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Thursday, 27 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (IV)

My excessively thorough examination of Stoicism continues in this, the fourth part of a mini-series on Epictetus.

Thus far we've looked mainly at whether or not Stoicism is basically correct or not. I've concluded that it isn't - it's just too inconsistent, too contradictory, too incomplete. Stoicism says all suffering is opinion, which risks becoming a license to screw people over. This strange definition that harm is subjective stems from Epictetus' very absolute ideas about what free will really means. Having made it this far, it would be a shame not to go even deeper into this Pandora's Box and see what Epictetus thinks about freedom itself. Might we possibly still find hope inside ?

Spoiler alert : no. By now I cannot avoid the conclusion that Stoicism is, as a system of thought, pretty shite. Instead of viewing it as a complete world view, it's better by far to treat it as a proverbial box of chocolates : regardless of whether it's correct or not, morally it's full of both delicious caramel yumminess and yucky horrible nuggets of nutty despair. And nothing exemplifies this more than Epictetus' ideas about freedom.


This for me is where Epictetus makes his most important contribution, the one that resonates with me most strongly. Epictetus both agrees with the idea that freedom means doing whatever you want, whilst simultaneously destroying it with savage eloquence. Freedom, from Epictetus, is primarily freedom from - but as a means to an end of getting freedom to. In this worldview, freedom is a nebulous and subtle concept, and very far from being a state you can simply bestow on someone by such petty trivialities as legal declarations. Which is sentiment rendered all the more remarkable coming from a former slave.

The key principle of Epictetus' stoicism is that we can only be affected by our own opinions. While there's a great deal of confusion as to how much control we have over those opinions, the point here is that they do affect us, while externals supposedly do not. So, if our own opinions affect us, it follows that we're subject to their control. And how can we be truly free if we're at the mercy of our own emotions ? Well, we can't.
Weren't you ever commanded by your sweetheart to do something you didn't want to do? If your lovesick condition isn't slavery, then what is ? And yet if someone were to force you to kiss Caesar's feet, you'd regard it has hubris and the height of tyranny.
Poor guy, to be enslaved to a whore - and a cheap one at that ! What right do you have to call yourself free ?
But.... do you ever really do anything you truly don't want to do, or do you just have preferences as Epictetus indicated earlier ? You enjoy making loved one's (and whores) happy, so in that these cases, you do want to do it, at least in part. Whereas with kissing Caesar's feet, you do this because you prefer to bend to Caesar's will than risk execution - there's no part of it at all that you actually gain any pleasure from. And avoiding pain seems quite different than gaining pleasure.

So pleasing loved ones is in part a selfish act as you always derive some benefit from it yourself, whereas bending the knee to tyrants is done from sheer necessity*. Is it still a fair comparison if one of these situations gives you some enjoyment but the other does not ?

* Leaving aside Epictetus' silly claim that prefering to avoid death is just another choice. It may be technically correct but it's still bloody daft.

I'd argue that it's at least questionable. The more fundamental difficulty is how to distinguish one's emotions from one's genuine will. For Epictetus they are quite separate things. Emotions are things that enslave us, and are not really a core part of our being.
If I cherish my body, I make a slave of myself, if I cherish my property, I make a slave of myself; because I've disclosed the means to make me captive.
But what if a nice pair of shoes is what makes me genuinely happy ? It isn't, you understand, but what if it was ? Am I "enslaved" to my shoes ? How can I be enslaved if that's what I really want ? Or take philosophy. I like reading and writing about philosophy - it makes me happy. Am I therefore enslaved by it ? Am I enslaved by anything that makes me happy ? I hardly think so; emotions are not separate from my mind, and I wouldn't choose to be perfectly rational even if I could. That's not the goal behind philosophical analysis.

