Saturday, February 18, 2006

Aristotle on happiness and externals goods

Several times I've made reference to Aristotle and represented him as holding a more moderate and reasonable position on externals. I have been asked to put some chapter and verse to these allusions.

It is a reasonable request, I concede, but one I can satisfy only in the most cursory and unsatisfactory fashion. Aristotelian eudaemonics is just too rich and complex a subject. Even if we limit ourselves to the remarks found in these six works---the Protrepticus, Nicomacheans, Eudemians, Magna Moralia , Politics and Rhetoric--- we shall be struggling to compass a series of positions that defy reduction to anything that could be honestly styled “the Aristotelian view.” In the face of that reality, I’m going to cheat and pick one small piece of text, Politics VII.1, and pretend that text gives us “the Aristotelian view” of happiness and externals.

We begin with some key parts of the text in their Jowett's translation :

[ Enough has already been said in previous discussions about the Best Life. We need only recap our conclusions. ] Certainly no one will dispute the propriety of partitioning goods into three classes, viz, external goods, goods of the body, and goods or virtues of the soul, or deny that the happy man must have all three.

Men argue about the relative importance of this or that good. Some think that a very moderate amount of virtue is enough, but set no limit to their desires for wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To them we must reply…that men do not acquire or keep virtues with the help of externals, but external goods with the help of virtue…External goods, like any other tool, have a limit…and where there is too much of them, they either do harm or at any rate cease to be of any use….

Let us assume then that the best life is primarily a life of virtue, but where virtue is also equipped with enough of the external goods for the performance of good actions.

Even in this very brief excerpt you begin to get a sense of the complexity of the Aristotelian view. But there are also several points that are clear enough in these few lines. Externals goods like (moderate) wealth and good circumstances, and goods of the body like health and fitness, are absolutely necessary for happiness and a good life. Without them, the excellences of the soul will have no occasion either to arise or to display themselves. Externals may not be good in themselves, may only be “tools” and depend upon our having wisdom to use them well, but without these tools, we cannot be virtuous ( no more than the builder can build, if we has no tools or materials or the health to do work ).

This is the position I wish to contrast with the Stoic dogma that virtue alone is good and necessary for happiness, and that wealth and health and the rest are not things we need. Aristotle's texts are not rich in exhortations to pursue wealth and health--he assumes men are already well motivated in that direction-- but it is clear that he understands that we must pursue them ( in the right way, to right degree, at the right time, with the right people, etc ). The Stoa never gives us this concession.

[to be continued]
“I too am a man, but almost everything that concerns other men I happily deem a matter of utter indifference to me.”

I shall forbear to inflict my Latin version of this emendatio upon you, but you can trust my scholarship. I had thought to entitle this post “Chremes the busybody, or what Menedemus ought to have said”, but even fans of the African’s plays might miss that allusion.

We are talking about “homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” Cicero lauds it in De Officiis. Augustine tells us it was one of the most recognized and applauded lines in the Roman theatre. But how did Terence mean us to take this heavy dose of moralizing? I know about 2000 years of criticism is solidly against me on this one, but I think we should read it as the posing of a busybody.

Let’s recall the scene. It is early in the Self Tormentor. Two old men are talking, Chremes pestering Menedemus with questions. Why you are wearing yourself out at your age doing heavy farm work? A man of 60 should be directing his workers, not outworking them. Menedemus replies, “Have you so much free time that you can ignore your own business and mettle instead in the affairs of others, matters that do not concern you?” Chremes draws himself at that point and gives his little speech beginning “Homo sum.” He says he wants to understand what Menedemus is doing and why, so that he may either join him or try to dissuade him. His neighbor’s business is his business sub specie humanitatis.

At this point Menedemus fails to grasp that he is in the grasp of a moralizing busybody. He makes a flustered reply ( “I must do as I do. Do you as it is necessary for you to do.” ) Not a bad piece of writing, I concede, but Terence misses the chance for an immortal retort with the line I have suggested:

“I too am a man, Chremes, but just about everything that concerns other men I happily regard as not my business. Now go away, you boorish busybody, and leave me to my labors.”

