Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Siege mentality

I’m trying to understand the image of a siege at Plut. Adv. Col. 1120D, quoted in an earlier post. This is where I have got.

First, the siege seems to be a way of imagining the relationship between a given individual and the outside world. Since each individual does not have at his disposal sufficient grounds to affirm anything confidently about how the external pragmata are, he gives up this disputed territory and retreats within his personal/city boundaries, relying now only on what he can be sure of and what is beyond dispute. On the other hand, a siege is usually something which is a collective experience; cities are besieged and cities contain a number of people. As Plutarch uses the plural in his account, perhaps he also means that the Cyrenaics as a group retreat within the defensible walls and affirm only their pathē rather than affirming anything about external pragmata.

The second possibility might well collapse into the first, of course. After all, each Cyrenaic would appear to have no more grounds for confidence about how another Cyrenaic is impressed by the pragmata than he does for affirming anything about the pragmata themselves. (From an individual Cyrenaic’s point of view, other Cyrenaics are external pragmata too.)

Plutarch offers this as an analogy for their flight from the ekta to the pathē, continuing the theme of a contrast between external pragmata and internal states of the perceiver. The force of the analogy must be that this is a forced retreat and that however much the Cyrenaics might desire to sally forth and take back the territory around the city, they are somehow prevented from doing so. The reason for their involuntary enclosure must be just what has been outlined before, namely the fact that they have insufficient evidential warrant to claim any territory beyond their own internal states. Aristocles offers a slightly different analogy but one which again points to the idea that the Cyrenaic should be conceived as someone who is too weak to do anything more that avow the facts of his internal states. For Aristocles, the Cyrenaics are not heroically besieged citizens who are unwillingly held inside, but instead are oppressed by a kind of torpor (hypo karou piezomenoi tinos).

A later passage at 1120F, in expanding the metaphor, might help. There, the Cyrenaics are cast as avoiding conflict not only the sense of avoiding saying something indefensible about external pragmata but also in the sense of avoiding conflict with other perceivers and their claims about how things are.

The important phrase is this:

ἐκβαίνουσα δὲ καὶ πολυπραγμονοῦσα τῷ κρίνειν καὶ ἀποφαίνεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἐκτὸς αὑτήν τε πολλάκις ταράσσει καὶ μάχεται πρὸς ἑτέρους ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐναντία πάθη καὶ διαφόρους φαντασίας λαμβάνοντας.

...but when [opinion] strays beyond and meddles with judgements and pronouncements about external matters, it is forever getting embroiled with itself and falling into conflicy with others in whom the same matters give rise to contrary experiences and dissimilar impressions. (Einarson and De Lacy)

The image of the siege is recalled by the opening word. Plutarch considers what would happen in opinion were to break out (ekbainousa) and involved itself in matters that do not belong solely to the perceiver in question (polupragmosynē). Such a busy-body kind of opinion, set on making judgements about external matters will fall prey to two problems. First, it will cause itself some degree of concern or anxiety (tarassei). The word is presumably chosen because of its particular Epicurean resonance since Plutarch will presently argue that the Colotes and his Epicurean colleagues are themselves no better placed than the Cyrenaics and if a Cyrenaic cannot maintain ataraxia without retreating into the absurdly restricted position which Colotes criticises, then the Epicurean will face just the same difficulty. The anxiety must be a measure of the fact that in offering such judgements, opinion is venturing out on to ground which is far less secure that it is used to when dealing merely with internal pathē. The judgements are far less assured since opinion does not have sufficient katabebaiōsis for its claims. As Epicurus’ KD 24 insists, this hasty kind of assertion generates doubt and leave the judger open to all kinds of error.

Second, if opinion ventures on to ground that does not belong solely to the perceiver in question, it will fall into conflict with other perceivers. It is agreed by the Cyrenaics that some given external object may well cause in different perceivers different impressions. There is no conflict between the perceivers’ claims if they are restricted simply to reports about how each is being affected internally. But once anyone tries to claim the intervening ground, so to speak, the territory external to both, then conflict is likely.

This suggests the possibility that the siege in 1120C is not, so to speak, a battle waged between a Cyrenaic and the external pragmata. Rather, the picture is of Cyrenaics who are so epistemologically conflict-averse that each remains shut inside his own pathē in order to avoid even the potential for conflict raised by making claims about external pathē.


Phil said...

Could I take you back to the passage at 1120D and ask how you would transalte the clause beginning "all' hosper..."
Obviously there are some problems with the Loeb version. Is it something like "they shut themselves up as if under seige, pulling back from [offering any judgments]about externals into [the domain of] their pathe"? This translation bears on the issues you raise.

JIW said...

You're right that there's something wrong - I missed out a phrase. It's added in now in the original post.