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Wednesday 26 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (III)

Welcome back to this ongoing mini-series on Stoicism. We've covered quite a bit already, so let's take stock.

Nothing matters except opinion, say the Stoics. That lets us endure more-or-less anything, even if we're thrown into a pool of piranhas with lasers for eyes, but unfortunately it seems to let us morally justify throwing other people into pools of laser piranhas as well. If we just need to alter our opinions to endure suffering, then so be it - and the same goes for everyone else.

"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to realise all your experience is just subjective opinion and therefore die with quiet dignity."
One possible solution to this apparent moral paradox is that though everything may be just opinion, those opinions really do matter. We can't judge external events as good or bad, but we can judge opinions according to some absolute standard. The problem is that Epictetus doesn't provide any such standard; that without training people experience genuine suffering; that contradictory guidance is provided as to how to help people in distress; that if our actions (or intentions) really do make us moral or immoral, then those actions or intentions must indeed have some moral value themselves.

We tracked down the problem to Epictetus' definition of harm. Saying that we're only harmed if our opinions change in an ill-defined way, regardless of whether we experience pain or unpleasantness, causes all sorts of trouble. Why use such a definition ? That seems to relate to the issue of free will. : if we can change our opinions arbitrarily, then all suffering is indeed a matter of choice.

Last time we finished by introducing Epictetus' complex view of this, sometimes seeing free will as limited, but at other times portraying it as something godlike. Let's continue this investigation by looking at actual examples of choices we can make and how we learn how to make them. One career path in particular exemplifies this : the philosopher. Perhaps if we understand how Epictetus thinks philosophers, the most conscious of all of their self-knowledge and abilities, should behave, we might better understand what he really thinks about free will and thus whether his strange definition of harm has any merit. In particular, can Stoics really learn to not to fear attacks of deadly laser fish, or not ? And if they can, is that even a good idea ?

Philosophers : not too cool for school

For Epictetus, there is a very definite - if also mysterious - purpose to life : obeying the will of God. All must play their part. It's not enough to keep would-be hedonistic deviants on the straight and narrow : the bookworms, the quiet, introverted citizens (like Marcus Aurelius) are duty bound to participate too :
It makes no difference whether we wish to be a senator or not to be one... A book is an external, just like office or public honours. Why do you want to read anyway - for the sake of amusement or mere erudition ? Those are poor, fatuous pretexts. Reading should serve the goal of attaining peace; if it doesn't make you peaceful, what good is it ?
Anyone whose sole passion is reading books, and who does little else besides, having moved here for this - my advice for them is to go back home immediately and attend to business there, because they left home for nothing.
Understanding the theory of philosophy is a fine thing, but the whole point is to seek out and practise living virtuously.
When the crisis comes, we groan and say, 'I wanted to keep on learning.' Keep learning what ? If you didn't learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for ?
Understanding is something quite distinct from knowledge. The example I always like to refer to is mathematics : I could in principle memorise any formula, but when it reaches a certain complexity level, then even if I was given all the necessary knowledge, I might not necessarily understand what it meant. Similarly, people may know tonnes of moral philosophical theory but still act like jerks.
You have been introduced to the essential doctrines, and claim to understand them. So what kind of teacher are you waiting for that you delay putting these principles into practice before he comes ?
Step forward and make use of what you've learned. It isn't more logic-chopping that is needed - our Stoic texts are full of that. What we need now are people to apply their learning and bear witness to their learning in their actions.
For Epictetus philosophy is just a means to the end of becoming a good person (though he has not all that much to say of what "goodness" itself really is, or even how we should judge if an action is good or not - it's apparently just obvious). That's the whole point of it. If you just memorise a bunch of stuff and don't actually apply it, he'll happily let the door hit you on the way out.

