Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Our Loved Ones Will Die

With regards to everything that attracts you, that is useful to you, or that you love, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least of those things, exactly what the nature of that thing is. If you are fond of a jug, say to yourself, "I am fond of a jug." For when it shatters, you will not be disturbed. Whenever you kiss your child or your wife, remind yourself that you are kissing a human being. For when they die, you will not be disturbed.

                                                                         Handbook 3

     Stoicism has been frequently described, quite accurately, as a philosophy of consolation. As such, it is just one among many others, our world religions included. Unlike most other systems, however, it does not console its adherents through encouraging detachment and escapism or by making fantastical, supernatural promises. Far from distorting reality in order to not have to deal with it, the Stoic not only strives to recognize and accept reality, but also continuously rehearses to himself the truths of that reality as part of his daily moral exercise.
   One such exercise is to remind ourselves of the fragility of the things we hold dear. Epictetus recommends beginning with something paltry, like a jug (which, in his day was made of material that could actually shatter, not plastic!). You know that it is breakable, that probably thousands of jugs like it, for various reasons, break everyday. It should be no surprise to you, then, if yours should fall and break into pieces. It is simply doing what jugs do when they fall. One can then proceed to something a bit more dear to him, like a fancy vase or fine china. Like the jug, any number of things can shatter them. The owner then, should remind himself, "I am the owner of a breakable thing."
     From these more insignificant things, we may proceed, with the same principles, to our loved ones. They are all mortal. Mortals die, many thousands of them each day. And death is never far off. So fragile are we, that death may occur at any moment. We are not promised tomorrow, and those we love have not been guaranteed to us for any specified period of time. Freak accidents, sudden illness, war, evil men, natural disasters, and countless other factors can and do end lives, even the lives of young, wealthy and otherwise healthy people. Jugs and fine china break. Mortal beings die. The wise man will not be unprepared for his loved one's death, because he expects it


     As mentioned above, Stoicism does not teach detachment, despite the disturbing trend of many online individuals (people who have only a cursory knowledge of ancient Stoic sources) who liken Stoicism to certain Eastern philosophies. 
     Neither Epictetus, nor any other Stoic in antiquity, would encourage his students to, for example, be ready for their children's death by repressing or extinguishing their affection for them, by not loving them.
     There are many ancient Greek verbs for "loving" something, and all have their own nuances. The one used here, "stergein", besides having the more generic meaning of "to be fond of something", can also describe the kind of natural affection between parent and child, husband and wife, ruler and subject, etc. As this is a natural love, it is according to Nature, and thus, for the Stoic, a natural duty
     (By contrast, the kind of "love" - if we can call it that! - that a man has for his mistress or an infatuated teen feels for his sweetheart is an unnatural love, against Nature, and therefore a Vice, a Passion, or a sickness of the soul. The Stoic indeed not only represses this kind of feeling, but roots it out completely.) 
     The Stoic loves his wife, children, parents, and friends very much. He would not be virtuous if he did not. But he is prepared to lose them.                    


Monday, 8 July 2013

Baby Steps

But, for the time being, remove your desire completely; for if you desire any of the things that are not under your control, you will surely be unfortunate. Moreover, none of the things that are under your control, which would be good for you to desire, are presently within your grasp. Employ, for now, only choice and refusal, and do so lightly and with reservations, without too much straining.  

                                                          Handbook 2

     One learns to crawl before walking, to mumble before talking. We do not come to any destination without first travelling toward it, or achieve immediately any difficult goal without working diligently for it. 
     In a recent post, we read how Epictetus taught that "the promise of desire is the attainment of what you strive for." That is, if we only desire that which is within our control (namely our own Virtue) and only desire that things happen exactly as they happen, then we will, as it were, always get what we want. And the person, Epictetus says, who does not get what he wants is unfortunate. This is a true teaching, and, in fact, absolutely central to Stoic ethics. When we arrive at the point where our desires are entirely correct desires and we therefore achieve always those desires, we can then be called wise, good, and, as a result, truly happy. 
     But this is the end of stoic ethics, the final destination of all stoic learning, cultivation and training. It is, simply put, too much for the beginner to be expected to have complete control over his own desires, to be able to instantly choose what he wants and does not want. The beginner has neither learned enough to know what he should desire, nor has been through enough exercise and training to have the discipline always to desire the right things even if he knows what they are. Desire, for the novice, can be a dangerous thing. Epictetus, then, urges the novice to remove desire completely, until such time as he can master it.          
     It is enough for the beginner to practice the consent or refusal of external impressions. It rained during my picnic. I can consent that it indeed rained, but refuse to think that rain is a bad thing. This is exercise enough for the novice, and the circumstances of daily life alone will certainly provide him with ample opportunities for a thorough daily workout. And even at that, like the new bodybuilder, the novice must be careful not to strain himself too much.   
     The ancient Stoics taught that the wise man, the good man, is equal to the gods, dissimilar to them only in his mortality. Yet they also admitted that this good man is an extremely rare creature. Becoming this good man is our ultimate goal and it the reason the Stoic works so hard; but, while all can, few will achieve this goal. We can be assured, though, that we are making progress whenever we become simply better men.   

