peace of mind and serenity can only be achieved by a man if he attains what he desires and avoids what he does not want to fall into. Such a man has rid himself completely of desire or put it off to another time, and feels aversion only toward things in the sphere of choice. For if he should act to avoid anything outside the sphere of choice, he knows he will fall into it sometimes despite his aversion and be unhappy.

Let us remind ourselves of some things NOT in the sphere of choice. Such externals include disability and ill-health, poverty, persecution, exile, and bad reputation. Epictetus is telling us that the man who is “making progress” has rid himself of any aversion to these conditions and has ceased to act to avoid them. Think about that! The man who is making progess doesn’t care about ( has no aversion to ) becoming disabled and indigent and persecuted and held in opprobrium. And he does nothing to prevent these things from happening to him, because sometimes these things will befall him anyway and he will be disappointed at his failure and unhappy. He will not pursue fitness. He will not seek good medical care. He will not pursue a livelihood that will keep him out of poverty. He will do nothing to secure and preserve a good reputation. This is why I call Epictetus’ position on externals extreme and dangerous.

As the passage above makes quite clear, Epictetus’ injunction to avoid externals rests on these premises:
(1) happiness is essentially an inner tranquility undisturbed by what happens in the world.
(2) Tranquility cannot survive in the face of failure to achieve what you desire and avoid what you are averse to.
(3) Our lack of control over externals guarantees ( or virtually guarantees) that we will fail in our desires and aversions if we desire and are averse to externals.
I have (1) discussed in several previous posts and will content myself with some remarks on (2) and (3).

I call (3) the assumption that we will fail. This kind of pessimism is certainly understandable in people whose experience of the world has been one of failure and subjugation -- see some very insightful comments by Oldfather on page xvi of his introduction to the Loeb edition—but we must not credit this as the universal and general experience of mankind. Some men pursue externals like wealth and fame and celebrity and succeed admirably. Their lives are rich and rewarding, despite hollow Stoic protests. The recipe for failure seems to be overreaching, and not reaching for externals. Men of modest ability and timorous natures should very definitely not pursue fame and wealth, but those who are able may do so. As a point of fact, the failure to achieve the externals we desire is a possibility, not a (virtual) certainty.

Premise (2), I think, misunderstand human psychology and the pursuit of success in the world. We often must fail to succeed, and all success is partial and qualified. Yet if we are able and confident, we persevere and endure and eventually achieve a level of success we are satisfied with. Almost always. On the hand, failing to pursue the externals that we need and desire is a certain guarantee of a life we despise and don’t want. The Stoic counsel is not to try because we may or almost certainly will fail, but not to try is an absolute guarantee of failure. Tranquility and happiness are not dividends of neglecting our health and circumstances and the success we desire in the world.


Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>Such externals include disability and ill-health, poverty, persecution, exile, and bad reputation.<<<

Indeed. And they are called by the Stoics ‘dispreferred indifferent’ things. They are indifferent with respect to being good or bad (because only virtue is good and only vice is bad), and they are dispreferred because they are (all things being equal) contrary to nature, and therefore to be avoided.

>>>Epictetus is telling us that the man who is “making progress” has rid himself of any aversion to these conditions and has ceased to act to avoid them.<<<

It is a serious error to interpret Epictetus as claiming that progress is furthered by giving up all effort to avoid the dispreferred indifferents. The Stoic will act to do what is appropriate for the fulfilment of their duties and responsibilities, and strive to do so virtuously.

>>>And he does nothing to prevent these things from happening to him ... He will not seek good medical care.<<<

Yes he will. You mischaracterise the Stoic position, and the following texts undermine your interpretation:

What then ... shall I neglect all care of myself? Heaven Forbid! ... I shall never be a Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property: nor, in general, do we cease to make pains in any area ...
Discourses 1.2.35–7, trans. Hard [bold emphasis mine].

'Externals are not in my power, choice is. Where shall I seek good and evil? Within; in what is my own.' But in regard to what belongs to others, never use the words good, or evil, or benefit, or injury, or any word of that kind.
What, then, are we to use these externals in a careless way?
By no means; for this again is an evil for the faculty of choice and hence unnatural to it. Rather, externals must be used with care, because their usage is not an indifferent matter, yet at the same time, with composure and tranquillity, because the material being used is indifferent. For where a thing is not indifferent, there no one can hinder or compel me. Where I am capable of being hindered or compelled, the acquisition does not depend on me and is neither good nor bad; but the use of it is indeed either good or bad, and that does depend on me.

Discourses 2.5.4–8, trans. Hard [bold emphasis mine].

In the Stobaeus text we find the following:

Of indifferent things, some have value, others have less. ... Some are preferred, others dispreferred, while others are neither. Preferred are whatever have much value. ...
Of the indifferent things which are in accord with nature, some are first things in accord with nature, others are so by participation. ... The argument follows likewise by analogy with regard to things which are contrary to nature.
All that is in accord with nature is worth acquiring and all which is contrary to nature is worth shunning. ...
All the things which are in accord with nature have value and all things contrary to nature have lack-of-value. Value is spoken of in three ways: its contribution and esteem in itself; the price set by the appraiser; and the third type, which Antipater calls selective, through which, when things allow, we rather choose these particular things instead of those, such as health instead of sickness, life instead of death, and riches instead of poverty. ...
The preferred are so called, not because they contribute some things to happiness ... but because it is necessary to make the selection from these things instead of the dispreferred.

—Stobaeus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics 2.7.7b–g, trans. Pomeroy [bold emphasis mine, and with much omission].

>>>I call (3) the assumption that we will fail.<<<

The non-Stoic can of course fail very often to get the things they desire. But the Stoic need never fail to secure what they deem to be good. All they have to do is set about every undertaking with the right disposition. Their success is guaranteed in doing this, whether or not external circumstances turn out the way they had hoped. If they do not, well, all that shows is that Zeus did not plan for the world to go as they had hoped, and so they abandon that hope and accept the world as it is, and from that position they plan their next move. You can accept the world precisely as it is, and also take steps to bring about the things you prefer, because you do not know whether or not the things you will attempt are what is required to make the world go just as Zeus intends.

>>>As a point of fact, the failure to achieve the externals we desire is a possibility, not a (virtual) certainty.<<<

Of course. Epictetus would not object to this. He says that external things are not in our power, meaning that they are not always and invariably in our power. Sometimes we try to obtain some external thing, and sometimes we fail: sometimes we succeed. You cannot be sure you will get what you try to obtain. This is all Epictetus means.

>>>The Stoic counsel is not to try<<<

No it is not. The quotations above demonstrate that your interpretation is in error.

9:13 AM  

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