Between Epicurus and Epictetus

by Arran James

The contents of this post were originally a comment on Levi Bryant’s latest post. For whatever reason, my posts aren’t displayed on Levi’s blog. Most likely, its because he doesn’t feel my comments add much to the conversation or because they’ve been accidentally filed in ‘spam’. Whatever the reason, I’m putting them up here in case someone finds them of any interest.


Hi :Levi,

I’ve been spending sometime exploring pre-Socratic and Hellenistic schools of philosophy and I have to say I agree with you (with a disagreement). I’ve come to think of the Stoics as providing the basis that you feel Epicureanism provides…although on the understanding that the two schools were involved in a dialectical process of formation and that the later Roman Stoics (Seneca especially) was open to Epicurean principles that he felt didn’t contradict the prime goal of attaining equanaminity. Indeed, in modern times EM Cioran seems to have been among the philosophers to hold each up as describing worthy modes of being. The core tenet shared by both the Stoa and the Epicureans was the alleviation of suffering through becoming psychologically unperturbed. Although there physics were different and they stressed different routes to the Good Life there is no reason a Lucretius and an Epictetus might not be set into meaningful dialogue.

On those Kantian questions, I can give my reading of a Stoic’s answer…I don’t know the degree to which the Epicurean would agree. First of all, we establish ethics and engage in normative politics because of we recognise the potentiality to inflict suffering that the human being is inclined towards. There would be no reason to set-up so exacting a regulatory principle as the Stoic Sage and to seek to quieten the negative passions, if people in their “natural state”, their spontaneous state, didn’t cause themselves and others so much harm.

I very much like your formulation of the questions “why won’t we kill each other?” as a historically determined question dependent on material conditions for its occasioning. I think the Stoics had an answer to this as well in their principle of “fittingness” or “aptness”. Human being are social animals to the Stoics, so it is “apt” that they behave according to that sociality. For Epictetus this meant children respecting parents, for Marcus Aurelius it meant fulfilling his duty to Rome as emperor whilst also remaining committed to his stoical principles. For us, in our own historically contingent material social conditions, aptness might retain features of old but it might also include new features. On killing, it isn’t apt for a social animal to kill without very good cause (and even when such cause is presented, we don’t always accept it without critical scrutiny- as in the case of police or military actions). On power, whereas for Marcus it meant accepting his fate as the embodiment of Rome, for us, with the historically accrued knowledge and awareness we have about the operations of power, its ability to produce suffering and undo serenity, it is fitting that we challenge power to the degree that such is in our control. This is admittedly broad because it is in my control (against Epictetus’s absolutism regarding control), in the social order in which I live, to sign petitions, to read and produce texts on overcoming voluntary servitude and becoming ungovernable, to attempt to establish a political or labour organisation, to undertake projects of directly establishing zones of counter-power with other, ranging from community projects like allotments to occupations and autonomous institutions. Zeno of Citiium’s Republic was supposed to have verged on an anarchist utopia.

Returning to the question of the psychopath and the sadist, the limit-subjects of ethico-political discourse, I agree totally that they are presented as cases where ethics fails then we’re left with an argument against ethicity and politics. I agree that these questions ignore essential parts of your Borromean social theory. As a psychiatric nurse the question of “what to do with the psychopath?” is one I’ve had to consider and had cause to discuss. From the perspective of nursing, this Borromean theory is a way of thinking thus far always absent (except in rhetoric) biopsychsocial model of healthcare. I can’t speak to the sadist’s experience being a necessary limit to ethics, simply because their are too many variations of sadism (many of consensual) but the psychopath…

First of all, if the psychopath makes challenges our ethics, if it makes our ethics blush, if we can’t decide then aren’t we in the undecidable? The very condition of the possibility to make an ethical decision? Otherwise, we’re just technicians applying principles of technocratic social engineering.

Secondly, if the psychopath is materially, neurologically unable to recognise the affectivity of others or to introject an ethics then it is not the fault of others and of ethics. There is a sense in which the limit-figures of ethics are left outside of it. It seems to me this is what places them directly at its heart, if part of our ethicity and social organisation is to take-care of those who are incapable. I would suggest that it falls to us, and perhaps specifically to an enlightened psychiatry, to care for those unable to care. Aptness can even play a role here. It is is not fitting (or rational, or just) to punish dementia patient’s for their violent outbursts, young children for their tantrums and assertions of independence, or to knowingly engage in sexual relationships with people in a state of mania. Similarly, how can it be fitting to punish a psychopath for breaching an ethics she can “know” but not “from the inside”?

In another sense, doesn’t the psychopath deserve our compassion simply for being so close yet so distant from full integration into a vibrant community?