Apr 14, 2012

Stoicism and Personal Relationships (part 2 of 2)

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Two weeks back, I wrote a post discussing a seemingly harsh passage from Epictetus' little handbook, The EnchiridionIf you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.  I brought up a few other passages from Epictetus' Discourses, which paint a fuller and significantly more even picture of a Stoic perspective on personal relationships, one which acknowledges natural affection as, well. . . . natural.

The central goal, the ideal that Epictetus returns to over and over again, is a state in which the core of one's person, one's "moral purpose" (prohairesis) has been brought into harmony with nature -- nature understood as what a human being ought to be, becomes when fully developed.  So, for all the emphasis on self-control, on relentless discipline, reflection, practice, and self-scrutiny -- aimed at gradually pruning desires, affections, emotions, even opinions away until all of one's affective commitments remain within the confines of what one has control over, thereby freeing the Stoic -- there remains some scope for familial affection, for building and enjoying personal relationships.  This even seems to form part of a genuinely full Stoic life.  It becomes even more apparent when we are not simply looking at what rationality is, in the concrete that domesticity always sets it, but at another absolutely key element of Stoic moral theory:  fulfillment of one's role or roles.


Every human being is born within, stumbles into, willingly adopts, finds imposed upon them various roles -- often overlapping, intersecting, mutually reinforcing or even competing and conflicting -- what Epictetus signifies with the Greek term, prosopon, originally used for comedic and tragic masks worn by actors.  These roles are very important, and often under-appreciated, I think, when Stoicism is being presented as a viable moral theory, particularly when we are teaching it to our students.  If you take them out of the picture, a sort of imbalance occurs, an instability enters into the otherwise stark and serene Stoic system.

If you think about some of the other central themes Stoicism relentlessly stresses -- and Epictetus no less than any other Stoic, what are they?  Curbing emotions (which are generally a manifestation of some sort of erroneous line of thinking), restricting one's desires and aversions to those things that lie within our power, employing the rational mind itself reflexively, bit by bit, doctrine by doctrine, insight by insight purifying it of mistaken conceptions, lines off reasoning, even attachments.  And to what end?  Ataraxia -- being untroubled -- and eleuetheria -- freedom.  There is a strong current to Stoicism centered around, directed to, stressing The Good, the only true, lasting genuine good for a human being, in contrast to or conflict with other seeming goods

It is not for nothing that Stoicism has proven such an attractive moral philosophy to those in military occupations, as well as prison situations.  Admiral James Stockdale, who found in the Enchiridion which he had memorized (out of admiration for other leaders, who had likewise memorized it) an intellectual and moral resource the enabled him to withstand years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, effectively combines both of these.  In Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, we glimpse him interpreting Stoicism as  a moral perspective that provides meaning to enduring hardship, to standing firm, to not giving over one's power, the reins of one's desires, one's attitude towards pain, suffering, deprivation, humiliation to another, particularly not to an enemy.  A major scholar of ancient philosophy, Nancy Sherman, recently revisited the same issues in Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, a set of lectures originally delivered at West Point

It's interesting to reflect that one of the other main places where Stoicism found itself a lasting though understated home after its decline as an independent school -- before its resuscitation in the Renaissance -- was mixed in with (neo-)Platonist and (kinda) Aristotelian philosophy in various streams of early Christian philosophy and theology, where it was digested, some parts (like Stoic views on the gods) sloughed off, but a considerable portion (e.g. important themes from moral psychology and theory) eventually integrated within the tissue of the new thoughts and approaches.

One might wonder how a philosophy that could lend itself so well to wartime could also be incorporated within the unfolding thought of a religion whose martyrs accepted rather than resorted to violence.  It's worth keeping in mind on the one hand that military metaphors were from the start part of Christian discourse and thought, particularly in terms of standing at one's post, resisting and contesting evil and temptation.  On the other hand, what Stoicism promised and perhaps also brought to its followers was a state of peace, ease of mind, being in possession of a good which none could take from one unless one gives in to temptations.

