From Anger to Pity

How should the philosopher, the person making progress toward wisdom, respond to wrongdoing? What is the appropriate response when someone behaves badly toward me?

In Discourses 1.18, Epictetus answers that if we must have any response at all, it would be far more appropriate to respond to wrongdoing with pity, rather than anger. But why? There are two lines of argument (which I will address in the opposite order of how he presents them).

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Appropriations of Stoicism; or, the Place(s) of Ethics in Philosophy

Recent discussions in real life, and in several corners of the internet, have got me thinking about the seemingly quite widespread appeal of Stoic philosophy as a “plug and play” system: the way in which the ethical or practical bits of the ancient Stoics are so often taken as if they can stand alone, apart from wider systematic concerns. As one blogger recently relates, this sort of modular Stoicism is something you can learn in a weekend.

On the one hand, this is certainly true, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon. Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Platonist philosopher Simplicius was using Epictetus’ Handbook as an introductory text for his students. The subsequent centuries have seen elements of Stoic ethics taken up enthusiastically by Christians and other atheists who by would no means be willing to adopt traditional Stoic views in physics and theology.

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Stoic Piety

In book XII of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

People ask, ‘Have you ever seen the Gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?’

Answers:
i. Just look around you.
ii. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it.

That’s how I know the Gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.28 (trans. Hays)

There are at least two noteworthy things here. First, and most apparently, we see the deep and genuine piety of this Stoic thinker and ruler of the known world, expressed eloquently and movingly. Put this passage alongside others from the Meditations, including the beautiful words of thanks in book I, and we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that for Marcus, the Gods are real, powerful, active presences in his life.

Second, and more subtly, in the analogy to the human soul, we see the Stoic doctrine of the subtle fire which animates all of the more gross matter in the cosmos. On this view, the human soul is supposed to be sure a fire, permeating the body, giving it vitality and motion. When that fire goes out, the body is dead, meaning that it is no longer self-maintaining, no longer an organic unity. Likewise, at the level of the cosmos as a whole, it is the creative fire of divine intellect—so frequently identified by the Stoic philosophers with Zeus himself—which animates and brings to perfection the entire order of the universe, which is likewise a perfect unity. Marcus’ answers, then, are not mere arbitrary comparisons, for which others might just as well be substituted, but are rooted in a core doctrine of Stoic metaphysics.

It’s not my preferred mode of doing metaphysics. I tend toward a bit more transcendence, and I’m less eager to shoehorn all of what’s real into what’s material. Nonetheless, I can appreciate both the general Stoic approach, and the way in which that approach can ground a deep and genuine piety.

Reading Proclus on Prayer

In the opening pages of book 2 of his commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus offers a discussion of prayer, that I’ve found helpful for refining my understanding.

As we might expect from Proclus, the discussion revolves around the doctrines of procession and reversion. The key principle is that everything that has being proceeds directly (i.e., in an unmediated way) from the Gods, and everything attains its proper excellence or completion when it reverts back upon its causes, which are the Gods. In prayer, we help to accomplish this reversion, both for ourselves and for the lower things in the cosmos, elevating ourselves (as the ones praying) and those things for which we pray.

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Choosing our Relations: Simplicius on Friendship

One of our most useful texts on Neoplatonist ethics is a commentary on the Handbook of Epictetus, written by Simplicius, one of the last Athenian Platonists, who was exiled together with Damascius and the other philosophers in 529.

Commenting on §30 of the Handbook, in which Epictetus explains how “the appropriate actions for us to do are usually measured out for us by our relations,” Simplicius offers a framework for classifying relations, and an extended discussion of friendship, as situated within that framework. It’s worth noting that Epictetus himself doesn’t mention friendship at all within §30. For Epictetus, this section deals with how to correctly apply our power of choice (prohairesis) to “natural” relations between human beings. §31 of the Handbook deals with our relations to the Gods, and only in §32 (in the context of the appropriate use of divination!) does Epictetus himself get around to mentioning friendship.

Simplicius classifies relations along three axes:

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Iamblichus on the Discernment of Spirits

In book V, chapter 10 of De Mysteriis, Iamblichus gives us an elegant and straightforward method for distinguishing genuine Gods and Daimones from impostures.

We observe that the Demiurge provides us lower creatures with everything we need for our sustenance. So, why should he fail to do so, for the daimones? If their sustenance were adventitious, dependent on us (such that our neglecting them would somehow harm or disequilibriate them), then they would be inferior to us, and we would be superior to them, which is absurd.

We can conclude that any being which depends upon an offering is an inferior being, and not the God or Daimon to whom sacrifice is properly given.

As Iamblichus himself explains, “Each thing derives its nurture and fulfillment from that to which it owes its generation.”

Proclus: The Goodness of the Daimones

In §17 of the De Malorum Subsistentia (“On the Existence of Evils”), Proclus explains why there is no evil in the daimones. Here, Proclus is working his way down the metaphysical hierarchy, from the Gods, through angeloi, daimones, heroes, various classes of souls, and finally to matter, looking to see at what point evil could possibly enter into things.

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Proclus: Likeness and Reversion

Πᾶσα ἐπιστροφὴ δι’ ὁμοιότητος ἀποτελεῖται τῶν ἐπιστρεφομένων πρὸς ὃ ἐπιστρέφεται.

All reversion is accomplished through a likeness of the reverting terms to the goal of reversion.

Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 32

This is why the philosopher’s goal is to become like the Gods, insofar as possible.

Proclus: Providence & Participation

After two years of reading Neoplatonic commentaries, and some of the more helpful scholarly literature, I decided last month that it was finally time to tackle Proclus’ Elements of Theology. I figure that if I study and meditate on one proposition every morning, I can work my way through the entire text by about the Summer Solstice. This is the first of an occasional series of posts, reflecting on that intellectual journey.

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