Epictetus the Analyst: A Stoical Response to a Patient of Sigmund Freud’s

By CHRIS GRAVES

Both the philosophy of Epictetus, stoicism, and the psychology of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis, offer their own unique insight into the phenomena of desire, attachment, loss and mourning. However, because Epictetus is historically and theoretically situated pre-Freud, and because psychoanalysis offers in many ways a crippling critique of stoicism, Epictetus can be too easily disregarded. However, in an effort to gain a better understanding of Epictetus and come to appreciate his unique contribution to the above phenomena, this paper will examine Freud’s “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” in light of his philosophy. Essentially, what is required of the woman Freud’s case history centers on is a total transformation of self, for she must come to redefine not only herself and her conceptions of attachment and loss, but also her relationship to her mother and, particularly, her father.

Freud’s “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” centers on a lesbian girl who, although seeing no need for herself to be treated as she was neurotic in no way, shape, or form and didn’t voice any displeasure about her “condition” (127), acquiesced to analysis out of consideration for her parents-particularly her father who grew increasingly infuriated with her homosexuality over time (130). The specific event that triggered her father’s displeasure with her was her relationship with an older woman who in spite of her high social status was described by the parents as a cocotte (Freud 123). Despite this, and despite the woman receiving the girl’s advances in a cold manner, the girl developed an infatuation with her, taking advantage of every opportunity in order to enjoy her company. While the mother was not too terribly incensed over her daughter’s love affair, the father was consumed with rage (Freud 125-6). Freud writes, “There was something about his daughter’s homosexuality that aroused the deepest bitterness in him, and he was determined to combat it will all the means in his power” (125). As Freud’s analysis reveals, the turning point in the girl’s case history occurred after the birth of her brother when she was sixteen. Previous to this, Freud discerns that her affection for a small boy developed out of a wish to bear a child and be a mother herself. She had, in fact, developed a love for her mother, a love displaced onto the adored woman (Freud 132). This love was facilitated during a revival of her Oedipal feelings for her father when, desiring to have a child by her father, she discovered that her mother, her rival, was pregnant. “Furiously resentful and embittered,” Freud notes, “she turned away from her father, and from men altogether. After this first great reverse she forswore her womanhood and sought another goal for her libido” (134). Thereafter she, as Freud writes, “changed into a man,” directing her love towards her mother through reviving her pre-Oedipal love for her (134). Formulating the mechanism of “retirement,” Freud argues that the girl sought through her homosexuality to avoid conflict with her mother by “retiring” in favor of her, forswearing all men (135). By doing so, “she removed something which had hitherto been partly responsible for her mother’s disfavour” (Freud 135). Freud explains the mother’s implicit acquiescence to her daughter’s homosexuality as a function of the mother’s appreciation of her daughter’s “retirement” (136). For her father, however, the girl showed nothing but hatred for his betrayal, at least as she saw it, quenching this desire by making sure he saw her with the woman, for she knew this would drive him mad with anger-an anger determined, Freud speculates, by the premonition of his daughter’s motives. Thus, “she remained homosexual out of defiance against her father” (Freud 136). As this summary makes clear, the girl’s Oedipal attachment to her father forms the foundation of her condition. In light of this, the following stoical analysis will center on this relationship.

An ideal place to start with Epictetus’ probable response to this girl is with the opening words of The Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us” (11). For Epictetus, while all that springs from our own agency, or our “own doing,” is up to us and under our control-such as our desires or aversions, or whatever is internal to us-all that isn’t determined by our own agency isn’t up to us and is, hence, out of our control-for example, our bodies or possessions, or whatever is external to us (11). This distinction is crucial for Epictetus because she who is guided by it ensures herself a tranquil, peaceful life. He writes:

[…] if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all. (Epictetus 11)

Thus, in the case of desire, if a person desires only that which is under her control and never that which isn’t, she will never be frustrated as all her desires will be met. When such a person faces what is external to her, she remains completely indifferent. Epictetus makes precisely this point: “And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me'” (12). However, the person who muddles this distinction and, for instance, desires that which she cannot have, will inevitably find nothing but sorrow for her desires will always be unmet, resulting in a chronic condition of dissatisfaction. Hence, Epictetus relates that “if you desire something that is not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate” (12).

