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16: Exercises Concerned with Time and the Self

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
16: Exercises Concerned with Time and the Self
So many of the ancient exercises have to do with the passage of time or with the self that these subjects call for separate discussion. Therapies often turned on advocating the right attitudes to past present and future.
Asymmetrical attitudes to past and future

In Chapter 8 the question was raised why the Stoics did not recognize emotions relating solely to the past. Even horror at what might have happened but was now safely past depended it was suggested on what this would have meant for one's present or future situation. We do not seem to mind in the same way about what is wholly past and gone if we do not see it as making the present or future bad.

This asymmetrical attitude to the past is also exploited in an argument that was probably not intended by the Epicurean Lucretius. But it is sometimes read into an argument of his which had appeared before him (though probably after Epicurus) in the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus1 and which was subsequently repeated by others.2 The argument is designed to show that our fear of annihilation at death is irrational. If Epicurus ever used it this would give the lie to Plutarch's complaint that he ignored the fear of annihilation.3 Lucretius says:
The ancient past of everlasting time before we are born has been nothing to us. Nature then shows us this as a mirror of future time after our final death. Does anything appear horrible there does anything seem sad? Does it not stay steadier than any sleep?4
Lucretius may only be repeating a point he has already made in book 3 lines 832–42 that we shall not suffer from future evils after our death any more than we did from past evils before our birth. But many interpreters have seen a more powerful argument here: we are not now horrified at the thought of our past non-existence so why should we be horrified at the thought of our future non-existence?
As I have said elsewhere5 I think this last argument whether or not it is in Lucretius does show it to be in a way irrational to feel horror at one's future non-existence if one does not feel horror at one's past non-existence. None the less for those who feel it the horror may be inevitable because we are constructed as humans to have such asymmetrical attitudes. Anyone would prefer a life of promotion to a life of demotion even if each life contained the same amount of success. Similarly with a life of ever-increasing knowledge and a life of ever-decreasing knowledge even if the total knowledge enjoyed were the same. We mind our friend's future permanent absence in a way that we do not unless there are special circumstances mind the period before we got to know them. We hate the thought of our brains become infantile in old age but we are not worried by their having been infantile once. We would not be human if we did not have these differential attitudes towards past and future. Still more the human race would probably not have been favoured by natural selection if its members had viewed the past and future symmetrically. I am therefore not surprised that Hume on his deathbed was unable to comfort Boswell by producing the ‘Lucretian’ argument.6 At best agitation may be slightly reduced when one realizes that the badness of future non-existence and the appropriateness of reaction are only an appearance. If one does not assent in addition (prosepidoxazein) one may take one's fear less seriously and prevent it growing greater. But still this is yet another example to add to those in Chapters 8 and 9 in which assent is not necessary since appearance is sufficient for fear.
At worst the proof of irrationality might have the opposite effect of making one equally horrified at one's past non-existence. But I know of only one author Nabokov who has expressed anything resembling a horror at past non-existence.7 In his autobiography Speak Memory Nabokov describes his horror at seeing a home-made film of his mother happily waving out of a window of their home—happy even though he did not exist! The brand-new baby carriage awaiting his existence on the porch came to seem to him like nothing so much as a coffin.
Ideally the pseudo-Lucretian argument should make one realize that if one's life has value it does not matter where it belongs in the past—present—future scale. And this corollary is one to which I shall return later in the chapter.
So far I have been repeating in summary form a view I have expressed elsewhere. But it might be thought that more defence is now needed because since then in a wonderfully subtle discussion Derek Parfit has taken the opposite view that the bias between future and past is not irrational.8 Interestingly he has added that the bias often felt between near and remote future can also not be shown irrational as Plato's Socrates believes it to be.9 On the question of future and past I am not sure if there is a real disagreement. We have both followed the same strategy of arguing that the bias between future and past is not confined to the context of death but is a very widespread human phenomenon. I agree that we cannot call one instance of this bias irrational if we are not willing to call the others so. I called them all irrational because it is not self-evident why mere position in the past or future should be important. There is a good explanation of why we take it to be so but it is a causal explanation that natural selection has caused us to react asymmetrically. I do not have to put my point in terms of irrationality. Someone may prefer to say that natural selection has caused us to treat position in the past or future as a reason for different reactions. In that case my point can be put by saying that it is something we are caused to take as a reason rather than being self-evidently a reason. And this fact can equally be used in the hope of slightly reducing our agitation at the thought of future non-existence.
There is a further asymmetry concerning the past which I have not seen discussed. One's childhood can seem beginningless. This is for a simple reason: one has memories of individual occasions in early childhood (I remember what I know can only be my third birthday party) but one does not remember them as sequential. No event is remembered as first. Is there a corresponding trick of the mind that could make one's future seem endless? Only I am afraid ignoring the un-ignorable fact of death.