Understanding, embracing, living out one's determinate roles -- coupled with acceptance of the ordering of providence, which assigns those roles -- provides a ballast and grounding for the Stoic life that would otherwise degenerate into the caricature by which Hegel depicts it in his Phenomenology of Spirit -- not a false picture, so much, as a picture of what Stoicism becomes when it unharnesses itself from determinacy and becomes a quest for freedom alone, for not allowing anything to get to one, for a psychic invulnerability. 


Stoicism. . . is the freedom which ever comes directly out of that sphere, and returns back into the pure universality of thought. . . . . The freedom of self-consciousness is indifferent towards natural existence, and has, therefore, let this latter go and remain free. . . Freedom of thought takes only pure thought as its truth, and this lacks the concrete filling of life.  It is therefore merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself; for it is to begin with, only thinking in general that is its essence, the form as such, which has turned away from the independence of things and gone back into itself.
Hegel's point is that Stoicism risks degenerating into a stance of freedom as negativity, negation what is, what exists, what presents itself, of the determinacy within which one finds oneself -- not in the happy sense of discovering who one actually is through exploration of the concrete, but rather in a more dismal sense of just happening to find oneself stuck in that matrix of relationships, that particular body, that time, place, and culture.  For, from such a Stoicoid (i.e. not faithfully Stoic) perspective, the complex, seemingly contingent determinacy within which one does find oneself represents obstacles, temptations, moorings in the mud of displaced and disordered desire.  The true self is found and freed by stripping that away, emotionally cognitively, by repeating to oneself:  that is not me, that's none of my concern, my desire and my freedom lies only in myself and my reactions.

Presumably though, if one of the great lighthouses on the tumultuous seas of life, one of the main teachers of Stoicism, thought that relationships mattered, that fulfilling roles within which providence or promises placed one actually represents and effects the gradual and deliberate realignment of one's moral purpose to conformity with nature, then the Stoic life, the program would have to extend to and inform all those personal connections -- just as much those into which we choiceless are born as those we inevitably later form or fall into -- each of those roles from which arise expectations and about which we have normative notions.  So, again, let us see what the sage does say.

In one of the Discourses, titled simply "To Naso," he sums up the work, the product, the ideal of the philosopher -- the genuine philosopher, not the one who merely reads it, tries it on like a costume, but sticks to it:
. . . . not to fail in desire, nor to fall in with that which they would avoid; without uneasiness, without fear, without perturbation to pass through life themselves, together with their associates maintaining the relations both natural and acquired, as the relation of son, of father, of brother, of citizen, of man, of wife, of neighbour, of fellow-traveler, of ruler, of ruled.
In Book 2 of the Discourses, he turns thematically to the question of our duties and roles, noting that the very names by which we designate them, indicate their normative content.  He begins from the most universal standpoint.
Consider who you are. In the first place, you are a man; and this is one who has nothing superior to the faculty of the will, but all other things subjected to it; and the faculty itself he possesses unenslaved and free from subjection. Consider then from what things you have been separated by reason. You have been separated from wild beasts: you have been separated from domestic animals.
This contrast, not only between human beings and other animals, but against two different kinds of animals occurs elsewhere in Epictetus' Discourses.  Suffice it to say that it designates two distinctly different possibilities for a fall of the human into mere animality.  He goes on to designate our roles within the widest community:
Further, you are a citizen of the world, and a part of it, not one of the subservient, but one of the principal parts, for you are capable of comprehending the divine administration and of considering the connection of things.
From this global vantage point, he then zooms down to the level of the individual family:
After this, remember that you are a son. What does this character promise? To consider that everything which is the son's belongs to the father, to obey him in all things, never to blame him to another, nor to say or do anything which does him injury, to yield to him in all things and give way, cooperating with him as far as you can. 
Epictetus inherits a set of cultural assumptions about parenthood and childhood almost ubiquitously acknowledged, though all too often honored in the breach, during antiquity and the middle ages, an attitude very foreign to many of us formed by the culture of late modernity.  What he advocates does not be attributed to a naive transmission of social expectations, however, as his advice about siblings indicates:
After this know that you are a brother also, and that to this character it is due to make concessions; to be easily persuaded, to speak good of your brother, never to claim in opposition to him any of the things which are independent of the will, but readily to give them up, that you may have the larger share in what is dependent on the will. For see what a thing it is, in place of a lettuce, if it should so happen, or a seat, to gain for yourself goodness of disposition.
Notice that this counsel towards amenability, towards the affection and amiability ideally (and thankfully, for some of us, really) present in familial relations -- whether formal or familiar -- takes the forms of multiple concrete requirement in both cases,  and that it is advised on reasonable Stoic grounds, in order to gain "goodness of disposition," eugnomosune -- a harmonious relation between oneself and one's family member.

