As Epictetus says, ‘I may not be able to control what others say and do, but I can certainly control what I say and do.’ I doubt anyone would disagree. And yet it is rehearsed again and again, as if it speaks to some otherwise hidden insight. As is often the case words are meaningful not for their veridicality, but for insights into one’s own concretized comportment in the world. The truth is a truth of self, concerned and taken up meaningfully as oneself. Suddenly the otherwise banal motto transports me ontically and opportunes what Foucault refers to as askesis, a modifying test of oneself. The purpose of engaged philosophical activity is not to elaborate, and nuance existing systems of thought that order, stratify, ratify and edify one’s comportment (and even that’s on a good day! 😉 ) Finding truth is an excavation of self. A conversion that comes only to those “wicked” enough to fall apart, (A leap of faith dressed as Superman (Übermensch) (a)waits… 😉 ) with a willingness to detach oneself from paradigms of comfort, pivotal to one’s existential sanctuary. It is, a critique, which is “the art of voluntary inservitude, of reflective indocility”. (Foucault: “What is Critique?”) It is existentially risqué. The “value of losing oneself is the price one pays for self-transformation.” For me, today, Nussbaum says it best: “Tragedy happens only to those who seek to live well.”
Today’s askesis finds me adrift. An uninvited intrusion permitted voice, abruptly morphs without notice: “No Entrance.” Nomadic in my aretic predilections neither happenstance, nor pre-dated, and now out-dated moral paradigms – if only by virtue of now standing in mere abstraction, inert, from me in my present, potentially individuating circumstance – will do. I can’t promise to be Foucauldian in my philosophical exercise, but in demeanour I hope not to disappoint. Power relations, as Foucault understands it, are ubiquitous. I don’t just mean political, economic, tribal, global and the like. I don’t even refer to open inter-personal warfare. It’s the insidious, inaudible, formless, inertial confrontation experienced in silence that finds me twisted. Silenced through silence! HA! He who hath the last word, hath my soul! Vanquished, disturbed, abandoned, dis-engaged, quite literally silenced! Thrust out, ousted, kicked to the curb; that uneasy state of dominion overwhelms. Whispers of Epictetus now buzzing in my ear annoy, but Gadfly to me, incites action. He says, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them,” and that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”. He’d say “take the high” road. Render him pervasively silent by a simple exercise. His silence is experienced as dominion only because you presume it is done in strength, over you, when in reality it is an act of cowardice. A powerful act of courage is founded in gestures of integrity with acknowledged risk. Cowardice has him recoil into the flow of life to be taken by the current of his present circumstance. A virtual parade of authenticating proverbial bullshit finds his neologism, enecstasis, sitting at his bedside, self-soothing to an ultimately failing ego. He has no power over me; indeed, he is impotent to empower himself. He is not an adversary of worth, but a rat clothed in a King’s garment, hoping to elude suspicion. Diseased rodents are averse to our sensibilities but not for fear of a lion’s prowess. That would be something to reckon with! Ignore. Delete. Forget. Poof, he is now oblivion. (Sounds angry! 😉 Seneca, oh Seneca, where art though Seneca!!! 🙂 ) Orrrrrrrr ( 🙂 🙂 ), maybe he’s silent because he cares not for you at all. Ouch! ( 😥 ) Your confoundment is not triggered by his silence, but a discursive modality reignited and shared over many years. How many times did tenderness of tongue reach your ears? How many times was the encounter so intense that it seeped into the visceral? Did he not envelop you in his gaze and say: “There is something very deep here”, only two fortnights ago? How many times did he ask: “M’agapas, e?” Did smiles not betray his delight when each time I confirmed his hopes and suspicions? Words hollowed. A momentary track blinded by vulnerability, nostalgia, and grief. Orrrrrrrrr ( 🙂 🙂 ), my dearest, maybe you matter too much that it is in courage and resolve that he has found the strength to silence himself. Why burden myself, when truly whatever scenario one might choose, none hath anything to do with me but each speak to his psychical limitation; these are his own, and rest solidly in his lap, to be endured by his partner in life. But I have said my peace. For though his heart, his lips betrayed her first, leaving him comprised and of “two minds,” his cowardice will be called to measure and he shall not disappoint in his narratival creativity and she shall acquiesce (*I’ve found solace in extending the narratival fold to include her. Twas her demise that would seek comfort in his whirling manner to which her will would be vanquished.). As for my own, it flows not from any extrinsic form but is designed by that voice from within that calls one back to oneself, and there self-composure, self-governance, self-fashioning like a ball of yarn shall slowly create something of substance. Tis I, and I alone, that has power over me. (*Seneca and Epictetus have some interesting exercises in the form of self-examination to cleanse one of vicious habits responsible for ataraxia.) A great exercise for those versed in that impersonalized, ratiocinated form of self-comportment. I just don’t see it this way; well not exactly.
