May 20, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
We Are Conflicted Because We Value Externals (Epictetus Discourses I.22)
Key ideas of this discourse
- We all share the same preconceptions about good and evil.
- However, we get into conflict with each other because we don’t agree on how they apply to a given situation.
- We need to understand what is in our power and what is not. Good and evil arise from what is under our power, not from externals.
- Placing value on externals result in contradiction and conflict.
We all agree on basic principles
There are some preconceptions on which we all agree. After all, who does not think that good is beneficial, choice is desirable, and we should pursue them? Who does not assume that justice is fair and appropriate?
Our conflicts arise in the application of principles
Then why do we have conflicts? Conflicts arise because of the way we apply our preconceived ideas differently to individual cases. The same person may be judged as brave by one but as reckless by another. This is how conflict arises. It is the source of differences among the Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans. They don’t disagree that what is holy is to be preferred and pursued. But they argue about what is holy: for example, to eat or not to eat pork. This is how Agamemnon and Achilles got into conflict.
“What do you say, Agamemnon? Shouldn’t we do what is right and proper?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you say, Achilles? Do you agree?
“Yes, more than anything else.”
“Go ahead and apply your principles.”
The conflict begins. Agamemnon says, ‘I shouldn’t have to return to Chryseis to her father.’ Achilles says ‘You should.’ Clearly, one of them is wrong in the way he applied his principles in this case. Then Agamemnon says,
“Fine, if I give Chryseis back, then I should get one of your prizes.”
“I hope it is not the woman I love.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Why should I lose my prize, of all people?”
This is how conflicts begin.
Placing value on externals results in contradictions
To be properly educated means learning to apply our natural preconceptions to particular cases, according to nature – distinguishing what is in our power and what is not in our power. In our power are choice and all actions that arise out of our choice. Not in our power are our body, body parts, property, parents, siblings, children, country, or friends.
“Where does good come from then?”
“From things in our power.”
“It follows then that neither health nor fitness are good; nor our children, parents, or country.”
“This view is not going to win you many converts.”
“All right then. Let’s call external things such as health ‘good’ and see what happens. Suppose a person suffers harm and fails to obtain good things. Could such a person still be happy?”
“No, it is not possible.”
“Can he live with his neighbors in the same way he had lived in the past?”
“How is it possible? They have their own self-interest.”
“If it is in my own self-interest to own land, it is in my interest to rob it from my neighbors. If it is in my interest to own a coat, it is in my interest to steal it from the baths.”
How can this be in line with my duty to God? Because, if I am harmed and meet with misfortune, I start to wonder whether he pays any attention to me. If he won’t help me, and wishes me to be in this condition, what is he to me? So, I begin to hate him. I wonder whether the temples and statues we build for him are more like things intended to placate evil demons. How can he be the “Saviour”, “Rain-bringer”, or “Fruit-bringer”? All this follows from identifying the “good” with externals. What are we to do? That is the inquiry to be made by the person who philosophizes and thinks deep.
“I do not see what is good and evil. Am I crazy?”
“But if I place ‘the good’ in the realm of my choice, I might be ridiculed. Some grey-haired old man with gold rings on his fingers will come along and say, ‘Learning philosophy is all right up to a point, but don’t get carried away. This is ridiculous. Philosophers can teach you logic, but you know how to behave better than they do.’”
If I know how to behave as he says, then why does he find fault with me? What can I say to this fool? If I don’t answer, he gets angry. So, I answer this way:
“Bear with me as you would with someone in love. I can’t help myself. I am crazy.”
Think about this
What does it mean to be educated? It means learning to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases as nature prescribes, and distinguishing what is in our power from what is not. Discourses I.23.Epictetus/Robert Dobbins