Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ancient Evenings: Three Dialogues on Good and Evil

A Dramatic Adaptation of Sextus Empiricus' Against the Ethicists

Adrian Kuzminski


Dramatis personae:

Rufus, a Roman Senator

Philia, an Epicurean, daughter of Rufus

Harmonia, a Stoic, daughter of Rufus

Lucian, a Pyrrhonist, son of Rufus

Petronius, a Peripatetic

Saturnius, a Sceptic

Time: the reign of Pius Antonious, mid 2nd century CE

Place: the villa of Rufus in Campania


The First Evening

Dialogue One

Do Good and Evil Exist?

RUFUS: Come my children and friends. Let us retire to the garden and enjoy the cool of the evening. We’ll have some wine and cakes, and continue our conversation.

Philia, who’s been living for some time now with the Epicureans, keeps telling me that pursuing pleasures and avoiding pains is the only way to live, to be happy. I’m too old to believe it. It seems to me to miss the tragedy in things. The pains of life will have their way with all of us, more or less, and when they do, the ideas of Epicurus will be but cold comfort.

But we are all philosophers here, so let us ask what good and evil are, whether they are the pleasures and pains of the Epicureans, or whether they be something else, as other philosophers claim.

PHILIA: Father, you misunderstand me. It isn’t just a matter for us Epicureans of pursuing pleasures and avoiding pains, but rather of calculating how best to maximize the former and minimize the latter. The reality is that we accept some pains if they lead to greater pleasures, and avoid some pleasures if they result in greater pains. For the good for each of us is surely happiness or well-being, a state in which we experience pleasure. Pleasure isn’t just physical pleasure, though that’s part of it. Pleasure more broadly includes the kinds of satisfations we derive from acting morally, even when acting morally may require pain or sarifice on our part. Thus a mother may happily sacrifice her life for her child, or even for a stranger.

HARMONIA: But who can be confident, dear sister, that such calculations will give you the results you seek? How can you be sure, in the end, that your pleasures will outweigh your pains? We Stoics make no such gamble on the outcome. Instead we seek the deeper virtue, if I may say so, which underlies both pleasures and pains. If we can but understand the order of things, of nature, we will see that pleasures and pains both are essential to the scheme of things. It is not a question of pursuing one and avoiding the other, but of accepting both, of facing the world as it is, not as we might like it to be.

The Stoic Sage, neither elated by pleasures nor distressed by pains, takes them equally in stride. Evil is a necessary complement to good, just as shadow is to light. You can’t have one without the other. The point is to understand the unfolding rationality of experience – where all things have their place – and to gain thereby a tranquility beyond the noisy contest of pleasures and pains. We can accept pain if we see that it is indispensable to our pleasures, to the way things are. Even if our pains outweigh our pleasures, we can take comfort that such pleasures as we may enjoy we would not have at all without the world as it is. Our pains can thus become ennobled, if not eliminated, and given a kind of aura of pleasure.

PETRONIUS: Ah, young ladies! Any view, it seems, invites attack by another. Just as the Stoics think they can improve upon the Epicureans, so my school – the Peripatetics – seeks to improve upon both Stoics and Epicureans. We believe we do so with good reason, if you will hear me out. Virtue is not merely a passive if aesthetic understanding of the world, as the Stoics claim, nor a calculation of pleasures and pains as the Epicureans believe, but an active process of development and self-realization. I must not only understand my potential – which is broad enough, I agree, to transcend pleasures and pains – but I must apply that potential as I live if I am to find satisfaction, if I am to be happy. It is what I can achieve in life that counts: my understanding is but a means to that end. It is a matter of finding within myself, as I calculateand understand, who I really am, and what it means to live properly. In the end it is this discovery of the self which is the highest good.

PHILIA: Oh, no. It may sound good to invoke some kind of understanding which contains pleasures and pains, and to talk about realizing it to find happiness and one’s true self, but there is no need to do so and harm in the prospect. We live by appearances, not by some mysterious deeper understanding, an understanding, I should add, elusive to most people. Appearances – our direct senations and thoughts -- are subject to change and uncertainty, yet they exhibit enough stability and reliability to allow us to observe and calculate, and what we calculate are the advantages of pleasures and pains. There’s nothing mysterious about them; we know them when we’re having them. They are not just thoughts and sensations, but the feelings which accompany them. And there is nothing else, save illusory opinion.

SATURNIUS: Since we are all taking positions, let a sceptic have a word. There is indeed harm in seeking for any understanding beyond appearances, and here I agree with Philia. Any such understanding can be based only on faith, not on evidence. Philia presumes, however, that we can agree about what is pleasure and what is pain, but that is hardly so. The same experience – say exercising in the gymnasium – will be judged a pleasure by some and a pain by others. Indeed, there is no experience which cannot be taken as a pleasure in some circumstances, and a pain in others, and perhaps sometimes even both at once. One cannot calculate pleasures and pains, as the Epicureans propose, because they are not phenomena but judgments about phenomena.