Unfortunately, the girl under analysis is operating from a maxim antithetical to Epictetus’ as she is attaching her desire to that which isn’t subject to her control-her father. Because of this, it was inevitable that her desires would be hindered and that she find nothing but unhappiness. Thus, the first task that Epictetus would set this girl is to reorient her psychology, using the above distinction as the touchstone with which she approaches everything, doing so utilizing her faculty of choice. Operating from this distinction, she will realize that because her father is external to her and an object not under her control, she will no longer choose to unreasonably invest her desires in him.

In regard to the woman’s mother, her pre-Oedipal love for her, her fear of her mother’s displeasure and her desire to “retire” in favor of her are all just unreasonable as her desire for her father. This is so because all are symptomatic of her attachment to her mother, a state of affairs that is just as liable as her attachment to her father to result in her discontent, for her love and desire for her mother are never going to be able to be satisfied because her mother’s love is not up to her. As well, the girl should recognize that her happiness won’t be secured by attempting to win her mother’s favor through “retirement” as tranquility isn’t dependent on externals but is a condition to be attained by following through on Epictetus’ above maxim. Thus, the girl should detach her desire from her mother just as she should do with her father.

Epictetus would further advise the woman to not attach her aversion, or the faculty which prevents one from “[falling] into what [one] is averse to,” to that which isn’t up to her-namely, her father’s lack of affection and her mother’s pregnancy (12). Her detachment of aversion from what isn’t up to her is just as crucial as her detachment of desire, for, Epictetus observes, if one is averse to uncontrollable phenomenon, such as illness or death-as well as, in the present case, another’s love-one “will meet misfortune” (12). However, if one is only averse to what is within one’s control, “then [one] will never fall into anything that [one is] averse to,” thus ensuring that one’s wishes will always be satisfied (Epictetus 12).

Unfortunately, the girl’s wishes are meeting nothing but frustration, and for precisely the reason that Epictetus states here. Because her aversion is invested in phenomena that are outside of her agency, the independence of those phenomena was bound to assert itself and cause her distress when they didn’t act according to her wishes. Hence, in order to further secure her tranquility, the girl needs to detach her aversion from losing her father’s love and her mother’s pregnancy as well as her fear of falling out of disfavor with her mother.

In her accomplishing the total detachment of her desire and aversion, her father as well as her mother will become objects indifferent to her. In this way, her happiness won’t depend on them satisfying her desires and she will not only be able to bring about in end to her need to spite her father through pursuing the older woman’s affections, but also she can end her harmful attempts to secure her mother’s love. In this way, her lingering Oedipal complex will have been abolished. In fact, it is questionable whether Epictetus would even have recognized the Oedipus complex with its implication that attachment is a primary as well as inevitable condition. Indeed, to acknowledge the inevitability of attachment is to acknowledge the inevitability of pain and suffering. Such an admission, however, overlooks the fact that attachment is neither primary nor inevitable but an unnecessary and harmful condition that is symptomatic of an agitated soul that masochistically avoids the serene state of tranquility.

Through her self-realization that her soul needn’t be determined by her desires and aversions, the woman will have recognized the fundamental Stoic saying that “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead what them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well” (Epictetus 13). Whereas before she clung to her fantasy about having a baby by her father, expecting reality to follow her wishes but then becoming unhappy when it didn’t, she will align her psychology with concrete reality, accepting events as they happen, accepting the fact that her father had a child with her mother. And, in doing so, she will secure her happiness.

However, the girl might point out that desire isn’t a process subject to conscious control. That is, because of desires independence, unconsciousness and intractability, she will argue that it is impossible to follow through on Epictetus’ advice of consciously reorienting her desire away from her father. Indeed, she might argue, taking her love for her beloved as an example, that she has no control over the part of herself that desires, for her homosexuality is, in fact, constitutionally determined. She could even continue that even if her orientation wasn’t constitutionally determined and only determined by the trauma of her brother’s birth, her libidinal reversal was accomplished on an unconscious level and not the result of a conscious decision. And, insofar as the processes of her unconscious are out of her conscious reach, it would be presumptuous, she explains, to assert that she consciously direct her libidinal energies. But, the very concept of the unconscious, the Stoic might argue, is untenable as it facilitates the belief that one isn’t in total control of one’s psychology, and this ultimately impedes the goal of self-control and tranquility.