Epictetus doesn't preclude that one might be a good person without training, only that there's a very definite purpose to it. This, he says, is where many others go wrong. It's not that theory isn't helpful, it's that people get stuck with it because it's easier than applying what they've learned in everyday life :
The first and most important principle of philosophy is the application of principles such as 'Do not lie.' Next come the proofs, such as why we do should not lie. The third field supports and articulates the proofs, by asking, for example, 'How does this prove it ?' The most important is the first, the one that should occupy most of our time. But we do just the opposite. The result is that we lie - but have no difficulty proving why we shouldn't.
Epictetus tends to the view that training and education does matter, it's just that reading books for the sake of an academic exercise is the wrong sort of training, that an exclusively intellectual focus won't bring about any real change in a person. Academic knowledge is important, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a change in the will to act. The will, in the end, is what really counts.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Epictetus really does value theory. He even goes as far as to say that making errors of logic is not only irrational but borders on the immoral :
'Look, if I err in such matters, I haven't killed my father, have I ?' No, fool - for there was no father there for you to kill ! You made the only mistake you had the opportunity to make. I mean, are these the only crimes, killing your father and burning down the capitol? But to use one's impressions recklessly, carelessly and at random, to fail to analyse an argument as either valid proof or fallacy, and, in a word, to fail to see in the act of question and answer what agrees with your position and what conflicts - is nothing wrong in all of that-?
Errors of judgement can lead us astray. In fact, improperly taught philosophy can be counter-productive, a sentiment shared strongly by Plato. While we should bear unavoidable hardships with complete indifference, this doesn't apply to our own decisions - we have a duty to strive to make the best judgements possible. Epictetus elegantly reminds us that even if our logic was completely sound, our assumptions and input data might still be wrong. Implicit in this is the need for constant re-evaluation. It's a commendably scientific, provisional approach to forming a conclusion.
If the premises remain as they were when we granted them, then we are under every obligation to stand by what was granted and accept what follows. But if they do not remain as they were, we don't have to accept it, because the conclusion no longer holds for us. Nor is it fitting that we accept it, since we have retracted our admission of the premises.
In a prescient passage that deserves to be quoted at length, Epictetus has some strong words for Brexiteers :
If you take pride in having the energy of a lunatic, I have to say, 'Friend, you need a therapist. This is not strength, but a kind of infirmity.'... if it was a reckless decision, it should be open to change.
'But we must stick with a decision.'
For heaven's sake man, that rule only applies to 
sound decisions. I suppose next you will decide that it is night now, and refuse to change you mind because you don't want to. Begin with a firm foundation; evaluate your decision to see if it is valid - then there will be a basis for this rigid resolve of yours.
'I've made a decision.'
Yes, so have lunatics. But the more fixed their delusions, the more medication they require... Nothing is more important than that I cure you of the conviction that, 'We must stick with a decision, and never back down' is too crude a law. This is deranged, not healthy, resolution.

If you can't change a person's mind, realise that he is no more than a child - and clap hands with him.
A sharp contrast indeed to his other statement, "Pay no attention to whatever people might say"*-! But perhaps more interestingly, knowing the techniques of rational analysis does not mean that people either understand or actually apply them. Philosophy, Epictetus says, is far from being the whole answer. He has no explicit statements as to whether virtue is something that can be taught (or otherwise changed by our experiences), a problem that Plato never fully solved either, but the overall impression I have is that he thinks some people can learn but others can't. For the latter a philosophy course can actually make things worse :

* Just as in part one we witnessed Epictetus insult people for being insulting, so here he says, "Listen to me, you must listen to no-one but yourself !" without apparent irony.
When this arbitrariness is reinforced by strength of purpose, the illness becomes past help or healing. I have come to understand that saying which I did not fully appreciate until now, 'A fool cannot be convinced or even compelled to renounce his folly.' God save me from fools with a little philosophy - no-one is more difficult to reach.
The writings and teachings of philosophy, when emptied into someone vicious and a fake - as into a foul and filthy vessel - become spoiled, degraded, and debased, turning into urine, or, if it's possible, something even more disgusting.
Both rigidity and flexibility of thinking are dangerous amongst idiots. The powerful and the stupid, said the Doctor, have in common that they alter the facts to fit their views rather than the other way around. A high level of analytic, problem-solving intelligence is all too easily perverted by a lack of critical intelligence - a respect for a more fundamental truth and an honest readiness to concede uncomfortable facts. And of course morality is arguably something quite distinct from intelligence altogether.
In general every talent , when it gets into the hands of the morally weak, comes with the risk of making them conceited and full of themselves.
Conversely, all this implies that philosophy can be beneficial to others. So at least some people can learn virtue to some degree. That seems a lot safer than saying virtue is entirely learned or innate.