Other attitudes to the past
There were other attitudes to the past and some of them paid the past very great attention. Aristotle Plutarch the Platonist Seneca the Stoic and Epicurus all recommend that we should remember the good things in the past although they do not agree with each other about how this is to be done and Plutarch joins in the widespread attempts to ridicule Epicurus’ approach. Nor do they agree on what the good things are. As to how to think of the sad things in the past different ideas are offered by Plutarch Seneca and Augustine and there are different attitudes again to how to think of one's past mistakes.
Seneca stresses the importance of remembering the past though with the warning that only good people can bring themselves to do so. The life of others flows away like water poured into a vessel with no bottom for the present is short and the future uncertain so the past is all we have of our lives. The past can neither be disturbed nor snatched from us but is a perpetual possession and one not subject to fear.10
Plutarch agrees. He recommends11 that we should weave our present together with our past instead of being forever intent on the future. Otherwise we shall be like the man portrayed as plaiting a rope in Hades which a donkey eats up as fast as he plaits it. And we shall become like those people who are said to be forever different from their former selves. This is what the Growing Argument in Plato's Academy makes us out to be when it says that with each change of size we become a different person just as a number becomes different with each addition.12
We should not however dwell on the bad parts of the past like beetles which have fallen into the place called ‘Death-to-Beetles’. The bad parts should be included only in the background like sombre colours in a painting though included they must be just as low notes must be combined with high in music.
It has been very well said13 that Plutarch's weaving or painting contrasts with Plotinus’ conception of the self as something that is already there in the marble but needs the sculptor's chisel to reveal it. Plutarch's description runs as follows:
That everyone has within himself the store-rooms of good and bad cheer (euthumia dusthumia) and that the jars of goods and evils are laid down not on the threshold of Zeus but in the soul is clear from the differences in people's emotions (pathē). For foolish people overlook and neglect even present goods because they are always intent in their thoughts on the future. But wise people make even what no longer exists to exist vividly for themselves by the use of memory. The present which allows contact with only the smallest portion of time and then escapes observation no longer seems to the foolish to be anything to us or to be ours. But just as the man pictured in Hades plaiting a rope allows a grazing donkey to consume what he is plaiting so forgetfulness unaware of most things and ungrateful snatches and overruns things obliterating every action and right act every pleasant discussion meeting or enjoyment and does not allow our life to be unified through the past being woven together with the future. Whatever happens it immediately consigns it to what has not happened by forgetfulness and divides yesterday's life from today's as something different and tomorrow's similarly as not the same as today's. Those in the schools who refute the fact of growth on the grounds that substance is perpetually flowing make each of us in theory ever different from himself. But those who do not preserve or retrieve the past in memory but allow it to flow away from under them make themselves needy every day in actual fact and empty and dependent on tomorrow as if last year and yesterday and the day before were nothing to them and had not actually happened to them.
This is one thing that disturbs good cheer. Another does so more when people drift away from cheerful and soothing things and get enmeshed in recollections of the disagreeable. It is as when flies slip off the smooth patches on mirrors and catch hold of the rough and scratched ones or rather as they say that beetles in Olynthus falling into a place called ‘Death-to-Beetles’ are unable to get out but twist and turn there until they die. That is how people who slide into the memory of ills do not want to recover or revive. What we should do is make the bright and shining events prominent in the mind like the colours in a picture and hide and suppress the gloomy ones since we cannot rub them out or get rid of them altogether. For the harmony of the cosmos like that of a lyre or bow involves bending in two directions and nothing in human affairs is pure or unmixed. But as in music there are high and low notes and in language consonants and vowels and a musician or language specialist is not one who dislikes or avoids either of these but one who knows how to use them all and mix (mignunai) them appropriately so… we too should make the mixture (migma) of our life harmonious and appropriate for ourselves.14
As to how to deal with unpleasant things in the past there are other suggestions besides Plutarch's of weaving them into the background of your life's story. Indeed another view gives them a certain positive value. Aristotle and Seneca both make the point that it can be positively pleasant to think we have endured them.15 Augustine makes a double correction adding that he is both glad to remember sorrow and sorry to remember gladness when they are over.16 The second befell not only Augustine when the friend of his youth died17 but also Boethius thrown into prison.18 Aristotle finds the pleasures of memory involved also in the pains of the present both in the pining lover and in the mourner. Such memories constitute falling in love.19
A new attitude to the past (and future) is found in Jewish philosophy when Philo makes repentance a virtue.20 But the need for attention to one's past mistakes is already implied by the practices of confession and mutual criticism discussed in Chapter 13 as particularly strong among Epicureans and Cynics as well as being found among Platonists and Stoics. The same is also implied by the practice of reviewing one's mistakes at bedtime which we saw in Chapter 15 travelling from the Pythagoreans to the Stoics and recurring in Christianity. The Neoplatonist Simplicius urges the benefits of repentance at length.21
