The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus

in five dialogues

 

 

Dialogue 4.B.4

The Nature of Things

 

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Οὐ μὲν οὖν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, φάναι, ὦ φιλούμενε Ἀγάθων, δύνασαι ἀντιλέγειν, ἐπεὶ Σωκράτει γε οὐδὲν χαλεπόν.

“No, it is Truth, my dear Agathon, that you cannot contradict; Socrates you easily may”
(Plato ‘Symposium’ 201D)

The characters:

Raniero
Irene
Muriel
Albert Einstein
Saint Francis of Assisi
Mohandas Gandhi

 

An old, large and still very vibrant juniper, thick with fragrant berries, stands leaning against a stonewall which is not far from the small amphitheater overlooking the sea. Its long, rough and prickly lower branches spread out radially and down to the ground. By properly cutting them away, Raniero has been able to set up under the juniper a magnificent natural gazebo. Especially after lunch, when the summer sun pours its shiny streams of heat on the island and no movement is possible, it’s very pleasant to take a siesta in the shade and coolness of the gazebo.
Muriel told me that one summer day she had been invited by Raniero and Irene to join them in the late afternoon. While looking at whether the lavender and the geranium, which had been planted a few days earlier needed some watering, she was surprised by the sudden appearence of her two friends behind her.
-I didn’t see you coming, said Muriel, and I was a bit scared. Where do you come from?-
-We took a nap on cots placed under the gazebo, answered Irene, and when we saw you we came out to meet you. Today Raniero really amused me. Do you want to know with which name he has just baptized the gazebo?-
-I have no idea, replied Muriel, but as Raniero often jokes, I expect it to be a funny name-
-Now he calls it “our Siestina Chapel” said Irene laughing and looking fondly at Raniero-
Muriel laughed too, while Raniero endeavored to remain very serious.
-Despite the north wind, the plants you transplanted the past few days look great! noted Muriel-
-Yes, agreed Raniero. I didn’t expect so big a success, because in these things we are only amateurs. Now I propose to go indoors and to prepare a good cup of coffee. Then if you want we can resume our conversations in the amphitheater-
-I accept with enthusiasm, immediately nodded Muriel-
-The air is no longer as hot as a few hours ago, said Irene, and the wind is very calm. It will be great to talk together again-
Once they had tasted the coffee and taken a seat on the steps of the amphitheater, Muriel turned to Raniero and asked him:
-You speak often of the nature of things. To you, does understanding the nature of things mean being able to capture all the data of a given situation?-
-Not so much the data, answered Raniero, which could also be called the representations that a person gets of a certain situation. When I speak of the nature of things I refer, first of all, to the fact that of all the existing things, some are in our exclusive power while some others are not. The nature of things is essentially their fundamental bipartition in things that depend exclusively on us and things that don’t depend exclusively on us; that is, as Epictetus defines them, in proairetic things and in aproairetic things-
-For the sake of clarity, intervened Irene, can you give us once more an example of the ones and of the others? -
-Well, responded Raniero, in our exclusive power, and therefore proairetic things are: our judgments, impulses, desires, aversions, assents; in a word, everything that is the work of our own proairesis. Not in our exclusive power, and therefore aproairetic things are, for example: our body, property, reputation, titles; in a word, everything that is not the work of our own proairesis-
-But is Stoicism not an ‘ideology’, asked Muriel? It seems to me that Stoicism is only one of the many existing ‘isms’ such as, to quote only a few of them, Epicureanism, Idealism, Marxism, and so on-
-And what’s more, added Irene, is it not a purely ‘cultural’ thing, that is a construction linked to historical contingencies and cultural models that have in no way universal value?-
-You pose rightly and straightaway the problem of the very existence of the nature of things, that is the existence of something that can be defined as ‘invariant’, and to which everything else is relative. Let’s start then from the material world and the laws of physics. When they speak of the ‘Theory of Relativity’, certain people really like to repeat that ‘everything is relative’. This is of course nonsense, since the so-called theory of relativity doesn’t show at all that in the physical world everything is relative. On the contrary, this theory is intended to exclude from its foundations everything that is relative to the conditions of the observers, and it succeeds in arriving to a formulation of the physical laws that is completely independent from them. In the physical world is there at least a parameter that is invariant and to which all the others are relative?-
-Irene and Muriel were puzzled and replied: we don’t know what to answer-
