Sunday, January 01, 2006

Why be a good actor?

I have another selection from the Cynics Teles and Bion to offer you. Bion is again telling us to be good actors. Last time I invited you to think about how close Epictetus stands to some his Cynic heroes. This time I want to remark an important difference between them. Both Bion and Epictetus counsels us to play well the roles assigned to us, but the playwrights are not the same. Bion’s thea and Epictetus’ theos are very different. Here's the new selection, found in Stobaeus under the rubric “ From the writings of Teles, On Circumstances”

Fortune, like some poetess, authors roles of every sort: a shipwrecked man, an indigent man, a man of reputation, a man of bad reputation. A good man, then, must play well whatever part she assigns him. You've been shipwrecked? Then play a shipwrecked man well. Once prosperous, you’ve fallen into poverty? Then play a poor man well. “ Equipped for adversity and equipped for prosperity,” [ as the poet says], and satisfied with any old garment and diet and service. Like Laertes, [Odysseus’ aged father, who had only one servant to care for him and who slept upon the ground.] For these things suffice for living suitably [ prosenos ] and in good health, unless of course one wants to live in luxury [ truphe]. “But not in the stomach lies the good.”

O’Neil translates prosenos in the last sentence as “calmly”, and that may be the meaning intended.
So why should we play well these roles of misfortune that the fickled goddess of chance [ tuche] assigns us? Why shouldn’t our total focus be upon reversing our turn of fortune and reclaiming the kind of roles we’d prefer to play? Better a rich man, ah, than a poor one.
Epictetus has the answer that God, a rational ,benevolent, immanent presence in the universe, has assigned this role to us for a good reason. Trust in His judgment and play the role you must play anyway. Bion and Teles, on the other hand, have a fickled goddess handing out roles with no presumption that anything is for our own good. Apparently, we are equally pawns of fate, just not a benevolent fate. So then why play a bad hand well?
The Cynic answer seems to be that none these misfortunes really matter. Shipwreck, exile, poverty, ignominy, and old age can all be endured, whilst we still live a tranquil and healthy life. So Diogenes and Crates have shown us. None of these circumstances, the Cynic goes on to say, involves us in a real evil. Evil is a thing like “truphe”, an addiction to luxury, which makes us dependant on unnecessary externals and subservient to them. That way lies no inner peace and healthful living.

So the Cynics counsel acceptance of our externals circumstances, of conditions that most men would call misfortunes, because they think such circumstances don’t matter to living a tranquil and healthy life. They don’t emphasize our powerlessness to overcome such circumstances, as do the Stoics, but it seems clear we cannot hope to fight against the assignments of God or Fate. Remember the excerpt from the previous post where personified Poverty asks Bion, “Why are you fighting against me? I bring you nothing evil?”

Let me end with a bold conjecture. Arrian is somewhat attracted to, or at least sympathetic with , the Cynics’ view of the universe, ruled more by Chance than God. The Encheiridion, which fairly consistently excises explict reference to God’s determining what is in our power, what are roles are, etc, reflects Arrian’s decision to frame Epictetus’ philosophy in a way that de-emphasizes its dependence on Stoic theology.

( I’ve not forgotten my promise to examine the Argument from Acceptance we found in Bion yesterday. I leave on the table for your comments before I offer my own.)


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