Epicureans on curing emotion by shifting attention to the past
Memory is celebrated by Epicurus not only in connection with memorizing his sayings. He also recommended dealing with distress and physical pain by calling yourself away (avocatio) from present evils and recalling yourself (revocatio) to good things remembered from the past.22 He practised this in great pain on his deathbed by recalling the theories he had discovered23 or past conversations.24 Plutarch does not agree.25 He doubts that mere distraction would work on your death-bed.26 In this he is like Seneca27 and Cicero. Cicero had tried Epicurean distraction at the time of losing his daughter and found it impossible.28 In any case Plutarch like Cicero misinterprets Epicurus as committed by his other remarks to focusing on bodily pleasures.29 These unlike great deeds he complains leave only a faint odour behind and recalling them creates if anything unsatisfied lust.30 He cites Carneades as having complained of the worthlessness of memories of food drink and sex and the same complaint is made by Cicero and Plotinus.31 Plotinus adds that if the memory recommended is instead memory of creditable deeds only the person who had lost his excellence would feel the need of such memory.32 But this too is unfair: Epicurus’ recollected discoveries are not lost.33 Moreover Seneca's advice to recall virtuous acts is directed to someone who has not yet attained full virtue.34
Epicurus’ advocacy of shifting attention contrasts with the Stoic recipe of changing our beliefs. Epicurus himself advocates acquiring Epicurean beliefs at the prophylactic stage. But when an unwanted emotion is upon you it is the shift of attention not of belief that he emphasizes. This is unlike the advocacy by Plutarch and Seneca of recalling the past in calm moments. The idea is repeated by the Epicurean Philodemus that wordless music soothes not by changing our beliefs but by stopping us attending (anepiblētoi) to our previous concerns.35 As regards the practicability of distraction in Chapter 23 we shall encounter the desert Father Evagrius who recommends working in the monastery hospital to distract you from bad thoughts. Bereavement has sometimes been tackled by taking up social work. It is not very plausible that the mere power of thought without some such activity would be enough to distract a bereaved person. But from the minor upsets of everyday life there are plenty of suitable distractions including some people find the pleasures of philosophy.
Attitudes to the future
As regards the future the view of the Stoics was that you should not pin your hopes on it expecting your good from that direction.36 According to the Stoics we should live each day as if our last.37 We should be able to say at any moment ‘I have lived’.38 What of somebody in the middle of a project? He would be helped by the Stoic policy described in Chapter 12 of emulating the archer who has a project of hitting the target but regards the important thing as aiming aright in the present. Epicurus who made pleasure the goal in life none the less agreed to some extent but we must be careful not to let the points of agreement conceal the many differences. He agreed in criticizing those who neglected past and present benefits and only hoped for future ones.39 He urged people not to postpone joy.40 Nature he said has nothing more to offer us than she already has.41 But he differed in none the less recommending us to anticipate and hope for future pleasures.42 The Stoics made only a small concession to hope in the case of people still progressing towards virtue: they should think of virtue as a prize to be won.43
Stronger than the Stoic advice not to pin hopes on the future is the recommendation positively to anticipate misfortune so that you will be fortified when it comes. This goes back to the Presocratic philosophers most famously to Anaxagoras but also possibly to Antiphon and the Pythagoreans and to the tragedian Euripides who as Cicero points out had been taught by Anaxagoras.44 Anaxagoras’ much-admired and—quoted response to hearing his son was dead was to say ‘I knew I had begotten a mortal.’45 There are people I am surprised to find who would like their parents to react that way. There will be a fresh asymmetry between future and past if what you dwell on is pleasant things in the past and unpleasant things in the future.
Anticipating misfortune is recommended by the Stoics. We have already noticed the Stoic Epictetus telling you to think as you kiss your family that one day they will be no more.46 But this is coupled with denying that you should fear the future.47 Fear is one of the main emotions which the Stoics condemn. Here the Epicureans join them. Much of the Epicurean effort is devoted to countering the fear of death48 which is in its turn seen as the source of disquieting restless activity and ambition49 and to eliminating fear of interference from the gods.50 But if the Stoics unlike the Epicureans advocate anticipating misfortune how do they avoid fear? The answer is that fear in their view involves not only the judgement that misfortune impends but also the judgement that misfortune is an evil. This second judgement is no part of the Stoic exercise of anticipating misfortune.
Cicero ascribes the belief in anticipating evil to the Cyrenaics as well as to the Stoics.51 But we must not confuse this with the different approach of the Cyrenaic Hegesias.52 Hegesias went much further teaching that life was a vale of tears and death an escape. He was reportedly stopped from lecturing because some of his listeners committed suicide.53 This of course conflicts with Stoic techniques of anticipation which forbid one to think of impending misfortune as an evil. One reason for anticipating bad fortune ascribed to the Cyrenaics and many others is that unexpectedness is often the sole cause of distress.54 This is a very good point. As I said in Chapter 11 people who mistakenly believe they have won the national lottery have been known to commit suicide. But there is nothing bad about not winning unless expectation makes it so.
As to why anticipation of misfortune helps Cicero gives an intellectualist account. Anticipation he says has the same effect as lapse of time on those who have not anticipated. It gives time for reflection and so for correcting one's judgements.55
The Epicureans do not agree with the Stoics on the value of anticipating misfortune. Epicurus complained that anticipating misfortune merely makes evils ever present even if they were not going to happen.56 It is antithetical as Cicero points out to Epicurus’ policy of recalling past pleasures.57 Indeed Cicero paraphrases Epicurus as also recommending us to dwell on the hope (spes sperare) of future pleasures and to anticipate them.58 This is despite his telling us not to postpone joy59 or expect new types of pleasure. I would agree that planning for future goods is one of the pleasures of life whether or not they come off. I would add that the neuropsychologist Luria found that personality disintegrated more from brain damage that precluded future planning than from brain damage that erased memory in a way that did not exclude planning.60
The pleasures of hope had already been discussed by Plato. On the one hand he sees firm hope as pleasurable and when it is a firm hope of relief from suffering based on memory of remedies the memory is also pleasurable. But on the other hand he thinks that false hopes give pleasures that are worthless and he concentrates on anticipatory pleasures that are mixed with distress thinking such mixture to be the usual situation with pleasure.61 Aristotle also discusses the pleasures of hope and explains in that way the pleasure in anger and in competitive activities—not only games but debates among lawyers and philosophers.62
Hope is the special theme of Christianity. St Paul tries to make it a distinctive feature when he says referring to the hope of resurrection ‘Sorrow not as those who have no hope.’63 I shall note in Chapter 25 how many of the Church Fathers cited this text. The Epicureans did not offer hope of this sort but argued rather that we will be annihilated at death thereby offering not hope but freedom from fear of punishment.64 Among the Stoics the closest to St Paul is perhaps Seneca's consoling Marcia with the thought that her son's soul will last in happiness for a finite period—indeed given his virtue until the next conflagration.65
It is the Neoplatonists who display a more positive attitude to hope. The Neoplatonist Porphyry remarks that hope is found more in good people than in bad and in his letter to his wife Marcella he treats it as one of the four elements of a religious attitude to God.66 The tetrad of faith truth love and hope drawn from the Chaldaean Oracles becomes standard in Iamblichus Proclus and Simplicius.67
For those who object to eschewing hope or to positively anticipating misfortune other techniques are available. For example in many authors including Cicero and Seneca we find a retrospective analogue of anticipation: you ought to have expected misfortune because it is the norm.68
There is another technique which combines hope with an element of caution: the Stoic technique of putting a reservation (hupexairesis exceptio) on our expectation if we do expect good fortune. We should expect it only with the reservation ‘if God wills’.69
Attitudes to the present
It has been said that many ancient philosophers found value only in the present.70 But the idea that we should focus on the present is ambiguous. Epicureans and Stoics for example do not mean the same thing. The Epicureans when telling us not to dwell only on future goods but to attend to present ones urge in the same breath that we should attend to past ones too.71 And we have also seen that they recommend hoping for future good whereas the Stoics bid us to consider the future indeed but to anticipate misfortune. Stoics and Epicureans both agree that we should not fret over the past nor fear the future. But they would disagree on the Stoic injunction to pin no hopes on the future except the hope of achieving virtue a hope that can be superseded once achieved. Are there philosophers who really mean us to neglect past and future altogether?
The Cyrenaic Aristippus might be one. He says we should not toil over (epikamnein prokamnein) past or future because the past has gone and it is not clear whether the future will come. Only the present is ours and we should merely seek the pleasure of the present moment. To do that is a proof of cheerfulness (euthumia) whereas memory of past pleasures or expectation of future ones meant nothing to him.72 This is partly because memory and expectation cannot over a long time maintain the motion of the soul in which pleasure consists.73 It is also because the things that produce pleasure are often not choiceworthy and the accumulation of pleasures that does not produce happiness is disagreeable.74 This view is a complete antithesis to the claim in Plato's Protagoras that a hedonist would need a calculus to avoid misestimating the size of distant future pleasures.75
Aristippus’ claim that pleasurable motion in the soul gets exhausted over time suggests that he believes in a continuing self. So I am doubtful about an intriguing alternative interpretation according to which Aristippus’ preference for pleasure over happiness is based on not knowing whether there is a continuing self to enjoy the happiness.76 None the less the idea that there are only momentary selves did play a role in discussions of emotion as will be seen below.
Sometimes Marcus Aurelius the last of the major Stoics seems to approach the insistence on the present that we are seeking. He talks of drawing a circle round (perigraphein) the present77 and finding the present sufficient (arkein).78 The future and past are indifferent.79 We should separate them from our minds80 leave the past alone and entrust the future to Providence.81 Combating fear of death he insists that it can only rob us of the momentary present because this is all we possess and we cannot be deprived of what we do not possess.82 It might be complained that one can be deprived of what one might have had and that the arguments do not address the case in which it is the present itself that is painful. But often the present owes its painfulness to thoughts about the future or past.
The claim that past and future are indifferent is a strong one. Startling in a different way is Marcus’ injunction to live each day as if our last.83 The idea is also found both in Marcus and in the Epicurean Philodemus that we should think of our last hour.84 This is best taken not as an exhortation to anticipate future misfortune something the Epicureans objected to so much as a further remark on how to view the present.
