December 4th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.
I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.
There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).
Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.
This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.