Good Philosophy for a Bad Economy

This morning I was reading a passage out of Epictetus’ Discourses. I will often open one of the volumes at random and let the fates pick the lesson. Today it was the Discourse entitled “To Those Who Fear Want”. I thought of a recent conversation with a friend. We discussed how reaching the middle years of life and the shaky global econo-fest conspired to have a depressing effect on our outlooks as well as those of other people we know.

In a time of layoffs and readjusted expectations the questions and anxieties revolve around having “enough”. Do I have enough to retire? To live on? To pay XYZ?

Epictetus, and other Stoics, believed that too much concern about such things was pointless. Since obsession about one’s material condition was a distraction from cultivating one’s worthy human character it had no value. The Stoics, of course, didn’t have anything against wealth (Epictetus was not wealthy but Seneca and Marcus Aurelius certainly were). It was, in Stoic terminology, “an Indifferent”. Being wealthy or poor did not or should not determine one’s character. If acquiring weath was within your power and its acquisition did not detract from your character then more power to you. Conversely, if circumstances beyond your control left you poor it should not be cause for despair when your character remained intact.

But I should let the man speak for himself:

When Odysseus was shipwrecked and washed ashore, want did not humiliate him, it did not break his spirit. No, how did he approach the maidens of the town to ask for necessaries (food and clothing) though to beg for these is considered most shameful?

“As a lion bred in the mountains trusting in his strength.”

Relying on what? Not on reputation nor on wealth nor on the power of office, but on his own strength, on his understanding of what things are in our power and those which are not. For these are the only things which make men free, which nothing can hinder, which raise the head of those who are depressed, which make them look with steady eyes on the wealthy and the powerful. And this was the gift given to the philosopher. But you will not come forth with courage, but instead trembling about your trifling garments and empty plate. Miserable man, is this how you have wasted your time till now?

Epictetus, Discourses Bk 3

Epictetus chooses Odysseus as his example and who suffered more want than that great storm tossed man of Homer’s epic? It is a powerful image. In the passage Epictetus quotes from the Odyssey, Odysseus has lost everything. He is lost and far from home, ashore in a land of strangers, his comrades all dead, his ship gone and he has no money, food or even clothing. His body has been ravaged by sun and wind and wave. He is all but dead. Yet Homer describes him “As a lion bred in the mountains trusting in his strength, who defies the wind and rain, fire in his eyes, who goes amid the sheep or on the track of the wild deer”. Despite his wretched state Odysseus is still fully himself, still intact, because he is not destroyed by external conditions. His dignity remains intact even naked and starving because he is still Agathoi. His sense of self is internally motivated.

The message Epictetus is giving to us is not that we should be careless about our well-being or that we shouldn’t bother to excel at our labors and gain the fruits thereof. What he is telling us is that the outcome of our labors is not who we are. Being laid off by the vast bureaucracy of MegaCorp Inc. to increase their profits, needing to drive a Hyundai instead of a Mercedes, needing to eat rice and beans instead of steaks has no effect on the true objective when that goal is to be Agathos.

Epictetus tells us to have courage and not tremble over lost trifles that may seem like the loss of everything. He was a slave in Rome who had been beaten to the point of being crippled. He rose beyond that and became one of Rome’s great teachers.  Anyone can choose to be a lion even when the job listings are crap.

2 Responses to “Good Philosophy for a Bad Economy”

  1. This certainly speaks to me (and apparantly a lotof men in this economy) who are no longer bread winners. I should read this everyday.
    But I also remember Odysseus considering whether to throw mislef and the ankles of some queen or another weeping. He planned that. Can’t remember if he did it or not. If he did, this could further Epictetus’s point to include even certain types of beggars, even though it seems Epictetus is against beggars. Of course Odyssus wouldn’t be begging so much as humbling himself before his guests.
    In Romance of the Three Kingdoms some heroes throw around subservient language and exalting prasie to enemies without batting an eye. It is as if this language and belittling of oneself is simply seen as another tool or weapon and they don’t let it get to their psyche.
    At the end though there is one character who goes as far as surrendering in order to later betray, all for honor of his lost kingdom. He dies of chest pains before being able to carry ot revenge.

  2. Yes it was this same incident when Odysseus was cast ashore. Women from the town are out washing clothes and all run away from him except Nausicaa the daughter of the local king. He considers whether he should approach her as a supplicant and embrace her legs or if he should stand his ground and greet her with courteous words. He chooses the latter course which turns out to have been the right choice. In the course of the story Odysseus is willing to play the fool or the beggar to survive or attain his goals. It saves his life and allows him to defeat the usurpers who have taken over his home while he has been gone. His willingness to accept humble or even humiliating circumstances prove to be sound strategy and lets him become king of Ithaca once more.

    Its smart but not always the easiest example to follow.

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