a criticism of stoicism

don't worry; be happy is one modern expression of the form of stoicism espoused by Epictetus. he suggests an enticing idea: resolve yourself to what you cannot control, and accept it as the will of wise gods for the universe. even an atheist can find something happy here; perhaps the universe is not run by beneficent gods, but even so, what happens happens and so you will be happier if you accept it rather than fight it.

but this idea has a substantial problem: how do we evaluate which things are in our control and which are not? Epictetus offers a list at the outset of the manual: in our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.

how can one apply this standard? if i raise my arm, that is my own doing—it is under my control. but if i am thwarted by a bully holding my arm down, then it is not in my power. the presence of bullies is obvious. but are there not various psychological factors operative in my actions? it is, pace Descartes and Sartre, not at all obvious to me the sources of my thought or the possible presence of antecedent conditions to my will.

however, there is a more serious point. something is in my power, if i can control it. such control might be direct. more frequently, however, it is indirect. when i say that (absent a bully) it is in my power to raise my arm, i am saying that i can will to do it, and my will causes my arm to raise. i have a direct power here over my will, and an indirect one over my arm.

now the problem is most apparent. these indirect links involve situations of partial causation. my actions cause a social effect. they do not do it alone, and merely by willing something, i cannot change society to suit me. but my actions do, when combined with the actions of many other people, constitute a change in society.

my criticism of Epictetus is thus that he would seem to be advocating a sort of quietism. in these cases where the causation is murky or very partial, he counsels that i should accept whatever happens, and not try to affect things.

the reply from Epictetus might be that in such cases i should do my best, considering what i know about such a sort of partial causation. he might say that i should do what i can, and then after i have done it, relax in the knowledge that after i have done what i can it is out of my power.

this reply is a good one, and is difficult to answer on an abstract level. but the history of arguments like Epictetus' is that they are frequently used to keep people in oppressive states from taking any action to rectify their position. there was a certain sort of social mobility in the rome of Epictetus' day. and yet he advises that if you [are] a poor man you must act the part with all your powers (manual 17). you are called upon to take care of [your father], give way to him in all things, bear with him if he reviles you or strikes you (manual 30).

in general, then, the actual facts of what Epictetus suggests in these kinds of situations does emphasize a quietistic and static view of human relationships in which the combined effects of the choices of many people are not respected as a form of control that each individual has. it is true that Spartacus and his followers were crucified, and no further slave revolts happened. but suppose that further slave revolts had taken place. is it not conceivable that after enough slave massacres the institution of slavery in the roman west would have changed for the better, because the slaves had made the previous arrangement untenable? and might this not have made the lot of slaves in succeeding centuries far better? it is this possibility that Epictetus discards on the basis that for the individual slave in ad 80 life would not be discernibly better after the revolt.

things i wrote for my b.a.