In Epictetus' view, then, we all have imperfect knowledge and so our decisions need re-evaluation, as we ourselves need self-examination. His focus on the need for training to become a true Stoic suggests that knowledge can indeed bring about understanding, desire, and right action - it's just that training is difficult due to our human frailties, and different training methods may have different results on different people. The will, which knowledge can't control, is better viewed as our ability to make choices, not our ability given by knowledge and training to judge which option is best.

As in It, sometimes the choices are much more complicated than they first appear.
Thus, learning philosophy can help us become better people, so long as we train people correctly : if they have the will, then knowledge will help; if they lack the appropriate resolve, then it won't. Maybe this is the reason Epictetus appears to contradict himself as to the importance and strength of free will : he, or the translator, is using the term interchangeably with understanding. It seems like a potentially satisfying solution, at any rate.

Well I mean the importance of proper instruction should be obvious.

It's not your teacher's fault you're a jerk

Unfortunately this may not be sustainable. Our will, our ability to make choices, is something Epictetus views as absolute in the strongest sense of the word. The imperfections of the external world limit our options and cause us to make mistakes, but they do not affect in any way whatsoever our innermost ability to choose between those options. They limit and restrict us, but do not influence us :
God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way.
You carry the living God inside you and are blind to the fact that you desecrate him with your dirty words and dirty thoughts... you alone were given the power of self-determination.
Both the will and externals are fitted by nature to obstruct the power of sight, as well as speech and hearing. But what can obstruct the will ? Nothing external; only the will can turn back on and obstruct itself. Which is why virtue and vice apply to it and it alone. It is by the faculty of will, when rightly applied... that a good person becomes good; when its purpose fails, he turns bad. It determines whether we are to know happiness or not, and whether we will be on hostile or amicable terms with our neighbours.
So we have imperfect knowledge and wayward desires, but apparently we have total control of how we respond - not just in terms of our outward behaviour, but even in terms of our opinions as well. This seems very much mistaken almost by definition - we cannot simply choose our emotions and desires, however much we might want to :

Okay, we can influence ourselves by choosing what to read and who to associate with, etc., but that's hardly direct or complete control. If we did have such control, it would imply that the instant we understand what's right or wrong, we'd become the very model of virtue :
In the case of our ideas about good and bad, right and wrong... we are born with an innate understanding of what these words mean. We come into the world knowing some things that nature, you might say, has taught us already; and, building on this knowledge, we come to form opinions. [But] if, along with the innate ideas, we came into the world with knowledge of how they should be applied, we would be perfect wise men from the moment we were born.
This is quite sophisticated. But again, as soon as we understand how to apply these ideas, our complete self-control ought to make us practically perfect in every way. But, if the will is something so supremely powerful, and all we need is the right knowledge, how come moral philosophy courses haven't long since transformed the whole planet into a demi-paradise ? There feels like another contradiction and unanswered questions here : do we have supreme will or not ? If the will has such divine potency, and all we need to act is correct knowledge, why are there still assholes ?

Arguably, this contradicts Epictetus' stance that philosophy and moral teachings don't always succeed. I agree with him that even philosophers can be corrupt, but he never gets to the central issue of why. Sure, there are some very tricky moral issues, but sometimes even the most educated do really blatantly dickish things. Why would any philosopher ever choose to do things they know are wrong ? What's wrong with their supposedly godlike will in those cases ?