Monday, 1 July 2013

Misfortune Is Far From Me

If you avoid only the things under your control that are against Nature, you will not fall into anything that you wish to avoid. But if you try to avoid disease, death or poverty, you will experience misfortune. Remove, therefore, your aversion from all that is not under your control, and apply it the things against Nature  within your control.
                    Handbook 2 

     Disease, death, poverty, and the countless other horrible sounding words that terrify most people are things indifferent to the Stoic. They are inevitable and perfectly natural.  They are neither evil nor good. They simply are. Moreover, they are completely outside of the realm of our control. Our ability, by contrast, to choose what we reject or avoid is wholly within our control.
     It is a type of madness to exercise our power of aversion against the natural and inevitable, and to desire the impossible. If we do so, we will surely and frequently experience misfortune, as our aversion is towards things that must necessarily occur.  
     The person who experiences misfortunes and grief suffers it needlessly. Worse still, he suffers it through his own doing. He has set his aversion against the wrong objects, mistaking them for evils. Vice alone is evil and unnatural. And Vice is very much within the sphere of our control. If a man wishes to avoid Vice and only Vice, misfortune will be far from him.           

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Promise

Remember that the promise of desire is the attainment of what you strive for, the promise of rejection is to not fall into what one would avoid, and that he who fails in his desires and falls into what he would avoid is unfortunate.  
                                                    Encheiridion 2

     Our desire for or rejection of a thing, contrary to what most assume, is completely within our control, it belongs entirely to us. And what a mighty possession this is! The ability to choose what we desire and reject what we would avoid means that we have the power to withstand - even be content in - any situation. We can choose to want to happen whatever happens, and choose to reject the idea that anything is evil other than our own Vice (which, thanks to our sovereign power of choice, we also have the ability to eradicate from ourselves).
     The Stoic lives according to Nature, and, recognizing that Virtue is according to Nature and that Vice and the Passions are against Nature, he chooses always to desire Virtue and reject the Passions. All the things that trouble other men - fear, lust, worry, anger, greed, and all else that truly harms us - cannot touch the Stoic. The Stoic is also a deeply pious man, yielding always to the will of the Universe, the will of God, wanting to happen whatever does happen. Thus, as a virtuous life cannot denied to him if he chooses to live virtuously, and as nothing ever occurs contrary to his own will (which he has conformed to the will of Providence), he can never fail to get what he wants, or to avoid what he does not want. The wise man is always happy.  
     But oh how unfortunate, how miserable and defenceless, is the man who desires that which he cannot control, who rejects things outside of his own self! Such a man is not God's follower, but God's slave! He must necessarily be unhappy, discontented, and anxious, waiting constantly in both hope and fear of every one of life's circumstances.    

Monday, 17 June 2013

First Impressions

And so, make it your exercise to say to every harsh-looking external impression: "You are merely an appearance, and are not at all what you seem to be."  After that, go on to examine that external impression and judge it according to these standards that you have, the first and most important of which is this:  Whether the impression is among the things under our control or among the things not under our control.  And if it is among the things not under our control, have ready at hand this conclusion: "It is nothing to me."