Abstracting from past present and future
Focus on present past and future is sometimes rejected equally. I have already commended the view that if your life has value it ought not to matter where it lies in the spectrum of past present and future.
All three are indeed rejected by Plotinus since for him true happiness consists in an activity which is outside time altogether: the timeless contemplation of the world of Platonic Forms in which our intellect engages without our normally being conscious of it.85 In the light of this Plotinus explicitly rejects the attempt to use memory to make yourself better off.86 Further it is a mistake to seek to prolong life in fear of death because prolongation is inapplicable to an activity that does not take place in time at all.87 Again the past does not even exist and this is offered as a further argument for denying that well-being and ill-being are greater for having lasted longer.88
I have myself elsewhere expressed a preference for the rival conception of another mystical philosopher the Christian Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 331–96) who is a little later than Plotinus. Supreme happiness which in his view consists in contemplating God is not static much less timeless but involves perpetual progress because there is always more to understand.89
Prolongation and delay
Aristotelians Stoics and Epicureans would have agreed with Plotinus though not for his reasons that the prolongation of happiness does not increase it. Aristotle argues against Plato's Form of the Good that it would not be any better for being everlasting any more than a white thing is whiter for lasting longer.90 Pleasure and happiness are both energeiai and therefore complete at any moment; they do not have to wait to be completed.91 According to Epicurus and Seneca life can be made perfect in a finite time and perfection does not require further prolongation.92 Lucretius Cicero and Marcus Aurelius argue that nothing is gained by prolongation since the everlasting period of death will be just as long.93
Many of the ancient exercises have to do with the passage of time. One much-repeated point concerns the value of delay. Time makes emotions fade and this was discussed in Chapter 7. As to why time makes them fade some explanations were discussed in that chapter. Chrysippus’ view is intellectualist on the interpretation I endorsed. The passage of time allows you to change your judgements.94 Cicero applies this point not only as we saw to anticipating misfortune but also equally to letting time elapse after misfortune.95 Posidonius has a rival explanation that the irrational forces in the soul which seek victory or pleasure are either exhausted or satisfied over time.96 But Augustine has a different account again. He recovered partially from the death of the friend of his youth because time implanted in him new hopes and new experiences to remember.97
Plutarch and Seneca like many others even from Presocratic times advocate delay before acting on anger98 as does Epictetus before seeking pleasure.99 Some people refused to beat their slaves precisely because they were angry as Lactantius reports with disgust of Plato's Pythagorean friend Archytas100 and as is reported of Plato who in one case got Xenocrates or Speusippus to administer the beating instead.101 But Galen thinks that even a vicarious beating should be delayed.102 Several of these texts reveal that the institution of slavery constituted a particular temptation to indulge in anger.103
Delay plays an opposite role in connection with the bad thoughts discussed below in Chapters 23 and 24. Allowing a bad thought to linger (khronizein) so far from calming it brings it closer to being a full-scale emotion.104
Recurrent time-cycles
One might have expected the ancient theories of time-cycles to play a role in therapy but I have noticed it used by only one author. The belief in cycles took different forms. Individuals might be reincarnated or the entire universe might repeat its history and in that case reincarnation might occur within each cycle before the next repetition.105 An alternative belief in circular time would deny that your birth would ever be repeated. Rather it occurs only once and yet it lies in two directions from now both in the future and the past rather as from the three o'clock position on a clock twelve o'clock can be viewed as both behind and in front. Such a view is hinted at in the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems.106 Repetition or circularity is not normally however cited by the ancients as a source of comfort. Seneca does so cite it twice in his Letters.107 In one case he comforts us with the thought that we shall return. In the other he merely counsels resignation on the ground that the entire universe will soon perish too. Here and in his On Consolation to Marcia he speaks of the soul possibly surviving for a while. But his On Consolation to Marcia stops short when it assures Marcia of her son's souls surviving up to the conflagration at the end of history's present cycle. This is the longest possible survival time and is reserved for virtuous souls.108 The idea of the conflagration as imminent at the time of the Roman civil wars was a source of dismay not comfort.109 And Augustine complained that the repetition of history would remove our hope by making Christ's crucifixion and resurrection futile.110
Recurrence and the self
There was much uncertainty whether recurrence would provide any kind of survival anyhow. Would the future people be us? Some Stoics held that even if the population in the next cycle of the universe were indistinguishable (aparallaktos) from the present population and in indistinguishable circumstances they would not be the same people.111 Others asked if the difference of temporal location (katataxis) would mean there were different mes that is several of the same person.112 Others thought the people could be the same even if they had inessential differences like freckles.113 The Stoics’ Aristotelian opponent Alexander took the view that after an interruption we would not have numerically the same Socrates even if the same matter was reassembled. For the interruption would prevent it being the same individual form (atomon eidos).114
Lucretius raised a corresponding question about the Epicurean idea that the atoms that now compose our bodies might by chance reassemble in the same order as now long after our deaths in the infinity of time. Like John Locke after him Lucretius comments that would be of no concern to us (nec pertinere) if the memory of our past life was broken off (interrupta) which may or may not imply lost. None the less he does concede that the atoms reassembled in the right order would be us.115 It is not clear whether Epicurean materialism implies that the identically reassembled person remembers his past life after an interruption116 or does not remember it at all.
Therapy and the self
Some therapies as has already emerged turn on the nature of the self. This we shall see has also been true in modern philosophy notably in the work of Derek Parfit.117 On the other side some modern appeals to a notion of self in moral philosophy have been heavily criticized.118
The variety of selves
The ancient concepts of self invoked are very diverse and they can differ even in the same author and the same context. One reason for this is that philosophers may want to talk of a self acting on a self. We shall see that in Plutarch a self weaves a life in Epictetus a self moulds a self in Plotinus a self can direct a self so that it becomes a different self while in Hierocles the Stoic a self is conscious of and attached to a self. The selves which enter into these exchanges are not all conceived the same way. They may or may not be conceived as including the body or the whole of the mind or even any of the mind. They may need to be constructed or just be there for inspection. They may or may not be continuous. And they may or may not include personality.119
Plutarch: the woven versus the discontinuous life
Let us consider some therapeutic concepts of the self. Plutarch in a passage translated above urges us to weave our life into a single whole by the use of memory. The aim is therapeutic—to gain tranquillity. If we do not do the weaving we shall be like the people envisaged by the so-called Growing Argument who become different people with each change of size just as a number becomes different with each addition.120
But does the woven life imply the existence of a unified and continuous self to do the weaving? Daniel Dennett faces a similar question in his attack on the self as a biographical fiction. He answers ‘No’. In his view biographies just get woven through the interaction of separate systems in the brain which are no more unified than the ants in an anthill.121 It might be thought that Plutarch would equally answer ‘No’. The biography might get woven by the short-term selves of the Growing Argument. Elsewhere we shall see Plutarch actually endorses the idea that we are no longer the same person as our childhood selves.122
In fact however the Growing Argument is here cited only as a simile. What needs to be woven is not a continuous self but a single life (bion hena). The memories Plutarch wants us to weave in are genuine memories that is memories of what we the self-same persons formerly did and experienced. So Plutarch seems to be presupposing an ordinary concept of a continuing physical person. Presumably then it is this person who does the weaving. And the therapeutic construct is that person's life rather than his self. For a therapeutic concept of self we might do better to turn to Epictetus.
Epictetus: the inviolable self
Epictetus the Stoic holds that we can decide to locate ourselves either in externals or in our proairesis123—let us say in our will—and our will is something we can develop.124 Proairesis is really something more intellectual than will. It is the disposition of reason towards certain kinds of moral decision. Once our self is our proairesis it will have become inviolable. Epictetus had been a slave and had his leg broken. As we saw in Chapter 15 he imagines the following dialogue:
‘I will fetter you.’ ‘What did you say man? Fetter me? You will fetter my leg but my will (proairesis) not even Zeus can conquer.’125
This is by no means the only place where Epictetus implies that he is not his body but his proairesis.126 The idea has immediate emotional implications. It is intended to be a source of tranquillity in the face of whatever hostility the world may bring against you. A similar dissociation between the person and his body had been ascribed to an earlier thinker of the fourth century BC the sceptically minded atomist Anaxarchus teacher of Pyrrho and his supposed companion on the march to India:
Beat Anaxarchus’ hide (askos) for you cannot beat Anaxarchus.127
But the use of the concept of proairesis is Epictetus’ own.
In Epictetus there are at least two selves at work. The self which is shaped for therapeutic reasons is mental but not the whole of the mind simply one aspect of it the proairesis. The self that does the shaping is the embodied self as we know from the exercises by which Epictetus’ students are to do the shaping. They are to go walking at dawn as we saw in Chapter 15 and asking themselves questions about the emotive situations they encounter and whether these are subject to their will. These two selves are distinct from the further two selves discussed by Adolf Bonhöffer and drawn to my attention by Jan Opsomer the lower self and the daimonic self to which it ought to conform and with which it is in constant dialogue.128
Discontinuous selves
The idea of discontinuous selves is quite common in ancient thought so I have argued elsewhere129 although I did not earlier in this chapter find it in Aristippus. It is relevant here because it was put to therapeutic use by Seneca and Plutarch. Plutarch refers not only as we have seen to the Growing Argument but also to Heraclitus who says that one cannot grasp the same mortal substance twice.130 The idea that there are only short-lived or momentary selves has been used in Buddhism in Kashmiri Shaivism and by Derek Parfit in modern philosophy to combat the fear of the annihilation of the self at death.131 Indeed the Buddhist ideas feature in a dialogue in Pali The Questions of Milinda between a Buddhist monk and a Greek Bactrian ruler Menander who is dated to the second century BC (although the work itself contains earlier borrowings and later accretions).132
In their versions of the argument Seneca and Plutarch both ask: since our former selves have died many times why do we fear a death will happen that has happened many times already? The idea that We die every day is called by Seneca a commonplace. I do not know if this is one of those rare cases where a philosophical idea can be seen travelling from India to the Greek world. But if so the result is disappointing. On the Greek side it is as if Seneca and Plutarch had heard the argument but did not know how to integrate it into their systems. Let us see first what they say.
