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?


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