September 16, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Choice is Your Best Faculty, Don't be Distracted (Epictetus Discourses II.23)
Key ideas of this discourse
This discourse cautions us against neglecting faculties that are less important than choice. Our hearing, sight etc. may not be as important as our ability to choose, but they are valuable. But we should be careful not to get carried away by them and forget to do the most important thing – choose correctly and use impressions according to nature.
All faculties are gifts from God. But not all faculties are of equal value.
The faculty of choice is the supreme one. It makes use of the other faculties.
While we should realize that all faculties have their uses, we should not lose sight of the supreme faculty of choice.
Pursuing lesser faculties at the expense of the supreme faculty is like a traveler forgetting to come home.
You should use impressions according to nature, not fail in your desires, not experience anything you don’t desire, and never face misfortune, but be free, unrestricted and unrestrained.
Our senses are witnesses to God’s existence
Everyone would read a legibly written book with great pleasure and ease. Everyone would also listen with great ease to discussions that are expressed in graceful and well-composed prose. So we must not say that there is no such thing as the faculty of expression. Doing so would make us impious and cowardly. Impious, because we are ignoring the gift from God. It is like denying the usefulness of vision, hearing, or speech.
Did God give you eyes for no reason – giving them such a strong sprit and devising them so cleverly that they can see things in great distances and register the shape of whatever they see? What messenger is that fast and that accurate? Was it for nothing that he made the air between your eyes and the things you see so active and elastic, that vision flows through it? Was it for nothing he made light, without which everything else would be useless?
God has given us something even greater: faculty of choice
Don’t be ungrateful for these gifts. Remember as well that there are even better things. Give thanks to God for sight, hearing, life and whatever supports life – things such as fruits, wine, and oil. But remember, he has given you something of far greater value than any of these. It is the faculty that uses all these things, judges them, and evaluates their worth. What is this faculty? Is it each faculty itself? You have not heard sight or hearing saying something about itself. These faculties are just servants and subordinates to obey the faculty that can judge impressions.
If you want to know the value of anything, whom do you ask? Who answers your question? How then can any faculty be superior to this one which uses the services of all other faculties, tests them, and evaluates their worth?
Which other faculty knows about itself – what it is, how much it is worth, and when it should or should not be used?
Which faculty opens and closes our eyes, and directs their attention towards some objects and away from others? Sight itself? No. It is the faculty of choice.
What makes us curious and inquisitive so we listen to something? And what makes us unmoved so we don’t listen to it? Hearing itself? No. It is the faculty of choice.
The faculty of choice notices that the other faculties are deaf and blind, incapable of looking after anything else except for functions they are designed for. Only the faculty of choice can see clearly enough to evaluate the worth of all other faculties, as well as its own worth, and declare that it is the supreme faculty.
An eye that is open has no choice but to see. But it is the faculty of choice that decides whether you should use it to look at a particular person’s spouse, and in a particular way. What faculty tells you as to whether you should believe or disbelieve what someone tells you? If you believe it, should you be angry about it? Is it not the faculty of choice that tells you that?
The faculty of expression and embellishment of language, if it is really a faculty, does nothing more than dress up and rearrange words on a given topic, the way a hairdresser rearranges hair. But whether to speak or to keep quiet; and, if to speak, whether to speak this way or that, whether it is appropriate or not, and the right time and utility for each action – what else decide these things except the faculty of choice? How can you, then, expect it to come forward and talk against itself?
“What then, let us accept that all this is true. Yet it is possible that a subordinate can be superior to the one it serves – such as the horse to the rider, the dog to the hunter, the instrument to the musician, or the servants to the master.”
“What uses everything else? Choice. What takes care of everything? Choice. What destroys a person, sometimes by hunger, sometimes by hanging, and sometimes by falling off the cliff? Choice. Is there anything stronger in a human being than this?”
How can something that can be restrained be stronger than something that cannot be? What has the natural power to obstruct seeing? Both choice and external things. They can also obstruct speech and hearing. But no external can obstruct choice. Only choice, when corrupted, can obstruct itself. Therefore choice alone is vice. And choice alone is virtue.
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A challenge to Epicurus
Since choice is such a great faculty, and is put in charge of other faculties, let it come forward and say that flesh is the most excellent thing. Even if the flesh called itself most excellent, no one would tolerate it. What made you say such a thing, Epicurus? What made you write On the End [a book on ethics] or The Physics or On the Standard [a book on epistemology]? What made you to grow a philosopher’s long beard? Which part of you made you say, when you were about to die, that you were spending your last and, at the same time, happiest day? Was this the flesh, or the faculty of choice? Unless you are mad, can you then claim anything is superior to choice? Or are you really deaf and blind?