Askesis, the exercise, stoic-like, requires not just being in the moment. There is groundwork, preparatory engagement in life practices without which one cannot properly care for the self. The experience of inwardness, something of a subversive exercise, aimed to bring one into a state of awareness of one’s own needs, desires, and fears, and thereby cultivate the virtues of temperance, discipline, and courage. Fasting, even for Foucault was one such exercise; as was meditation and self-writing. Minimalism, and various forms of deprivation are mine. Oddly, my children often think, seemingly masochistic. Self-inflicted deprivation is an exercise in freedom, however. It morphs that strictly Kantian claim to autonomy grounded in Reason (epistemically heavy), to one calculatively negotiated within the rich fabric of life. Aforementioned exercises of self-examination adopted by Seneca, Epictetus and others, are examples of this. And though they have, could have, a role to play in the groundwork for self-examination, such exercises seem inefficient in their effectivity mostly for a rather stringently rationalized moral paradigm. But I digress. 🙂
This Epictetian psycho-biography may be a proximate elaboration of conceptual underpinnings (which one??!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 ) informing his silent retort, but in being merely proximal (at best) shall always itself be confined to paradigms of my own ingenuity. A nifty exercise (trick you might say) in emancipatory strategy building, it is, however, lacking in authenticity. Dominion has not evaporated for the will of my psychedelic fascinations, but it has caved and is now a path upon which my stride is purposeful. One could argue that I have totally misconstrued the Stoic annotation that would seek not counsel in the extrinsic aforementioned references to his comportment, and that insight rests in that disarming, potentially devastating, inward journey unto self. A modifying test for self-transformation! Right! Back on track! Why does his silence irk me so? Asking why he is silent is to ask the wrong question and to put all the power in his hands. Yet, my self-examination is not as it is with Epictetus who would ask: “Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside?” For instance, when examining impressions, he counsels: “Go out of the house at early dawn, and no matter whom you see or whom you hear, examine him and then answer as you would to a question. What did you see? A handsome man or a handsome woman? Apply your rule. Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it. What did you see? A man in grief over the death of his child? Apply your rule. Death lies outside the province of the moral purpose. Out of the way with it. Did a Consul meet you? Apply your rule. What sort of thing is a consulship? Outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it, too, it does not meet the test; throw it away, it does not concern you. If we had kept doing this and had exercised ourselves from dawn till dark with this principle in mind —by the gods, something would have been achieved!”
First, I seek a proper reckoning of the role silence plays in my subjective experience of the truth. Being silenced by anyone on some level is experienced as intrusive, offensive, an affront. It’s not only that abstractly, theoretically, if you will, that authorial freedom of speech is a basic and fundamental form of autonomy, it is that I experience myself as overridden. This is why there is some truth to Epictetus when he claims that ‘we are disturbed not by men and their actions but rather by our own view of them’. When I care not for the subject for which I have been silenced, or the person who silences me, I do not experience myself as unfree. It is relational then. It is in a modality of care that dominion can, however slight, take possession of me. My freedom is usurped because his silence is not silent at all. The language of silence is only a language at all when it is communicable, communicative. Had he not intrusively willed himself back into my life, silence would have weighed into oblivion. Instead, it drudged life back into the void, and there we lay vulnerable in discursive limbo as he sought to retreat without even a word: farewell. Vulnerability is the penultimate form of trust where one transcends all inhibitions, and is both absolutely free and yet at once unfree as one is totally at the mercy of the other. Cowardice? Diseased? An affront? Perhaps. It is left to me to be both voice and interpreter. It is left to me to delicately abandon my own comportment and delve into the psychical world of the other in search of motifs. Shall I be both counselee and counsellor enriching understanding as I go? And yet what a turbulent parade of voices that fight for the protagonistic role. And here is the essence of my disturbance: I am abandoned, my vulnerability betrayed, to that state of unknowing. Freedom is stretched so extravagantly that I find myself ricocheted back against an elastic band. Struggling to gain my footing, the experience of unfreedom becomes ever more pronounced, ever more deeply embedded, so that like a beggar I ask for his voice to give me rest; restitution. To the test, then. It is often said that “the truth shall set you free” and yet driven by the pursuit of truth is my very undoing; it is indeed, the form of dominion over me, where the other is sought to emancipate me from the burden of the unknown. Recalibration wants not to be in the know, but to accept that freedom rests in letting go. For truth is not in the asking for the why, but only in the how. To the Stoics then: habituated exercises inspecting the formulation of questions that guide me in my daily inquisitions shall work to recalibrate and destabilize that insidious paradigm that unbeknownst to me took hold of my comportment and unravelled me. As to justice…. 😉 It is not “the high road” I seek; for none is to be found. It is my road; a road of endless tribulation. Suffering is not anyone’s delight, but alas a life short of suffering in the delicate, messy, attachments I am intimately bound, is no life at all! 🙂 Existential flight is not the cure; it is a curse. It is not therein where freedom shall be recalibrated. Who shall speak for “me”, then? To the self, then! A self-reflective exercise such as this finds internal voices in dialogue as the hidden is sought out by that audible, often out-spoken voice, who poses for my-self. An authenticating process shall rip the episodic foundation from beneath my feet, and in the process, for now, help to resist those ‘projections which have changed the world into the replica of my own unknown face’.