Dreams of Epicureans & Stoics

It’s Gottlieb’s Epicureans & Stoics today in CoPhi, a bit more refined than Warburton’s. What would they say about Sunday night’s Oscar kerfuffle? The Epicureans would probably just say not to waste money on Hollywood, the Stoics that there’s no point in grumbling about either Academy (Plato’s or the motion picture industry). Both would advise therapy for anyone who takes it all too seriously. “The key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.”

It’s also another day for reports, led off by Kurt Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country.

“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

And it’s exam day too. We should care about that, but not too much. As James said, the way to prepare for an exam. [How to study]

If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

Epicureanism was the ancestral precursor of utilitarianism and its “greatest happiness for the greatest number” approach to life. The big difference, though, is that you can’t really maximize happiness in the style of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill while also shunning “any direct involvement in public life.” Can you?

Epicurus was apparently the first to state the intractable problem of free will and determinism. If the random knocking-about of atoms gives rise to every event, where does that leave us? On the sidelines, observing but not directing our fate? That won’t do. Will it? 

A.J. Ayer said freedom’s not worth much if it’s decoupled from responsibility, and if there’s no knowing what someone’s ever going to do “we do not look upon him as a moral agent. We look upon him rather as a lunatic.” That reminds me of an incident from my vault of undergrad memories, when one of my determined peers set out to demonstrate his and our freedom by doing something unpredictable with a beer mug. He really just demonstrated the truth of Ayer’s observation.
I’m also reminded of the time Ayer faced off with the heavyweight champion of the world. Freedom and responsibility are nothing, if not a threat to one’s bodily health.
The Stoics were porch philosophers, and in the person of Epictetus were more at ease with an unswerving determinism than I. “Wish for everything to happen as it does happen, and your life will be serene.” Really? Is that a responsible form of serenity?

The Stoics thought the Epicureans were wrong about plenty, but agreed with them that we live in a material world. Everything is physical, in its own way. Okay, but we’re natural spirits in the material world. We’re not just bouncing atoms, even if the occasional swerve leaves us guessing about the next configuration. Our breath is fiery and animated, and we have consequential choices and decisions to make.

But there’s a yawning inconsistency at the heart of the Stoic worldview, Gottlieb says. “If  they are right about Fate, then nothing at all is under our control.” Not even our attitudes and inner reactions to external events. Back to the drawing board. Or back to the therapist’s couch.

Can philosophers can be good therapists, or as good (in their different way) as psychologists? People like Lou Marinoff say so. Others say: dream on.

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