Life is full of indignities, small and large. I, like most people, am easily persuaded that life’s indignities have been targeted at me by some malign intent. Human beings are programmed to look for causation. It’s a key survival skill. The moment you move beyond blind instinct, learning from your mistakes and finding patterns and causes is vital.
It is said that the first religions – pan theistic, animist and shamanic all came from the need for hunter-gatherers and early nomads to find some answer, or cause, for the indignities of storm, drought, disease and death that pre-scientific man had no other method to understand or intellectually control.
These gods brought good, but more often bad. They were quixotic and quick to anger and required regular appeasement and speaking in tongues to commune with and placate.
Ancient philosophers were not immune to the gods whims. They always paid them homage. But they tended to live in temperate latitudes – comparatively benign environments – which left some time for building civilisations and thinking.
I’ve recently started reading Epictetus, a famous stoic philosopher from the 2nd century AD. It seems to me he offers a window into an interesting period between ancient philosophy and organised monotheistic congregational religion.
I’ve not read enough to be sure, but my Bayesian brain guesses that his stoicism is a response to the superficially civilised but dangerously unpredictable indignities of Roman society – from slavery to summary justice.
His stoic answer seems to be to develop a detachment which has much to commend it in ‘coping with the loss of an earthenware pot’ or being ‘splashed and jostled at the bathhouse’. But inviting us to train ourselves to ‘feel nothing’ at the loss of a wife or child (as they are human and death is inevitable) feels plain wrong. For Epictetus the sole true value is our moral character. And all else – including people – are as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator simply ‘shadows and dust’.
I like Epictetus’s advice to recognise what you control and don’t, what you assume and what is real, what is intended and what is accident. His tip to take a moment to reflect before reacting is wise too. But I’m with Aristotle not Epictetus on people we love and the importance of friends.
One such sent me a piece of research which suggests that the value of friendship doesn’t just underpin Aristotle’s vision of happiness, but also the happiness that organised religions bring:
“It is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” according to sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier” his study shows.
So I go with Aristotle and the big congregational religions, not Epictetus on friends. Friends and social ties are the route to human happiness and eudaimonia. Avoiding them isn’t.
You can’t control friends. As Epictetus rightly points out ‘the jeering of friends’ often accompanies any attempt at self improvement. There’s no doubt that friends can hurt you, and heap indignity on you too. But you can’t live happily without Friends.