-The answer is yes, said Raniero. Einstein and many other physicists with him have shown that this parameter exists and that it’s the speed of propagation of the electromagnetic field in the vacuum or, to put it more simply, the speed of light. Now, let’s skip entirely the flood of implications and consequences that are inherent to this achievement, and let’s ask this simple question: is the light a proairetic or an aproairetic thing?-
-Certainly an aproairetic thing, answered confidently Irene-
-Then we can conclude, continued Raniero, that at least in the case of aproairetic things it’s legitimate to speak of the existence of the nature of things. This means, in other words, that it’s possible to propose rules that will enable us to interpret and predict the behavior of at least some material objects-
-In fact, Muriel agreed, so far the discussion seems to me to go on smoothly-
-Let’s ask now whether it’s possible to speak of the existence of the nature of things in the case of proairetic things too. We can ask the question in this form: “Is it possible to find in the case of proairetic things a parameter that has the same importance and the same meaning of the speed of light in the case of aproairetic things?”-
-This seems to me, confessed Irene, a very difficult question, and one which has no possible answer-
-It’s not so, said Raniero. The invariant parameter we are looking for in the case of what is proairetic exists, we all know it and its name is ‘freedom’-
-How, said Muriel filled with wonder, can you compare the speed of light to freedom? The speed of light is a quantity that has a finite and measurable value. You cannot speak of freedom as if it were a measurable quantity-
-I understand, admitted Raniero, that you are somewhat perplexed and I will not go into details that I don’t master. For me it’s enough if we admit the existence of infinite quantities which are suitable to be treated with the same ease with which we treat integers and finite quantities. If that it’s the case, we are entitled to believe that the nature of things exists even in the case of what is proairetic, and are entitled to speak about it, that is about our conceptions, impulses, desires, aversions, judgments and so on, as aspects of the same invariant and infinite quantity that we call ‘freedom’-
-But, asked Muriel, which kind of freedom is the one you are talking about?
-Let’s forget about freedom as an abstract concept, and let's talk about free men as concrete individuals. Who are these free men? They are the men ‘to whom everything happens according to the judgments of their proairesis’. Namely, they are the men who don’t pursue what is not in their exclusive power as if it were in their exclusive power, those who learned how to deal with any aproairetic thing and who know how to pass this test keeping their virtue, beauty and happiness intact. Free is therefore the man who uses the diairesis and is well aware of the nature of things-
-You certainly know, stepped in Irene, the statement that tells: ‘My freedom ends where yours begins’. How does this statement relate to what you are saying?-
-Epictetus repeats many times that no man can be master of the proairesis of another man. The proairesis is such a thing that nothing can force it to conceive or prevent it from conceiving, for instance, a judgment, a project or a desire. This means that the human proairesis is absolutely free and is an infinite quantity-
-Does this mean that a man can do whatever he wants?-
-Infinity is not at all equivalent to omnipotence. So, although your proairesis is infinite, as there is by nature no quantity superior to it, when you clash with another proairesis, there ends what you call ‘omnipotence’ because you can never, as we have said, be master of the proairesis of someone else. If the proairesis were something of a finite size, then the larger or stronger proairesis would be the master of the smaller or weaker proairesis. The proairesis of a man, however, is neither larger nor smaller than the proairesis of another man. Both proairesis are infinite, and can be masters only of themselves-
-I realize now, interrupted Irene, that when we discuss proairesis we are just talking about this invariant parameter, and I understand now why we always speak of proairesis as of something unhampered and unconstrained by nature-
-You are definitely right, concluded Raniero. What no power is able to hamper or constrain can rightly be defined as infinite. This is the freedom of each of us, of every human being. This is the answer to the question we have asked about the existence of the nature of things in the field of what is proairetic-
-Excuse me, protested Muriel, but you forget that it’s enough, in order to subordinate and enslave a man, just to threaten him with death!-
-Let’s use again the words of Epictetus, answered Raniero, and say that it’s not the threat of death which subordinates and enslaves such a man, but that it’s the infinite freedom of his proairesis that judges better for him to do what he is asked to do than to die. It’s always a judgment that compels another judgment, that is, it’s always the proairesis which forces itself, since an infinite quantity cannot be overcome by a finite quantity-
