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Tuesday 25 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (II)

Last time we looked at why Stoicism seems like it has a lot to offer but might also be total bollocks. On the one hand, it seems to be basically true that everything that happens is just a matter of perception and opinion, and this can give resilience in the face of adversity. Yay ! But, on the other hand, the notion that everything is opinion should mean that nothing really matters, that victims are responsible for their own problems and that no-one is really suffering. We don't need to worry about how we act towards anyone else, it's their responsibility to control their own responses. Less yay.

It's almost as though Stoicism has two radically different but equally valid interpretations :

Despite being a thoroughly cantankerous git, no-one could reasonably doubt Epictetus' general honourability, intelligence, and noble intentions. So how did he reconcile these apparently diametrically-opposed viewpoints ? Can the philosophy be saved, or are its adherents all just very silly ?

Saving Stoicism

Since he so rarely tackles the problem head-on, we have to look for more indirect connections. What about how we interact with other people ? If we're really not supposed to care about people's opinions, then perhaps Epictetus' advice on behaviour can give us a few clues. And Epictetus is pretty clear about this - we're supposed to act because we have a duty of care. In fact there are a whole host of cases where Epictetus is explicit that we should bloody well shut up and do something :
Life is indifferent, but how we use it is not indifferent. So when you hear that life and the like are indifferent, don't become apathetic; and by the same token, when you're advised to care about them, don't become superficial and conceive a passion for externals.
It's not much to go on, but it's a start. Not everything is amoral in Epictetus' worldview, which allows the possibility that some behaviour is bad and so we ought to avoid and prevent it. This suggests our opinions might matter, at least in certain circumstances, and that seems like a promising way forward. Let's continue.

When he defines humans as social animals, although he does advocate for personal responsibility he also encourages mutual interdependence :
It is silly and pointless to try and get from another what one can get for oneself. Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility from myself, why should I look to get a farm, or money, or some office, from you ? I will not be so insensible of what I already own.
A citizen never acts in his own interests or thinks of himself alone, but, like a hand or a foot, that had sense and realised its place in the natural order, all its actions and desires aim at nothing except contributing to the common good.
Who is really self-sufficient, fool - apart from the Universe itself ?
There is, of course, no contradiction here at least : act in your own interests where appropriate but help others where you can. Although sometimes as contradictory as an claustrophobic cave diver, overall the message does seem to be one of, "have a damn social conscience , you useless idiots." At one point this leads to a conclusion that could have been lifted straight from the pages of Plato :
A person of his conscience is neither bossy nor officious; he is not poking into other people's business when he looks after the common welfare, he is tending to his own. If you disagree, then by your lights a general who inspects, drills and oversees his troops, punishing those who get out of line, is intrusive too.
This idea that what is good for the whole is good for the individual is very much in line with Plato's sociology (echoed later by Cicero), as is the implication that some people are better at giving instructions than others. It's not plagiarism or paraphrasing : it originates directly from Epictetus' view of the whole purpose of moral philosophy :
Here you have philosophy's starting point : we find that people cannot agree amongst themselves, and we go in source of their disagreement... we focus on finding a standard that we can invoke. That is the way things are weighed and disagreements settled - when standards are established. Philosophy aims to test and set such standards.
But what good is having moral standards if morality is subjective ? It's more subtle than that. The moral effect our actions have on other people is subjective, but the effect it has on ourselves is not. That is something we can absolutely judge.
Did Paris' tragedy lie in the Greeks' attack on Troy, when his brothers began to be slaughtered ? No; no-one is undone by the actions of others. His tragedy lay in the loss of the man who was honest, trustworthy, decent, and respectful of the laws of hospitality. Those are the genuine human tragedies - when right judgements are subverted; when thoughts are undermined.
This is another Platonic notion that it is better to suffer an injustice than commit one. When we wrong someone, we harm ourselves more than we do them.
If you are transformed from a decent, social human being into some mean, snarling, dangerous beast, is there no loss involved ? Or do you have to lose money before you feel penalised ? A catamite is deprived of his manhood; an adulterer does away with a just, decent and honourable human being; a sorehead incurs one kind of loss, a coward another - but no-one is bad without loss or penalty of some kind.
But he acquired the lamp at a price : he became a thief for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead !
Here, then, is an ingenious solution to the problem. Epictetus doesn't really say we can't know if anything is good or bad in itself, he only says external events aren't intrinsically good or bad. How we respond to them is another matter - and our responses, our own opinions, are something we can indeed judge. We can judge other people's opinions too, just not their actions - only motivation and intent matter. Actions can be said to be good or bad only in the most circumspect way; they may precipitate a positive or negative change of opinions, but they aren't really the cause of this change. That's ultimately down to us.

