Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Epictetus: Argument and Objections

The Central Argument in Epictetus's Handbook

P1. Things must happen the way you want if you are going to be happy (if your life is to "go well").
P2. How things happen is not up to you.
P3. The only thing that is up to you is what you want.
C1. Therefore, you should either
    (a) want things to happen just as they happen, or
    (b) want nothing.

There are two ways to defeat an argument.  First, you can show that a logical error has been made.  Second, you can show that one of the premises are false.  Only arguments that are logically flawless and have all true premises are what we call valid and sound.

Objections to P3 on the Basis that P3 is Empirically False

What I want is not up to me.  First, wants are partially dependent upon our bodies.  Our bodies function independently of our desires.  For example, if I have not slept in 24 hours, I cannot help but be tired and want to sleep.  One response to this objection is to point out that whereas we cannot avoid physical states such as hunger, pain and thirst, we can change our judgments related to that sensation.  For example, someone who has anorexia can choose to judge that hunger pains are a positive thing.  Second, one may claim that desires are caused by emotions and emotions are in turn caused by chemical impulses in the brain which are beyond my control.  One response to this objection is to admit that Stoicism is limited because it is not an adequate treatment for mental illness.  Stoicism is meant to work for people who do not have severe mental problems.  Another response to this objection is to point out that the scientific basis for the objection is weaker than many people think.  Even within the scientific field, there is debate about whether moods and mental states can be regulated and controlled by chemicals.

Even if we can eliminate desires, we are no better off because we would then lack motivation to do anything.  A response to this objection is that Stoic philosophers distinguish between wanting and wishing.  Wanting means a desire to control things that are outside of our control because we think that these things will make us happy.  Wishing is desiring for something to happen without letting one's happiness be affected by that wish.

Objections on the Basis of Values and Norms

Emotions such as grief are good to have.  Good people feel grieve.  One can respond to this objection by pointing out that grief does not have positive benefits.  It helps neither the person who is grieving nor the person who is dead.

Good friends should share our emotions and sympathize with us.  One can respond to this by pointing out that a stoic can still be comforting to a friend without sharing the same emotions.  A stoic would want to help his or her friend by encouraging him or her to be in control of emotions.  Also, it seems that there is no good reason that we should want our friends to be sad just because we are friends.  Indeed, two friends who feed off of one another's negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, etc.) can end up making each other absolutely miserable.

Big Picture

Let's take a moment now to step back and ask what the larger picture is here.  Perhaps this will help us to understand why Epictetus is a stoic.  Epictetus clearly believes that, "Nothing bad by nature happens in the world (Sect. 27)".  Epictetus believes that the universe is a perfectly ordered whole.  Everything that happens is for a good reason ( Disc, 6.).  Everything that happens because it is governed by an underlying rational principle.  This rational force is god.  Insofar as we are also rational, we are "fragments of god" (Disc, 10.).  Epictetus also claims that we have a sort of guardian angel provided by god and this personal daemon is supposed to help us.

Some Problems with Stoicism

1. Do we have to understand how the universe is a perfectly ordered whole in order to be happy?  Is it enough to know that it is perfectly ordered or do we have to know how it is ordered?
2. How should we understand the personal daemon?  Is this our rational ability or something else?
3. How should we understand the claim that we are "fragments of god"?  Does this mean something other than that we are rational creatures?
4. Whereas Stoics argue that no humans are slaves by nature, animals are meant to be used.  How can we support this claim in a way that does not appeal to theology?

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