PHILIA: Not so fast. Aren’t some things beyond doubt intrinsically pleasureful or painful? Being branded by a red-hot poker is surely a pain to anyone, even if it may be beneficial, as when the surgeon cauterizes a wound. Any pleasure we take in the utility of such an act does not cancel out its pain.

SATURNIUS: Well, not necessarily. Ascetics and holy men, like the gymnosophists of India, are able, it seems, to disconnect themselves from such experiences. They suffer the hot iron, to be sure, but the pain so overwhelming to most of us is reduced by them to such insignificance as to virtually disappear. A lion who springs into our path about to devour us fills us with fear, but a lion observed behind the bars of a cage is no more than an object of attention, albeit a striking one. Indeed, if we are bored or distracted enough, or so used to the lion, as a trainor might be, even a lion in a cage could be an indifferent sight, one we might not even notice. It should be clear, if these examples make sense, that we need not identify any phenomenon as intrinsically anything at all. Phenomena themselves do not exist independently, that is, outside some context, any more than pleasures and pains and goods and evils intrinsically exist. It is only our desires and beliefs which suggest independent existence; if we could but root them out we would be free of their compulsions, and achieve the tranquility many of us seem to be searching for.

HARMONIA: You say, Saturnious, that pleasures and pains, and goods and evils generally, do not exist, and that any peace we might hope for in fact requires their elimination. But isn’t that just a clever way of redefining, not eliminating, good and evil. It is beliefs which are evil and their elimination which is good, you say, and yet you reintroduce at least one belief through the back door, so to speak. You accuse the Epicureans, and us Stoics, and I dare say Peripatetics, Platonists, and materialists – or anyone with any positive doctrine – of falling victim to some insubstantial belief. You advance no positive belief, it is true, but you embrace, it seems to me, a negative belief, namely that liberation of a sort follows from the elimination of positive beliefs, which are necessarily mistaken, and therefore evil.

SATURNIUS: I plead guilty. The via negativa, I must admit, is indeed in my opinion the only path to liberation, to the good, which lies, as Plato long ago suggested, beyond both phenomena and our opinions of phenomena. You can say it is a kind of negative belief, and that may be so, but there’s all the difference in the world between positive and negative beliefs. The latter have no content and so do not bind us to anything; therein lies our liberation.

RUFUS: Lucian, you’ve been listening quietly, but now I see you shaking your head. You’ve been attending lectures by the Pyrrhonists, and especially by that doctor in Rome, what’s his name . . . Sextus Empiricus. Tell us something about them and how they view this problem of good and evil.

LUCIAN: Well, they have a peculiar approach which I’m still trying to figure out. Like Saturnius and other academic sceptics, the Pyrrhonists question our beliefs. But they do not conclude that our beliefs are mistaken, or that positive beliefs are pernicious and negative ones liberating, only that we lack sufficient evidence either to substantiate or refute any belief, positiveor negative. They neither reject nor accept beliefs, but rather suspend judgment about them. Further, also unlike the Academics, they do not conclude that our appearances are as slippery as our beliefs about them, or otherwise confuse the two. Appearances, Pyrrhonists maintain, are not merely a function of what we might or might not believe about them, but have their own integrity and impress themselves involuntarily in the same way upon all of us under normal circumstances, provided our eyes, ears, and so on function as they usually do.

HARMONIA: That sounds too easy. How do we know what is in fact a phenomenon and what is an opinion?

LUCIAN: Phenomena, the Pyrrhonists say, are undeniable and common to us all. If I have eyes to see and I am made to look at the blue sky on a sunny day, I cannot but help but see the blue sky, and so on for all other phenomena.

HARMONIA: What about Saturnius’s point that any experience, even feeling a red hot poker, can be virtually eliminated?

LUCIAN: Not exactly. We can separate ourselves from our judgments about our experiences, if he is right, to the point of radically minimizing them. But minimizing an experience is not to eliminate it, as he implies. An involuntary residue remains. We can’t count on a lion we see in a cage, for instance, simply disappearing because we are distracted or bored, though we can detach ourselves to some degree from the lion, even if he is in our face. I cannot help but suffer the hot poker when it is applied to my flesh, even if I have been able to detach it from all judgments and interpretations.

HARMOMIA: Is the pain part of the residue?

LUCIAN: Yes, though it will be reduced insofar as we can reduce our judgments and interpretations which magnify our pain, as they clearly do. It should hurt less if I am able to identify less with the pain, but it will still hurt to some degree. No doubt the techniques of meditation and concentration developed by the magi of India, of which we have heard so much, may reduce it dramatically without eliminating it. They can mortify their flesh, even consume themselves in fire, without losing their composure. No doubt much can be learnt from them.