And so we are compelled not to act badly towards others, despite their sufferings being mere opinion, because those actions are innately bad for us. How others respond to them is, somewhat perversely, irrelevant. What matters is that such actions hurt ourselves, so we shouldn't do them - while, conversely, when others do such things to us, we should remember that only our own opinion can hurt us. Thus is the paradox is solved.

Or is it ?

This still leaves a dilemma. Plato thought (as do probably 99% of humanity) that we should institute a system which encourages people to remain good and avoid falling to corruption, a goal intrinsically valuable. The only oddity in Epictetus' view (somewhat shared by Plato) is that we do so not for the sake of the victims so much as for the sake of the would-be criminals. The Stoic philosophy simply means we can endure our own suffering should it prove necessary, not that we sit back in a comfy chair while everything around bursts into flame, saying, "this is fine."... although I would argue that the earliest version of that meme is to be found in the Discourses :
Don't believe your situation is genuinely bad - no-one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house ? If it's not suffocating, I'll stay indoors; if it proves too much, I'll leave. Always remember - the door is open.
Here the door appears to be meant literally, though elsewhere it's a metaphor for suicide (more on that later). The point is that we can indeed take action despite being Stoical.
Say, 'I won't play any more' when you grow weary of the game, and be done with it. But if you stay, don't carp.
'Well then, aren't you threatened, even a little ?' If I feel that these things are nothing to me, then no.
'So do you philosophers teach contempt for rulers ?' Not at all. You don't find any of us preaching defiance of them within range of competence. My body,  my property, my standing in society, my friends - they can have them all.
But this still, I think, doesn't solve the fundamental problem. Stoicism can be interpreted to mean that we should personally strive for this absolute acceptance of external events, whilst simultaneously allowing us to encourage or even enforce moral behaviour among others. And in fact, Epictetus even says so on several occasions :
In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories : externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. It is morally wrong not to care, and contrary to our nature.
So again, not everything is beyond us. But if this is so, we have to give up this ludicrous idea that we should be content to sit back and let the criminals suffer their own punishments (as we saw Epictetus advocating quite forcefully last time). Yes, it's all very well saying that they inherently suffer by loss of virtue, but unless they realise that, then what's the point ? They will only keep on as they are, enjoying their depravity in blissful ignorance. In what way can they be said to be suffering if they aren't aware of it ? What point is there in being able to judge their opinions if we don't then take corrective action ?

No, the only sensible approach is to educate them, which sometimes means punishment. Even if we do this for the sake of the criminal and not the victim, it still means we take action.

Ignorance is indeed bliss, sadly.
A more fundamental point is that the loss of innocent citizens (at Troy) itself must be a bad thing otherwise no criminal action would have been committed. How else could Epictetus possibly assert that the invaders had fallen into immorality other than by saying that they carried out actions which were immoral ? He cannot possibly think they had become worse through doing actions that didn't harm anyone : ergo, slaughtering people does harm them, even if things are worse for the attackers than the victims. This renders the whole solution unconvincing.

Epictetus offers no basis whatsoever as to what constitutes an objectively immoral act or opinion, let alone any attempt at generalising. Without this, the whole concept of inherent harm is like a house of cards build on sand in a hurricane.

And even granting this idea of intrinsic harm as a way to save Stoicism from total disaster, Epictetus offers no advice on how we treat the victims after the crime. Should we give them the opportunity to express their majesty in suffering, or should we act like responsible members of a community ? That's a pretty big issue to leave completely unanswered, with strong hints given either way.

So the paradox is not fully solved - at best, we have to accept that Epictetus tremendously errs when he advocates for victim blaming, but even this doesn't say how we should treat the victims after the crime. It's all a mass of contradictions, really : we should let people suffer because they're not really suffering, but help them because if we don't we harm ourselves, except that our own suffering is itself not real because it's just an opinion as well, but then again we are definitely harming people when we kill them because in so doing we make ourselves worse even though harm is purely subjective; it's not our fault if other people are dicks and we should blame ourselves for being angry but also hate adulters but not care about adultery.