I remember you once treated the commonplace that we do not run into death suddenly but proceed by degrees: we die every day. Every day some part of our life is taken away. Then too as we grow our life shrinks. We have lost first our infancy then our childhood then our youth. All past time up to yesterday has perished. The very day we are living we share with death. Just as it is not the last little drop that drains the water-clock but what has flowed out before so that last hour at which we cease to be does not on its own produce death; on its own it completes death. That is when we come up against it but we have come for a long time. When you had described this in your usual voice—you are always powerful but never sharper than when you are fitting words to the truth—you said: ‘It is not a single death that comes; the death that takes us is the last.’ I would rather you read yourself than my letter. For it will be evident to you that this death which we fear is the last but not the only death.133
None of us is the same in old age as he was in youth. None of us is the same tomorrow morning as he was the day before. Our bodies are carried away like rivers. Whatever you see races along with time; nothing that we see stays still. I too while saying that things change am changed myself. That is what Heraclitus says: ‘We do and we do not step down into the same river twice.’ The name of the river stays the same; the water has passed. This is more obvious in a river than in a person but we too are carried past in a race no less swift. So I am amazed at our madness: we love the most fleeting thing so much the body and we fear we are going to die some time when every moment is the death of our previous state. Will you stop fearing that that will some time happen which happens every day?134
Thus what is coming into being does not even attain to being because it never desists from nor halts its coming into being and because it rather is forever causing change making from seed an embryo then a baby then a child next a lad a youth then a man an elder an old man destroying the former comings into being and ages with the ones that supersede them. But we are ridiculous enough to fear one death when we have already died so many deaths and are still dying. For it is not only as Heraclitus said that ‘the death of fire is the birth of air and the death of air is the birth of water’ but you can see this still more clearly in our own case. For the man in his prime perishes when the old man has come into being and the young man perished on turning into the man in his prime. Similarly the child on turning into the young man and the infant on turning into the child. The man of yesterday has died and turned into the man of today and the man of today is dying in turning into the man of tomorrow. No one stays still or is a single person but we become many with matter whirling and sliding round a single image and a shared mould. If we stayed the same how would we enjoy different things now from what we enjoyed before and love or hate admire and censure opposite things? How would we use different words and indulge in different emotions without keeping the same appearance or figure or thoughts? It is not plausible that one should receive different characteristics without changing nor upon changing is one the same person (ho autos). And if one is not the same person one does not exist but changes in this respect too becoming a different person from before. The senses say falsely that what appears to be in existence is so through ignorance of what being is.135
My claim is that Seneca and Plutarch have not really integrated this argument into their thought. Seneca's use of it is not consistent with his elsewhere insisting that our constitution (constitutio) differs at different ages but the self (ego me) is always the same;136 nor with his assuring Marcia that her dead son will live on until the next conflagration of the universe.137 Plutarch could have argued consistently if he had chosen that the short-term selves should be woven together into a long-term biography. But in fact we saw when he recommends biographical weaving he treats the short-term selves of the Growing Argument as no more than a simile. And in practice it would not have been possible to combine the therapy of weaving to produce tranquillity with the therapy of dwelling on discontinuity to allay fear of death.
Dispersible and everlasting selves
There are other therapeutic concepts of self designed to allay different fears about death. The Epicureans drew comfort from the idea of a self dispersed at death and so exempt from subsequent punishment.138 The Platonist Plutarch objects eloquently that this fails to address the fear of annihilation.139 And Plato's Socrates of course offered the opposite solace of an everlasting self140 which is standard in the Platonic141 and of course the Christian tradition. He also put forward the idea that the desire for offspring or fame is a desire for indirect immortality.142
Concepts relevant to therapy: the Posidonian self
Yet other concepts had immediate relevance for how therapy was to be conducted a notable example being Posidonius’ conception of the self as including irrational forces. This provides a clear case of what was discussed in Chapter 11. Philosophical analysis of what the self consists in has immediate practical implications for how the emotions are to be brought into order—in Posidonius’ view by diet and music to deal with the irrational forces as well as by more intellectual means.
Individual personae
The idea of the individual persona was also used by Stoicism in the battle against emotions. It is first emphasized in our sources in an account drawn from the Stoic Panaetius head of the Stoa 129–109 BC. Either he or143 some earlier Stoic introduced the view that how it is right to react depends on our four prosōpa or personae. These are our rational nature as humans our individual endowments the positions we occupy by chance and the careers we have chosen.144 Individual history (vita) as well as character (mores) can be relevant so that it would be right for a Cato to commit suicide in circumstances where it would be wrong for another person.145 This is a welcome corrective to the modern doctrine of universalizability. I agree with the objection that this doctrine is often empty.146 It says that if it is right for Cato to commit suicide it will be right for anyone who is in the same circumstances. But for this to be true we must include in the circumstances Cato's whole life and character and then no one ever will be in the same circumstances so the doctrine has told us nothing. The idea of acting in accordance with one's persona is the closest ancient analogue I know to the modern notion of authenticity.