Some failures take real effort and, occasionally, intelligence.
And although he accepts the imperfections of our senses and the need to re-examine our decisions if circumstances change, Epictetus all too frequently implies that the external world can't affect our judgement at all so long as we have correct information. It's as though everything is ultimately a form of knowledge (again a Platonic tendency), albeit with things such as desire and understanding being quite a different type of knowledge than merely knowing facts.

Perhaps this could yet salvage the whole thing if we extend the logic a little. Suppose that everything is a form of knowledge, some of which we're born with (like the meaning of "good") but some we're not (like how to actually be good in practise). Maybe Epictetus is trying to say that although some of our characteristics are absolute, we're not born with the knowledge of self-control and desire and whatnot. That way they could both be ours and subject to external influence; we begin with an unlimited free will in the sense of a capacity for self-control, but no knowledge of how to apply it - just as we begin with knowledge of goodness but not the details of its application. Teaching is then genuinely important, because you can't act correctly without correct knowledge (and without correct knowledge of self-control this becomes even more true), but in the end our decisions are our own.

This might work... but it raises a whole new paradox. Remember back in part one, we saw that Epictetus said we shouldn't worry about thieves or adulterers because everything happens according to God's will, but here he explicitly denies this. They're clearly not acting in accordance with God's will but their own (albeit due to ignorance rather than malevolence). So at the very least, we ought to be concerned with their motives so we can correct them through education and/or punishment. But Epictetus says :
I mean, do we worry whether we are going to make an error in judgement ? No, because it is under our control. Or having an unnatural urge ? No again.
How can this be ? How can criminals possibly be said to be making correct judgements ? Our emotions clearly can be affected by the external world, and they clearly can affect how we make decisions. Epictetus admits the former but not the latter :
'But they deafen me with their shouting.'
So your hearing is offended; what does it have to do with you ? Your power of using impressions isn't diminished, is it ? Who can keep you from using desire and aversion, or choice and refusal, in conformity with nature ? No mob is big enough for that.

Of course it's bloody diminished, you twit ! YOU try solving a differential equation while someone is singing Justin Beiber songs in your ear at the volume of a steam train ! And if I'm deafened, I've lost external information by definition ! Sheesh.

Once again there's a promising solution to the main issue, but it comes at a cost. If we have unlimited capacity for self-control but only begin with limited knowledge of how to apply it, then we can learn to endure different situations and need to be taught right from wrong. Taking our "will" to mean our capacity for choice, we can say this is unlimited and free (within the available options) but our knowledge can be incomplete and influenced by external events. But we then have to reject Epictetus' assertion that external events can't influence our choices or the (frankly stupid) idea that we'll never make an error in judgement, moral or otherwise.

There's a great deal of wisdom we can salvage from Epictetus. But we have to be (ahem) willing to concede that the work as a whole is inconsistent and sometimes just plain wrong. It is not in the least bit a complete system, and in places it's so full of holes you could use it as a colander, except that it would go all soggy.

In the end, Epictetus doesn't seem to have a definitive answer as to how to reconcile the influence of external events with unlimited free will. Perhaps he's just being rhetorical*, but taken at face value his statements that our judgement cannot be impaired just don't make any sense - he fails to address why people tend to act as if they are indeed being influenced when apparently they are not. His only hint at how our rationality can be impaired is not terribly convincing :

* Though I doubt it. Much effort was made to make sure quotes are neither taken out of context nor isolated examples.
When a frightening noise comes from heaven or if an abrupt alarm threatens danger, the mind even of a wise man is inevitably shaken a little, blanches and recoils - not from any preconceived idea that something bad is about to happen, but because certain irrational reflexes forestall the action of the rational mind.
He's not entirely wrong, of course, but it's a heck of a leap to extrapolate this to all situations : that the mind has rational and irrational aspects, and that one cannot directly affect the other. Isn't it more natural to suppose that we have one faculty of reason which can be affected to differing degrees ?

It's all rather odd. Our emotions can, surely, be affected by external events. So why in the world would anyone think that our emotions cannot affect our preferences and our otherwise good judgement ? If our preferences can be affected through training - and obviously they can otherwise Epictetus wouldn't have tried to educate people - then why shouldn't our emotions be able to affect our judgement as well ?

