… Each of these three philosophies developed within a “framework belief” that replaced the destabilised ideal expressed in the polis as the unity of “public” and “private” in the cultural embodiment of the religious, aesthetic and philosophical. The Epicureans held that there was no providential order within which a coherent interpretation of ethical, social, political and personal activities could be sustained, rather Nature is the result of collisions of atoms, the understanding of which entails ataraxia. For the Stoics, on the other hand, the operations of a providential order inform a reality in which we can live well as long as our will is congruent with that of providence itself. The Skeptics claim that they cannot make a judgement regarding the existence of a providential order, which results, ultimately, in the suspensions of subordinate judgements that are dependent upon the structural necessity of the framework.
In the wake of Socratic genius, the polis that had enabled the seamless and elegant balance of self and community was shot through with the arrows of non-teleological sophistic inquiry: the polis that had once been the “exterior” embodiment of which every citizen was the “interior” spirit split under the tension of the diabolical dualism introduced by hypercritical rationalism. The weakened polis was easily devoured by the mechanics of Roman Imperial Assimilation under which the individual freedoms celebrated in the community of the polis were submitted to the absolute power of the state. The “interiority” that had begun to be severed from its proper “exteriority” in the initial stage of the post-Peloponnesian War democratic revival, was completed by the Romans, and this interiority was radically hypostasised as the self upon which any and all hope for living a good life was hinged. Under the Roman regime, freedom is not something that is given (as it was culturally in the polis structure) – it is something that must be discovered and created personally. The three philosophical branches – Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism – can be seen as three different and competing ways to make the newly orphaned self a more habitable place – something capable of living well within itself and without the support of a stable framework of the polis for the expression and edification of personal freedom and ethical action.
I will briefly examine the historical circumstances surrounding the death of Socrates, the fate of the polis and the rise of the Roman state. Since Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism are characteristic of Romanitas in the mood of the late antique Imperial provinces, it is essential to understand these philosophies within the context of the socio-political circumstances that surround them. I will then take a look at each of these three strands of thought as alternative modes of living the good life.
Socrates and the Polis
The Athens as described by the statesman Pericles in the funeral oration summarised by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War is Athens in its golden age at the apex of its power. Pericles stresses the importance of their original political organisation – democracy – which “respects the majority and not the few”, secures equality to all in private disputes, but which also favours for public service those who distinguish themselves in excellence. Pericles proudly explains, “We conduct our public life as free men, and in our relations with each other we avoid mutual suspicions… While we give no offence in our private intercourse, in our public actions we are prevented from doing wrong by fear – for we obey the magistrates and the laws…” It was precisely these laws and the aura of reverence for political activity that enabled citizens to be freely self-determining and yet an integral part of the organic community.
But it was not just legislative self-determining and legal freedom that bound the citizens together and defined the polis: Athens was envied across the Greek world for the cultural amenities Athenian democracy provided for its citizens. In exchange for the toil of participation in public affairs, the democracy celebrated its accomplishments with refreshment in the form of public sacrifices, games, tragic and comic productions and other festivals, thus uniting the political with the cultural manifestation of religion, aesthetics and philosophy. And so, the individual and the polis were bound in an intimate ontological communion – the being of the individual was the being of the polis and the interpretive horizon of each individual was that of the polis as cultural mediator of the world aesthetically, religiously and philosophically. In other words, the dynamic flux of being surged through each individual’s participation in the communal recognition and celebration of life.
But Athens was seduced by the singular charm and pleonectic energy of Alcibiades, who convinced the polis that the addition of Sicily to the Athenian empire would solidify its hegemony over the Greek world. In the Symposium Plato portrays the character of Alcibiades as the tragic-comic image of the feverish chaos of the human condition – someone his readers would recognise as the very paradigm of hubris. Alcibiades’ impulsive and immoderate desire would lure the Athenians to destruction. Alcibiades represents the attractive yet dangerous attempt at singularity: one individual claws his way to the “top” over and against the polis, setting himself above the solidarity that is the strength of the polis and seeking what is advantageous for satisfying his own ambitions rather than what is Good for the polis.
