A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.

 

The Natural Appeal of Stoicism

“Suppose you cut yourself badly with a rusty knife. Given your beliefs, the thought might occur to you that you got infected. And the further thought might occur to you that you might die from this infection. At this point this is a mere impression or thought which you find yourself with. It is a disagreeable, perhaps even disconcerting, thought; that is to say, the mere thought in itself is disconcerting. The question then arises: “What is the source and nature of this disquieting character of the impression?”

According to the Stoics, there are two possibilities. The first is this: you wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil. No wonder, then, that the mere impression that you might die is very disturbing. The second is this: you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death. So the impression that you might die has an alarming character; it puts you on alert. This has a teleological function. It alerts you to the need to be on your guard. And, by a natural mechanism, your whole body will go into a state of alert, ready to move as needed. But the impression, though alarming, is not deeply disturbing. For, after all, you have a clear mind, and you know that there are many false alarms; and even if there is reason for alarm, you as a Stoic know that all you have to do is try to do what you can to avoid death. This is what you are meant to do. You do not actually have to avoid death. That is a matter of divine providence. So the question of whether you are going to die or not in this sense does not affect you at all. This is God’s problem, as it were.

But in the case of the person who believes that death is a terrible evil, the alarming character of the impression, which teleologically is just a signal to be on one’s guard, turns into a deeply disturbing experience, and as a consequence the whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state, which might affect the operation of reason.

We have to firmly remember, though this might not be so clear to the person in a deeply disturbed state, that so far we are dealing with a mere impression or thought. Naturally, as the thought may occur to you, it may also be false. After all, we have not yet found out, or made up our mind, as to whether we actually got infected. And we have not yet considered whether we should believe that one may die from this infection. So far we have just the mere thought. Now, one cannot be afraid that one might die from this infection unless one believes that one got infected and that one could die from this infection. We clearly have to distinguish between concern and fear, on the one hand, and the alarming or disturbing character of the impression, on the other hand. The wise person will be concerned, but the foolish person who believes that death is an evil will be afraid. Thus fear, according to the Stoics, is nothing but the false belief that an evil is coming, or might come, one’s way — a belief generated by assent to an impression which is deeply disturbing because one wrongly takes the situation to be an evil.

Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought