rushthatspeaks: (Default)
If you're going to read Stoic philosophy, it's best to do it when you're sick. You see, the Stoics placed illness quite firmly on the list of 'things a person is not responsible for and does not have much control over', so it makes a very good antidote to the current cultural thread that holds that illness is the result of some kind of moral failing (i.e. if one had just taken care of oneself better/not interacted with xyz/done or not done something imponderable one would of course not be ill ever, which is, demonstrably, untrue).

Therefore, when I am annoyed about having spent a very long two days in interminable vocal rehearsals while having, as far as I can figure, a bad sinus infection and a strained chest muscle, I can derive some relaxation from having Epictetus point out to me that the sinus infection is not under my control, the strained chest muscle was a direct result of something I did but was not necessarily a predictable result, and the sitting-through-rehearsals must, on some level, have been a result of my wanting to be there, seeing as how they are a voluntary activity under my control. Which means that by the standard of things directly under my control, which is the standard that matters to the Stoics, this weekend went off perfectly and I should be happy about it.

I promise to get right on that when I'm over the sinus infection.

Seriously, though, it does help, when miserable, to differentiate what one is miserable about that one can control from what one is miserable about and can't. This is the thing that is so seductive about Stoic philosophy. They hold that there is no point in ever being unhappy about anything one can't control, which turns out to be, in the final analysis, most of the world, as the Stoic universe is deterministic. For them, everything that happens was meant to happen: why be upset when things go the only way they can possibly go?

The Encheiridion (which is literally a handbook, the title word's based on the Greek word for hand) is Epictetus' book of advice about how not to be upset about anything, ever. Detachment is the Stoic virtue. (Well, detachment and being happy to fill one's foreordained and correct place in the ever-moving clockwork of the perfectly predestined cosmos.) Mostly it consists of him telling you to think about things as though they were happening to someone else. If a passerby drops a cup and breaks it, you say 'It's one of those things that happens sometimes', but if you drop a cup and break it, you're annoyed, though the objective circumstance that it's one of those things that happens sometimes hasn't changed. Since it's the same circumstance, why are you upset on one occasion but not the other? Epictetus holds that the answer is 'the social convention of property', which is arbitrary, artificial, and ignorable. You're upset because you think you have some kind of control over the cup, and it's just been demonstrated that you don't, because property is not a natural law.

This is exactly the kind of thing that causes me both to applaud and be annoyed at the Stoics, because my position on them tends to be that they're right about the self and terrible at other people; it's a philosophy with an occasionally staggering lack of empathy. I accept his reasons as sensible reasons why I should not be upset if I drop a cup and it breaks, but if someone else drops a cup and it breaks and they're unhappy about it, my response is not going to be 'it's one of those things that happens sometimes', it's going to be 'I'm sorry that happened because it made you unhappy', you know? Epictetus generalizes from the cup to the people around one, that we should be no more sad when people around us die than we would be sad at the deaths of people we've never met, because everybody dies. This seems to me to be ignoring huge swathes of the things about human nature that have caused us to actually live together in social groupings in the first place.

So yeah. Helpful with the annoyingness of my weekend, but as a philosophy with larger applications, the Stoics are never going to be my principal recourse. Fun to read, though, and Epictetus in particular is trying very hard to be clear and sensible, on account of how he is trying not to be Chrysippus, his most famous Stoic predecessor, who is famously as clear as mud. Also, this is a book in which he actually tells you that you should ask yourself more often 'What would Socrates do in this situation?', and those, those are words to live by, right there, especially because the answer is quite frequently 'burst out laughing'. I could see 'What Would Socrates Do?' as a bracelet or a bumper sticker, really, I kind of want one now.


rushthatspeaks: (Default)

March 2017

56789 1011


RSS Atom

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Mar. 26th, 2017 01:30 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios