The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus

in five dialogues

 

 

Dialogue 4.B.3

The Diairesis at work

 

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SER FELIZ

Οὐ μὲν οὖν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, φάναι, ὦ φιλούμενε Ἀγάθων, δύνασαι ἀντιλέγειν, ἐπεὶ Σωκράτει γε οὐδὲν χαλεπόν.

“No, it is Truth, my dear Agathon, that you cannot contradict; Socrates you easily may”
(Plato ‘Symposium’ 201D)

 

The characters:

Raniero
Irene
Muriel
Nicola, a boatman
An elderly man
Iorgos, a young man
Tom, a young man
Maria,a young woman
Penelopi, a young woman
Sofia, a young woman
Dimitri,a young man

 

The plan of Raniero, Irene and Muriel was to enjoy a delicious swim in a calm and crystal clear sea. But once at Kedros beach, they immediately had to face an unexpected situation. The beach was overcrowded. A lot of people were playing with beach-rackets and produced a constant and annoying noise that seemed especially designed to cover the gentle sound of the waves breaking on the shore. Other people, running on the sand, were spraying those lying near the shore. Some people delighted in throwing to two dogs a stick that always ended up on someone’s feet. There were people who produced clouds of sand by shaking their towels. Others yelled very loudly calling some friend at the other end of the beach. Someone was stealing what was in the unattended bags of people at sea.
-Here is a situation, said Raniero, that seems especially designed for us. I mean, designed to test our abilty to put the diairesis at work. When we decided to come here to swim we also said: “I want to swim, but I want also to keep my proairesis in accordance with the nature of things, and I’ll not achieve this goal if I shudder with indignation and anger in front of activities that other people consider useful for themselves and that are not my exclusive power to change”. Do you remember?-
-Yes, said Irene, I remember it very well. To keep our proairesis in accordance with the nature of things means to remember that we cannot have complete control over what is not in our exclusive power. So now we are faced with two possibilities. The first one is to get angry and intervene to stop those we judge are jammers. But it is clear that, here and now, this would be hazardous and perhaps even counterproductive. The second possibility is to put the diairesis at work, to not place ourselves in direct conflict with them and choose a different beach. But which beach?-
-I agree that we should not protest against this crowd, added Raniero. If they like what they do, let them enjoy it! We have here a good opportunity to exercise our tolerance. It is not what we hoped, but we are endowed by nature with enough resources to cope with this and other far more serious difficulties. I find this a wonderful demonstration of the truth we were discussing a few days ago: one thing is the project to find a quiet beach and to bathe, and a very different one is to actually find a beach that is quiet, because this outcome is not in our exclusive power! Anyway, I know that on the island there is another beach that is even more extraordinary than this one. It’s a couple of miles away and is more secluded: its name is Livadi. Do we want to go there?-
-Yes, nodded Irene, but it takes a long time to walk there and the path is not so easy-
While they were discussing the situation, the big blue boat of Nicola appeared far away on the sea, coming from behind the headland overlooking the beach. The boat was already loaded with people going to Livadi. After a few minutes and to their complete surprise, Raniero, Irene and Muriel saw the boat coming towards them and directing itself to the left end of the beach, where there is a small dock. “Here is the solution: let’s go to Livadi by boat”. They quickly reached other people already waiting on the pier and, after they got into the boat, Muriel noticed the presence of an elderly man wearing a white cloak. A flowing white beard framed his face, which was serene and sun-tanned. Muriel found a place beside him and distinctly heard him ask one of the young men who accompanied him to write down what he would slowly dictate. His words were the following: “We must train ourselves especially in this form of exercise. At once, stepping forth at dawn, inquire about whom you see, inquire about whom you hear and answer like to a question. What did you see? A handsome younker or a pretty wench? Apply the standard. Is it an aproairetic or proairetic thing? Aproairetic. Ignore it. What did you see? Someone mourning the death of her child? Apply the standard. Death is an aproairetic thing. Ignore it. Did you meet a consul? Apply the standard: what kind of thing is a consulship? Aproairetic or proairetic? Aproairetic: ignore it, too, for it has no value; throw it away, it is nothing to you. If we did this and in this we exercised every day from dawn to night, something would happen, by the gods! Instead, we are surprised by every impression, and only when at school we might wake up a bit. And then, when we leave the school, if we see someone mourning we say: ‘She is lost!’. If we see a consul: ‘Blessed man!’. If a banished fellow: ‘Disgraced man!’. If someone poor in money: ‘Miserable man, he has nothing to eat!’. For, what is to cry and to wail? A judgement. What is ill fortune? A judgement. What is conflict, what is disagreement, what is blame, what is accusation, what is impiety, what are babbles? These are all judgements and nothing else, and judgements on aproairetic things as good or evil. Transpose these judgements onto proairetic things, and I guarantee that you will be stable, no matter the circumstances that surround you”.
Once they got out of the boat, Muriel noticed that the elderly man was leaning on a cane and limping noticeably.