-But you have not yet explained, said Muriel, why the existence of the nature of things and the bipartition into proairetic and aproairetic things is not a purely ‘ideological’ and ‘cultural’ belief. The main difficulty I see in this regard lies in the fact that good and evil, happiness and misery, beauty and ugliness are judgments that belong only to individuals and that they are forms, to use your terminology, of their infinite freedom. However, the variety of civilizations, cultures, languages ​​and human individuals is so huge that I don’t see how you could focus on defining a model, for example, ‘right’ and consider other ones as ‘wrong’. This is what I mean when I say that I am sick and tired of ‘ideologies’ and when I say that all the ‘cultural models’ are relative-
-Let’s summarize, resumed Raniero, what we have said so far. I believe we now agree on the existence of proairetic things and aproairetic things. This bipartition is not an ideological or a cultural concept: it reflects the simple and incontrovertible empirical evidence of what we can do and of what we cannot do. We agree on the existence of the nature of things in the case of aproairetic objects, as we are taught by the physicists who study them and who clearly demonstrate that any aproairetic thing is subject to impediments and constrictions by what has a finite value bigger that it has. We agree on the existence of the nature of things also in the case of proairetic things: a nature of things which is embodied in the infinite freedom of our proairesis. The difficulty that Muriel sees can be resolved in this way. There is no doubt that good and evil, happiness and misery, beauty and ugliness, and so on are proairetic things, that they are judgments that belong only to individuals, and that these judgments are forms of their infinite freedom. Let’s now ask the crucial question in this way: “Even if it’s certain that men differ in judging good and bad things, is there at least one judgment, or a pair of judgments, upon which all human beings cannot but agree, regardless of their culture, race, religion, ideology, language, age, gender, and whatever difference you can imagine?” If the answer is ‘yes’, we can say we have found the unshakable foundation upon which to build our confidence in the existence of the human nature. If the answer is ‘no’, we conclude that there is no human nature, and that we shall be eternally enclosed within the boundaries of ‘ideology’ and ‘culture’, with all the consequences that this conclusion implies. Do either of you have an answer to this question or at least feel ready to venture a guess?-
In the silence, you could hear the hiss of the wings of large seagulls darting in the sky and whose raucous shrieks mingled with the inexhaustible chirping of cicadas.
-Okay, resumed Raniero, let me try to give an answer. I declare that there is a pair of judgments on which all human beings cannot but agree regardless, as I said before, of their culture, race, religion, ideology, language, age, gender, and so on. Indeed no human being, I repeat, no human being can avoid judging what he wants as a beautiful, happy and good thing, and judging ugly, unhappy and bad stumbling into what he averts. This statement is the unshakable foundation we were looking for-
-I don’t understand, interrupted Irene, in what sense this statement can be an unshakable foundation-
-It is an unshakable foundation, answered Raniero, in the sense that human nature exists because every human being is such that he tends to get for himself what he regards as beautiful, just, good and so on; and to run away from what he regards as ugly, unjust, bad, and so on. Because of this empirical evidence we are also allowed to define the human nature as a nature that tends to happiness and not to its opposite-
-I don’t agree with you, said Irene. A friend of mine who is a professional psychotherapist tells me that most of the people who seek her help complain continuously about making choices that they themselves define as ‘wrong’ and that make them unhappy. They say they always make choices that make them feel bad, by a sort of compulsion to repeat their mistakes-
-Look, explained Raniero. It would seem that the behavior of these people contradicts what I said before, but in reality when they choose something that may well appear to them ‘negative’, such as to gorge themselves with food in the case of a bulimic person, as a matter of fact they make a choice that is good for them, because otherwise they would not make it-
-What you notice is true, said Irene. After all, what is therapy but a path that leads people to change their judgment of what is good for them?-
-I also agree on this, said Muriel. Any individual wants his own good and avoids his own evil, but it’s quite evident that the difference among individuals lies exactly in what each of them judges to be good and to be bad, to be right and to be wrong, and then in what each of them will concretely desire or avert-