This is messy. Needlessly messy. And frankly, it's more than a little bit daft.

What could cause such hideous difficulties ? One of the problems here is much in the vein of Plato, who defined laws to mean only good, just laws, and got himself into a lot of confusion as a result (as well as confusing everyone else). Epictetus' definition of harm, I think, causes an even worse degree of befuddlement, so it's worth exploring further.

How to hurt a Stoic

Epictetus defines harm to be only when we have incorrect opinions and preferences regarding what is morally good. Holding the view (or by extension actually performing the action) that torturing kittens is desirable makes us a worse person and therefore we've been harmed, but the kittens themselves are just fine, apparently - unless our actions cause them to become morally corrupt themselves. Chopping off someone's leg as an act of revenge similarly harms us by our act of vengeance, but not necessarily our victim unless that leads them to a similar moral failing.

The last point is one Epictetus misses. For his example of Troy, he describes the burning of homes and towns as the mere destruction of "storks nests". He forgets that such actions aren't going to be popular among the residents and are likely to lead to them pursuing justice and/or vengeance (depending on how you want to see it). Unless by some freak of political circumstance all those people were Stoics, by Epictetus' own admission we can't expect them to respond with anything else than a desire for retaliation. So the actions of one lead directly to the harm of others.

The only sensible conclusion that I can draw is that if suffering really is only a matter of opinion, we should help people by whatever means are appropriate. Sometimes we need to only provide them with instruction (i.e. Stoic teachings), but in other cases we need to alter their situation (i.e. give them a nice new house after those barbarous Greeks burned them down). Again, leaving criminals to suffer "in their own prisons", as we saw last time, is fecking stupid.

Note that I've not attempted to define what "harm" really means. I would not venture a definition myself, but I will say that Epictetus's attempt is at best incomplete, and at worst seriously flawed. It seems downright strange to say to someone, "Your house burned down ? Well, you can still make correct judgements about the world, so everything's fine. Try and make the best of it, eh ?" It's a lot like the notion that we should all just be happy with what we've got :
Poor fellow, you're not satisfied with what you see every day ? Can you hope for any better vision than the Sun, the Moon, the stars, all the land and the sea ?
The obvious answer, of course, being Scarlett Johansson :

Also, I think the stars and the sea aren't all that great
if you haven't got anything to eat or anywhere to live.

And I think Plato would also disapprove, despite similar inclinations towards the nature of harm. Externals do have some intrinsically good and bad aspects, in my view; there is a basic fairness to consider in the distribution of resources. More than that, such a distribution can play an important role in shaping the moral opinions of society - not the only role, obviously, but a major one. The problems of greed are obvious enough, but surely, merely desiring what's fair doesn't have to necessitate a ruthless determination to buy five superyachts made of solid gold and filled with cannibal hookers. Merely wanting things is not a slippery slope.

At this point I'm far from convinced that Stoicism can be fully reconciled with common sense. Without being able to say exactly what harm is, I would still be willing to say that I think that if I lose a leg or an eye or an ear or whatnot, then I have suffered harm : not moral harm, of course, but I have made it more difficult for myself to learn and improve myself.

We don't have to stop here though. If the problem is the nature of harm, we can now go a level deeper. Why would Epictetus decide to use such a weird definition in the first place ?

As usual, it all comes down to free will

The main reason I think Epictetus falls into this trap of believing that only our opinions can harm us is that he has some pretty absolute ideas about the notion of the will. He says externals are beyond our control, whereas our own opinions and behaviour are - notwithstanding the need for training - absolutely our own and under the influence of no-one but ourselves. If that were true, then he might be right. We could simply alter our opinions and experience no suffering at all, ever. Yet that hardly seems to be the case : humans are neither programmable robots nor earthly divinities omnipotent in their desires - they are something in between.

Actually, Epictetus is a bit contradictory on this point as well. He admits that we have limitations, not just in our need for training, but also inherent limits :
Since we are on Earth, you see, bound to a material body and material things, we can hardly avoid being limited by these extraneous factors. 
'I cannot understand all these things at one and the same time.'
Is anyone saying that your capacities are the equal of God's ?'