Epictetus lays a constant stress on fulfilling our duties towards others, using fathers and brothers as examples, regardless of whether they themselves fulfill their roles towards us -- for we do have power over the former, not the latter, over which only they have power.  One incident must do the work of epitomizing this theme here:
When a man was consulting him how he should persuade his brother to cease being angry with him, Epictetus replied: Philosophy does not propose to secure for a man any external thing. . . .  the matter of the art of living is each man's life. "What then is my brother's?" That again belongs to his own art; but with respect to yours, it is one of the external things, like a piece of land, like health, like reputation. . ..

"How then shall my brother cease to be angry with me?" Bring him to me and I will tell him. But I have nothing to say to you about his anger.

When the man, who was consulting him, said, "I seek to know this: how, even if my brother is not reconciled to me, shall I maintain myself in a state conformable to nature?" Nothing great, said Epictetus, is produced suddenly, since not even the grape or the fig is.
Keeping peace with, not to mention cultivating and maintaining affection towards one's family members -- while avoiding snares of bitterness, passive-aggressiveness, miserable martyr-playing --
requires more than just desire: determination, dedicated practice, deliberate choice of a moral course.
Epictetus goes so far as to argue in another Discourse:
. .. if you go and blame your brother, I say to you, "You have forgotten who you are and what is your name." In the next place, if you were a smith and made a wrong use of the hammer, you would have forgotten the smith; and if you have forgotten the brother and instead of a brother have become an enemy, would you appear not to have changed one thing for another in that case? 
It might appear that he is speaking only in terms of the goods that accrue to one who has a brother, and is treated in a brotherly way by that sibling, who he has kept from transforming into an enemy.  There is more to it, though:
No man is bad without suffering some loss and damage. . . .  Is there, then, no energy of the soul which is an advantage to him who possesses it, and a damage to him who has lost it? "Tell me what sort you mean." Have we not a natural modesty? "We have." Does he who loses this sustain no damage? Is he deprived of nothing, does he part with nothing of the things which belong to him? Have we not naturally fidelity?  Natural affection, a natural disposition to help others, a natural disposition to forbearance? The man then who allows himself to be damaged in these matters, can he be free from harm and uninjured? 
The harm occurs within oneself, and is thereby reflected into the broken or foundering relationship as well, most likely maintaining beyond the bounds of repair or remedy.  There is another discussion similar to this one occurring later in the Discourses, which I'll cite in a moment.  There's a different passage I'd like to reproduce first, since it reinforces the connection Epictetus sees between providence and the normative expectations inherent in roles, particularly familial ones.
"Stranger, I must not, e'en if a worse man come." This, then, may be applied even to a father: "I must not, even if a worse man than you should come, treat a father unworthily, for all are from paternal Zeus." And of a brother, "For all are from the Zeus who presides over kindred." And so in the other relations of life we shall find Zeus to be an inspector. 
To the last passage, with which I end this set of reflections, we now turn.  In it, we come again at last to glimpse not only roles and their duties outlined, not only the unfolding or deterioration of human potential counterposed as options, not only the vulnerability to the effects of our choices intimate relations expose us to, but also a stress upon affection as integral to the role of the parent:
Your father has a certain function, and if he does not perform it, he has destroyed the father in him, the man who loves his offspring, the man of gentleness within him.  Do not seek to make him lose anything else on this account. . . . Again, it is your function to defend yourself firmly, respectfully, without anger.  Otherwise you have destroyed in yourself the son, the respectful man, the man of honor.