Livadi is a large white sand beach, very secluded, with a ​​clear blue sea and calm waters. Beyond the beach, in the shadow of a great tamarisk, they saw some tents and a group of young people sitting in a circle on colorful towels. They were all naked, and were talking quietly among themselves. On the beach other people were swimming or sunbathing or simply walking along the seashore. Some of them were wearing a bathing suit, but the majority of people had gotten rid of all clothing.
After a swin, Raniero and Irene approached the group of young people under the tamarisk. Muriel approached them too, and turning to his two friends said: “Sorry, I had lost sight of you both because I decided to write down the terrible things that I heard from an elderly man while we were on the boat. I can read them to you later, if you want”.
The young people welcomed them and offered them some water. At a certain point, a guy named Iorgos told them that just that morning two dear friends of him had left the island and gone back home. He confessed that this separation had touched him very deeply, that he was feeling unhappy, and that for this reason he needed to share his feelings with other people.
-Feelings? What do you mean, asked Tom, when you use this word?-
-For me, answered Mary, to have feelings means to express the emotions I feel towards other people. You told the two friends who left, that you loved them. For me, the only true feeling is essentially the feeling of love-
-I completely agree with you, said Tom. But I must add, as I told Iorgos this morning, that to share this feeling with other people doesn’t heal the pain and misery that I, too, feel for this separation-
-If you, intervened Raniero, let yourself be overrun by nostalgia and grief because of the separation, you seem to give a purely negative judgment of the situation, and thus unlock the door that brings you unhappiness. Why do you need to behave this way?-
-This is not the point, said Iorgos. I just give myself the right to feel what I feel, and to notify you about this. If you experience the same feeling, this empathy makes the misery of separation more bearable for me. I find the possibility of sharing our feelings with other people helpful and important-
-Look, said Raniero: if you analyze the subject in depth, you’ll come to the conclusion that those you call feelings are in fact judgments-
-How can you say this? asked Iorgos-
-The ones you call feelings, explained Raniero, are judgments because they can always be translated as follows: “I like being with these people”. If your judgment were different and were: “I don’t like being with these people” you would call this a feeling of aversion, and the separation would not bring you any unhappiness-
-Your argument, rose up Tom, seems trivial to me! You’re simply saying that if the situation were different my feelings would be different. So what?-
-I accept your obvious criticism, replied calmly Raniero. But the important thing here is to acknowledge that our feelings are in fact judgments, that our judgments are our true self, and that the complete control upon our judgments is the only actual power that we have. We are the only ones able to change them. No one else can do it for us, nor we can ask someone else to do it for us: we are totally free in our judgments-
-So, continued Iorgos, I should change my opinion of the situation, and say that I don’t care if my friends have gone? Is this the way I could avoid feeling unhappy? Is this what you mean?-
-Nature, replied Raniero, has made us the only masters of our judgments. When you talk of the feelings as if they were entities independent of our judgments, you run the risk of believing that the feelings are our masters and that we are the guests of our feelings. If our feelings were really masters of us, logically the separation you mention should drag you to extreme decisions. This is what you should do: kill yourself for the misery that you experience because of the separation, as did Dido when Aeneas left her. If these friends had not only left you but if they were already dead in an accident and you could never see them again, what would you do? Since they are for you really good people, since the removal of this good thing is for you an evil that makes you unhappy, since you have lost this good that they took away by leaving you, in order to be consistent and true to yourself you should commit suicide-
-It seems to me an overstatement, said Iorgos. In a person’s life there are not only friends but many other things. So why commit suicide? I’m just sad-
-Be careful then, replied Raniero, because you are not sufficiently aware that your behavior is the consequence of a chain of judgments that follow each other. First, you chop the ‘big good’ into small bits, into a lot of different ‘small goods’, as many as the number of people and of external objects that you judge important and useful to you. Secondly, you think to have over each of these bits such a power that their possession brings you happiness and their loss misery. Thirdly, you tacitly decide that there will never be a decisive loss, and therefore, that you’ll choose to commit suicide only if all these people together and all these external objects were taken away from you all at once. But if you reason soundly, you must recognize that not even one of these persons and objects belongs to you, because they are people and things outside of you. They are, as we said, aproairetic entities over which you have no exclusive power-
-Yes, intervened Mary, it can be so. But this doesn’t prevent me from feeling unhappiness because of a separation-
