I think I will finish with Epictetus in Sharon Lebell’s interpretation, The Art of Living, next week with one or two more posts.
Obviously, I have a positive take on Stoic philosophy. I value it as a help for Christians who find the forgiveness of sin and the promise of a blessed life beyond this one a great joy, but who still find it tough to cope with daily life. I value it as a help to those who want to manage their emotions, especially men looking for a way to deal with emotions in a less toxic way. I value it because it has helped me.
But I have reservations about some things. The stress on making a sharp distinction between reality as it appears and truth is valid. But there is a fine line between this and ignoring empirical realities. Sometimes the Stoics–and Sharon Labell’s repackaging of Epictetus–value the inward over the outward. Indeed, the outward world often appears to us as other than it is, but our inward world can easily be even more out of whack.
Mostly though, it is the individualism of Stoicism that I would criticize. There is throughout Epictetus a distrust of social relationships. You have to be careful who you pick as friends. You have to monitor your behavior so that you do not get carried away by social pressure. In certain situations both of these can be good advice. If you are in jail or rehab because you have been associating with the wrong people, you need to make a change when you get out.
But I don’t see that this takes account of the facts of social life. You do not get to choose who your family is, or who joins your faith community, or who is a neighbor or fellow citizen. In extreme situations, of course, you can renounce your family, leave your church, or move out of your neighborhood. Yet social relationships within community provide a vital support for us as individuals and for the common good.
We need communities. A lot of us hate bureaucracies, whether government, corporate, or church. But community at the local, family and congregational level allows people to live a better life. Some are introverts or have trust issues because of past relationships. Such people could take Stoic philosophy as an excuse for isolation.
Sometimes people that you do not like or trust, or people you would not naturally choose to associate with, can end up enhancing your life. Epictetus seems open to this.
He recommends against snobbishness. He recommends being forgiving, understanding, and generous. So in some ways his philosophy is conducive to community. But there is also a kind of ideal of the individual free of authority and tradition, who carefully filters out the influence of others in order to be a completely rational, self-sufficient person.
He lived in the Roman Empire. Society was highly organized. Social stratification was pretty much fixed. But he was a freedman, who had been born a slave, but become free. So perhaps he took for granted the organization, stability, and advantage that Roman society gave his life.