As well, such thinking about the intractability of desire is misguided because desire is, according to Epictetus, malleable. This is evident in his suggestion that we act in life as if we are at a banquet. He writes that if a dish of food is passed to you then feel free to take from it. However, if it passes you by don’t prevent it from going on. And, if the dish hasn’t yet reached you “do not stretch your desire out toward it, but wait until it comes to you” (Epictetus 15). In life then, one shouldn’t extend one’s desire toward that which hasn’t yet come to one. Underlying this advice is the view that desire is, contrawise to what the girl would perhaps suggest, subject to one’s control. In her case, however, it isn’t appropriate to wait until her father is receptive to her affection to attach her desire to him because this would still be to mistakenly hinge one’s happiness on another. Thus, not even is it advisable to approach her father with a desire that is moderate. Instead, she should follow Epictetus’ counsel that to assuredly secure happiness one must “eliminate desire completely” (12). Consequently, she must, as Epictetus sees it, “let some things go completely”-namely, her attachment to her father (11). The advice to inhibit desire to the point of abolishing it is echoed again by Epictetus in his banquet metaphor where he states that “if when things are set in front of you, you do not take them but despise them, then you will not only share a banquet with the gods but also be a rule along with them” (15). Thus, while it is good to desire what one has within one’s reach, it is to approach the level of divinity to refuse even that which one can desire. Thus, just as the Stoic refuses what’s in reach at the banquet, the girl should approach her father in a similar way.

This plan of action is, admittedly, quite difficult the girl might respond. If she asks for the concrete steps that she can take to attain the level of self-control the Stoic advises, Epictetus offers her a simple way to do so. “In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of,” Epictetus relates, “remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things” (12). Hence, if one cares for a jug, one should acknowledge that it is simply a jug that one cares for. By doing so, if the jug should happen to break, one won’t be upset. Next, Epictetus suggests that one should adopt this approach to more significant objects -a loved one perhaps. “If you kiss your child or wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset” (12). Thus, if one acknowledges the finite nature of one’s loved ones and recognizes that it isn’t in their nature to live forever, one will not become distraught after they die. Although in the case of the girl it is not a question of grieving the death of her father, there is a form of loss involved-namely, the loss of him as a loved object. Hence, whenever she approaches him, she should acknowledge his nature as her father and by doing so she will come to realize that insofar as she is his father her desire for his love and a baby by him are unrealizable.

Paralleling the recognition of her father’s nature should be the recognition of her own nature as a daughter and the realization that to be her father’s lover isn’t the role proper to her nature. If she protests against this, asserting that she can be both daughter and mother, she should remember Epictetus observing that one should conceive of life as a play and one’s purpose in life as rightly playing the role assigned to one as an actor in the play. He states, “What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else” (Epictetus 16). Thus, the girl needs to become reconciled to the fact that she was assigned the role of daughter to her father and to want to change her role to mother is to megalomaniacally assume the power of the gods. All that is in her power to do is to play her role of daughter well. This would, of course, entail her relinquishing her incestuous desire for her father.

If she still finds herself in pain whenever she perceives that her father’s slights her, she should repeat to herself “‘This is the price of tranquility; this is the price of not being upset'” (Epictetus 14). That is, her tranquility is dependent on sacrificing her illusion of control over her father. Indeed, tranquility is an inner experience and not something that should be externally constituted. This is a point made by Epictetus when he says that the inattentive slave boy, for instance, “is not in such a good position that your being upset or not depends on him” (14). In the same way, the girl’s tranquility needn’t be-and shouldn’t be-affected by an object external to her.

But, if she still finds herself being carried away by the appearance that it is, Epictetus would advise that through habituation and relying upon her own inner capacities she can learn to cope with her loss. This is indicated when Epictetus advises that in the face of difficulties one can rely upon one’s capacities of self-control, endurance and patience (14). Thus, the girl must rely upon her capacity of self-control to reign in her incestuous desires, her endurance to withstand the continued hardship that her father doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, and her patience to learn to deal with this difficult fact. When you does this habitually, Epictetus concludes that “you will not be carried away by appearances” (14). Hence, by relying upon her inner capacities and habituating her reactions, the girl will no longer be carried away by the external appearance that her tranquility depends on her father. In doing so, she will be a philosopher in Epictetus’ eyes, or one who pays no attention to externals and instead concentrates on rightly ordering one’s internal world (20).

