Sunday, January 17, 2016

Correcting the Faults of the Stoics



If it should ever happen to you to be turned to externals in order to please some person, you must know that you have lost your purpose in life.  Be satisfied then in everything with be a philosopher; and if you wish to seem also to any person to be a philosopher, appear so to yourself, and you will be able to do this.  -Epictetus
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Despite their wisdom the Stoics are a bunch that seem to preach much absurdities.  Namely their views of freedom of the will (a type of dualism in relation to the body and mind) and their views on rejecting pleasures as a type of evil.  Though I preach asceticism and find it something that most human beings (particularly those in materially abundant, “advanced” Capitalist countries like America) could benefit from and society, too, would benefit from I find the “denial of pleasure” to be unbecoming.
I will deal with the former first.  Epictetus expresses his dualism between the body and the will repeatedly in The Encheiridion[1].  This is very close to the Christian view that we are simply souls “trapped” in our bodies and we should not be concerned with our material agonies because our true condition lies in that of the spirit and our true and lasting vessel a waits in Heaven with Christ.  This is a sickly view that is used to rationalize either what can be cured and isn’t or what cannot be cured and must be coped with.  On the situation of the former, which is true “immediately” of much pain in the world today, that is it could be cured with modern medicine, and is true “potentially” of all pains (or at-least pains that science can properly cure) for we never know what will be discovered tomorrow, it is reprehensible to claim that the ailments of the body are not ones to the soul.  This is much like Augustine’s “freedom of the will” and claiming that all wrong-doing is always made freely through a deficiency of good.  Both consider the main problem, whether it be of pain or of wrong action with the agency of the person rather than with any causal agency or contingency of agencies that could influence this agent (who is not free, but causal).
The error of the Stoics is worse than that of Augustine.  For while the fault in Augustine’s thought only is in regard to the nature of human consciousness (can people decide their consciousness and are determined by physical agents?), the Stoics err in relation to a malady of the body (or any horror that is external to the individual and not produced in his or her mind) and how it affects the mind (if we lament or not and whether we lose our virtue).  What Augustine says is wrong, but it is a common mistake that many philosophers such as Aristotle have made; making “common sense” observations of agency and action.  The Stoics believe that external events are merely “appearances” that do not deserve much of our attention, and that instead what must be focused on is the mental and physical virtues necessary to not be effected by external circumstances.  And though a degree or form of this is healthy (being independent and not being concerned with the opinions of others) it overall is both demanding the impossible and the immoral.
If we are in pain, if a disease is going to turn our kidneys to waste we need not a Stoic will but the assistance of others – assuming we aren’t medical experts with a pharmacy in our kitchen.  If we do not receive help, either because people choose not to give it, there are no people close by to give it, or one lives in a time or place where the needed help does not exist or is not known, then we must either do what we can to suffer in silence or choose to end our lives and end our pain – in other words, it is only when the situation has become so abysmal that there is no remedy that we become Stoics.  The problems of this world are largely physical and societal, not psychological.  That is to say they are problems that can be solved by science (finding a cure or better way of doing something) and by public policy (implementing said cure so all can receive it, or arranging society so all – or at-least most – can reap in the wisdom of the sciences) to alleviate the burdens of this world.  True, all pains for a period of time can be coped with.  But as Negative Utilitarians and compassionate human beings, it is our obligation to end or prevent pain, not teach people how to cope with it.  This is much like the mistake of Tolstoy, of confusing the poor who suffer immensely but find ways to numb or forget their pain as better off than the intellectual class who complain of petty problems.  The lack of observance of a problem does not mean the problem does not exist.
There is a virtue in forbearance.  However, this virtue should be deemed a means of enduring the incurable or unalterable, not the common means of alleviating pain or of acting.  Instead of acting with fortitude one must act with diligence.  Diligence is actively pursuing the solution to a problem ‘til the resolution is at-hand, while forbearance is merely enduring this life and its hardships.  This is why the Stoics ultimate virtue is (whether they acknowledge it) in passivity and why they believe that God (like the Christians, particularly Augustine) has made all things good and it is only our weakness or ignorance which “makes things” bad by our weak perceptions or wills.
I honestly am confused by Augustine despising the Stoics in his City of God, if anything, Epictetus seems to be a Christian who merely rejects the after-life[2].  What if my wit or good humor leaves me through a car accident?  What has it been restored to?  If my intellect or good demeanor leaves me where has it gone?  Nowhere.  It is gone.  And saying that either one is mistaken to feel loss at the occurrence of, well, loss is a loss of reasoning.  Or to say, if we are to be dualists, that one only has a loss of intellect and character after a head injury because he chose to be of lesser intellectual or moral virtue – I don’t think much time is required, if any, to discount this absurdity. 
People should not mourn loved ones not because nothing has been lost (something has) or because something’s been “restored,” they should not mourn the loss of life in those they love because the one’s they love can no longer suffer and are freed from the mortal bonds that likely gave them grief.  They are no more.  I am essentially favoring the solace given through Epicurus instead of that of Epictetus.  The reasoning and comfort of Negative Utilitarianism rather than Compatibilism combined with I-don’t-know-what.
