We continually have to work on turning everything that happens to us in this life into “for the good.” For everything good or bad to become for the good we have to affirm that which has happened to us. But how are we going to affirm something so terrible that nails us to a painful existence indefinitely? First of all, we have to accept that, that which has happened is not changeable, it has already taken place and we cannot go back there to unlive it. But at the same time the meaning, value, and significance of what has happened is never fully established. Only death accomplishes the event’s significance, only through death is established the truth of what has happened to us.
For the Stoics one has to have a perfect understanding of the workings of cosmos and nature to be able to live in harmony with the world surrounding one. It is such that everything is a cause and an effect at the same time and everything is linked to one another. Everything that happens causes other things to happen. To a certain extent what happens to us is not in our control but at the same time if we know what the consequence of a certain action would be we could choose what to do, and so what happens to us, to a certain extent, becomes our own doing. We have to figure out how to act, which words to use in the way of affecting the external world so as to maintain ourselves as an active agent in any circumstance.
Let us imagine an example. If we have done something so terribly wrong that it is causing us great distress, before drowning in our sadness we have to find a way of reading it in such a way as to turn it into something that was necessary for our present and future happiness. If we let ourselves go after a disappointing incident, if we let things happen to us and not do something to change the course of events we might as well find ourselves in an irresolvable situation at the end, which would lead to madness and death.
At every moment throughout our lives we are confronted with obstacles that keep us from accomplishing certain desired ends. And yet there is also always a certain potential of accomplishing something even better because of the very obstacle that caused the desired end to become unattainable. The Stoic solution to this problem is simple and yet sophisticated.
What we have here is not a total negation of desire but a rejection of certain objects of desire that one must know from past experience are bad for us to desire. If we want something to happen to us, something that would satisfy a certain desire, and if the desired event cannot be accomplished through our actions then there is no point in striving for the attainment of an unattainable object of desire. Instead one should make the best of what is at hand and accomplish other events that render possible the attainment of objects of desire that are within reach. If we don’t know what and how to work for, we get nothing out of life, find ourselves locked in a room on the door of which death continually knocks.
Painting by Andy Denzler
Title: Bertolt Brecht
Epictetus’ philosophy is a very practical one. In it we find ways of coping with the difficulties of life. And it is adaptable to the present state of the human condition in which we find ourselves face to face with the exploitation of the life drive and the death drive through a manipulation of the mutual dependence of these two based on the ambiguous, because a-symetrical, conflict inherent in the relationship between them.
If we know not how to choose what to desire, if we allow the objects of our desire to be shaped by the capable hands of the big Other represented by the global capitalists, we also let the ways in which we desire be determined by a source other than ourselves, hence become puppets trying to satisfy an external force rather than ourselves and our lovers. We have to know what to desire and how to make it happen, otherwise nothing happens and where there is nothing happening there can be neither creativity nor communication; for what is one to create or communicate if there is nothing to create and communicate.
Once it is realized that there is nothing other than nothing to be struggled against, it becomes clearer how it would be possible to detach oneself from external circumstances and act in the way of maintaining an impersonal vision of what happens around us. One dissociates not the events themselves, but dissociates oneself from the events surrounding one. The Stoic indifference requires a subject in the form of an impersonal consciousness who maintains its dissociating function at all times. For this dissociation to take place, however, the subject has to know how to associate events that have led to the present, that is, one has to immerse oneself in the plurality of the past events, and extract from this multiplicity a combination of events so as to enable oneself to constitute oneself as an autonomous, free agent. This attitude emphasizes the importance of each instant. At every instant we have to act in such a way as to make the future better than the past. And this brings us to Nietzsche’s eternal return. According to Nietzsche, we have to act at every present moment in such a way that we will regret nothing in the future. Every present is an eternal moment in-itself and it is at times in our control to turn the present into for-itself, and at times it is not.
So, at every present we have to consider the possibilities from different angles and decide which way to go and which way not to go as if we were immortal. What Epictetus seems to be suggesting is that once a choice is made the only way to make it work for us is to push it to its limit where it either turns against us or against itself and creates another possibility of choice. Epictetus is not in favour of an individuality that would be constituted through moderation, but in a subject that would be indifferent to lack or excess. In Epictetus’ world there is no lack or excess; what there is lacks nothing and nothing in what there is is excessive. If one is satisfied by what there is with its lacks and excesses one needs no moderation of one’s actions, for there is nothing lacking or excessive to be moderated in one’s actions. Lack or excess can only be determined by a whole external to the already existing. But there is only that which is, which never lacks anything in relation to something outside itself. The concepts of lack and excess belong to the world of metaphysics which exists only in imagination.
So I eventually arrive where I could possibly have arrived; the end of this voyage, which is at the same time the beginning of another one. And here I find out that the more affirmative one’s attitude towards life gets the more fragile the contact with the other becomes. But as the contact becomes more fragile and affirmation more difficult, maintaining the conditions for the possibility of a perpetually recreated affirmative cont(r)act becomes more essential to the continuation of healthy life of self in touch not only with its own death but also with the death of the other.
Sometimes the only way to keep affirming is to affirm the fragility of the affirmative cont(r)act itself. It is only by affirming a broken and irregularly beating heart in its broken irregularity that one can relate to it. But to affirm this heart one must detach oneself from it, not identify with it, not become broken and irregularly beating itself, so that one can find in oneself the strength to undertake repairing the broken heart. Affirmation of life as it is, I think, is only the beginning of a fragile and yet beautiful friendship…
- Epictetus (thungaihnawm.wordpress.com)
- What Good Are the Humanities? Try James B. Stockdale’s “Courage Under Fire…” (billycstephens.wordpress.com)
- The Discourses of Epictetus (jrbenjamin.com)
- The Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius… (emoryphilosophy115.wordpress.com)
- From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy A. A. Long (greekromanworld.wordpress.com)
- “Discourses and Selected Writings” – Connections to Freedom (vindicius.com)
- Half way home. (toddlohenry.com)
- The Degradation of Ethics (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com)
- An Invincible Mind (runningyourmind.wordpress.com)
- Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: Introduction (ponticmouse.wordpress.com)