Which echoes my own criticism of free will skeptics. If you were completely omniscient, you could make choices based only on internal knowledge. Us mere mortals, however, can only make choices within the limits given to us by our finite, corporeal bodies - but that doesn't mean we're not making a choice. Just because we're liable to make certain choices given limited information doesn't mean we don't have free will. Just because our choices can be predicted by MRI scans or statistical analyses doesn't mean we don't have free will either. It only means that we have limited options from which to choose. We can't look at a selection of doors, mull over which one to open and decide to turn into a wombat instead. Our inherent limitations necessarily make us somewhat predictable, without diminishing our ability to choose in the slightest.

The difficulty for Epictetus is that while he admits our imperfections, especially with regards to senses and knowledge but also in our capacity to make poor choices, sometimes he sees the will as nothing less than divine.
An eye, when open, has no option but to see. The decision whether to look at a particular man's wife, however, and how, belong to the will. And the determination whether to trust what someone says, and then, if we trust the, whether we should be angered by it - this also belongs to the will. What can obstruct the will-? Nothing external; only the will can turn back on and obstruct itself.
But perhaps he means to say that will and reasoning aren't the same : that our capacity to choose between options (within the limits of our knowledge) is untouchable, whereas our capacity to make judgements about the world is not. Like, you can only have limited predictive power about what the weather will do, but you have unlimited ability to decide if you want to bring an umbrella or not. Or to use Epictetus' more colorful metaphor, you can't choose if your next-door neighbour is hot or not, but you can choose if you want to try and bang them or not.
Who are you ? In the first place, a human being, which is to say, a being possessed of no greater faculty than free choice, with all your other faculties subordinate to it, choice itself being unconfined and independent.
This is in itself dubious, but more on that later. What about reason though, our capacity to make rational judgements ? Here he seems on firmer ground. Reason, says Epictetus, is there for us to evaluate information so we can make better choices. It's what sets us apart from the animals.
For what does reason purport to do ? Establish what is true, eliminate what is false, and suspend judgement in doubtful cases.
However well they may use impressions, animals lack the ability to reflect on them... they were born to serve, not command. If the donkey had also acquired the ability to reflect on its use of impressions, it would quite rightly refuse to obey us and serve our needs. It would, in fact, be mankind's equal and peer.
While animals can sense the external world and react to it accordingly, in his view they completely lack any faculty to understand and analyse what happened. Of course we now know this is simply wrong, but the basic premise establishes the notion that we aren't perfect and won't always make the best possible decisions. At least our capacity for reasoning is acknowledged to be limited, even if Epictetus apparently doesn't think the same regarding will.
The irrational animals share with man many of the same faculties. Do they also understand what happens ? No - because use is one thing, understanding another. For us who have been given the faculty of understanding, this [eating, drinking, sleeping, breeding] is not enough. Unless we act appropriately, methodically, and in line with our nature and constitution, we will fall short of our proper purpose.

So trying to save Stoicism is not at all an easy task. Arguably the most natural interpretation, to a modern-day mindest, of the idea that all suffering is just opinion is that this is a license for whatever hellish debaucheries we care to inflict. But then we looked at a possible solution. Actions cannot be judged, but opinions can - so if we think cruelty is morally correct, we've suffered harm. Unfortunately exactly how such people suffer is not specified. It's self-evident that such people are awful, but if they remain blissfully ignorant, then their nonchalance looks suspiciously like Stoic determination. And many people are not able to remain aloof in the face of adversity, not because they are bad, but because they are people.

What of this second proposal, that it's all about our free will ? That adds a whole new aspect to the problem. If it's possible - even in principle - to alter our opinions under any conditions, then we could endure anything, and so avoid falling into despair and ruin. Does that help, or does it just make the victim-blaming problem even worse ?

Next time, let's try provisionally accepting this and see where it leads. If we have limited capacity for reasoning (which seems certain) and at least some degree of control over our actions, then one career path stands out as the most important of all. Perhaps if we take a different perspective, and look at the types of choices the educated philosopher is supposed to make and the point of understanding why they made them, we might better apprehend the extent and nature of our free will.

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