The individual persona is connected more closely with emotions by Epictetus. The philosopher should prefer to have his head cut off rather than his beard because that is in accordance with his prosōpon. The cithara-player must react like a cithara-player and the philosopher like a philosopher.147 Epictetus stresses the importance of individual history when he declines to say that the athlete who refused a life-saving excision of his genitals did so either as an athlete or as a philosopher. He did so as a male (anēr) but as a male who had been proclaimed at the Olympic games not one who had merely been to Bato's wrestling school.148 Epictetus’ use of the idea of persona is another part of his search for imperturbability in the face of adversity.
Happiness and the contemplative self
There were other concepts of self relevant not to therapy but to happiness to salvation and to attachments in society. We have seen in Chapter 13 Aristotle's discussion of what a blessed state would be like. The gods and the heroes in the Isles of the Blessed have hardly any activity open to them but contemplation we saw. So the intellect in us is the part we should most cultivate as bringing us closest to a blessed life149 and indeed it is on the Platonic view which Aristotle reports and exploits our true self.150
Soteriology and the contemplative self
Plotinus talking not merely of happiness but of salvation takes the idea of a contemplative self much further. He distinguishes three powers in the soul which he sometimes calls three selves (hēmeis). Below there is that concerned with the body. Above there is the soul which is uninterruptedly contemplating the Forms although we are normally unconscious of it. But the true person (alēthēs anthrōpos) that which he sometimes singles out for calling us (hēmeis) is the intermediate power of step-by-step reasoning which Plotinus calls after Plato Republic book 9 the human within.151 This is the true person not in the sense of the best since there is a better. But it is pivotal. For Plotinus says that our intermediate self can be directed upwards towards the activity of contemplating or downwards towards bodily activities.152 Indeed it can be directed by us (taxōmen: is this the embodied self as a whole?).153 We can act in accordance with any of the three selves and each individual (hekastos) actually is the one in accordance with whom he acts.154 This means that our reasoning self can actually come to be the self that uninterruptedly contemplates. This contemplative self does not display personality.155
Attachment to oneself and others
Finally there is a concept of self which is not itself therapeutic but which is put to work in a context concerned with emotion the Stoic concept of attachment or oikeiōsis. According to the Stoic Hierocles infants and newborn animals are attached to themselves and their own constitution (oikeiōthē pros heauto kai tēn heautou sustasin).156 They apprehend all the parts of their body and soul and this is equivalent (ison) to perceiving themselves (heautou).157 It has been well observed that the self of which they are conscious and to which they are attached is an embodied self.158 But what about the self that feels attachment? Elsewhere Hierocles describes us as each (hekastos) being surrounded by circles. The central circle is the mind (dianoia) next ‘almost the smallest’ is the circle which includes our body and in circles further out are other people more or less closely connected to us. We should practise spreading attachment to circles further out. What is the status of the individual (hekastos autos tis) who is thus surrounded? He does not include the body since that is in a circle further out. He might be the mind but the mind is said to be his (heautou) rather than him. So he might be conceived as a sizeless centre-point surrounded first by mind and then by body. Either way the body is certainly outside him:
Each (hekastos) of us is as it were entirely surrounded by many inscribed circles some smaller others larger some surrounding others surrounded according to our different and unequal relations to others. The first and closest circle is that which some individual (autos tis) has drawn for himself around his own (heautou) mind (dianoia) as a centre. In this circle is included the body and anything taken for the sake of the body for this circle is almost the smallest and nearly touches the centre itself.159
One thing to notice is the inwardness of many of the foregoing exercises. I cannot agree with the view that we have to wait for Augustine to find the idea of an inner self where God resides where the principles of the intelligible order and the source of truth are to be found if only our attention takes the right direction.160 Augustine Confessions 7.3 says he learnt looking inwards from the Platonists. Most notable is the famous account at Enneads 4.8.1(1–11) of Plotinus’ personal experience of turning inwards to find God and the intelligible world. He repeatedly tells us thus to turn inwards: 1.6.9(8); 5.8.10(31–43); 6.9.7. The idea of the inner man at Plato Republic 589 A 7 would have been found by Augustine repeated by St Paul and Plotinus. I cannot agree either that introspection was not thought crucial by the Stoics that they did not ask us to examine ourselves. Their introspective self-examination marked by the special word prosokhē as described in Chapter 15 helped to shape the climate in which Plotinus worked. And the late Stoics Seneca and Epictetus speak of God and his watchful sentry as within us: Seneca Letters 41.2; 83.1; Epictetus 1.14.12; 2.18.19.