This is probably the most widely quoted passage from Epictetus’s Enchiridion, but it is also of central philosophical importance. Indeed, there is an obvious allure to it, for it makes good sense to let go of what is beyond your control. It’s totally senseless to allow yourself to suffer over what simply cannot be brought about by your will. I want desperately, miraculously, you might say for world hunger to end; I am desirous that my intentions not be misconstrued (Ugh!!!); I want my children never to suffer (Not unnecessarily, no! ❤ ); I want to turn back the clock to change the course of my life (Nope! 🙂 ); I want to be 20 years younger (Not me! 🙂 ) ; I want to be taller (I’m a little giant! 😉 ); I want to quit smoking (Not a smoker! 🙂 ); I want to fear nothing!
These are not all of the same order. For though turning back the clock, and becoming 20 years younger are causally impossible, the same case cannot be made for ending world hunger, gaining an inch, and eliminating skewed public opinion. But at least in these, accepting the causal impossibility of altering choices made in the past, and reversing the aging process, it would be senseless to suffer. Key here is that one’s emotions can be aligned with rational judgement, or more strongly, they are of a rational order, and entirely determined by what one thinks. It is also not rational that one suffers, since suffering is not desirous to anyone, hence one should order one’s thoughts such that needless suffering is dispensed with. Makes good sense, right? Wrong! Well, not entirely right anyway, not according to my view.
Of What is Under Our Control
Ending world hunger, genocide, abuse and tragic circumstance of all kind? Surely no one can singularly do anything to change this! I suspect Peter Singer might argue that we all have the power to alter our attitudes regarding issues of “charity,” and by joining “affective altruism” or “minimalism” make a contribution towards socio-political change on a global level. I suspect he is right. This is a great example of how changing one’s thinking may change how one acts. He claims that all suffering is bad. That death from the lack of food, shelter and/or medical care is bad. That where one has the power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of personal moral significance, one should. Living more frugally one might downsize – smaller house (do you really need all that space?), luxury items (do you really need that crystal set?), products in multiple (do you really need a desktop, laptop, touchpad, smartphone (the latest one!!! Really?? Do you!!!??? 🙂 ), do you really need a screen in every room, more pants, shoes, tops, shirts, scarves, plants, toys, dresses?? Do you really need all that food??!!! (how much ends up in the trash?) We all shop, consume and trash in excess! And for all that, we are the unhappiest generation ever (or so data suggests – suicide still on this rise, child crime, drug addiction, depression an epidemic, etc.)! Making a sacrifice of all this leaves one with a pocket full of money that can be sensibly used to help others around the world. This according to Singer then would not be a charitable act, but one’s duty – for if suffering of this kind is bad, and one ought to do whatever one can to prevent bad things from happening, and giving up all these things is not a sacrifice of moral comparison, you’d (we’d) just being doing your duty. For those who suffer over world hunger Singer has answers to the weak of heart who either do not have the determination and courage (*note that aretic philosophy too will acknowledge that recalibrating thought is necessary but inefficient to move one to act. Other virtues must also be present, determination and courage, for instance) to change their spending habits – change your skewed ideas about charity, this is actually your duty – and/or an understanding of how the world works, offering both the means (as some of his former students have) to begin projects and initiatives to contribute optimally to this cause, and noteworthy foundations that can put your money to good work. But “charity,” “duty,” “accountability,” all of these moralizations are not incontestable. There is a paradigm or horizon of meaning already in play in which, or for which, all of Singer’s claims can be sensibly endorsed or rejected.
Blog posts in the next couple of months will be devoted to addressing the underpinnings and implications of this position, but for now ask yourself wherefrom does thinking anything at all come from? When you start in the “middle,” as it were, when ideas are already so densely engrained in your mind it is easy to presume that these are simply and easily put into proper order by reason, and that as far as the causal network of the world is implicated in taking control of your own life – such that the world is thought to be (see!!! 🙂 ) naturally ordered – the best decisions are those where reason and nature are aligned. Hence, knowing how things are naturally ordered, we can draw insight to rationally define the course of our lives by distinguishing those things that are under our control from those that are not. And of those that are, re-formulate faulty thinking that causes unnecessary suffering. Hume is probably best known for the “problem of causation,” and Kant for working out an elaborate philosophical project to establish the possibility of human experience and knowledge, answers to which opened a Pandora’s box to ensuing, unresolved, questions regarding the primordial condition of human knowledge.
To the initial list. We cannot properly work out what is under our control until questions regarding human experience and knowledge are first addressed. For if Hume is right, there are no causal relations in the world, and all efforts to control events in one’s life are not grounded in knowledge, but in habit; if Kant is right, we can have no knowledge of things in themselves, or the so-called natural, mind-independent world out there. Cut-off from the world, it is left to consider how precisely reflective agential engagement in the world operates. If a Heideggerian view is insightful, then we are primordially beings-in-the-world-with-others, which would challenge the binary distinction between the controlled/uncontrolled or controllable/uncontrollable because we are fundamentally negotiating beings for whom life circumstance is the prism within which anything ever becomes meaningful at all. The conditions, and methods by which such negotiating practices are to properly follow is the crux of fundamental contentions between philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Gadamer, Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault, Levinas, Derrida…and many others.
Of Human Suffering
Is all human suffering inherently bad? By this I do not ask whether suffering through, say dental treatment, is bad when it has good results, but rather whether human suffering is not sometimes in itself a worthy, perhaps majestic, human experience? When Cordelia, in Kierkegaard’s Diary of the Seducer, is found often reciting these lines at the loss of her Johannes, are we not moved? She says:
When we read how her mind remains unsettled, and with profound aporia, and a broken heart, she writes …
Never will I call you “my Johannes,” for I certainly realize you never have been that, and I am punished harshly enough for having once been gladdened in my soul by this thought, and yet I do call you “mine”: my seducer, my deceiver, my enemy, my murderer, the source of my unhappiness, the tomb of my joy, the abyss of my unhappiness. I call you “mine” and call myself “yours,” and as it once flattered your ear/ proudly inclined to my adoration, so shall it now sound as a curse upon you/a curse for all eternity.
Do we counsel ourselves that such despair is unworthy? That it flows from an irrational attachment to what, whom, might take control of one’s composure and senselessly cause one unnecessary disquietude? Or for all the suffering, is it not, in fact, unsettlingly touching, does it not move us to extraordinary heights, often leaving us with a sense of envy for having not loved so much that suffering could be so tragically dire!? I wish I could suffer thus for knowing a love so profound, are words that often pass one’s lips.
Despair Not For You Are What You Think
And yet what and how one thinks is often the very condition of human despair. Nietzsche would likely say that scapegoating human suffering is the ultimate form of weakness. Often thought a misanthrope for his disdain of the dim-witted, the ascetic, the philosopher (a long list of philosophers dating back to Plato are criticized, alongside Christianity), he cautions against presuming that there is any world out there at all (this will require meticulous consideration “perspectivism,” a position accredited to Nietzsche, involving a process of negotiation) upon which one could hang their veridical hat and construct a metaphysics to appease such efforts. Nietzsche, in a manner similar, though ultimately quite distinct from authenticating methods of discourse offered by Heidegger and Sartre, makes suffering a basic condition of human understanding.
Much, much, more needs to be explored. These are only some preliminary considerations that will give my book project direction over the next year or so.