Troubled Thoughts in a Time of Crises
September 2005 [unpublished]
"Therefore make up your mind before it is too late to live as one who is
mature and proficient, and let all that seems best to you be a law that you
cannot transgress. And if you encounter anything troublesome or pleasant or
glorious or inglorious, remember that the hour of struggle is come, the Olympic
contest is here and you may put off no longer, and that one day and one action
determines whether the progress you have achieved is lost or maintained.
This is how Socrates attained perfection, paying heed to nothing but reason, in
all that he encountered. And if you are not yet Socrates, yet ought you to live
as one who wishes to be a Socrates."
Epictetus, from section 51 of The Manual
What day isn’t "the hour of struggle," the time of "the Olympic contest," as
Epictetus says? But some days the struggle is more daunting, the opposition in
the contest greater than at other times.
Epictetus knew this, great Stoic philosopher that he was, a Greek born into
slavery who served a Roman master; he was a man later granted his freedom.
Epictetus, as most Stoics, though, believed he was free whether physically
enslaved by others or not because he was "morally free," free to rationally
choose the principles by which he lived, free to uphold them by trying to be
virtuous, free to refuse to do evil, free to die rather than violate his
On this day of crisis, 20 centuries after men such as Epictetus walked the
earth, what do their words mean to us? New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are in
ruins after a natural disaster, another disaster in a world of disasters. Fellow
citizens ran amok in the streets with guns while our Federal government sat
barely active, people unrescued, unfed, bodies as of this writing still floating
in poisonous water dishonored, and entire region of our country destabilized,
hellishly transmogrified in slow motion before our unbelieving eyes.
On this day of crisis, what do words of men such as Epictetus mean at all?
Friends, they mean everything.
This crisis is a revelation for anyone willing to look; Katrina’s destruction
ripped away more than the roofs of houses and swept away something besides
lives: she peeled away a thin layer of illusory "decency" which has coated
something far darker at work within the heart of the nation for many years.
Many at this point will cry, "This is not the time for blame!" My response is,
this is precisely the moment we need to collectively gaze at ourselves in the
mirror – now, at this moment while we are awake, shocked, amazed because, in a
few more days, many will go straight back to sleep and this episode will mean
little more for them beyond elevated gas, heating, and food costs.
People will go back to sleep and complain about the "inconveniences" it has
caused them, willfully forgetting the death and terror visited upon the people
who were victimized by nature and by man.
Victimized by man? Yes, and I do not mean simply the looters. I mean by us, our
society, our government, by a certain system of values that has infected many of
us and, by extension, our social institutions; these are values which have
hobbled our government and with which our political leaders have intentionally
made government incompetent and weak – with our approval.
The "values" I speak of comprise a system of morality in which "all bets are
off," everyone is left to his own devices, an unfettered free market should be
the final arbiter in all matters. It is a system which at its core proposes for
serious belief we owe nothing to anyone unless we choose to do so, thus it
denies bearing societal burdens is a necessary part of a good human life; so it
denies that the government has any such role either.
Consumption and ownership and power are the sole hallmarks of a good human life
now – our role in "the economy" determines our moral worth. The task of
government is to stay out of the way, maintain the military and the courts and
jails, protect property for the powerful, and that is all.
We have lost the idea that it is even a virtue to take on responsibilities – we
act as if one can be a good person and yet show little regard for others or for
the future. We have become a nation that doesn’t know who Socrates was; much
less do we want to be anything like him. We have become a nation where nearly
everyone claims to believe in God and, more specifically, in Jesus Christ, yet
many see no problem proposing the teachings of Jesus and the libertarian beliefs
of someone such as Ayn Rand can be married. Many act as if the message of the
Gospels includes the conviction that "I’ve got mine, now you go get yours."
No, I have unveiled nothing mysterious by saying humans are capable of greed –
but that is not the revelation I am concerned with. That man is imperfect, eaten
up with weakness, easily succumbs to temptations, and can be quickly incited to
hate his brothers and sisters or, at the very least, not value them, is an
obvious thing to anyone who has spent any time in an honest examination of
himself and his own conscience.
Because it is not some abstract being called "man" that does evil in what is
done or left undone in thought, word, deed – it is me, individual, unique,
responsible, concrete me.
But it is precisely because all of us have this tendency toward wrong and
stupidity that we built ethics in the first place, religious and purely rational
varieties, and varieties that mix religious and rational insights; all this was
and is done that we might seriously consider how best to become fully human and
then actually do it.
Our lazy inclinations to viciousness were why a man such as Epictetus taught
that if one truly wishes to become an excellent, admirable, honorable full human
being (one not doing what comes "naturally" when careless and self-centered), we
must embody in thought and action virtues countering our weaknesses, allowing us
to walk upright in all circumstances, free from slavery to inappropriate
desires, fears, and ignorance. Only by putting into effect these virtues do we
become excellent, honorable, and deserving of real respect whether given or not.
Only then do we live up to the character we ought to develop as free, rational
Only virtues such as generosity, justice, courage, mercifulness, concern,
temperance, love of learning, love of wisdom, love of community, love of people
allow us to live at a certain level of intensity, one unattainable without
meaningful care and effort. Thus we are to "remember that the hour of struggle
is come" always, at all hours, in all days.
Struggle with what and whom? Ourselves mainly. Our own greed, our hatred, our
sloth, our stupidity, our impiety, our disrespect, our tendency to look for
excuses to avoid duty. The list of imperfections to be wrestled with goes on as
far and deeply as one cares to look within oneself.
Once, none of this was mysterious or unheard of; people such as Thomas Jefferson
presupposed our citizens would abide by a morality akin to this when debating
how the government should be set up.