Now unto their type of asceticism, or rather a type of asceticism which appears at-times in Stoic writings[3][4].  Why should I rejoice when someone openly receives the good if it is far-more noble when I (or someone else) deplore the good?  Also why is hating a good good?  True, we should consider others as equals to ourselves (for they are equal in their capacity to feel pain), and I quite like the notion of teaching others to rejoice in others achievements and blessings rather than to stew in envy and contempt.  But why am I virtuous for shunning that which would bring me pleasure and no pain as a result?  If I build a home and give it to someone else, I am virtuous.  If a house is made for me and I burn it, I am foolish. 
It is true what the Ancient Cynics say of the sensual pleasures.  That they can distract us from acting virtuously and even lead to a painful circumstance either physically or mentally.  And it is true that the Cynics, as Negative Utilitarians contended that those who are closest to the Gods were those who had the least desires in this world.  However, there is a distinction between saying it is good to not have a desire and good to have a desire and never act on it – regardless of whether it will bring us future pain.  Will I be pained if I partake in the material bounty of a feast?  If a drink too much or eat too much, yes, but in the most general sense, no.  Epicurus too stressed asceticism but only as to reduce pain.  However, I do think that the Cynics and Stoics have a point in saying that the pursuit of pleasures and over-indulgence in them have their own forms of pain – appearing typically physically in the case of the latter and mentally in the former. 
We must also remember the Epicurean element of pleasure having the capacity of reducing or eliminating pain; though we do not (and I would not advise) need to accept the Epicurean definition of pleasure as simply the absence of pain.  When we experience hardships we might have our troubles alleviated through watching Steve Martin’s The Jerk, and have our pain forgotten through the introduction of a pleasure.  This is often how pain is forgotten if it can’t be directly cured.  Just as dining on a rare treat may have one forget the burdens of the back or shoulders or knees.  Pleasures in these instances, not only for their self-evident pleasurable qualities but for what they can at-least momentarily alleviate, are not things to be despised but blessings which allow us to live easier.  True, modern life is concerned incredibly with the pursuit of sensual pleasures over the pleasures and virtues of the intellect or the moral impulse, but we should not condemn pleasure, merely correctly put it in its place and focus on higher aspirations which help others rather than merely ourselves and which strengthen the virtuous capacities of humanity rather than deteriorate them through lethargy or decay.
Much like Augustine’s irrational hatred of lust, the Stoics seem to encourage mousiness and chastity (though this is open to interpretation) in women and feel that their place is in relation to men.  Now it should of course be noted that no one is completely free from the influence of their time, so I do not without consideration critique Epictetus for this passage, but it is clear what with his constant reference to wife and children how he views society and societal roles[5].  This, if interpreted a certain way, is not an awful message I suppose.  Saying that we should implicitly tell women they are valued for non-superficial non-sex based qualities and are seen as complete persons just as any man would be.  However, there is another interpretation that is implying that women want nothing more than the Ego-boost that sex and the desire from men attains them (which definitely occurs in today’s society in particular) and, as Schopenhauer said, the natural role of women is nothing more than their relation to men and later to children.  Also, though an emphasis on the superficial and the sensual has its ills as I’ve already stated, it does not follow that all things superficial and sensual should be chastised.  That is, though a woman frequently dressing provocatively for a certain psychological reason may be unhealthy or not possessing the greatest of intentions, it does not follow that we should instruct women to always dress homely and be “discreet” for fear of being seen as a tramp.
Finally, I do find Stoicism to be more akin than dislike Christianity for its view that we should submit ourselves to a reasoning omnibenevolent being who knows what is best.[6]  Or rather, we submit to a higher power rather than using our own reasoning to decide our path, what we deem to be right, and assuming the belief that the main focus is the alleviation and prevention of pain, or best to achieve the two.  Poverty, illness and lack of sight or sense is not deemed in-itself an evil to Stoicism, and therefore it should not be deemed a type of consequentialism, but instead a virtue ethics that focuses entirely on will; or rather, it’s a consequentialism that has divorced its desired end (a tranquil state of mind) from all known consequences and laws of causality.  It is a consequentialism that isn’t concerned with consequence.


[1] Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses.  Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. 
[2] Never say about anything, I have lost it, but say I have restored it.  Is your child dead?  It has been restored.  Is your wife dead?  She has been restored. 
[3] Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and is opposite to you.  Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency.  Suppose that it passes by you.  Do not detain it.  Suppose that it is not yet come to you.  Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you.  Do so with respect to children, so with respect to a wife, so with respect to magisterial offices, so with respect to wealth, and you will be some time a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods.  But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow-banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power. 
[4] Has any man ben preferred before you at a banquet, or in being saluted or in being invited to a consultation?  If these things are good, you ought to rejoice that he has obtained them:  but if bad, be not grieved because you have not obtained them. 
[5] Women forthwith from the age of fourteen are called by the men mistresses (dominae).  Therefore since they see that there is nothing else that they can obtain, but only the power of lying with men, they begin to decorate themselves, and to place all their hopes in this.  It is worth our while then to take care that they may know that they are valued (by men) for nothing else than appearing (being) decent and modest and discreet. 
[6] In every thing (circumstance) we should hold these maxims ready to hand:  Lead me, O Zeus, and though O Destiny, The way that I am bid by you to go:  To follow I am ready.  If I choose not, I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.

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