If the girl should protest that to do this would amount to losing her father and that this would be unbearable, Epictetus would offer a different interpretation of her “loss.” He writes, “Never say about anything, ‘I have lost it,’ but instead, ‘I have given it back’.” Thus, if one’s wife or child has died or one’s property has been taken, one’s shouldn’t meet these events with the perception that one “lost” something. Instead, one should see that one ‘gave it back.’ As far as the manner in which the giver took back the object, Epictetus regards this as an indifferent question, writing that “How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you?” (14). However, as long as the giver gives it, “take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn” (Epictetus 14). Thus, insofar as the object is given to one, one never has possession over it for it is on loan. Hence, to “lose” the object is simply to return what was never one’s to begin with. To think otherwise, as the girl might, and argue that one has “lost” an object implies that one possessed the object in question whereas Epictetus has clearly shown we never control or possess such objects and that to think otherwise can only lead to suffering. Epictetus would thus suggest that the girl shouldn’t consider what is required of her as a loss.

If the girl should still protest against this advice and come to the conclusion that it is her father’s fault that she is suffering so much, Epictetus would caution her against blaming her father. As he notes, “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things” (Epictetus 13). He cites the example of Socrates in support of this maxim, observing that death, for instance, isn’t dreadful in-itself, for if it was Socrates would have been petrified when his sentence of death was handed down. Instead, it is “the judgment about death that is dreadful-that is what is dreadful” (Epictetus 13). Thus, if one finds oneself upset, one should never blame another for one’s condition, but, instead, one should blame oneself, that is, one’s judgment. This advise is repeated again by Epictetus in relation to death. Although he acknowledges that we should sympathize with one who has lost a loved one, Epictetus argues that such sympathy should only be expressed outwardly and not inwardly for inwardly we should recognize that the death in-itself wasn’t bad. Indeed, we should repeat to ourselves “‘What weighs down on this man is not what has happened (since it does not weigh down on someone else), but his judgment about it'” (Epictetus 15). Thus, the girl would be wrong to blame her father for her condition because it is really her internal judgment that “losing” her father is bad that is causing her pain. This recognition would then demand a change of judgment on the girl’s part as she comes to see that her father isn’t to blame for her suffering but she herself. To do otherwise is analogous, as Epictetus sees it, to allow someone to turn one’s body over to another. Of course, one would be incensed over this-just as incensed as one should be if one turns over one’s “faculty of judgment to whoever happens along,” so that if one is abused by another one “is upset and confused” (Epictetus 19). Instead, the girl must take charge of her faculty of judgment, using it to recognize that insofar as she is in control of her judgments she is in control over her emotional life and well-being. In fact, according to Epictetus, a person should always strive to focus all their energies on attending to one’s faculty of judgment, never concerning oneself with externals such as the body. Indeed, “It shows lack of natural talent to spend time on what concerns the body […]” (Epictetus 25). This is because the physiological phenomena of the body aren’t within one’s power to control and, hence, should be neglected in favor of working on what is within one’s power-one faculty of judgment. Thus, the girl should cease focusing her attention on bodily affairs-i.e., having a baby by her father-and spend her time focusing on her faculty of judgment and how she can attain tranquility through aligning it with nature and the fundamental Stoical distinction between what’s in and out of one’s control.

For the girl to follow through on Epictetus’ analysis is no small task. Indeed, it would entail a radical psychological transformation as she comes to reorient her internal universe and redefine not only her relationship to external reality, but also her conceptions of desire, attachment, loss, morality, and the gods. This would entail reversing the psychological trends that have led her to the point she is at as she defines herself anew and comes to a new sense of self. This is, in the end, what Stoicism demands. Of course, it is understandable-though not condonable-if she wavers in the face of this task. However, if she does, she would do well to remember the words of Epictetus:

And if you meet with any hardship or anything pleasant or reputable or disreputable, then remember that the contest is now and the Olympic games are now and you cannot put things off any more and that your progress is made or destroyed by a single day and a single action. (28)

Thus, her progress isn’t to be put off to another day as her tranquility is at stake every day and in every action. And, it is with an eye toward evaluating herself every day of her life and at every action she performs that she must begin.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman.”

Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Phillip Rieff. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 123-149

Epictetus. The Handbook. Trans. Nicholas P. White. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.

 

Chris Graves (’09) is a Philosophy major at The University of Houston-Downtown.

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