Friday, January 13, 2012

In Defense of Patience (Draft)

UPDATE (1.14.12): I made a few corrections to the draft today.

...with references to the Stoics. In addition to the "defense of patience," the paper offers a way of thinking about Stoic fortitude and detachment (and the related ideal of tranquility), and how to respond to the usual objections against those ideals, from the perspective of the value of patience. (The responses I consider are brief and not original, but it is the filtering of them through patience that I am suggesting--and I might be wrong--can help us see those responses in a new light.)

There are a couple different things going on in the paper, and my hope at this point is that it hangs together well enough for a talk. Comments appreciated.


  1. I'm not sure how well these comments will hang together, but they can't be any worse than my last effort (based on a complete misreading of what you wrote). Read with several pinches of salt handy.

    I think I agree with you that patience might mean enduring a permanent frustration of desire, but I still sympathize somewhat with Kupfer. It's not clear to me that it makes sense to talk of patience except in cases where it makes sense to talk of waiting. So if the frustration is permanent it must be contingently permanent, not inevitably so. You can wait patiently for something that, it turns out, never happens. But if what you want cannot happen (being reunited with someone who has died, say) then I don't think I'd call that patience (unless you believed in a possible reunion after death). This might be covered by your reference to wise endurance, and your (correct) assertion on p. 11 that if we desire what we cannot have then we are bound for frustration. Perhaps enduring such a desire is never wise. But I don't know. Wanting someone back seems like the same thing as missing them, and that doesn't seem necessarily foolish.

    Your discussion of Epictetus on pp. 16-17 reminds me of both Nietzsche's amor fati (maybe that's too obvious to be worth mentioning) and Wittgenstein's Culture and Value remark: "I can say: “Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you”; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: “Thank them because, look, how kind they are!”–since the next moment they may sting you." I wonder whether either Nietzsche's discussion or Wittgenstein's might shed any light on how best to read Epictetus. Your proposed reading might indeed be the best there is, but it's also very generous.

    So those might be things to think about. Your central point seems original, important, and true, though, so I don't think these are major concerns.

  2. Thanks, DR. I'll have to think about the LW & Nietzsche points. I'll accept that the reading I give of Epictetus is very and maybe too generous, and I should probably be careful to distinguish between (a) what did Epictetus really mean (how did he want to be read, as it were) and (b) how might we read Epictetus in a way that is useful but not beholden to absolute fidelity to Epictetus' intended meaning? If there's a defense of readings of the second kind, I take it that it's that thinkers' words and ideas may allow for interpretations, extensions, and so forth that go beyond the thinker's original intent.

    On the first comment: I see your point. Here's one kind of example in response: someone with a terminal illness endures the illness with equanimity while finishing some project. (Perhaps: Hitchens writing his final book review before he died.) Now, maybe it's better to call that fortitude rather than patience--though this then connects to my discussion of Scarre in the paper, about whether and to what extent those two things can be separated.

    I think it's true that waiting is most readily associated with patience. But interestingly, the OED lists endurance/longsuffering and constancy/perseverance (if I remember correctly) as alternative definitions. But maybe it isn't waiting that's so important, then, so much as some kind of goal-orientation, and end, which justifies waiting/enduring/persevering (in a patient way). Of course, if patience is connected to self-possession (as discussed in the paper), then there will always be that end in place, even if one isn't waiting for anything else--or, there will be various things we might have to patiently endure so long as we think life is still worth living.

  3. I wonder whether patience in your sense is truer to the original meaning of the word. It does seem true to the dictionary definition. But then there's a slight feeling of strain in some cases when I think of the current, ordinary use of the word. So it might just be an impure concept, and your interpretation of it might be more valuable than an analysis that sticks to the current, possibly debased, use. I don't know. But you have, it seems to me, identified a very important and neglected concept, whatever word we use to identify it.

    As for Epictetus, I don't mean that you are too generous, necessarily, only that some people might think so. And we seem to agree on that.