Given that the Upanishads are obsessed with food, a shoe-based philosophy isn't as unlikely as it might sound.
But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps he only means to say that we're enslaved by that we cannot do without, and that is certainly true to a degree. He who pays the piper plays the tune, and if you are truly dependent on externals - rather than merely desiring them - then you'll end up twirling, twirling, twirling towards slavery :
Whoever can be thwarted, coerced, frustrated or forced into a situation against their will - that person is a slave. The person who renounces externals cannot be hindered, as externals are things that are not within our power either to have or not to have.
If you hanker after externals you are going to be twirled round and round at the will of your master. Who is your master ? Whoever controls what you like or dislike.
If you would be free, then do not wish to have, or avoid, things that other people control, because then you must serve as their slave.
So in that more limited sense I cannot fail to agree : if we do not control our emotions, then they control us, and so we are not free. I particularly like how Epictetus uses our naive idea of freedom to show that it's at odds with out emotional burdens - how can we be said to be doing what we want if our emotions stop us from acting as we would wish ? A classic example is paranoia :
Freedom is the power to live our life the way we want. Do you want to live life doing wrong ? No. Therefore no-one who does wrong is free. No-one in a state of constant fear is free either.
It follows that we have to learn to control our emotions, so we need an education. Likewise, if we only know a few possible options, are we really making a free choice ? Not exactly. The the less we know about the situation, the more we are slaves to ignorance. We can't ever reach the levels of knowledge and choice available to the gods, and learning philosophy might not be a good idea for everybody (as we saw in part three), but that doesn't mean we can't increase our level of freedom through education.
The fruit of these doctrines is the best and most beautiful, as it ought to be for individuals who are truly educated-: freedom from trouble, freedom from fear - freedom in general. The masses are wrong to say that only freeborn men are entitled to an education; believe the philosophers instead, who say that only educated people are entitled to be called free.
For Epictetus, having the freedom to do as you will can only be achieved by controlling what it is you want. This links right back to the very basis of Stoicism, that only your opinions can affect you. Control those opinions and you are invincible -  but if you don't then you are a slave. All this is exemplified in what's probably my favourite quote of all :
Education should be approached  with this goal in mind : 'How can I personally follow the gods always, and how can I adapt to God's government, and so be free ?'
Freedom you see, is having events go in accordance with out will, never contrary to it. Is freedom the same as madness ? Of course not. Madness and freedom are poles apart. 'But I want my wishes realised, never mind the reasons behind them.' Now that's madness, that's insanity. Freedom is something good and valuable; to arbitrarily wish for things to happen that arbitrarily seem to you best is not good, it's disgraceful.

It's an interesting paradox how we can be free only if we act in accordance with God's will yet our free will is explicitly said to be independent of God's control, but one I shall leave for another time. More importantly, seeking to fulfil our desires without examining them is no kind of freedom at all in Epictetus' view. Unless you can understand what it is you want, your desires enslave you, and achieving them will bring you nothing. You might get what you want, but you won't be satisfied unless you get what you need.
The slave urgently prays to be emancipated. Then he is liberated, but now, lacking a place to eat, he looks around for someone to sweet-talk and dine with. Next he resorts to prostitution and, if he gets a sugar daddy, he suffers the most degrading fate of all, having now fallen into a far more abject slavery than the one he escaped... The things that men admire and work so hard to get prove useless to them once they're theirs.
The need for education to escape this fate is obvious. It's also important for a more prosaic reason that Epictetus neglects. When he said earlier that "no-one is bad without loss or penalty of some kind", he didn't mention whether they have to be aware of it or not. That raises the tricky problem of the imperfections of self-knowledge, and the fact that we can even incorrectly evaluate our own emotions.

I'll grant that Epictetus would have been hard-pressed to envisage this particular scenario.
We've touched on this issue before : is someone who's happy whilst being in a bad situation really suffering ? According to Stoicism, surely not : that's the very essence of how to endure cruelty. Suffering, says Epictetus, is opinion. And this must surely go both ways : if the criminal is happy while maiming and stealing and raping puppies, are they really suffering ? Apparently not. Granted, an ignorant criminal is not at all the same as an educated Stoic who consciously chooses not to be affected by hardship, but the effect on their opinion regarding suffering is the same. At most, the ignorant criminal could be said to be suffering only in a very abstract sense. And if our efforts to educate them fail, then it's small comfort to know that the criminal is abstractly "unhappy" when they're getting away with injustice and apparently enjoying it. This is perhaps why Epictetus, like Plato before him, resorted to divine retribution to properly redress the balance : abstract suffering just doesn't cut it.

The idea that education and understanding one's desires is important for freedom in turn leads to a rather Buddhist-like conclusion, but with an extreme consequence. If we are to achieve true freedom, we have to give up everything we value. Everything.
Is there any reason to fear someone to whom I stand ready to surrender my miserable corpse ?
Obtaining our desire is not done by looking outside ourselves for help, or by changing or rearranging circumstance. Hand your will over to Zeus and the gods, let them administer it; in their keeping, your happiness is assured.
Prepare yourself not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging - and the loss of everything that belongs to you. You will be a slave among slaves otherwise; even if you are a consul ten thousand times over, even if you make your residence on the Palatine, you will be a slave nonetheless... Freedom is achieved not by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.
That's hard to accept, and also pointless. Yes, there is great value in the position that we should seek to understand, temper, and control our desires. But eliminating them ? I see no value in that at all : we might as well all kill ourselves and be done with it. What value is there in a miserable corpse ? What's the point of being a living doormat ? What's the point in letting people cut off our heads because we refuse to shave ? Nothing. How can we possibly be "free" if we've lost everything we value - what kind of freedom is that ? None whatsoever. We would simply exchange one master for another, swapping our own ignorance and emotions for someone else's.

Dodgier parts of the internet tell me that some people have weird fetishes, though I don't think that's what Epictetus was into.

Not that such a state is easy to reach though. Epictetus readily admits his own limitations :
'Are you free then ?'
By God I wish I were, and I pray to be; but I still can't face my masters, I continue to value my poor body, I attach great importance to keeping healthy - though it isn't healthy at all.

Instead of urging better medical practises, a Stoic would simply tell us to try and enjoy having a broken leg. It's only your opinion that having your legs torn off by a pack of ravenous hyenas was a bad thing. But if Epictetus didn't value his body, what would he do ? He'd stop eating and die, making it very difficult to fulfil his god-given duty. That's not to say that he doesn't have a point...
We identify with our stomachs, guts and genitals. Because we are still vulnerable to fear and desire, we flatter and creep before anyone with the power to hurt us where any of these things are concerned... No despot, thief or court of law can intimidate people who set little store by the body and its appurtenances.
... only that again he isn't clear as to how we go about deciding what it is we're supposed to do all day if we have no desire to do anything.

The problem is that Epictetus nowhere sets out any way to distinguish either how to tell apart things we can and can't control (lists of examples notwithstanding, as that's not the same as stating the general conditions), or how to act when we're in a position to do something. It would be reasonable enough if he was saying something like, "don't worry about the things you can't control, but do be concerned with things you can" if he wasn't so bloody insistent on the half-baked notion that you can't influence any externals or other people at all. It's paradoxical, too, given his equally strenuous insistence that we can influence our own choices - which therefore must in turn affect other people.
Where I can be stopped or compelled, well, getting those things is not in my control - and not good or bad in any case.
Man is not the master of another man, only death and life are, pleasure and pain.
One person cannot harm another, but it is rather our own actions that help or harm each of us.
This is, it must be said, a wonderful and inspiring notion coming from a freed slave. On a personal level, being able to withstand the punishments men think they're inflicting is a superb way to rob them of victory. But on a sociological level, when it comes to those with the ability to set policy, it is absolute bollocks : if a slavemaster genuinely thinks his slaves are actually happy and free when he whips them, why should he stop ? Not, of course, that Epictetus supports slavery or means to justify it :
If you have been placed in a position above others, are you automatically going to behave like a despot ? Remember who you are and who you govern - that they are kinsmen, brothers by nature - fellow descendants of Zeus.
Rather the problem is that there's no attempt at explaining the general case, again, as though morality were obvious. This is by now a familiar difficulty. But while so far I've countered instances like these with examples demonstrating that Epictetus clearly doesn't want to hurt anyone, in a few few cases things take a very much darker turn. If you succeed in freeing yourself, you're at liberty to exploit those who are still enslaved. Merely blaming the victims was bad enough, but sometimes he goes even further :
'My father is laying waste to my inheritance.' But not harming you. 'My brother is will claim more than his share.' He's welcome to as much as he likes... what currency does he recognise ? Silver. Show him silver, then, and you can cart off what you like. Here is an adulterer. His currency takes the form of pretty girls. 'Take the money, and sell me the merchandise.' In this way they are bought and sold. Here is one whose taste runs to boys. Procure him his currency and you can take what you please.
Instead of trying to free the abused, Epictetus recommends that we simply use them as a weakness of the abusers to get what we want. So much for the virtues of Stoic freedom ! The sentiment might have been acceptable if someone had a weakness for stealing pencils, but sex trafficking ? Uhhh, how about no ?