Then, somewhere in the recent past, something went awry, perhaps many things. My
point is that one product of this "something going awry" has been a growing
moral aberration: one responsible for the past 25 years in America, an
aberration thrown out into the light by a natural disaster.
Some may see, with ease, where I am headed: the past 25 years represent a strong
swing to the right politically and the rise of an extreme, libertarian
conservatism in politics and in other areas. Grasping that, many will now roll
their eyes and say, "Ah, another rabid liberal on the loose scoring political
points while it’s easy."
May I say that not all attacks are political in nature even when they have
political consequences. Not all talk about the principles underlying a political
movement is propagandistic; in this case I am examining what I take to be the
ethical assumptions (explicit and implied) and the moral consequences motivating
and accompanying this general right-wing shift over the past 25 years.
So much the worse for these principles should they turn out to be unprincipled.
Earlier on, I mentioned the rise of greed and the advent of the belief one has
no responsibilities toward others unless one chooses to take them on
voluntarily. Therefore, whatever fuels the free market is good, whatever might
regulate or limit it is evil, and the belief people have "rights" to things such
as health care, housing, jobs (if they can work), a minimal income or living
wage, and an education has not only been called into question, but little by
little governmental agencies, programs, institutions that were national attempts
to take care of these matters have been whittled away or completely destroyed.
The fact that these agencies came into being in the first place because some
people were not responsible and trustworthy in the market place and because
charities could not handle basic social problems alone has been forgotten – or
else no one really cares.
Infrastructure at all levels has been allowed to decline, funding cut as
"unnecessary." Matters which can only be attacked collectively in a nation our
size have been privatized or governmental entities now must compete with private
sources for an ever-diminishing pot of tax money; this is the real meaning of
such things as the "faith based initiatives" and "school voucher" programs and
Charity and private outsourcing are now supposed to do what government programs
and institutions once did. And should they fail or choose not to serve people
well or at all – too bad.
The motivation: people ought not be forced by law to do anything for others they
don’t wish. And so, as the poverty level in this country recently climbed to
record levels for a fourth year in a row, the wealthiest portion of the
population, people who mainly got their wealth by inheritance, investments, and
rent – not by creativity, not by genuine risk, not by true work – got wealthier.
They have received tremendous tax cuts – money that could have gone to maintain
social safety nets and infrastructure without the wealthy being made
poverty-stricken. In fact, had not Katrina happened, Congress was set to abolish
the Inheritance Tax, a thing that truly benefits only the wealthiest of the
wealthy (not family farms as claimed), and so take another $300 billion away
from the government over the next few years.
Meanwhile, people who truly work for a living go to jobs that are now in
constant jeopardy of being sent off to another country or of being "downsized"
while the rich play a game of international chess with one another in the
de-regulated economy they have arranged for themselves. Prices climb, gas prices
eat income, paychecks remain flat.
What has happened? The concept of virtue has been inverted. Selfishness, greed,
indifference, laziness, hatred, stupidity and willful ignorance – the things we
once invented virtues to help us combat and overcome -- these are now held by an
influential element in the conservative movement to be virtuous. A harsh
indictment, yet I see no alternative. How else do I explain a country where
people now vociferously exclaim that the government has no right to tax them,
has no right to expect them to bear a minimum of social burdens whether they
like it or not?
How else explain a country where a person, well educated and intelligent, can
look into my eyes and honestly say with a shrug human beings have no "right" to
basic health care or food, as an influential conservative once did with me? Were
we to tell the victims of Katrina that?
Well, we did, didn’t we, as we had dismantled all of the agencies that existed
to meet people’s minimal needs in an acute crisis and wound up with Wal Mart
able to provide better disaster relief than FEMA. Thank God Wal Mart was being
run by people with enough of a conscience to actually step in – there was no law
requiring them or anyone to do it. Think of how many huge corporations shrugged
and went about their business and expected someone else to handle the problem.
How many of the richest of the rich did the same? I certainly haven’t heard many
of them offering to pay back some of their tax break money to help with the
years of relief efforts that will now follow.
An acute crisis like Katrina unveils many things because it is large and public.
But we, as a nation, have, quite on purpose, entirely forgotten the people who
live in a state of chronic crisis every day, people who, without aid, will live
miserable lives and likely die or wind up in our jails.
An example: Imagine being severely mentally ill and unable to work, no
insurance; medication is terribly expensive and not usually given out for free –
plus, to get any handouts the pharmaceutical companies are granting, one must
fill out paperwork that one may not be able to read or understand.
Without the medication, one may not even understand one is ill. The likelihood
one will kill oneself is astronomical. With the medication and counseling, one
might stabilize and live a more productive life for periods of time, perhaps
work, maybe even live an almost entirely "normal" life, a creative and vibrant
life. Imagine someone looking you in the eye and telling you no one has any
"right" to health care and that your fate is entirely a matter of whether people
"feel" like granting you some charity, people who may not even understand mental
illness. People who may believe it is "demonic possession" or a matter of simply
"pulling yourself up by the bootstraps."
Would you like to live in this manner?
What should we think of someone who believes he has no responsibility, if he has
means, to do something such as simply pay the taxes that support a public mental
health system? Are we to call this person "virtuous"? "Moral"?
Because the question really isn’t, as our right wing friend wants to put it,
"Does anyone have a right to health care," or a right to anything else; the
moral question is: "What kind of person am I if I would let someone suffer when
I had means to stop it and could use such things as government to make certain
that a minimal level of suffering is something we collectively won’t tolerate?"
And yet, the person who would say, "No, I have no responsibility to anyone else
even if I could easily help; how dare you tax me to help anyone I don’t choose
to care for" is just fine by the new morality of the American right.
What would Epictetus do?