Alcibiades led the citizens of Athens away from the interests of the city like the Pied Piper with his rats. And Socrates, Alcibiades’ foil in the Symposium, tries to lead them back by refocusing their attention on the Good and elevating philosophy over religion and aesthetics as the new basis of stability for human decisions and action. But after being seduced disastrously once, the Athenians are wary of the power Socrates exerts over the youth of Athens. Socrates knew that the old customs and laws must be sustained by new insight into what justice is – rather than what is traditional or conventionally esteemed, philosophy values what passes the test of reason, which fits with comprehensive understanding. In seeking what is Good, philosophy does not seek to discredit what is conventional, merely to reconceive it. However, the questioning and aporia into which Socrates led his interlocutors and his followers was perceived as subversive by the new democracy established after the short but murderous reign of terror of the Tyranny of the Thirty. Rather than bringing the polis back into cultural balance, Socrates’ questioning interrupted the natural, traditional, seamless flow of cultural consciousness and its conventional expression. Socrates’ hyperbolic emphasis on the intellectual dimension of ethics over and against uncritical preservation of mythic morality seems artificial, dangerously novel and alien to a polis seeking to rediscover its true self after its tragic flirtations with Alcibiades. The blind passions and ambitions are the irrational impulses that reason can hold in check for some time, but never entirely subdue, and these passions seem ill-suited for philosophical expression – in fact the therapy of reason will demand their repression. Religion and Art, on the other hand, seem to welcome and transform the irrational into something understandable and therefore controllable. Art and Religion seem to turn chaos into cosmos by creating a communication between the particular and the universal and still leaving the mystery and ambiguity inherent in the feeling of life in tact. Philosophy begins to break down the distinction between the public and the private to the point of a complete rupture. Those who inherited Socrates’ elenchus – the corrupted youth who could not (or would not) hold to Socrates’ distinction between the philosopher and the sophist – enamored with its power conjured aporia for the sake of aporia – like the sorcerer’s apprentice – a result not intended by Socrates or Plato. The cultural unity of private and public thus degenerates into a frigid feeling of lonely solipsism in the midst of a hostile world. If the self became more distinct it did not become more clear once deprived of its public expressivity. It was abandoned to a mute despondency adrift in an anonymous exterior.
Shortly after the deaths of Plato and Aristotle, the Athenian democracy came to an end; worn out by its interior conflicts, as were many of the other city-states of Greece, it could not fend off the Macedonians descending from the north. Although Philip and Alexander were capable of achieving what no former league or alliance of city-states could – the idea of Greekness – this identity was too vague and roomy to adequately celebrate the idiosyncrasies of the individual city-states. It was in this condition that the Roman Empire appropriated Greek territory and imposed its demands of conformity.
While the occupants of lands conquered by Rome were not Roman citizens, they were expected to pay taxes and eventually worship the emperor as a god. The free, cheerful and spontaneous harmony of individuality, freedom and responsibility in the polis had already broken down under the exhaustion of analytical tedium. The wandering “self” abstracted from its polis may have had the indefatigable bravery to muster another burst of cultural community and reorganise the polis along new lines of philosophical perspicacity, but the opportunity for this was precluded by the Roman reduction of freedom to a purely legal and formal matter. Those who grieved the irretrievable loss of self-determination within the democratic political arena turned to Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism as a retreat into the one thing that Rome could not control: the individual mind. The role the mind was to play in each of these philosophies is different, but in each it is associated with “being” in a certain way elevated over and above the “having” of worldly “goods”. While being and having in the polis were inseparable and the unity of public and private made all the difference in the world, it is philosophical indifference to the “world” that characterizes Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism.
Epicureanism of Lucretius
Until we come to an understanding and acceptance of the natural world, we are trapped by it. The natural world appears to us to be teleological, i.e. governed by some providential order – and within the efficient machinery of a powerful “representative” political regime nature is in turn reinforced by the “unnatural” superimposed social and political institutions established to ensure “progress” in human endeavours. If individual progress is nested essentially within this type of order, it entails competition and therefore ambition along with ultimate victory or defeat. It was important for Roman authority to be guaranteed success by providence, which is why state religious observances and ultimately the divinity of the emperor were necessary elements in fusing the government of the world with the government of the earth. But at the same time as it buttressed the teleological conception of nature, the human power structure superseded nature in a victory that suppressed those incongruent elements which suggested that chance and not divine favour were in charge of the destiny of individuals and states. So in effect, human teleological visions supplanted nature’s supposed teleology as the rule for measuring and attaining fulfilment. Individual success, in such a scheme, is secured in gaining a position whereby one can assert some degree of control over the circumstances of life and manipulate powers so as to achieve whatever fulfilment one desires. Gone are the days of the Athenian democracy, where in theory, at least, each citizen was guaranteed an audience for his voice and an opportunity for defining himself as a rational political animal. Gone also is the ideal of the political community as a phenomenon harmonious with and expressive of nature itself.