This, and a few other cases such as saying that we should accept people behaving harmfully towards one another, is the worst and most unforgivable aspect of Stoicism. It follows directly and logically from the concept that everything, including harm, is just a matter of subjective opinion. Even if we employ the hypothesis that opinions can be judged, then Epictetus is at the very least guilty of being, on occasion, a total shithead - if his opinion is that sex trafficking is morally acceptable, then the problem of not stating how to judge opinions stands revealed not as mere incompleteness, but as a vast moral chasm in his personal worldview. At the worst, his whole philosophical system is fundamentally flawed. While previously we saw him turning a blind eye to deal with hardships, here he advocates active exploitation. No thanks.

Space Republicans ! The law of unintended consequences strikes again...
And yet this is undeniably rare, and arguably anomalous. By and large, Epictetus doesn't say we should go around bribing people, and despises adulterers as worse than vermin. He doesn't even say we should passively accept things, or encourage us to sit around feeling snooty in our own personal freedom while glorying in the servitude of lesser mortals. Overwhelmingly he does want us to act, for the good of our fellow man, and not to sit around all day saying that "everything is just an impression, so why bother ?", let alone selling people into slavery. The problem is not so much his intentions, it's the paradoxical nature of his conclusions. Sexploitation aside, it's just not at all clear as to why we should do anything if everything is just our opinion.

Let's be very generous and assume that Epictetus went a little bit mad from time to time. What, in general, does he actually want us to do all day ?

No lazy Stoics

As we saw in part two, this exact scenario was originally a Stoic meme.
And he clearly does want us to do something good with our lives. We should use our capacity for self-examination as fully as possible :
Consider the gift of reason : it sets you apart from wild animals; it sets you apart from beasts and sheep. By virtue of these two faculties you are a member of the Universe with full citizen rights; you were born not to serve but to govern, because you understand the divine order and its pattern.
Well, then, biting, kicking, wanton imprisonment and beheading - is that what our nature entails ? No, rather, acts of kindness, cooperation and goodwill.
Those who do not bother to temper their passions or question their desires are little better than brutes. Becoming an emotionless Vulcan is pointless and stupid. But learning to govern our passions through reason - that kind of knowledge is real power.

Once again we have to confront that awkward question of whether Stoics are supposed to intervene or just let bad people suffer by wallowing in their own misery. Previously I concluded (or rather rationalised my own pre-existing belief) that they should take action, and that the victim-blaming attitude adopted in parts of Epictetus should be discarded. Further evidence for this comes when he describes how everyone hates moral philosophers, with the obvious implication that moral philosophers are quite important :
Tell me the steps you've taken to care for your soul... did you learn how from another person, or did you discover it yourself ?' At this point you run the risk of him saying, 'What business is that of yours, sir ?' Pester him further, and he is liable to punch you in the nose.
If a doctor tells a patient, "Look, you may think this is insignificant, but you're really sick; no food for you today, only water' - no-one thinks, 'How rude !' But say to someone, 'Your desires are unhealthy,  your powers of aversion are weak, your plans are incoherent, your impulses are at odds with nature and your system of values is false and confused' - and off they go alleging slander.
Which suggests* a very practical reason to adopt a Stoic attitude - how else could a philosopher endure all those insults and nose punches ? Perhaps philosophy would have turned out differently if armour had been cheaper...

* Leaving aside the need to shout, "you're the one who says we should become sex traffickers, you dickhead !"