What do you think? Great theatre? A curmudgeonly Stoic rewrite of Terence. [ My serious point, if I have one, will have to remain obscure until a later post.]
Lathe biosis

Someone who utters the counsel “Lathe biosis” is advising us to do what? The aphorism is credited to Epicurus as comprehending his recommendation that we live our lives as private citizens, avoiding any entanglements in politics and public matters. But "lathe biosis" enjoins quiet, inconspicuous conduct in some particular matter. As a general recommendation we want "lanthane biosis.” Live your life ( everywhere and always ) inconspicuously. Conduct your life in such a manner as to be unnoticed in everything you do. Let's think about this kind of advice as it bears on the Stoic's programme.

Every Stoic, even the Stoic Emperor, piously condemns the pursuit of doxa or kleos. Fame or celebrity is very much a fickled and treacherous external. Eschew it. Avoid it. Run away and hide from it. But be careful fleeing Scylla of celebrity, because the monstrous whirlpool of Asapheia waits to consume you. So Epictetus at Discourses IV. 4.

“Cultivate asapheia”, then, is poor intrepretation of the counsel to live incospicuously. But what is a good Stoic to do if Fate comes apounding at our door and demands we choose, celebrity or obscurity? Neither is a good. The pursuit of either is an evil. Doxa and asapheia are equally aquaregic to a true good like ataraxia. So which should I choose?

I'm sure you already know the answer. The Stoic of course chooses neither. Celebrity and obscurity are not the only doors of my house, through one of which I must pass. Celebrity and obscurity are rather ways or styles of coming and going. Adverbs of living, if you like. "Lanthane biosis" counsels, avoid’em both. Study not to live conspicuously, nor again inconspicuously. Neither a celebrity nor an obscurity aim to be. Lanthane biosis.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Desireless action

A reader writes to argue that the Epictetean Stoic will not neglect his health or fitness or any other important external. The Epictetean Stoic, he says, can select and PURSUE an external like fitness even though neither it is not a good and not something he should desire. The first question is whether a desireless pursuit of some external is psychologically possible for a Stoic. For a Stoic, recall, all action comes from impulse ( horme ), and often from a special kind of impulse called desire. No impulse or desire, no action.

Confronted with a choice between a preferred and "dispreferred" external, a Stoic can select the preferred ( without desiring it ). But securing externals like fitness or a good diet is not a matter of picking among things offered to me. Important things do not fall to me by chance or at random. I have to pursue them assiduously. "Desireless" pursuit strikes me as a complete no-go in Stoic terms and in modern psychological terms as well. What will motivate and sustain my often arduous and uncomfortable pursuit of a goal but a strong desire for it conceived as something important good? I cannot imagine that occasional impulses toward dispreferreds me will not be sufficient to sustain any serious goal seeking.

The classic study of the Stoics on impulses, desire, and the action remains B. Inwood's Ethics and Action..., which I recommend to all.

You say also that I misrepresent Epictetus on the likelihood that our pursuit of externals will fail. I don't think so. Consider: if you think that your pursuit of externals will likely be successful, then why the devil don't you pursue them? Epictetus' principal argument against pursuing externals is that we must fail in such attempts on things not in our power. And, as a result, become distressed and unhappy with our failure. But if we are likely to succeed with externals, why not go down both roads at once, and pursue and enjoy both inner peace and outer prosperity as well?

It is one thing if you don’t want a life that is prosperous and successful—to each his own—but another to claim, as Epictetus constantly does, that pursuing externals will wreck your chances at a calm and virtuous inner life. Epictetus does not ( and probably cannot ) qualify his denunciation of desiring and pursuing externals. He cannot, like an Aristotelian, say “beware of overpursuing externals that are good in moderation or of pursuing some externals that seem good but aren’t.”

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Money and virtue

In Friday’s “Latin Proverb of the Day”, Bob Patrick offered us

Cui deest pecunia, huic desunt omnia.

Bob wisely intreprets this to mean that he who lacks money lacks the means to do anything worth doing. The indigent person is effectively “locked out of life”, money being the key he needs and lacks to gain entry to a life worth living.

I am fairly sure how a Stoic would reaction to this sort of aphorism. I am tempted to tease with him more of the same:

Quis est qui probus sine pecunia?

or Horace’s memorable

Quaerenda pecunia primum est, virtus post nummos.

Pecunia here is standing stead as the arch-extrenal. The claim is that securing externals must come first and anything else, including virtue, after we have secured a materially acceptable life. “First” not necessarily in the temporal sense, but in the sense of importance. Money has first priority, then other things if they are compatible with money-seeking.