The Epicurean response to this dualism of nature’s inferiority and human superiority was to escape into the dubious clarity of natural law by situating the self within the domain of nature wherein the “external” super-structure of human organisation ceases to dominate the human aspiration for freedom and expression. This move is riveted upon showing that desires and aversions of human creation – power, wealth, glory versus impotence, poverty and anonymity – as well as seemingly natural desires and aversions – sex, food, drink versus loneliness and death – are all laden with meaning traceable to a human misunderstanding of nature.
Even the Roman tongue seems to demand a conformity of “thinking” along the lines of Roman values. Latin is more suited for describing the sort of excellence valued by the Roman state: valour in vanquishing enemies and pious incantations to the gods who enabled it. The throne of Zeus on Olympus had not been so distant as the seat of power in Rome! Lucretius remarks numerous times that he struggles with the poverty of his Latin vocabulary to express the truth about the nature of things, because the language itself had been encumbered with misinformed ideas about the operations of nature and fate.
Because the apparent teleology of nature had been infused with mythology, and that mythology had been marshalled to serve the needs of the absolute power of the Roman state, the first task of the Epicurean philosopher is to demythologise nature and therefore separate it from the socio-political mechanism to which it had been enslaved. This demythologisation also meant a demystification aimed at a pure and simple clarity of knowledge of nature on its most fundamental atomic level. Lucretius says that there are only two things that exist: atoms and the void. The natural formations we see in the world are combinations and separations of the different varieties of atoms. Lucretius knows this is a bitter medicine to swallow, since it leaves the reader (provided he is convinced by Lucretius’ arguments) bereft of any providential framework for interpretation be it mythological or cultural. Lucretius claims that there is no providential order and so there is no framework as such: the “no framework” becomes the “new framework”. But I said in the beginning that Epicureanism, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, was an attempt at making the “self” parted from its proper “exterior” more habitable. This departure from mythology and the familiar constraints of the socio-political power structure hardly seem to be reassuring – even if these constructs are “oppressive”, it is an oppression we desire because it is less terrifying than the unknown, valueless neutrality of nature. Lucretius’ project consists of stripping the veil from Venus the seductress and revealing the humble genetrix – mother nature. The Latin “materia” is derived from “mater” (mother): our real mother is material nature. Venus is a seductive mythological image that appeals to human desire for pleasure and comfort by imbuing nature with vectors of value in terms of maternal fecundity and protectiveness and alluring invitations to sexual delights. Even though she is de-personalised in De Rerum Natura, like a mother nature still affords us everything we need to live.
Lucretius’ abhorrence of religion is rooted in the political elevation of religion itself as the ethical standard by which social morality is defined. From this understanding he shows, in a flourish of melodramatic hexameters, that any institution that shapes normative human behaviour and at the same time defends or requires acts that are utterly contrary to the laws of nature and duty, is brutish and inhuman. Lucretius relates the story of how Agamemnon summoned his daughter Iphianassa under the pretext that he might give her a wedding blessing before sailing to Troy. As she walked among the crowd of people already mourning for her, she saw her father, nobly concealing the agony that penetrated his breast. The father would weep, but the king must maintain his dignity and purpose. The father would turn away his face, but the hero must raise the knife. Lucretius points to this incident and laments for the weakness of humanity that we should become such slaves of an ideological system and furthermore that there should be a desire for this self-oppressing ideology: he mourns that we should become the victims of our own ignorance. Lucretius does not value Agamemnon’s act as one of piety or faith that has its rightful place in a religious mentality characterized by mystery. Lucretius, on the other hand, beckons us to knowledge, upholds the rational, the calculable and most especially, the observable. For Lucretius, ignorance and mystery and the strange happenings that inspire religion all have an account in the natural world. Lucretius denounces religion because inevitably it becomes a slavish practice when it is manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, for other worldly purposes.