People are willing to admit physical deficiencies because they're not usually a matter of choice, whereas they prefer to believe they are always in control of their choices. The difficulty for moral philosophers is that they first have to persuade people that they're not as in control as they think, and only then can then re-educate them to allow them to take genuine responsibility.
Though values differ, as a rule people will admit to practically nothing that they regard as dishonourable. In general, where people are led to acknowledge a fault is is because they imagine there is something involuntary about it.
(Though I suppose chronic stupidity is an obvious exception to this.) Only the tutelage of a philosopher, it seems, is any defence against falling into the common trap of ignoring our own moral and intellectual failings. Clearly philosophers have to do something, and not just sit around all day pointing out how awful adulterers are whilst doing bugger all to actually stop them (even if Stoicism, unlike Plato, says nothing much at all about broader social policies). The same goes for both the ordinary man and even the most hardened Stoic :
'But my nose is running !' What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it ? 'But how is it right that there are running noses in the first place ?' Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn't it be easier just to wipe your nose ?
Listen, stupid, you have hands. God gave them to you himself. You might as well get on your knees and pray that your nose won't run. A better idea would be to wipe your nose and forego the prayer.
Being able to endure hardship doesn't mean that you're obligated to. Sure, you can let someone cut your head off, but you don't necessarily need to do that if you have a way to stop them. Rather, it gives you an added advantage in the case where the situation is beyond your control. If the situation is something you can affect, however, you're at liberty to influence it.

The problem here is that Stoicism provides few guidelines as to how to behave when our actions will actually make a difference. I mean, it's all very well being able to withstand suffering, but yet again a hypocritical paradox emerges here : if there's no point in worrying about things I can't control, why does Epictetus labour the point so much ? After all, if there are situations where I do have influence, surely it's more useful to everyone if I dwell on how I'm going to act in those conditions, rather than spend every day preparing for the cases which I can't do anything about anyway. And, as with the example of being deafened, sheer physical pain - when elevated far beyond the inconvenience of a runny nose - would seem to be capable of changing our intentions and rational judgement.

Plenty of other things can ruin concentration.
The central Stoic idea that we should take things as we find them is never reconciled with the practically self-evident notion that we do have means to influence the world. We can either say, "it's a pity my nose is running, but never mind", or we just can wipe our nose instead*, but to provide a complete philosophy there should be an explanation as to why we should choose the latter.

*There are actually three responses to a runny nose : complaining but doing nothing, wiping, or enduring. Epictetus peculiarly omits this last, Stoic response without explanation.

Okay, that's a silly example. Fair enough. The principle becomes clearer, though, with a more serious case. We can either say, "it's a pity those slaves are being whipped, but never mind, it's only their opinion that they're suffering", or we can try and free them (either through direct action or through improved social policies). The principle point is the same : when should we endure suffering, and when should we seek to alleviate it ? When do we try and change someone's opinion that they're suffering and when do we need to intervene to change their situation ?

In part two I suggested that this occurs at least when their own opinion of their suffering makes them become worse people, but this is at best merely one example and doesn't solve the general problem. It hardly seems adequate, for example, when we see good people enduring pain by the actions of the villainous and who don't then go on to seek revenge : plenty of people suffer and don't become bad people as a result of it. Surely we should still intervene in those cases too.

Of course there's always the option that we act for the sake of the criminals, taking action to prevent them from harming themselves by their own maliciousness. But still we face the uncomfortable issue of what to do about the victims - if and how we should address their problems or let them endure hardship through Stoic majesty. Without addressing that, Stoicism provokes a deep sense of fundamental wrongness.

It seems to me that the central Stoic idea (that we should accept the world as it is) leads by itself to everyone becoming selfish, lazy, and cruel. Epictetus saves himself from that only by introducing other mitigating factors, such as the will of God or the importance of community and duty. These ideas don't fall naturally from the main Stoic principle.

Crucially, none of this is a problem for the common-sense notion that external events affect our judgement and cause us physical but meaningful suffering, and the Platonic notion of objective justice as being some external, fundamental thing that's not subject to mere opinion. With that attitude, of course we take action to address slavery and murder and the like. Stoicism has to come up with other reasons to get us to stop adulterers and thieves, which doesn't win it much credibility in my book. That's not its intent, but it seems like an all but inevitable outcome.So in the next, final part, we'll give Stoicism  one last chance at redemption by looking at how Epictetus thinks we should strive to influence those around us. Can Stoics become sociologists ?

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