Epictetus, Aversion, and the Escape From Cosmic Demand

Libraries are wonderful resources. Several times at my local Barnes & Noble, I’ve scoured the local philosophy section (Shiny new Foucault but no Baudrillard, bleh), looking at the stoics. I’ve read some Seneca, and most of the Meditations, but one wants something a little more systematic, a little more Aristotelian in it’s presentation. The parables of Seneca are fine, but parables obscure as much as they clarify. I’ve almost bought a volume of Epictetus several times, so much so that I convinced myself that I had bought it and couldn’t find it. So it was pleasant to find in the otherwise politics and pop-centered (Trump Bad, Aristotle regurgitated) philosophy section of the branch library a copy of How to be Free.

It’s a fresh translation of Epictetus’ Encheiridion, along with a selection from his Discourses, arranged by a professor emeritus of classics at UC Berkley. The text includes the original Greek on facing pages, in the ancient text as well, which makes it both more authentic, and also less so, as you become convinced that you have no capacity to check the man’s work, unless you speak ancient Attic or Phrygian (Epictetus was from Phrygia, and the Phrygian language survived into the 3rd Century AD, but probably he wrote in Greek. Everyone did).

And it begins well:

Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not. Up to us ar our faculties of judgement, motivation, desire, and aversion – in short, everything that is our own doing. Not up to us are our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions — in short everything that is not of our own doing. Moreover, the things up to us are naturally free, unimpeded, and unconstrained, while the thing snot up to us are powerless, servile, impeded, and not our own.

The Encheiridion, Epictetus, pg. 1

Simple, systematic, and incontrovertibly true, immediately perceptible like Natural Law and the Categorical Imperative. This is the sort of thing I appreciate in classical authorship, beginning with clear concepts and First Principles. This is Philosophy.

And yet, not very far in, we encounter a problem. Perhaps the problem:

So if, among the ‘things contrary to nature”, you restrict aversion to those that are up to you, you will experience none of the things you don’t want, but if you are averse to sickness or death or poverty, you will be miserable.

ibid, pg. 7

The obvious response to this is “Well… yeah…” Greater minds than mine have pointed out the parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism. You would not be far wrong in saying that Stoicism is just Western Buddhism, or Buddhism just Eastern Stoicism. And they both encounter the same problem. Like, it sure would be be easier if all the things in life that were painful were suddenly not painful. And yet, they are. Sickness is the definition of suffering. Poverty means every part of life is harder to bear than it would be otherwise. And death doesn’t stop being an existential trauma just because you kick the can down the road.

It’s enough to erode the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, the idea that Suffering is Caused by Attachment. No, sometimes Suffering is just Suffering. Ye cannot philosophize with a toothache. Ye may labor to convince thyself that the toothache is nothing, but the toothache rides upon your nervous system in a way your thoughts do not. Thou art dust, and all the rest of it.

This puts one in mind of Nietzsche giving the Stoics both barrels:

O you noble Stoics, what a verbal swindle! Imagine a being like nature – extravagant without limit, indifferent without limit, without purposes and consideration, without pity and justice, simultaneously fruitful, desolate, and unknown – imagine this indifference itself as a power – how could you live in accordance with this indifference? Living – isn’t that precisely a will to be something different from what this nature is? Isn’t living appraising, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different?

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Thus the war between individuality and cosmos. They are connected, yet the one demands that the other submit to it, with no reward. The truths of the stoa thus melt in the sea of the unknown and unknowable.

Obviously I’m going to read more. I have three weeks to read it.


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