After all of Lucretius’ bombast about the evils of religion and ignorance, on the futility of ambition, strife and agonistic conflict, I am left with the impression that there is something that remains unaccounted for in Lucretius’ reduction of life to atomic mechanics. It does not seem that all of human nature is governed by the mind, or at least the rational part of the mind, as the Epicureans suppose, but much is governed by the ultimately unpredictable influence of human irrationality – the Dionysian darkness. Lucretius does not deny the irrational in human nature – otherwise he would have no orders of desire to deconstruct – but he thinks that the human being will lose his irrationality once the truth of nature is made transparent. The truths he elucidates require no movement of the will nor acceptance nor belief – if the mind is rational, which it is, it will perceive that these things are so and all the misconceptions as well as the anxieties they aroused will evaporate. Lucretius seems to be philosophising on the ideal man, who does not exist. In fact, there is something so natural in our irrational feelings and attachments to things we consider valuable that even a cow suffers when she is unable to find her missing calf. Even though a cow has no cultural constructs to define her loss, she feels it nonetheless. We get the sense that if she were possessed of the rational capacities to understand the pendulous and cyclic flux of generation and corruption, birth and death, combination and separation, she would be expected to understand that her circumstances mean nothing, because death is nothing. The rationality that is supposed to constitute our “victory” over the chaos of human manipulation of the world at the same time denudes us of an irrational richness full of feeling. The void of which Lucretius speaks is a space between atomic constructs, but it seems the void is also within us – pure rationality leaves us devoid of a means for redemptive expression of our irrational fears and hopes. If Lucretius hopes to strip us of our fear by stripping us down to our atomic composition, he also strips us of the power to hope – the power to triumph over circumstance, be it material or socio-political. In other words, it seems that fear is the passion opposite to the action of human creativity, and our rational and irrational dimensions of mind are strung out in a tension between the two. By eliminating the one pole of opposition (the Dionysian), Lucretius necessarily eliminates the other (the Apollonian). Or does he?
Lucretius tells us that we are not to be disturbed by natural phenomena such as storms or dreams since neither is conjured by the gods. But even without divine orchestration, there remains something sublime in the experience of terror before such spectacles. Kant endows the human being with the power of judgement – to judge nature as a work of art by confronting the supersensible within the self elevates the human being to a moral superiority over nature. The power of judgement is something creatively and dynamically capable of self-determination. This triumph of the spirit may indeed effect a confident euphoria – a lofty place where the human being is truly safe from external disturbance. In comparison, the tranquillity of Epicurean naturalism appears nothing more than a nihilistic serenity – as drab and flaccid as the demystified universe.
It is possible to thus gloss Epicureanism in an abstract presentation. But Lucretius the poet transforms Epicurean dogma into a poetic celebration of freedom. The elements of cultural life where human beings customarily find comfort and satisfaction – politics, religion and art – are those very things that cause us the most existential anguish since they can (and are often used to) obscure the simplicity of natural necessity. It is in aligning freedom and necessity that Lucretian Epicureanism attempts to evoke the silent primordial unity of the two in a subtle poetic work of art that manifests the splendour of the simple. The division between subject and object was not yet a problem in ancient thought, although the life of abstract freedom under the Roman state initiated an inarticulate recognition of a tension that would later be intensified by the struggles of early Christianity to understand the creator in relation to the created and the unique position of the human person, and which is finally solidified in the modern sovereignty of Cartesian consciousness. The pure separation of the “EYE” (the seeing/knowing of the Forms or Ideas is connected etymologically: eide “idea” comes from idein “to see”) and the “I” (ego) is a modern phenomenon – a product of Cartesian scepticism. Lucretius’ turn to poetry is an intuitive embrace of art as the resolution to this inarticulate tension – a plastic reliquary that employs the tension productively rather than amplifying it to the point of metaphysical paralysis.
