Enchiridion: An Aside

In the comments to the last post, J. Melcher writes:
It's a challenge to resist the human -- even animalistic -- urge to punish offenses against our instinctive sense of proper behaviors. Chickens will leave off feeding to enforce their status in the local pecking order. Canines defend their fair share of a carcass brought down in a pack hunt -- and enforce their rights to a hunting territory. Social animals will form mobs to drive away individuals who seem crazy or sick or challenging to the existing order.

I trust there will be a recommendation coming up about how to find the balance between accepting the trivial and standing up for what seems important.
There are some considerations that need to be raised about this. Epictetus was a long-time slave, for one; much of his life was not the life of a free man. Second, even when he was free he was a Roman citizen in the era of Empire rather than in the old Republic. Marcus Auerilius has a lot of concern with the public sphere, being an Emperor of Rome. Epictetus has relatively little. 

Our society of free men -- empowered to defend themselves and conduct citizens' arrests in cases of violence against the common peace and lawful order -- draws heavily on Medieval liberties that had not come to be in the time of Rome. The right to bear arms was a Medieval liberty of knights and lords, which came to be extended to free men in England through the process historian Sidney Painter described. The right of self-defense -- the right to defend one's home, because 'every Englishman's home is his castle,' the root of our Castle Doctrine -- these things arose in a later time, in the face of a weaker state that needed to reach out to ordinary people to support it and keep it stable. Sometimes these rights were compelled by rebellion against a state that tried to deny them, and could not successfully oppose its people, its knights, or its lords. 

These rights have also not always flourished. In some generations they have waned, because even natural rights must be remade in every generation. Nature provides grapes, but we must in every generation make the wine ourselves.

If you read the introduction to the Enchiridion at the page we are using, they point out that the Stoics became of interest in the early Modern age precisely for this reason.
That there was a rebirth of Stoicism in the centuries of rebirth which marked the emergence of the modern age was not mere chance. Philosophical, moral, and social conditions of the time united to cause it. Roman Stoicism had been developed in times of despotism as a philosophy of lonely and courageous souls who had recognized the redeeming power of philosophical reason in all the moral and social purposes of life. Philosophy as a way of life makes men free. It is the last ditch stand of liberty in a world of servitude. Many elements in the new age led to thought which had structural affinity with Roman Stoicism. Modern times had created the independent thinker, the free intellectual in a secular civilization. Modern times had destroyed medieval liberties and had established the new despotism of the absolute state supported by ecclesiastical authority.
Emphasis added. It is worth noting that the 'ecclesiastical authority' enlisted to support the absolute monarchy often represented a fragmentation of the earlier Church: in Germany as in England, the Catholic Church's authority was rejected because it was a source of opposition to the throne. In France and Spain, king and bishop found ways to reinforce one another. The space for liberty arises when powers are opposed, as our Federal government and our states are in key cases opposed; as our Supreme Court is meant to oppose the Congress or the Executive, and so forth. In the early Modern era, those oppositions often failed. 

The free mind is a space of liberty even when all else is constrained. Even if you are not free to stand up for what is right practically, you may still think what you will. Even if speaking your opposition would destroy you and your family, your means of making a living or perhaps even you actual freedom to exist outside prison walls -- or to exist at all -- your mind can remain free. This was true even of a Roman slave, who managed to inspire generations after him who came up in bad times. 

It does not excuse us who are free from fighting for our practical freedom, nor does it excuse us from dying for it if necessary. Yet we should recognize Epictetus as a comrade in the fight for liberty, even if he never was as free as any of us have been.


douglas said...

Thank you both for this aside- it was a good one.
I am glad to report that my hard cover copy has the same introduction by Albert Salomon.

Grim said...

The Salomon introduction is uneven, I think; at least, it is if you aren't coming from his own philosophical persuasion. The idea that the Stoics are important because they help separate philosophy from religion, or give rise to Modernist or Jesuitical insights, those things are true only if you want them to be true. There are other perspectives who might see some of those aspects as the wrong way to read Stoic thinking, or even as undesirable features to be struggled with rather than embraced.

But that's always true with philosophy. You don't have to accept it as a lesson to be learned; rather, the point is to understand it as a perspective, so that you can think that way when and insofar as it is helpful. Often it is good to be able to examine a problem from several different perspectives or in many different lights. Sometimes that is what helps you find a functional way forward that is your own, but yet one that you might not have thought of without the shift in perspective.

J Melcher said...


Animals provide examples