Everyone has a voice, and a choice to use it well, use it poorly, or not to use it at all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Philosophy is pretty sweet. As most of you know, philo+sophia= philosophy = love of wisdom. By that definition, I guess I am a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, in the same way that most men are lovers of gold: I don't have much of it, but I'm convinced it is beautiful and useful and I sure want more of it.

So, despite my general aversion to (sometimes ranging toward pure hatred of) school work, I am actually pretty happy to be taking PHI 130: Introductory Ethics. We're reading lots of writing by lots of smart dead guys who loved wisdom. I can't come close to rivaling them in many areas (principally devotion to thinking about stuff, and deadness). Still, I want to share some of their ideas, and some of my ideas about their ideas, with you. Then you can have more ideas, and that is the key to having  at least a few good ideas.

Epictetus says:

"Never say of anything 'I lost it', but say 'I gave it back'. Has your child died? It was given back...Has your estate been taken from you? Was not this also given back? But you say, ' He who took it from me is wicked.' What does it matter to you through whom the Giver asked it back? As long as He gives it, take care of it, but not as your own; treat it as passers-by treat an inn."

"Remember that you must behave in life as you would at a banquet. A dish is handed round and comes to you; put out your hand and take it politely. It passes you; do not stop it. It has not reached you; do not be impatient to get it, but wait till your turn comes...But if when (good things) are set before you, you do not take them but despise them, then you shall not only share the god's banquet, but shall share their rule."

"Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be  that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace."

A few ideas:
  • I agree with Epictetus that every good thing I have comes from God (that is grace), and that I cannot claim any of it as my own. E. points to this as the  reason not to condemn the wickedness of the thief. I think he must be reacting against the common habit we have of saying that something is bad because it violates our preferences (our own personal moral law). There is, however, another definition of badness, one which fits in with E's idea that nothing is really ours, and does not require us to ignore badness. The definition is "something is bad if it violates the moral law of God."

  • Epictetus instructs us to enjoy things at the proper time, without impatience or gluttony. Most of us would agree with him there. But he also says it is good to "despise" good things, to choose not to partake of them. Perhaps he has a distorted view of what "good" is, a view similar to the modern world. If that is the case, much of what he considers "good" will, in the end, keep us from coming to God.  I think he recognizes that, and consequently says that it is good to forgo the "good things". However, there is another kind of good, which does not reek of hell, but wafts the scent of heaven. This other kind of good, if it is enjoyed in the right way and at the right time, leads us closer to God, not farther away.

  • Epictetus thinks that the key to achieving personal happiness (which is his ultimate good) lies in changing your will to fit in with what already is. Lets imagine what would  happen if everyone were able to do this (we are not able, but bear with me). No boy would ever ask a girl to marry him. No man would defend the defenseless. No one would turn a lump of stone into a beautiful statue. The worst part is this: everyone would be content. That is a scary world. If we all lived out Epictetus' philosophy, we would all be content with a very low quality of life. Thankfully, you and I and the world are unable to live out his philosophy, because we all know and feel deeply that nothing is perfect. We have a concept of perfection, and never find full and lasting satisfaction in anything less. This disability actually helps us a great deal more than it hurts us.
Well, that is Epictetus (and my reaction to him) in a horse chestnut-shell.

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