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Exploring Encheiridion 8 – Episode 39


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Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to, but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right. (Ench 8) This passage, and several other similar passages within the Stoic texts, present a huge, sometimes insurmountable, stumbling block for many people when they begin to study and practice Stoicism. As Simplicius notes in his commentary on this passage: But perhaps this injunction to ‘wish for it to happen as it happens’ will seem to some people to be harsh and impossible. What right thinking human being wishes for the occurrence of the widespread bad effects resulting from the universe – for instance, earthquakes, deluges, conflagrations, plagues, famine and the destruction of all sorts of animals and crops? Or the impious deeds performed by some human beings on others – the sacking of cities, taking prisoners of war, unjust killings, piracy, kidnapping, licentiousness, and tyranni cal force, culminating in compelled acts of impiety? …These things and others of this sort – of which there has been an excess in our own lifetime – who would want to hear of them, let alone see them, take part in them or ‘wish them to happen as they happen’, except a malevolent person and a hater of all that is fine?[1] Within the last month, I responded to emails from two Stoicism on Fire listeners who expressed concern about this concept in Stoicism. I will keep the identity of those listeners anonymous. However, I’m going to use the content of those emails to help express a concern that is likely shared by others. The first is from a man who wrote: I am hoping you may be able to help me with something which has been a source of some vexation to me.  I have been studying philosophy for most of my adult life and Stoicism is something I came to in the last 5-years or so.  The problem I have is to do with the discipline of assent. It seems that what the Stoic wants is to dispense with the value judgement part of the impression.  The idea seems to be that whatever is not in my control is to be expunged by simply not assenting to it.  Now, I can perfectly see the argument that when a driver cuts me up or someone says something insulting to me, I may want to remove my value judgements to preserve my equanimity.  All perfectly obvious.  But what you seem to be saying is that any value judgement based on something not in my control, should be “deleted” from the impression, in order to preserve my equanimity.  I’m afraid I find this absurd. Suppose you find yourself in a situation where one of your children has been taken hostage by a terrorist and is being threatened with a knife.  There is a high probability that something terrible will happen, but according to the discipline of assent, you will need to delete the value judgement (which any normal father would have) that my child is in danger!!. Having thus deleted the value judgement, you can observe events unfolding from your “Inner Citadel” completely unperturbed. The second email was from a woman, who wrote: I have been reading the Stoics for many years. They have served as my substitute for religion, my preferred cognitive therapy. However my major reservation is that Stoicism does not provide an adequate answer or comfort in times of personal or global tragedy or suffering. When something horrible happens to someone, how can we respond by saying we will things as they are, we will things to happen as they have? Stoicism does not provide a good answer to the natural human emotional response to personal tragedy. It does not appear to accept that it is ok to feel the natural emotional anguish that comes with personal tragedy. I have always seen this as the major weakness. A show on this could be helpful, i.e., how does Stoicism dictate that the practitioner should react to a personal tragedy in their life, and does this make sense? Is it rational to expect sentient human beings to react to tragedy by saying, yes, I will things to happen as they have? Well,

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