-Well, let’s restrict ourselves, for simplicity, to the consideration of desire and of aversion. It’s true that the differences between us, continued Raniero, lie in what we desire or avert and that for each of us the verb ‘to desire’ and the verb ‘to avert’ can have very different meanings. Do you remember the discussion on the three cities that we had in the first dialogue, when we introduced the word ‘proairesis’?-
-Yes, we remember it perfectly, said both Muriel and Irene-
-Well, I believe that the key to the solution of the problem is right there. Humans want different things, but there are only two classes of things that they can desire or avert: proairetic things and aproairetic things. This statement is valid always and for everyone, since it reflects the natural, basic bipartition of reality. So, the only sensible question we must ask when dealing with any desire or aversion of any human being is this one: “Is this individual desiring or averting a proairetic thing or an aproairetic one?” Again, for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider only the case of desire and aversion and give an example. Does any of you want to suggest a subject?-
-Let’s take money as the subject of the example, suggested Muriel-
-Great one, congratulated her Raniero. An individual deems money a desirable thing and judges it to be a good. Money is obviously an aproairetic thing and our man puts his desire upon it-
-In doing so, intervened Irene, he makes his own happiness depend on the fulfilment of his own desire. But we know that the possession of an aproairetic object, given the nature of things, will never be in his exclusive power. So our man runs a very serious risk-
-Yes, resumed Raniero, you are telling the truth when you say that he runs a very serious risk. Indeed, as we assume that our man is someone who knows what he does, and given the fact that he judges money to be a good thing, he cannot but aim at acquiring all the money in the world, and in order to do that he must be willing, albeit tacitly, to steal as much money as he can. Then, if an individual is true to himself and the money is for him a good thing, he ‘must’ become a thief. And since he will never reach the goal of his life, which is to have all the money in the world, he is doomed to eternal misery-
-But you exaggerate, interrupted him Muriel, when you take Scrooge McDuck as an example. An individual doesn’t usually want for himself all the money in the world and is satisfied with much less-
-Of course, answered Raniero; but this happens simply because the world teems with insignificant persons, contradictory people who say a little ‘wish’ and a little ‘do not wish’, who think they can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time-
-And anyway their lives, interjected Irene, are a ride of misery. But let’s now analyze the case of a man who, on the contrary, judges that money is a bad thing and who averts its possession-
-I accept your suggestion, said Raniero. This individual judges money to be a bad thing and therefore, first of all, he tries to get rid of the money he has-
-This, said Muriel, immediately reminds me of the story of Saint Francis of Assisi-
-Let us leave the poor man of Assisi alone, continued Raniero. We are interested in talking about an individual who is well aware of what he averts. Whatever is the way by which this man got rid of the money in his possession, he makes his own happiness depend on the aversion of money. But he constantly stumbles into what he averts, because he ceaselessly comes across people who use it and offer it to him, and this makes him unhappy. He will then, by explaining why and how money is pure evil, try to convince other people to do what he has done. But his plan to eradicate money from the world is totally meaningless, because it contradicts his own necessities of life. Do you know the quip going round in the circle of people who were part of the more immediate entourage of Gandhi? The quip was the following: “It is unbelievable how much money it costs to keep Gandhi poor”. Since our individual is a consistent person, he will soon be forced to flee from all contacts involving exchange. This is equivalent to an escape from the human world in search of a pure an absolute self-sufficiency. As you can see, this man ‘must’ escape other men and totally isolate himself. And since he never finds perfect isolation and perfect self-sufficiency, I would not be astonished if he decided to commit suicide. And here we leave him-
-In short, concluded Irene, to crave for an aproairetic object or to crave for avoiding it doesn’t make much difference. In both cases, we show ourselves ignorant of the art of using aproairetic objects to enjoy peace and to be happy-
-It‘s exactly like that, concluded Raniero. The last case remains to be considered, that is the case of the man for whom no aproairetic object is good or bad, and for whom only his judgment about an aproairetic object can be good or bad. This individual will judge that money is neither a good nor an evil thing and will act accordingly-
-Do you mean that this man, asked Irene, in the case he has a lot of money, will know how to be rich in money with dignity and respect for himself and for other people? Do you mean that this man will not forget where his true wealth is? And that he will do the same in the case he is poor in money?-
