Monday, November 17, 2008

You will do your part, and I mine

The only self-help book I need: The Discourses of Epictetus. Stoicism has been out of favor for a while. It's seen as emotionless and puritanical, which is true, but avoidable. You're allowed to pick the parts you like. The Stoics wouldn't approve, but they're dead. The parts I like in Stoicism deal with the power of choice, the one thing nobody can take away from you. Place your happiness and self-worth in things that are within your sphere of choice, and you will never be anxious or bitter. Doing your best is up to you, being rewarded for it isn't. It's not up to you to avoid illness, but it is up to you how you deal with it. It's an ideal: Not possible, but something to aim for.

The greatest flaw of the Stoics was fatalism. Changing the world was not an option to them, so they turned inward. They would have mocked the last 200 years of political and social progress. Again you can pick the parts you like.

Epictetus imagines himself before the emperor and says: "Chain me if you like, but my will is free!" This is a posture, but an inspiring one. Epictetus is not for everyone. Some may find him cold, others depressing. For me he's a safety net. I'm an Epicurean when things go well, a Stoic when things go wrong. The Stoics wouldn't approve, but again, they're dead. All that is left of them is a handful of fine ideas that lie forgotten in a ditch.

Labels: ,


At 17 November, 2008 20:54 , Blogger Adam Gurri said...

I don't think they would have mocked that progress. I think they would have mocked anyone who believed that they, individually, were changing the world.

Individually our actions only make up a very small part of the whole. The stoics were correct that all we can focus on is whether the small part that we are personally responsible for is up to standard; judging the moral right or wrong of the whole is pointless because you have no control over it.

At 17 November, 2008 22:59 , Blogger Bjørn Stærk said...

Adam Gurri: "I think they would have mocked anyone who believed that they, individually, were changing the world."

Well, I think they would have admired some of the people who made it happen. People who stood up to authority and said no. But they would have had no sympathy for the idea of a social conscience, the idea that people should be angry about injustice that is done to other people, and should be motivated by that anger to make things different.

I don't think it is a coincidence that Stoicism went out of favor in the 19th century, (or at least that is my impression), the time of the birth of modern politics.

At 17 November, 2008 23:06 , Blogger Adam Gurri said...

I haven't really read them, so I can't say too much on the subject.

My understanding though is that they believed in personal duty; if they saw an act of injustice being committed themselves they would feel it their duty to act.

I run the risk of projecting here, because I don't have much sympathy for the idea of social conscience, either. I don't think that people should be mistreated because of their race, but I also think that a lot of the people who set themselves up as motivated by "the anger to make things different" have interests of their own that often lead to injustice as well.

I suppose I just don't see what is added to "conscience" when one speaks of "social conscience", other than moving from individual morality to telescopic morality about things one may have no personal experience with, and therefore are more likely to rely on simplified assumptions rather than observations on.


Post a Comment

<< Home