Should we not be disturbed by the death of a loved one?
An infamous passage in Epictetus’s Manual is the source of endless dismissals of Stoicism as ethical philosophy
Epictetus was a slave-turned-teacher who lived at the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries of the modern era. He influenced Marcus Aurelius, several Christian theologians throughout the Middle Ages, as well as a number of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. Still today he is one of the towering figures in practical philosophy, and the one who hooked me into Stoicism. Yet, read the following passage and see how you react:
“When faced with anything you find attractive, useful, or lovable, remember to tell yourself what kind of thing it is. Start with the least important things. If it’s a jug you like, say, ‘I like a jug,’ because then you won’t be upset if it gets broken. If you kiss a child of yours or your wife, tell yourself that you’re kissing a human being, because then you won’t be upset if they die.” (Enchiridion 3)
Wait, what?? “You won’t be upset if they die?” What sort of psychopath writes that sort of thing? But Epictetus was not a psychopath. The little we know about his life includes an anecdote to the effect that in his old age he adopted an infant in order to avoid that the child be left to die. That’s not the behavior of someone who is callous about his loved ones. Indeed, notice in the passage above that he regards jugs and other such things as “least important things,” implying that one’s child and wife are among the most important things. What gives, then?
Some people point out that, in the time of Epictetus, losing a love one wasn’t that much less infrequent than breaking a jug, unfortunately. Child mortality was very high, and so was women’s likelihood to die in childbirth. Not to mention wars, random violence, and the occasional pestilence. Just to give you an idea of the context, Marcus Aurelius—despite having access to the best resources the Roman Empire had available—had 14 children, only five of whom survived to adulthood (among them only one male, the infamous Commodus).
While this is true, it misses the point. Epictetus himself provides us with a strong clue to what I think is the real motivation behind the startling quote in Enchiridion 3. In Discourses II.5 he tells us of a foot that has to step in the mud. If considered from the narrow point of view of the foot, stepping into the mud is disgusting. Why would anyone want to do it? But if the foot understands that it is part of a larger body, and that it is the proper function of a foot to bring the body home, regardless of how unpleasant the task may be, then the foot will not only do it, but do it gratefully.
This is where Nietzsche, much later on, got his famous amor fati: love your fate. If you think, as the ancient Stoics did, that the universe itself is a living organism endowed with reason (the famous logos), that we are functional parts of that organism—as the foot is with respect to the body—and that therefore whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, is for the good of the whole, then of course you ought to accept events with gladness, regardless of the fact that, when seen from a more narrow perspective, they may be painful.
It is a truly beautiful view of existence. I wish I could believe it. But as a modern scientist I simply don’t see any reason to regard the cosmos as anything other than the dynamic set of processes described by fundamental physics. No logos, no providence, and therefore no amor fati.
Does that I can’t, therefore, coherently be a Stoic? So say so-called “traditional Stoics,” who actually claim to believe in the ancient pantheism. I wrote a whole book updating Epictetus’s Enchiridion to the 21st century to reject their strict and unnecessarily straightjacketing reading of this incredibly useful philosophy.
Recently, though, my colleague Chris Gill, one of the original founders of the Stoicon and Stoic Week events, not to mention a superb scholar of ancient philosophy, has published a book in which he argues, among other things, that Enchiridion 3 is so often misunderstood in part because people just don’t bother to read the much broader context provided by Epictetus’s main opus, the Discourses.
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