-It’s exactly like that, responded Raniero; this is what I mean. The true good is not the money in itself but the judgment that the money is neither a good nor an evil thing. All you need to be a happy and virtuous man is to intimately possess this judgment and to apply it in everyday life. Similarly, we can say that the true evil is not the money but the judgment that makes us crave for it as if it were a good or, inversely, to avoi it as if it were a bad thing. Who feeds on the judgment that money is a good thing is unhappy as the one who is nourished by the judgment that money is an evil thing-
-Let’s analyze another example, proposed Muriel, which has nothing to do with money-
-Well, said Raniero, here is another example of our inability to recognize the nature of things and its fundamental bipartition. A person cannot stand the idea that other people have opinions different from his own and, believing he can master their proairesis, seeks in various ways to impose his own ideas. First of all, let’s ask: “Are the judgments of other people proairetic or aproairetic things?” Obviously they are aproairetic things, aproairetic like the money we mentioned earlier; though, unlike money, we can consider them immaterial things. We can apply the conclusions we have just reached to the case of immaterial aproairetic things as well. ‘Good’ is the judgment that the judgments of other people are neither good nor evil things for me. ‘Evil’ is the judgment that the judgments of other people are a good or a bad thing for me. In the first case, I’ll be tolerant and I’ll try to understand and make myself understood by other people. In the second case, I’ll be ready to become the follower of a sect, a party, a religion, and I’ll hold myself compelled to do everything I can in order to change the minds of those who don’t have my judgments-
-This is also the premise, if I’m not mistaken, that underlies all the great monotheistic religions, said Muriel. None of them recognizes the fundamental bipartition of things and their nature. They all declare themselves to be the custodian of ‘Revealed Truths’ and aim to ‘save’ humans bringing them from the condition of ‘Unbelievers’ to that of ‘Believers’-
-I want to suggest, stepped in Irene, an example closer to the experience of all of us. When two people make love it happens sometimes that they cannot reach an orgasm, either both or one of them, even if they are fond of each other. There are two popular ways to manage this situation: the first, which is the commonest, is to think that the fault lies with the partner; the second is to feel guilty for not having been up to the task. What is at stake here is the fact that ordinary people believe sexual orgasm to be a thing in our exclusive power and therefore proairetic. The main result of this way of thinking is unhappiness, accusations, quarrels and disaffection. But sexual orgasm is something which is not in our exclusive power, since a lot of different subjective and environmental events can condition it. Only by thinking this way we can allow ourselves to enjoy the pleasures we have lived; I mean the kisses, the caresses, the sensuality of those moments, without spoiling what we have lived because we have actually not reached the orgasm-
-Even after having been presented with all these examples, said Muriel, I am not convinced and I am still in doubt. Does such an attitude towards life not confine us to a sort of passivity? If everything is aproairetic except our judgments, we can change absolutely nothing!-
-It’s not true that we can change nothing, answered Raniero. First of all, you can change your judgments, and a few days ago we already discussed this question in depth. Our conclusion was that it’s not correct to call ‘activity’ the attempt to dominate and change aproairetic things, and call ‘passivity’ the project of making the right use of our proairesis. Secondly, we already admitted that none of us can live without interacting with other people and with external things. Well, we made it clear that we should not be afraid of these relationships with what is aproairetic and that we should not expect from them any harm or evil but a good, if we know, thanks to diairesis, how to value them properly. Thirdly, we agreed that to learn diairesis is essential in order to recognize the nature of things and their fundamental bipartition, and so be able to use the materials of our existence without neglect, without recklessness and without carelessness; because it’s true that all aproairetic things are indifferent but our use of them is not at all indifferent and requires attention, diligence and extreme care-
-I would very much like to have one more coffee, interrupted Irene. What we have just had was so good... Isn’t it, Muriel?-
-I agree on a second coffee, answered Muriel-
-I’d also gladly drink a coffee, and let us stop here our conversation for today, concluded Raniero. We might meet again in a few days. I would like to tell a story, if you still want to hear any, about a certain Gyges-



 

 

 
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