The Incidentals

In the dialogue of Euthydemus by Plato, Socrates gets into a discussion with one of his associates, a man named Clinias, in regards to what is “good.” The two establish that the conventional concepts/objects that we think of as being “good” – wealth, health, a high-born family, a respected name, etc. – are not necessarily good in and of themselves, but are only conditionally good. They’re good if they’re used properly (e.g. – wealth used to feed the hungry, etc.) or, at the very least, not used at all as opposed to being used improperly (e.g. – wealth buried and not used is better than wealth used to fund the killing of innocents, etc.). What Socrates and Clinias eventually settle upon as being the true goods are the Virtues, specifically the Platonic virtues of temperance, justice, courage, and wisdom.

Every other type of “lesser” good – health, wealth, etc. – is seen as being “indifferent”. This is because their presence or absence does neither add to nor detract from, respectively, the innate goodness of a human being who is already cultivating the Virtues – those things that are truly good.

“Indifferent” is one way of describing these things. For years before coming across Stoicism or really being all that acquainted with Platonic philosophy, I used the word “incidental” to describe such things in my own ponderings on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

This was born mainly from my own familiarity with the teachings of the Hindu mystic Sri Ramana Maharshi. Maharshi was famous for his oft repeated exhortation to students or seekers after wisdom, that the fastest way to Enlightenment was self-inquiry – constantly asking oneself, “Who am I?” The idea behind it was to keep stripping away layers of self-identification that were extraneous.

Who am I? John Doe.

No, “John Doe” is a name, a title, a designation, a certain stringing-together of sounds. It is not who I am. 

Who am I? I am a lawyer.

No, a “lawyer” is a job title. It is a function, a role within society. It is something that I do, not who I am.

Who am I?

Et cetera, et cetera – on and on until one has that flash of insight (kensho or satori as the Japanese Zen monks would call it) that confers a fundamental, ineffable understanding of the self and the Cosmos.

But all those things that get stripped away – one’s identification with family, with wealth, with a career, etc. – all those things are incidentals. They are things of happenstance, often times outside of one’s control to either gain or reject. Being a man or a woman, a child or an elder, smart or dumb, rich or poor, all of these things are out of our control. All of them have their own pros and cons associated with them.

None of them are final, “the buck stops here” identifiers of who we are. None of them define us as “good” or “better” or “worse”. They simply are.

But, one might argue, I can choose my career and I can work real hard to make myself rich. How are those “incidental”?

True – to an extent. If one really loves football or basketball, but is born a dwarf, well…they can certainly choose to become a football or basketball player, but it is highly unlikely that they’ll ever actually become one. And, of course, all we have to do is look at the Medieval folklore concerning “the Wheel of Fortune” to see how uncertain it is to remain rich even if one has striven their entire life to build and maintain wealth.

The indifferents, the incidentals, are those things that come and go in Life. They are those qualities or attributes that either are congenital (and thus we have no real choosing over) or are chosen by us later in life but have no real meaning other than what we give to them. The true goods – the virtues – are the way that we act, they are the decisions that we make, and those cannot be taken away from us. If one is a good, virtuous person not even the mightiest of the gods can change that fact without our consent.

It is our actions, ultimately, that define us. Not our genitals, not our age, not our bank accounts, or how many shiny new gizmos we have, or the size of our house. Those things are window dressings that only gain meaning by the type of person we choose to be – virtuous or vicious, good or evil.

So, as a caterpillar once queried, who are you?


~ by crow365 on July 13, 2011.

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