Lesser faculties have their uses
Does this mean we should look down upon the other faculties? Of course not. That would be stupid, impious, and ungrateful towards God. Let’s give each thing its due. Even a donkey has some use, though not as much as an ox. A dog has some use, though not as much as a servant. A servant has some use, though not as much as their fellow citizens. Fellow citizens have some use, but not as much as the magistrates. Although some things are of greater value, we should not disregard the contribution of others. The faculty of expression has its value, but it is not as not as great the faculty of choice.
Therefore, when I say this, don’t any of you assume that I am asking you to be careless about how you express yourself. It wouldn’t be any truer than thinking that I would ask you to neglect your eyes, ears, hands, feet, clothes, or shoes. But if you ask me what is the highest of all things, what I am to say? The faculty of eloquence? No, I cannot say that. It is the faculty of choice, when we make the right choice. It is this faculty that controls the faculty of eloquence as well as all other faculties, great and small. If this is set right, a person becomes good; if is goes wrong, a person becomes bad. This is what decides whether one is fortunate or not and whether we would be friendly or hostile toward someone. Simply put, this is what produces unhappiness when neglected and happiness when cared for.
But to do away with the faculty of eloquence and consider it as nothing is being ungrateful toward those who have given it. It is cowardly too. If you believe that the faculty of expression doesn’t exist, maybe you are afraid that you wouldn’t be able to ignore it if it did. It is like people denying the difference between beauty and ugliness. Could a person be affected the same way by seeing Thersites [who is said to be “bow-legged and lame, to have shoulders that cave inward, and a head which is covered in tufts of hair”] as seeing Achilles? Or at the sight of Helen as at that of any ordinary woman? No, ignorant and crude people, who have no discriminating power, hold such ideas. They are worried that if they see the difference, they will be overcome by it right away and lose control.
This is the important thing: Leave everything to its own faculty and then see what value it has. Then recognize the faculty in charge of them and pursue it with full attention. Make everything else secondary to it, without neglecting even these, to the extent possible. For example, we should take care of our eyes, not because they are of the highest importance, but because they serve the faculty of highest importance. The highest faculty needs the use of eyes, along with reason, to choose one thing over another.
Do not get distracted by lesser faculties
What do people usually do? They behave like a traveller returning home who comes across an inn, finds it comfortable and stays there. Have you forgotten your purpose? You were not traveling to this, but through this.
“But this is a fine inn.”
“Sure. There are many other fine inns and many pleasant pastures. They are just way stations. Your business is to return to your country, to relieve the anxieties of your family, and be a citizen; to get married, raise children, and be employed.”
You did not come into this world to pick the most charming place to live but to live in the country of your birth or of a country of which you are a citizen. Something similar goes on in the matter of eloquence as well. To advance towards perfection, you need to use spoken words to learn what is taught here, to purify your choice, and to deal correctly with impressions. Because this knowledge has to be taught through certain principles and in a certain style, we express it using variety and forceful style. Some people get carried away by such things and want to stay put: some by style, some by logic, some by equivocal arguments, and some by another “inn.” And there they remain as if they are among Sirens.
Your business, my friend, is to prepare yourself to use impressions according to nature, not fail in your desires, not experience anything you don’t desire, and never face misfortune, but be free, unrestricted and unrestrained. Conform to God’s rule and willingly submit to it. Find fault with no one and accuse no one. Be able to say with sincerity the verse [written by Cleanthes] which begins with, “Lead me, Zeus; Lead me, Destiny.”
Although you have this purpose, are you going to choose to stay where you are because some turn of phrase or abstract principles caught your fancy? Are you going to forget your home and say, “It’s nice here”? No one is saying it is not, but it is only a way station, an inn. You can be as eloquent as Demosthenes and yet be unhappy. Even if you are as good in logic as Chrysippus, what is to prevent you being uneasy, sad and envying – in other words, being disturbed and miserable? Nothing. So, you see, these inns are of no value, because you have a different purpose.
When I talk like this, some people assume that I am against rhetoric and other principles of presentation. No, I am not. I am only against people endlessly pursuing them and placing their hopes in them. If anyone thinks that such views cause harm, then consider me the most harmful person. When I see that something is of the highest value and is supreme, I am not going to say it is something else, just to make you happy.
Think about this
Man, your purpose was to make yourself competent to use conformably with nature the external impressions that came to you, in desire not to fail in what you would attain, and in avoidance not to fall into what you would avoid, never suffering misfortune… Discourses II.23.42 Epictetus [WO]