HARMONIA: Sorry, but I don’t understand. Isn’t pleasure a property of the good, as pain is a property of evil? And the same for other examples of what is good and what is evil: virtue, self-realization, reincarnation, friendship, justice, the ideal world, and so on, and the opposites as evils. We might add still others: that the good at least is desirable, useful, satisfying. Of course, some of these may be in conflict, but then our challenge is not to throw up our hands and suspend judgment, but to persevere in our inquiry and determine which of these are the true attributes of the good (and of evil, as the case may be). Isn’t that so?

LUCIAN: Not according to the Pyrrhonists. If we knew what the good was, we would be able to determine which properties belonged to it and which did not. But – and this is the point -- we don’t seem to know even that. There is not only no agreement, there are conflicting views, as we’ve seen in our discussion tonight. I think I can show this if I can question you.

HARMONIA: Of course,

LUCIAN: So tell me, Harmonia, conflicting properties cannot be instances of the same thing, can they? So if something is a pleasure in one situation and a pain in another – as we’ve seen above – then it seems it cannot be a pleasure or a pain?

HARMONIA: Perhaps not.

LUCIAN: So as far as that’s the case we do not share collectively a notion of a single good, or a single evil?

HARMONIA: It seems not.

LUCIAN: So we can’t tell whether a property such as pleasure or virtue or health or fame or any other is a property of the good? And similarly for what we might consider properties of evil?

HARMONIA: But then what are they? Can’t I know what a property is without necessarily knowing what it’s a property of? I may be entirely ignorant of what a horse is, for instance, but if I hear just the neighing of a horse, I surely know what neighing is.

LUCIAN: Not at all. You hear a sound but you don’t know that it’s neighing. You don’t know the role that sound plays as a part of a larger whole. You don’t now what the word means so you don’t have the right to use it as if you did.

HARMONIA: But I still know the sound. It’s a distinctive sound. I would recognize it again.

LUCIAN: Right. It’s not nothing, but neither it is something wholly determined. That why we call it an appearance, whch is to say, an incomplete or indeterminate reality. Appearances are the only things evident to us all; they are the involuntary thoughts and sensations we necessarily suffer. But we don’t in fact really know what they are. We are like someone who hears the neighing of a horse, but, knowing nothing of any horse, does not know it is neighing. Or like someone listening to the speech of barbarians. We hears the sounds they make, but do not know what they mean by them. That is how we live in the world of appearances. Nature is a language we don’t understand. The dogmatists try to explain our experience, while the sceptics maintain that there can be no explanation of them. We Pyrrhonists instead suspend judgment on whether appearances can be explained or not. Instead of affirming or denying experiences, we accept them as best we can.

HARMONIA: But what are you accepting? People say they might not be able to define something – say pornography – but they also say that they know it when they see it. Can’t we know good and evil when we see them in just the same way? Without defining them?

LUCIAN: Yes, as long as we remember that any experience can play either role, can be either good or evil, depending on circumstances. Or that goods might be in contradiction with other goods, and evils with other evils. But this is not what you dogmatists say. You want to advance some definitions in hopes of settling the matter once and for all. It seems to us, however, that no such definition has yet been established. Since anything we can think of as a property of good or evil can be either one, we are left with no clue as to what good and evil in themselves might be. Nothing is necessarily good or evil, and there s no evidence as to what they might be – or so it seems.

HARMONIA: Surely this is a scandalous conclusion. If your view, anything can be justified as a good or condemned as an evil. There can be no basis of morality. It is a recipe for the war of all against all. Force becomes the only and final arbiter.

LUCIAN: That has not been our experience. Whether we take pleasure or pain in something, or some mixture of the two, or even indifference, we find is not a matter of dispute, provided we have suspended what we might believe about it. If we do that, the only context left for appearances are other appearances, and not our distorting judgments about appearances. An appearance can be understood first in terms of its parts – the appearances of which it is constituted – and second, in terms of the wholes in which it appears as a part. The more our experiences of wholes as parts and parts as wholes overlaps, the more we will agree in our judgments of what is good and what is evil, and in how we shift those judgments. For then we will change them in the same way, agreeing now that this thing is good, and later that it is bad, and so on.

HARMONIA: But then the differences in our experience of appearances will prove fatal and conflict will be unavoidable.

LUCIAN: There will be differences and conflict for just the reason you say, yes, but since we are dealing in phenomena which we can all share potentially, we can in principle find the evidence we need to resolve such differences. That is not the case with beliefs, where the lack of evidence precludes resolution of differences, and in fact perpetuates them.

