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.