Thursday, April 7, 2011

Epictetus on the Good Life

Today we continue considering what role luck plays in the "good life" The good life means that a person is living well, which means that a person is doing activities that are proper to and worthwhile for human beings.  The happiness that results from the good life is also supposed to be not just any pleasure but some kind of happiness that is worthwhile.  Some things that make up the good life, such as friendship, are activities that make you vulnerable to luck, risk and chance.  Whereas Plato thought that we should minimize our vulnerability to chance by avoiding risky activities, Aristotle thought that we must be vulnerable to risk if our lives are to be worth living. Aristotle thinks that we must expose ourselves to risk but that we can manage the risks.

Unlike Aristotle and Plato, Epictetus did not think that happiness or living the good life were vulnerable to risk, chance or luck.  One lives well and achieves happiness by achieving an internal condition.  Being able to achieve happiness is entirely within our control because we are happy by choosing to respond to the world in a certain way. Epictetus was committed to doing philosophy that was applicable in practical, everyday life.  His Manual for Living was a how-to manual for how to live a virtuous life and to achieve happiness.  This is a quite different from contemporary philosophy, which focuses much more on argumentation rather than practical matters.  Yet Epictetus himself thought he was doing philosophy about the good life.  Hence we can and should take his words as philosophical theses to be understood and evaluated.

One theme in this book is to avoid certain kinds of pleasures, such as popular entertainment (64), luxurious clothing (67), fancy shoes, bragging (70) and casual sex (67).  His main idea is that we are bombarded by unworthy distractions.  Instead of being wrapped up in frivolous things, we should focus on the worthiest of goals: freedom, even-mindedness and tranquility.  There are steps to achieve these goals.  First, we must accept what is not in our control (9).  Only our inner life is within our control, whereas what bodies we have, whether we are born rich or "strike it rich" and how others view us are all out of our control.  Epictetus that we must accept that we cannot control the physical world and we can and should control only our minds.  This is not to say that Epictetus thinks that we should not try to be rich or successful or athletic.  Epictetus thought that when we have strong passion to pursue activities that are risky, it is good to be resolved towards goals.  Dr. James points out that it may be false to think that we can control only our minds and not the physical worlds.  For example, we can control our bodies through exercise and surgeries.  We also seem to have some thoughts and impulses are beyond our control.  Also, can we not influence the opinions that others have of us?

Consider the case of an gold-medal winning athlete.  Such a person seems to go against Epictetus' advice.  The serious athlete strongly desires outcomes that are not entirely within his control.  Michael Phelps probably has desires outside of his control.  On the one hand, one might think that this is an example of a person living a good life who does not follow Epictetus' advice, meaning that Epictetus is wrong.  On the other hand, one might say that such people do not really live a good life because after Olympic success, many athletes are depressed and no longer have anything to live for. Perhaps Olympians are a perfect example of why wanting things beyond our control is a bad thing.

Accepting that we cannot control the world means that we must accept events as they occur (22).  We should not wish that things would happen in a different way.  We must accept that things that we do not want to happen will happen and do happen.  We should only desire events and outcomes that actually happen.  We should want what we have rather than thinking about what we want to happen.  One thing that we must accept is death.  Death plays an important role in organizing our lives.  Many of us make choices because we either (a) fear death and want to prolong our lives or (b) we are too young or arrogant to care about our future deaths.  Epictetus thinks that death is not bad in itself.  We should not fear death.  Rather, we should fear being afraid of death (17).  Only our terrible idea of death is something bad.  Death itself cannot be bad because death is nothing.  There is no pain or suffering when we are dead.  Epictetus thinks that even suffering while dying is not bad, only our attitude towards suffering is bad.  Only in extreme cases (e.g. torture) can others actually harm us.  We should fear pain or death but we should only fear fear about these things.  Death is inevitable, according to Epictetus.  To fear death is to fail to have your expectations match the facts about the world.

In general, it is not what happens to us that makes us unhappy.  It is how we react to things that make us unhappy.  If a loved one dies, Epictetus thinks that we should just accept it as a natural part of the world.  Of course, Epictetus notes that we should be nice to friends who are grieving and we need not tell friends that they are wrong to be unhappy.  Rather, we should be silent out of kindness and politeness.

A large theme in Epictetus is how we should react to the opinions of others.  Especially women, he thinks, care about others' opinions of their beauty.  Epictetus notes that this means that many women try to look beautiful for others and put too much effort into their physical appearance.  Wise folks know that even though we may be rewarded for beauty, what really matters is who we are on the inside and who we are becoming.  This seems to be a denunciation of an obsession with beauty.  Granted, one need not be a slob.  Rather, we should not be preoccupied with our appearances.

When we stop caring about others' opinions and when we stop wanting the world to be other than it is, we gain freedom and achieve harmony with nature and the rational, divine order of the universe.  Epictetus thought that this is the best possible universe.  When we recognize this, we begin to observe the order of the universe.   Must we think that there is a natural order or organization in order to accept the world?  If the world is absolute chaos, must we still accept it?  Existentialists run with this idea and say yes, we must accept the world even if it is absurd.

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