-This happens, continued Raniero, because you equate the separation with a loss, and judge that it has only a negative value. On the contrary, you must judge that your friends are for you, as external to you, neither good nor evil things; and therefore that your separation from them is not the separation from something which is good but from something which is neither good nor evil-
-You mean, Mary said, that all external objects have no value at all? This seems to me a very self-centered attitude and one that doesn’t convince me at all-
-I am stunned, said Raniero. If you take away from everything that is external the quality of being good or evil, does this mean that you take away all importance to what is external? If something is neither good nor evil, does this mean that it no longer continues to be hot or cold, colored or colorless, heavy or light, sweet or savory; and in the case of a person, attractive or repulsive, tall or short, male or female, happy or unhappy, and all the countless other possible determinations that specify and characterize him or her?-
-When you state, said Irene, that a person is neither a good nor a bad thing it seems to me that you are saying that she or he is worthless, and that bothers me. In our culture the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are closely related to the concept of value-
-All that is external to us (people, things, situations, etc..) is neither good nor evil, repeated Raniero. Good and evil lay only in the use we make of these external things, and this use is in our exclusive power. For example, chess pieces are neither good nor evil things, they are simply chess pieces. The good player, however, will use them in the right way and  will win the game, while the bad player will lose it. This is not a judgment upon the value of the chess pieces as such, but about the way the players use them. A ship is neither a good nor an evil thing. Does it mean that the ship doesn’t exist or that it is worthless? The good pilot will dock it even in a rough sea, the bad pilot will make it sink-
-I understand, Tom said. All that is external to us is neither good nor evil, and good and evil are only in the use we make of what is external to us-
-You are right, nodded Raniero, this is the truth. You preserve the power to judge pleasant, desirable and useful the presence of the friends who left the island, because this judgment is exclusively up to you. But you must admit that the separation, on the contrary, doesn’t depend exclusively on you. You preserve the right to have your own opinion of the separation, too. But why should this judgment always be negative and cause you unhappiness? Allow me to put the question in this way: what hurts you is not the departure of your friends but your fear of suffering-
-Maybe you are right, murmured Iorgos emotionally. But what can we do better than that?-
-You can make a different choice, said Raniero. You can consider the separation from another point of view. You are free to conceive other judgments. For example, that the separation will make it more pleasant to meet your friends again, or that the separation is unavoidable and will produce something new and unexpected, and so on. If you put the diairesis at work, the diairesis will change your judgments and these new judgments will change your feelings. If you take good and evil away from what is aproairetic, why do you deduce as a consequence that you cannot have feelings anymore? Don’t be afraid to feel this languor, do not try to resist the pang, don’t fear the separation, allow yourself to experience something that you imagine can crush you while, in fact, you are actually superior to it and able to master it-
-When I feel pain, said Penelopes, I censor it. I start thinking about a lot of different things and become hyperactive, because I don’t want to feel badly. I don’t do what you suggest, I don’t accept the pain and I go elsewhere-
-When I feel the pain of separation, said Muriel, I lose energy and no longer want to do anything. Nothing anymore seems to me interesting and everything seems negative. I soon enter a state of depression and nothing appears valuable to me anymore. I start to believe that the separation is my fault and that I have no value at all, because otherwise there would be no separation. This happens to me especially if the separation is the end of a romance-
-When you say, Raniero explained, that you feel guilty for the separation and that you are worthless, you implicitly assume that the separation is something in your exclusive power. If you judge yourself to be the cause of the separation, you also admit to be the origin of your own affliction. Now, if you judged that the separation doesn’t depend exclusively on you, you would at least avoid the vicious cycle you’ve described, which forces you to live the separation as well as the depression-
-On my part, intervened Sofia, I find it important to stay in the situation, even if it is one of nostalgia or unhappiness, and accept it, as Raniero said. If you refuse the situation, the pain gets bigger and bigger, while if you accept and dominate it you can be happy-
-Excuse me, protested Iorgos, you cannot tell me that you can be happy and unhappy at the same time...-
-You are right in saying this, intervened Raniero, because if we use contradictory terms we’ll make a mess and understand very little. So I suggest that we don’t call unhappiness the whole range of soft, delicate and nostalgic feelings of those who have learned the right use of their proairesis. Epictetus frequently invites us not to use a judgment without first having carefully analyzed it. So, how must we show affection? We must be affectionate as the free men are, as the lucky men are. Our reason will never choose that we are slaves in our proairesis, nor that we lose its vigour or make it depend on this or that. We can, therefore, love, and love with the intention of preserving our proairesis free and in accordance with the nature of things. If, however, due to the feeling of affection, whatever it is we call affection, we are to be slaves and petty men, we must avoid being affectionate-