In opposition to this view Epictetus, I believe, has staked out an equally radical and hard to defend position. His view is that you must be devoted to securing either a tranquil inner life or a prosperous outer life, BUT NOT BOTH. We are continually told in the Discourses that we cannot face in both directions at once. We must choose one and go after it, and let the other go.

The point I have been hammering away at here—ad nauseam, some of you are saying—is that we NEED to face both ways at once. Don't put virtue on the wrong side of an either/or. It is right and even necessary that we desire and pursue and secure certain externals, because if we don’t, we have no chance at the tranquil inner life the Stoics prize most. Ataraxia and euroia require a calm and safe and productive outer life, absurd Stoic “happy on the rack” pretensions notwithstanding. Indeed, inner peace and calm are a product and reward of dealing successfully with the world for the things you need, just as failing to obtain these things earns a miserable and uncalm existence.

The Stoics say that they do not completely neglect externals because they “select” preferred indifferents when the situation presents itself. But that formula for living, “select the preferred indifferent that are on offer”, is hopelessly inadequate to obtaining a life worth living. We must fervently desire and relentlessly pursue and finally capture the externals that the life we want requires. Waiting to select preferred indifferents is what directionless teenagers do until their parents tell them it’s time to get a job and a life. Yes?

Externals may be pursued virtuously or without virtue. [ The Stoics seem to despair of the argument that important externals can only be secured virtuously. They shouldn’t. They should have read more Plato. ] “Virtus post nummos” sets the priorities clearly. Seek wealth as a means to a life worth living. Prefer to seek it justly. But seek it successfully by whatever means. That is the “ethic” of virtus post nummos. I do not personally subscribe. But the Stoic position seems to me equally radical: externals don’t matter, seek virtue within. My question remains, how do you that without (first seeking) externals?

Someone will inevitably allude to monastics at this point. Don’t. Their lives are devoted to maintaining a calm, orderly, pleasant, properous environment. Visit a monastery or temple if you think externals are not central to the lives of the people who live there.

Have I at last made myself clear?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The door is open ( II )

As we observed in an earlier post, this is one of Epictetus’ standard replies to someone who complains that life has become unbearable. For example, at Discourses II. 1. 19 we read

What is hardship [ponos]? A bogyman. Turn it around and see what it is….If suffering is not worth your while, the door is open. If it is worth your while, bear it. For it is fitting that the door should stand open in all circumstances and we shall have no trouble.

In our earlier post we pointed out that death is not in fact available to everyone who wishes to die, especially when a society finds profit in keeping people alive beyond their wishes. Perhaps this is just another way that the world has changed for the worse since Epictetus' day. In any case, the Stoic assurance that the door is always open for us is now a false promise. Many of those for whom an easy exit is most desirable will be kept alive because there is money in torturing people. Life has become much harder to escape than the Epictetus’ image of the door standing open suggests.

But let’s not revisit those problems, and turn instead to a more fundamental one. Why does a Stoic want to live? Why not prefer death now? Do we ask too much of a eudaemonism that it explain why living, under at least some conditions, is preferable to being dead? I do not assert that Epictetean Stoicism has a serious problem here, but I must ask the question.

Any theory of human flourishing or happiness that identifies ataraxia ( and perhaps aponia ) as the summum bonum has the difficulty I am alluding to. The dead are beyond pain and suffering. They are no longer troubled and disturbed. Being alive, we are always prey to pain and suffering. We secure our escape from these states only in death. So why not prefer death now?

“But I have roles and responsibilities I have been assigned and must fulfill.” These don’t really matter, do they, if what I should desire above all is ataraxia and aponia. If I am able to lay down my sufferings and struggles now, why should I not do so without delay? The universe will cope well enough without me, and whatever kind of life I might manage to live going forward will not be as free of suffering and pain as death.

Other eudaemonic theories-- Aristotle’s comes to mind-- offer us a summun bonum of insight and contemplation. We endure our human existence because we are afforded on occasion the opportunity of a god-like contemplation [theoria] of the truth. Theoria not your thing? Well, suppose we add the chance to create? Another eudaemonic theory might add creativity to contemplation as a reason to live. Life gives us the opportunity to create the beautiful. The dead do not contemplate or create. But they are beyond pain and suffering.

This then is my question to the Stoic. A pretty basic one, I think. Why is better to be alive than dead?