                                           - Encheiridion 1

     External impressions can be deceiving.  What appears harsh or unfavourable is usually just that - an appearance.  And it is, unfortunately, a false appearance that we have created for ourselves through faulty reasoning.
     A classic example of this phenomenon is the analogy of a sudden wave that is about to overtake a ship at sea.  The first and most basic impression of this event is at once the most simple and the most true: "There is a wave about to envelope me and I will probably drown."  It is the passenger, though, who adds this conclusion: "And this is a bad thing."  If this passenger had stuck to his first impression of the wave, he might have faced his last moments bravely, as a man, without any fear and panic, neither lamenting nor impiously cursing against the Universe.
     This passenger cannot be faulted for his initial wave of fear, which is more of a bodily reaction, like a sneeze or the blush of modesty.  Man does, after-all, have a natural inclination towards self-preservation.  But the passenger is entirely at fault when, through his own poor reasoning, this bodily reaction develops into the actual Vice of Fear.  He has forgotten his standards, and has thus failed to judge the situation properly, causing his own grief.  Surely, in such an extreme example as this one, an individual should readily be able to recognize that a wave at sea is a thing very much out of his control!
     No ancient Stoic would claim that it is easy to arrive at such a state, where our actions and very thoughts are harmonious with the loftiness of our philosophy, to the point where we can scorn death, even when it is about to take us with little warning, like this passenger at sea. The ugliness of Vice, and that particularly hideous Vice called Fear, once it has gained a foothold, will constantly derail the train of our reasoning faculty [and thus, the ancient Stoics taught, in opposition to many other schools of virtue ethics at the time, that the Vices must be rooted out entirely, not simply moderated]. This is why Epictetus urged his students to make it their exercise to meet external impressions with proper reasoning. It is only through exercise and practice that we can realistically expect it to become our habit to measure all external circumstances with our stoic standards.  Then, instead of this bodily reaction of fear developing into the Vice of Fear, the habit of bravely will develop into an actual Virtue, and we will look straight on at the wave and say: "It is nothing to me."                       

Monday, 10 June 2013

A Single Arrow Cannot Hit Two Targets

And so, being set upon such aims [see previous post], remember that you must not in any slight degree arouse yourself to lay hold of them, but must put away completely some things and set aside others temporarily.   But if you wish for these things as well, and yet at the same time desire both office and wealth, it may be that you will not even achieve these latter ambitions because you simultaneously aim at the former.  What is more, you will utterly fail at attaining the former goal, which alone produces freedom and happiness.
                                                   - Encheiridion 1  

     "No man," Matthew's Gospel declares, "can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other."  A similar concept is at work in Stoicism.  Virtue is the sole good, Vice is the sole evil, and all else is indifferent.  There are no half measures.
     We cannot attribute even partial value to a thing indifferent, a false good, and still fully value Virtue, the Good.  She requires our complete attention and devotion.
     And we certainly cannot strive after both and still hope to attain either one.  A single arrow cannot hit two targets.  Chasing after anything besides Virtue will eventually demand that we sacrifice Virtue in some way.  Likewise, if it is Virtue we seek, we will inevitably have to sacrifice other ambitions or desires.
     Yet when we recognize - as another ancient Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, had written - the true "nature of the Good, that it is beautiful," we understand that putting away these other ambitions is no real sacrifice at all.    


Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Cause Of All Our Troubles

And so remember that if you wrongly consider the things which are by nature slavish to be free and consider what belongs to others to be your own, you will be hampered, you will grieve, you will be troubled, you will cast blame upon gods and men alike.  But if you consider the things which actually belong to you to be your own, and consider what belongs to another  to in fact belong to another, nobody will ever be able to compel you in anything, nobody will hinder you, you will never cast blame upon anybody or bring a charge against anybody, you will not do a single thing ever against your will, and you will have no enemy.  Nobody will be able to harm you, for neither is there any harm you can suffer. 

                                         - Encheiridion 1

     Epictetus here explains the cause of our grief, our troubles, our blame-casting (or, better said, blame-shifting).  He explains why we are sometimes hindered in our own purposes and do things against our will, why we think we have enemies other than our own selves, why we imagine that we have been harmed by others, or harmed by anything at all.   The cause of all this, he would say, is that we are confused regarding what belongs to us and what does not. 
     Most circumstances are not our own; they are ruled by forces outside of ourselves.  Epictetus, a former slave who understood slavery all too well, calls our life circumstances naturally "slavish".  Thus, our liberty cannot lie in our external circumstances, but in our reactions to them, and this is the one realm in which we are always able to exercise complete freedom. 
     No doubt many would raise objections.  "But a thief stole from me!"  No, he took something that was not truly your own to begin with. Circumstance allowed you to have it, and now circumstance has taken it away. "But somebody flew into a rage and insulted me without cause."  And he harms himself, not you, by his own Vice.  "But I'm going to die before my time."  When did God ever promise you a long life?  Take care, lest in addition to dying young, you also speak impiously or blasphemously!  "But a storm destroyed my house!"  Oh! You wish to control the weather now? 
     If these above examples are too harsh, then we need only to think of the hundreds of thousands who are troubled by the traffic when they want to get home five minutes earlier or grieved at the rain when they had planned a sunny day picnic.  The streets and the sunshine are not theirs, but they behave as though they were.