Selfishness, Stoicism, and Epicureanism

A philosophical flaw

Posted Nov 13, 2016

 K.G.Hawes, CCL
Source: K.G.Hawes, CCL

"Some things are up to us and some are not up to us."

This thought, from the ancient philosopher Epictetus, is one of the foundational aspects of Stoicism.  The things that are up to us are inside of us, our feelings, opinions, and desires. They are, for the Stoics, under our control. This is not the case for our bodies, our possessions, or our reputations. In order to find inner harmony, then, we should focus on the things we can control, and not be concerned with the things we can't.

There is much wisdom within Stoic philosophy, I believe. For example, Epictetus says that if someone tells you that another person is saying bad things about you, you shouldn't make excuses about what is said of you. Instead, say that "He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these" (The Enchiridion).

However, one serious problem with some forms of Stoicism is that in some cases they advise their adherents to be selfish. For example, consider what Epictetus says about our relations to some of those close to us:

"If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies."

The idea is that your wife or child are just one among many human beings. You are not distressed by the many deaths that occur each day of other human beings, and you should work to feel the same about the deaths of those close to you. But surely this is misguided! Part of what it means to be in a deep personal relationship is that our feelings and even our well-being are deeply connected with the welfare of those who are close to us. We should care about them, deeply, and make ourselves vulnerable to them in a variety of ways. Not to do this in order to avoid pain is a form of selfishness.

Consider an example from another thinker, Epicurus:

Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

The reasons given to not fear death all have to do with the individual. Simply put, if you are alive, you need not fear death because it hasn't touched you. If you are dead, you need not fear it, because you don't exist.

However, even those who don't fear death for individualistic reasons have other good reasons to fear it. These have to do with how one's death will impact others, such as family and friends. As a parent I want to be there for my daughters as long as I can. As a husband, I want to be there for my wife as well. So there are other-centered reasons to fear death that are not connected with its impact on me, but on those whom I love.

One problem with both Stoicism and Epicureanism is their excessive focus on the self. The good of deep and loving relationships with others carries with it an unavoidable vulnerability to pain and suffering.

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