Even though the disclosure of nature’s miracles as raw elemental combinations and separations promises to be the advent of ataraxia, Lucretius seems to be struggling within his own Epicurean disposition. The bitter medicine of philosophy is bitter because of the latent tension mentioned above and must be sweetened with the powerful poetry of the muses, which means that even if we are purely rational thinkers receptive to Lucretius’ argumentation and presentation of the truth of nature, there is a rhetorical dimension of persuasion necessary to precipitate our acceptance of the doctrine and our incorporation of it into a way of life. Epicurus condemned poetry and mythology to his disciples who were striving to overcome a mindset restricted by mythic fabulae. Epicurus wrote for a vastly different audience than Lucretius did, so this too must be considered when comparing their styles and ideas. Epicurus had a school of initiates into the doctrine who had already accepted his authority and were hungering for a more thorough study. Lucretius, on the other hand, addresses directly the uninitiated public. He has no school but dedicates his poem to the un- if not anti-Epicurean Memmius. Therefore the style of Lucretius, if it were to be successful, had to differ from the blunt philosophical prose of Epicurus.
It seems that in the absence of a teleological order, there is no poiesis of nature by the gods for us, but there is a poiesis in nature: nature is purposive without a purpose. Even though the human being is nothing more than an aggregate of atoms, our philosophical way of life through the power of human creativity originates in the poetic mimesis of nature. Just as letters are combined by convention and assembled within the confines of a grammar and syntax, our lives are hedged about by a socio-cultural order that we have relatively little control over – but even given the stiffer more demanding constraints of poetic composition, there is enormous flexibility within such poetic contours for philosophical expression. Lucretius develops Epicurean philosophy creatively by expressing poetically the truth about nature which remains somewhat bleak and unpromising in Epicurus’ own prosaic exposition.
If Lucretius is suggesting that a concrete personal freedom can be created by dwelling poetically within nature, then I think that Lucretian Epicureanism is a powerful alternative to the limitations of abstract legalistic freedom offered by the Roman state. In this case the serenity promised by complete understanding of the operations of nature is not merely ataraxia inasmuch as it is not merely a privation of disturbance (indicated by the alpha-privative) – it is a rich creative freedom that elevates the power of originality in each individual’s participation in nature. Dwelling poetically in nature we make our lives a philosophical work of art, and therefore become much like the gods. When we let go of teleology, be it natural or historico-political, we emancipate our being from serving some purpose outside of itself – we turn our being into well-being.
Although the world is not immortal, it is certainly more durable than fragile human life and the relentless cyclic shift of atoms in pendulous decay and rebirth, destruction and creation, war and love. Indeed, it is the most enduring feature of our reality apart from the remote immortal gods. Lucretius never explicitly provides his reason for the existence of the world, though he [successfully] debunks the explanations offered by the Stoics. If the content of his argumentation does not hold an indication of his artistic interpretation of nature, his style does. Among the things that give life the stability necessary to support a life characterised by reason and sense are a class of special things that defy description by utility. They are artworks. It is not proper to speak of art in terms of “use” or “purpose”, art is something expressive of truth. Art is not merely an object of necessity or the missing object of desire, it is an overflow of self, an expression that exists not for some immediate purpose but because it is the result of creative fullness which, as a full goblet brims with wine, overflows because the creativity born of well-being does not cease itself and must have somewhere to expand. Living poetically is living expressively the unity of natura naturans and natura naturata – necessity and freedom.
Since artwork is not subject to toil for some goal, it remains in the purity of being, not indefinitely, but certainly longer than some use object. Since the world is art, its permanence is extended far beyond the imagination of humanity. The world is, indeed, the quasi-immortal home for mortal beings, and this worldly stability becomes transparent because of its durability. Only the sensitivity and hyperbolic awareness of an artist – Lucretius the poet, for example – is capable of translating the mute and inarticulate despondency of being into beautiful language, the currency of human life. Thus in the words of Lucretius, the immortal nature of being itself and the nature it shares with mortal creatures is captured by the mortal mind, becomes tangibly and dazzlingly present to mortal eyes and sounds on mortal lips for mortal ears. The artwork of the world, however, because of its transparent existence and the fact that it is taken for granted by all other than the most sensitive of mortal artists means that it dies a death to itself and to reality until it is freed by the appreciation of a poet like Lucretius who in his life is able to share his love for being with the world and to convey it through his words. Poetry, whose supple material is language and thought, perception and feeling, is the most human and least worldly of arts, one in which the end product remains closest to the love that inspired it.