No, it's that we do things, on occasion, that we are unable rather than unwilling to resist - the idea that we just prefer to do one thing over another (again, see part one) is not sufficient. Even if our deepest desires can change, sometimes we do things we fundamentally do not actually want to do - it's not always a matter of our preferences changing. We are neither thoughtless automata nor impervious divinities, but something in between, with finite abilities both to choose and to act.

Still, Epictetus seemed to me to be along the right general lines with regards to free will. Freedom of choice does not mean having unlimited options or being unimpeded or being unpredictable. It's about whether you get to decide for yourself between whatever options are available. You make a choice.

And sometimes those choices are very smart.

Are you in control ?

But what in the world does "you" mean here ? Descartes got into problems when he tried to describe the mind and body as two distinct sorts of substances, having no plausible way to explain how such utterly different media could interact with each other. Epictetus doesn't suffer those problems, because he goes no further than saying that the mind and body are separate. Presumably, the divine (i.e. supernatural and unknowable) nature of the mind is what allows it to control physical matter, but for Epictetus the main point is only that the mind is not matter. This leads to suicide as a valid option when one has been pushed beyond one's Stoic limits - there are things which matter just cannot endure :
When the mind no longer consents, then you can take my body, and farewell to it. Only, we must not part with it rashly or irrationally, or on trivial pretext. Because, again, God does not wish it. He needs us, he needs the world that we help populate.
Which is contradictory to the earlier statements that externals can't affect us and the will is supreme. Epictetus might say that our feeling despair and misery is not true suffering, that we only suffer when we act or think badly, but this is again a consequence of that strange definition of harm. It seems clear that if our thoughts turn to suicide, then we - in this context, our supposedly divine mental selves - have been affected.

So surely it is impossible to maintain that we don't suffer because of external events. Yes, we can alter our opinion, but the occasional need for suicide shows that this only goes so far. If we really had a truly irresistible will, what would be the need for suicide ? We could keep going quite happily despite even having our eyes gouged out. Accepting that this ability to put aside pain is limited inevitably concedes that we can be affected by externals. Even if it's because externals only affect the irrational part of our mind, Epictetus admits that the irrational part can overwhelm us - hence externals affect us indirectly at the very least.

So in the end, apparently our self control is only ever limited, and it varies enormously from person to person. This is not dissimilar to Plato's depiction of morality as being relative but objective.
For one person it is reasonable to be a bathroom attendant... Someone else not only finds such a job intolerable for him personally, but finds it intolerable that anyone should have to perform it. I will tell you that earning a living is better than starving to death, so that if you measure your interests by these criteria, go ahead and do it. You are the one who knows yourself, you know how much you are worth in your own estimation, and therefore at what price you will sell yourself; because people sell themselves at different rates.
Death before the dishonour of becoming a bathroom attendant ! To each their own, indeed.

Epictetus ultimately offers no clear guidance as to what it means to say that only our opinions can affect us. Are they really a matter of full control or not ? He variously suggests that they are a matter of full, partial, or no control whatsoever, often expressing these different and mutually exclusive views with equally staunch conviction, and provides no explanation for this. He seems to think that goodness is something innate and obvious, yet it's necessary to educate people for them to behave properly; we have a duty to help each other, but should let criminals get away without any earthly punishment. Stoicism for me is ultimately unsatisfying.

And yet Epictetus does give many valuable insights, even if he doesn't have a robust framework to tie the whole thing together. Free will depends in a rather inscrutable way on the mind-body duality. If Epictetus is not able to offer any great revelation about the physics (or perhaps psychics would be a better word) behind this, he does have something useful to say about the morality of the free aspect - even if he eventually goes to extremes. There is, "no greater faculty than free choice", he says. But what is free choice ? Does it mean simply being unhindered and able to do whatever you want ? Yes - and no. In part four, we'll look at my favourite part of Epictetus : his examination of what it means to be free.

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