RUFUS: So good and evil are not banished but rendered manifest through phenomena even though we can’t define them or explain their appearance. In the theater, any actor can play any role – a man can play a woman, a woman a man, a coward a hero, a hero a coward, and so on – and similarly any experience can now be good and now be evil and now even be indifferent, and now good again, and so on. We pursue appearances which play the role of the good for us, and avoid those which play the role of evil, even if it means embracing one appearance in one situation and avoiding it in another. Is that a fair summary of what you’re saying, Lucian?


RUFUS: But if one appearance is good when it is a part in one whole but bad when it is a part in another – as marital sex is good, say, and adulterous sex is bad – then surely these are not the same but different appearances, and if so perhaps we might still hope to define them.

LUCIAN: Yes, this was my point just now about recognizing that appearances can be identified not just by recognizing the parts that make them up but also by the wholes of which they are parts. We can’t do that for our beliefs. We can find no appearances that are consistently the parts of any belief, and therefore we can determine no beliefs at all.

RUFUS: It seems a sad view of things, however, leaving one a passive observer of life at best.

LUCIAN: Not at all. Pyrrhonists find it a liberation!

RUFUS: How so? Are you liberated?

LUCIAN: Yes, but I don’t want to sound pretentious in saying that. Being liberated, for the Pyrrhoniats, is not what you may think. Ordinary life is exactly the same for me as for all of you. I shuffle between pleasures and pains, things desirable and undesirable, like everyone else – at least insofar as these are appearances. And I don’t claim to have eliminated all of my beliefs – that is easier said than done. This kind of liberation is no super-experience which resolves all things into some kind of ecstatic revelation. It takes me to no higher plane. What it does is relieve me, on a case by case basis, of the anxieties created by my beliefs about appearances, and that is no small thing’ but it is no panacea either. Beliefs, by contrast, cannot deliver the kind of liberation they promise, it seems. Because they are merely beliefs, or opinions ungrounded in the evidence of appearances, they are subject to contradiction. They are vulnerable, and anyone clinging to a beliefs thereby becomes vunerable too. It’s a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. You can try to go from one belief to another, hoping to find the right or final belief, but that seems a wild goose chase.

RUFUS: But what are beliefs? If they are somehow beyond appearances, how an we even conceive of them?

LUCIAN: We can’t. A belief is not an experience; it is not the suffering of some appearance; it is rather the anticipation of an experience we have not had, a judgment or projection about appearances.

RUFUS: But what makes such anticipation possible? There must be something incomplete about our appearances which suggest something beyond what we have. What could that be?

LUCIAN: We know only what we experience. I can know the blue sky of a cloudless sunny day only by seeing it for myself with my own eyes. But things change; they come and go. Clouds can turnthe day grey; nightfall will bring an end to the day; and so on. The knowledge of things, their presence to me, is variable, not consistent. Things are defined not only by their presence in some complex of parts and wholes, but by their absence. That is the incompleteness of experience, which seems to be itself a condition of experience. Or rather, we come to understand experience in part by its absence. Anything that can be absent as well as present – including our own mortal selves – is unstable, in some sense empty or illusory. Our own annihilation becomes evident to us, bringing fear to most of us. We try to plug our sense of absence with beliefs. But, as I’ve been trying to suggest, that only compounds our problem.

RUFUS: You say we’re better off without beliefs but I’m not yet persuaded. Since anything according to the Pyrrhonists can be good or evil in some circumstances or other, then nothing is inherently or essentially or naturally good to evil in itself. So our judgments of good and evil evaporate from our experience, if I follow you, leaving us with no morality at all.

LUCIAN: Only no morality we can articulate. We follow as best we can the guidance of nature. Having beliefs about nature only distorts our reaction to it.

RUFUS: But how can we judge what cannot be articulated? How can we judge this experience here and now to be good and then and there to be evil?

LUCIAN: We don’t have to judge, father. Again, the context is what tells us. Not the context of belief but the context of other appearances. Appearances will judge themselves, as it were, at least if we let them and don’t confuse them with beliefs.

RUFUS: But then we are thrown on the mercy of a world at once beautiful and terrifying, a world where everything is subject to change. No wonder we hunger for peace of mind, for tranquility.

LUCIAN: And we can have it, at least in part, by suspending beliefs. But nature we must continue to suffer, I’m afraid.

RUFUS: I see by their arched eyebrows that our dogmatists here – Philia, Harmonia, and Petronius – are not yet persuaded and have no doubt a further line of defense for the utility of belief. And Saturnius too looks restless and ready to object. But the hour is late and nature calls an old man like me to bed. So let us adjourn for now. Tomorrow evening we can gather again in the garden and continue our discussion.

[to be continued . . .]

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