Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Brownish Splatters On All That Matters

Aikin and Talisse:

Finally, and most famously, is the stoic perfection of emotion. Here, the stoic exercises are designed to help us remember what distinguishes what matters from what doesn’t, and to react appropriately. And so we have Epictetus:

In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the little things. If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug!” For when it is broken, you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or wife, say you are kissing a mortal human being. For when it dies, you will not be upset. Encheiridion 3

It’s here that we see what’s alien, almost inhuman about the paradoxical tradition in ethics. It seems that in order to make ourselves invulnerable, we must shed all the things that make us human. The well-being of a son or daughter, the flourishing of a marriage, the pleasure of friendship. That naturally makes us happy. And so, too, do children’s hardship, the failure of a marriage, and loss of friends make us unhappy. To become invulnerable to these losses, it seems we must forgo the benefits, too.

The stoic, in maintaining his own inner light, in tending his personal virtue, seems to lose a profound virtue, too. Let us call this the damage problem. Stoicism is ruinous of the goods we naturally take as comprising the good life. It’s a kind of scorched earth policy with life, in order to achieve invulnerability.

Put this way, it comes off like a form of philosophical reductionism, a way of breaking meaningful objects and experiences down into their constituent atoms until their value is essentially defined out of existence. I prefer the honest heartbreak of Issa and mono no aware.