Our poetic dwelling in the world is our freedom. Consider Leukippus (or was it Democritus) that said that tragedies and comedies are composed of the same letters. Masters and slaves are composed of the same atoms – freedom in Lucretian Epicureanism is given but must also be simultaneously and cooperatively created by an existential commitment to beautiful composition. Because freedom is united with necessity, it can also be obscured by necessity when the subtle poetic voice is obscured or muffled by the overwhelming demands of necessity when it is marshalled to justify a human power structure like the absolute Roman state.
The Stoicism of Epictetus
The Stoic concept of divine providence verged on pantheism – the human constructs of the socio-political order are not set over and against nature but the whole of nature and human social objectives are aligned in a single providential order. Freedom for the Stoics is not freedom from the turbulent external world, it is a freedom within the world achieved by removing the feeling of turbulence by willing things to happen exactly as they do. The Epicureans distinguish between the necessity of nature and the seemingly non-necessary humanly orchestrated power structure that shapes our values and desires and therefore our perception of nature. They show that our misconception of what is necessary is what burdens us with anxiety and suffering. The Stoics do not divide nature from the socio-political in order to retreat within it. I am not implying here that the Epicureans did “retreat” into nature, rather, they redefined nature poetically and grounded the unity of necessity and freedom in this “domain”. But the Stoics did not elevate physics as a mode of understanding and mediating the distinction (as opposed to separation) of necessity and freedom. In fact, they see such a distinction as problematic in itself. For the Stoics, a “higher” providential principle governs physics and the social dynamic. The necessity that establishes the natural order is the same that rules over human social objectives. Therefore, not only the application of our rational faculty but the proper harmonisation of our prohairesis will free us from the frustrating illusions that we may have of being enslaved to an unjust external compulsion.
This prohairesis – a choosing before choosing – seems to be the primordial existential orientation of the soul which is the condition for the possibility of wilful active choosing in a self-conscious way. In other words, it is an agreement of one’s personal particular manner of being with the manner of being of the whole universe. This is very similar to the notion of virtue in Plato’s Meno: the decision to be virtuous is already a virtuous act, so virtue is always already there because of our essential nature. Everything has come from the Good and is therefore essentially good. This makes the enactment of being (i.e. being good) more fundamental, intuitive and elemental even if it is not less difficult. The universal is given and the proper philosophical attitude is to become aware that one’s particularity is already subsumed under it. Acceptance of this precludes the antagonism incumbent in trying to adhere to some ideal that is external to the self and therefore unreachable.
In putting such high demands on the will or “volition” (prohairesis), i.e. by actively willing everything to happen exactly as it is happening, one still remains bound by it. Prohairesis seems to be double: it involves the action of willing (which involves choosing and wanting) aligned with the more primordial orientation of being (i.e. being in a certain way such that the action of willing is a “conscious” enactment of the style of being that is “always already there”). If this is true, it suggests an already given degree of determination of the self, which precludes absolute self-determination, and therefore “absolute” freedom. If absolute freedom is the desideratum, which it is not since it too is only abstract and not concrete, Stoicism cannot bestow it – but it does empower the individual to dwell creatively in medias res.
The creativity of Stoic freedom is not, however, on the same “level” as that of Lucretian Epicureanism – it seems to be more systematic than poetic. By this I mean that Lucretius transformed the raw, dark, mysterious and formless “chaos” of nature in poetic illumination. Lucretius suggests that our knowledge of nature is something that comes about in poetic understanding. So in our rational understanding of nature there must already be a “poetics” at work. While nature is a “given”, for Lucretius, it is given somewhat indeterminately, and our poetic understanding of nature is a cooperative determination or poiesis. In the determining of primal nature through poetic understanding, the rational creative human being is at the same time determining himself as a natural being with natural reason. The Stoic idea of concrete freedom, on the other hand, relies on a providential framework within which our creativity is productive of freedom when it organises connexions and disjunctions of difference and sameness in already given determinations such that it allows for self-determination. This self-determination seems to be a separate step that is necessary because the self must be situated in relation to the providence that governs the cosmos, whereas the self-determination of Lucretian Epicureanism is not over, under, next to or within a providential order and is therefore simultaneous with original poetic performance. Therefore the systematic creativity of Stoic freedom seems to be dependent upon an already accepted poetics that is, perhaps, the work of providence itself.
