Thursday, April 26, 2007
In Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (trans. Michael Chase, ed. Arnold Davidson [Blackwell, 1995]), Pierre Hadot cites a passage of Epictetus that dramatizes Stoic realization as a means of working through. Hadot writes that the Stoic method
consists in refusing to add subjective value-judgments--such as "this object is unpleasant," "that one is good," "this one is bad," "that one is beautiful," "this is ugly"--to the "objective" representation of things which do not depend on us, and therefore have no moral value. The Stoics' notorious phantasia kataleptike--which we have translated as "objective representation"--takes place precisely when we refrain from adding any judgment value to naked reality. In the words of Epictetus: "we shall never give our assent to anything but that of which we have an objective representation," and he adds the following illustration:
So-and-so's son is dead.
His son is dead.
Not a thing.
So-and-so's ship sank.
His ship sank.
So-and-so was carted off to prison.
He was carted off to prison.
--But if we now add to this "He has had bad luck," then each of us is adding this observation on his own account. (Hadot 188-189)
Among the questions here is who is represented as speaking to whom. First, though, we’re likely to notice that the sequence of Epictetus’ examples is manipulative, and to feel that we want to get off between (2) and (3). The first two examples describe inalterable states in which, no matter what interpretive or legal issues may remain (was the ship properly maintained?), the central fact to be reckoned with is an irrecoverable loss. Psychically, it makes sense that that loss needs to be articulated (and spoken again: there is an “exposure” technique here) on its own, apart from all the interpretations and recriminations that could distract us from the most significant fact. Wherever the fault may lie, his son is dead; that the realization is not easy is connoted by the repetition. The fact that someone has been carted off to prison, however, although it does have to be acknowledged, is not inalterable and our acceptance of the fact should be correspondingly provisional. Epictetus doesn’t provide the qualification we need. Still, the constative utterance offered in belief does entail a minimal degree of acceptance of the fact stated, so that in order for the utterance to have occurred at all, a process of working through has already had to have begun. (By “minimal acceptance” I mean no more than the barest ability to tolerate the knowledge of the fact.) The point is not that the locution “His son is dead” requires me to promise that from now on I’ll treat his son as dead. It’s rather that, at some depth of belief, we act in involuntary correspondence to the things we believe, so that if I really believe his son is dead (and it will never be simply obvious that I do), I don’t speak about him in the present tense.
Epictetus gives us a dialogue of generic interlocutors, which creates a subtle impression that the words may not be supposed to be voiced; it’s an exercise, like a “dialogue” in foreign language instructional texts. There is a “what” question—“what happened?”—and it has one, unambiguous outcome. Second there is a question which sounds a little like a follow-up question to the “what” question—a question not asked in the dialogue, but which may come into our minds, namely “How did he die?” To this question too there is one answer, and the fact that Epictetus reduces what we might think of as a “how” question to a “what” answer again—which names a result only, rather than describing the process or context that came to produce that result—has the effect of a hierarchical claim that effect is more important than cause. The third exchange, finally, invites a "why" question, and this too is reduced to a "what" outcome, in the most contentious move of the passage. The insistent point is that that something has happened is more significant than how or why. It also seems to be more important than you or me, more important than the fact that I am asking something or that you are answering. Dialogue is invoked here only to be subordinated, for this is a dialogue from which personae recede, and that does not develop, but hovers suspended in absorptive attention to someone or something outside the instance, something not in the form of transcendental structure or empty signifier, but in the form of brute and particular reference that seems to overcome momentarily the seductions and rhetorical aims of dialogue. “His son is dead”—to any utterance meant to please or threaten, we can never give our consent the way we give our consent to this. The descriptive mode of the “is” statement signals psychic action, and one token of the power of that action is withdrawal from the interpersonal and rhetorical axis, the land of I and you and we.
Image: glacier beach, Patagonia, 2005