I’ve been pre-occupied by two pictures of personhood since the last post about my encounter with the woman in the waiting room. One is Aurelius’s cliff standing firm against the crashing sea. The strength of the rock to stand up against the relentless pounding forces of nature, the decay and destruction of aging and illness, offers an example of a way to live that is meant to secure happiness in the face of calamity. Nature, of course, ultimately wins. Eventually the sea will cause the cliff to erode and crash into the turbulent waters, just as certainly as illness and death come to us all, but the idea is that happiness consists in standing strong for as long as one can. The Stoics generally argue that we do so my not seeking to keep what in any case cannot be kept, and ultimately this includes our lives. Doing so, they know, is no easy feat.
Epictetus begins his manual on stoic philosophy, The Enchiridion, by noting that, “there are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.” It is important to remind ourselves in which category each of the thing we hold dear is, so that we do not allow ourselves to make our happiness dependent on what we cannot control. This extends to family and friends. “If you wish your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are foolish, for you wish things to be in your power that are not so…” The aim to be able to let go of all that one holds dear would be familiar to many a Buddhist. “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it,’ but ‘I have restored it.’ Has your child died? It is restored. Has your wife died? She is restored.” By letting go of it all, the Stoic philosopher can then accept all that happens to her, in the end even death. “Demand not that events should be as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” As I mentioned in an earlier posts, this seems a hopeless life, but then again, hope is only needed by those who would have events go as they wish. That is precisely what is to be avoided.
The Stoic ideal of strength is in many ways admirable. Surely being able to persevere against the crashing waves of ill-fortune is important for the maintenance of happiness throughout life. Does that require letting go of all one holds dear? Could one truly be happy doing so? Or does a full, rich, and happy life require making oneself vulnerable to the loss of all that enriches one life and the people whom one loves? Just as I have already cast doubt on the ability and desirability to live without hope, which the Stoics seem to recommend, so I also find doubtful the Stoic picture of a person so radically alone.
The second picture comes from John Donne. Perhaps he had Aurelius’s cliff image in mind when he penned these words: “If a clod be washed away to sea Europe is the less.” When Donne wrote this he may have been embracing a Pauline notion of the Body of Christ, but the image of solidarity expressed in these and other words of “Meditation XVII” are also available to those who interpret life through a purely secular lens. When in the 19th Century John Stuart Mill sought to provide an account of a progressive morality entirely on secular grounds of human happiness he also had an inspiring vision of what human solidarity could do: “All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort…[E]every mind sufficiently intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and unconspicuous, in the endeavor, will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself, which he would not for any bribe in the form of selfish indulgence consent to be without.”
We all rely crucially upon others to become who we are and to thrive in the activities of making a life. From the cradle to the hospice room we make our lives together, even if we fancy we live on a libertarian archipelago. As I have mentioned before, I owe my life to an anonymous donor and a social-democratic healthcare system. Mine and my family’s well-being is owed to all the friends who helped and supported us while I was in the hospital. The community that I enjoyed through the comments to this blog helped me to fight off anxiety and loneliness while I was otherwise isolated in the hospital.
The Stoics have important lessons to teach us about finding happiness in letting go of much that we cannot control, including coming to accept the inevitability of our own deaths. But I doubt that the Stoic sense of individualism can give the social character of our well-being its due. Can we be in love, in friendship, and in solidarity with others whom we can simply let be “restored.” I think not, and Epictetus might agree. In fact that may be the point. The commitments of love and solidarity necessarily render us vulnerable to the losses experienced by others and to our loss when we lose them. But these commitments also literally give us life and enrich it. Invulnerability is neither a possibility, nor an ideal worthy of our striving. There may be something tragic in that state of affairs. But given what’s to be lived, it’s not so clear that on balance it’s tragic, rather than just human.