Skepticism of Sextus Empiricus
Skepticism is an intriguing third option for freedom. In examining the previous two philosophies, I tried to show that freedom was not merely freedom from something tyrannical, i.e. a kind of negative freedom that still remains abstract – it was something positively and freely open to poetic creativity (on different levels). Here, freedom seems to be reduced to an escape from the two dominant forms of tyranny: dogmatism (the tyranny over others) and disillusionment (tyranny over the self) – there is no overarching framework for action or the formulation of ideas. Skepticism avoids poetics, and therefore makes systematics impossible, even though skeptic attempts to think towards equipollence seems to engage in the systematic opposition of scientific propositions. Not even the work of nature nor the power of the will shape the skeptic’s personal or social objectives – there is something lofty and terrifyingly void in Sextus’ Skeptic “manifesto”. It is not that the skeptic lacks the potentiality for poetry, the capacity for scientific understanding or the power of the self-assertive engagement of the will – his “power” lies in the refrain from their exercise, the same power an ostrich exhibits when burying its head in the sand. Although the “power” of refusal and withdrawal is something of a power, it is the least edifying and productive. In other words, while the previously discussed philosophies aim at transforming passions into actions – poiesis and prohairesis – scepticism aims at doing just the opposite so that the knowing “EYE” dissolves and the “I” collapses inward under the weight of the existence it denies itself.
Skepticism denies the givenness of anything other than appearances, i.e. what seems to be, thereby undercutting the activity of poetics which has to do with bringing into being of form through per-formance. The skeptic is self-determining inasmuch as he withholds determination from the world, but this determination is severely limited by a refusal of engagement in being. Therefore skeptic self-determination is a negative determination without the affirmative foundation of positive poetic expression. Christian theologians will develop an “apophatic” theology to express divine “being” beyond that apparent within the relationship of creator to creation, but it is only effective when supported by the primary movement of thinking within appearances and being by using positive predicates, i.e. kataphatic theology. Skeptic self-determination, therefore, hardly warrants such an active description: sceptics become sceptics by abdicating an active role in their being – which for them, is all they can do, since they are able to know nothing of their being, only of their seeming, which is a purely passive posture.
Glimpse of the Epic hero
Aeneas the Epicurean would abandon Dido to seek the promised Tiber, the war with Latinus and his short-lived reign in the new land because his mother Venus and the rest of the gods have no real control over the operations of the universe. Their “powers” are temporary diversions from one course or another (some mysterious “swerve”?) and their appearances are reducible to dream-like phantasms that promise largely but deliver only the same weary path of nature. The heroic Epicurean sees this nature – its sea storms and shipwrecks – as an order without providence, and therefore without creative limitations. Aeneas the poetic Epicurean shapes his destiny even within the confines of fate because his heroic life is attuned to the rhythmic combinations and separations of atoms, and his knowledge makes him free.
Aeneas the Stoic has an advantage because his fate is revealed to him in advance by his divine connexions. Although Aeneas is not entirely impotent because he is capable of willing the destruction of Troy, the loss of his wife and comrades, the difficult journey, the deaths of his lover Dido, his father Anchises, and his friend Pallas, it is hard for him to understand why his life should bear the odious burden of disappointment merely so that the providential plan for the rest of the universe can work its cosmic beauty. Although he does not continually overcome the surprise of circumstances, he meets them with an equally surprisingly powerful ease in willing these circumstances. This “seeming” impotence in the face of great difficulties is a sort of power – he follows fortune or fate willing its will for him. And perhaps, one day, it will be pleasing for him to remember even this. Forsan et haec, olim meminisse juvabit.
Aeneas the Skeptic does not know the cause of his exile, the torment of his wandering, or the reason for his new homeland. He does not follow Venus’ prompts because she is a goddess, but probably because he is bored (the life of a skeptic seems boring). He leaves Dido, buries his father, and kills Turnus – undisturbed because he refrains from judging what death is. He holds no dogmatic beliefs about nature or god and borders on disillusionment – but his ignorance, as well as his lack of desire for knowledge is a defiant form of freedom. Departure from Hades through the ivory gate transforms Aeneas into the perfect skeptic, though this life is nothing but a dreary prelude to nothingness. Freedom from situations, people, ideas, beliefs, events is nothing real – it is freedom within these that allows for the blossoming of the heroic (philosophical-poetic) spirit.