-I’m sorry, asked Irene, are you saying that in order to avoid the risk of being unhappy or enslaved it’s better not to be affectionate at all?-
-I’m telling you, answered Raniero, that your presence is dear to me, but that if you leave me, even though I will feel a sense of lack, of longing, or the languor that follows a separation, I’ll live in your absence as a free man lives, a man who is not overwhelmed by feelings related to events that are not within his power-
-It seems to me, said Muriel, that in this way you’re passively accepting the choices of other people-
-I can try, answered Raniero, to influence the choices of Irene, in order to facilitate or hinder the choice I don’t like; but certainly it’s not in my power to ensure that she will choose what I prefer. I don’t forget the existence and the meaning of the feelings of sadness, languor or nostalgia which follow a separation. We can usefully define these feelings as sudden, short-term feelings. But I don’t lose sight of the fact that these feelings cannot overwhelm me, as they are themselves aproairetic events, that is events that are not in my exclusive power. At this point what I can and must do, is to put at work the diairesis, analyze them in the light of the fact that they are not in my exclusive power and open the door to the stable, long-term feelings that we now know to be actually judgments. This is what depends exclusively on me. To feel badly or good is therefore totally up to me-
-I separated from my wife last year, intervened Dimitri, and I still cannot accept this separation. I constantly seek traces of her in the form of letters, photographs, of people who remember her, so that I can feel again as I used to feel before-
-The judgment that you have of your wife, said Penelopes, is that she was certainly a good thing for you, and the separation from her makes your life unhappy. But if you try to recreate a situation that is no longer possible, you won’t get anything out of it-
-I have given up, sighed Dimitri, experiencing new things and I want to be alone with the memory of what was good for me-
-Nobody in the world, nodded Raniero, will convince you of the opposite. I think it’s a pity to lose a friend like you, who chooses to live alone. It’s a pity to lose your company and the opportunity of meeting and discussing together. But if this is your choiche, we cannot change it. You, my dear Dimitri, are sending a man to hell, that is yourself; a man who has committed no injustice at all-
-On the contrary, intervened Irene, I have experienced the diairesis at work, the change of judgment, as you call it, after a separation. For me, the separation is not exclusively negative and a source of regret, though, of course, this feeling is not unknown to me. The separation has been for me a period that has allowed me to see more clearly what I lived, and to experience feelings of gratitude for what I had before, while being aware that everything has a beginning and an end. I think that this is exactly the opposite of what Medea chose to do because of her painful separation from Jason. We know that she chose to devalue all that had passed between them-
-If I understand it well, said Mary, you Raniero do not deny the existence of sudden feelings and the legitimacy of experiencing them. You simply say that the long-term feelings are in fact judgments, that we are masters of these judgments and that the use of our feelings is an open question-
-That’s right, Raniero stated, and of course what we do with our feelings depends on the judgments that guide us. The word ‘diairesis’ itself means separation. Separation from what? Separation of the judgment of good and evil from everything external to our proairesis and the assignment of good to our individual proairesis when it operates correctly, that is, when it is capable of distinguishing between what is in our exclusive power and what is not. I don’t deny the sadness of separation, but I don’t forget that the separation doesn’t depend exclusively on me; and I deny that the judgment on separation must always be a cause of unhappiness. On the other hand, we cannot  but interact with people and things outside us. Well, we should not be afraid of these relationships and we should not expect to suffer harm from them, but good, provided that we know, thanks to the ability to use the diairesis, to appreciate and firmly hold their true value. No football player disputes the weight or size of the ball. The talent of each player is shown by his ability to use the ball as it is, identical for all. Up to us is to overcome the obstacles, including the fear of winning, and to decide to score a goal-
It was late afternoon and suddenly a distant but unmistakable rumbling announced the imminent arrival of the big blue boat of Nicola.
-Who wants, asked Mary and Dimitri, to go to Kedros by boat with us? The boat is in sight and we must be ready to leave in a few minutes-
-The sea is calm and therefore I will gladly take the boat back with the two of you, said Muriel-
-I do wish, said Irene, to see again from the boat the magnificent rocky coast we admired coming here this morning. I’ll join you, Muriel. And you, Raniero, what will you do?-
-I prefer ​​walking. I would like to look at the sea from the top of the rocky coast and delight myself with the scent of the bushes of thyme and helichrysum that dot the rugged path leading here. Shall I see you later for a beer at the tavern of Nikitas?-

 
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