August 19, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Choose A Sound Foundation For Your Decisions (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.15)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Some people make decisions and stand by them, because they believe standing by their decision is the right thing to do.
  2. However, standing by one’s decision is good only if the decisions are based on a sound foundation.
  3. Standing by unexamined decisions is a form of sickness. If you become stubborn about unexamined decisions, you are beyond help.
Don’t cling to high-sounding but unexamined decisions

Some people, when they hear principles like

  • You should be unwavering,
  • Choice by nature is free and cannot be restrained, and
  • Everything else is unfree, can be restrained and is not under our control,

assume that they should stand by their interpretation of such principles and not give in, even a bit. No, the first thing is to make sure that the decision is a sound one. I would like a body that’s strong, strength that comes out of good health and training. If your strength comes out the frenzy of a madman and If you boast about that, then I would say, “Get yourself a therapist. This is not strength but quite the opposite.”

Here is another way in which people misinterpret the principles. A friend of mine decided to starve himself to death, for no reason. I came to know about this on the third day of his fast and went to see him and asked him.

“Why are you starving yourself to death?”
“Because I have made my decision.”
“True. If it is the right decision, we will stand by you and help you in your passage. But if it is irrational, you should change it.”
“We must stick with a decision.”
“That applies only to a sound decision, not to any decision. If you imagine that this is night (when it is day), would you believe then that it must be true and you should not change your mind?”

Decisions should stand on strong foundations

Start with a strong foundation at the beginning. Examine your decisions to see if they are correct. If it is, then and only then, do you have the basis for a firm resolve. If your foundation is rotten and crumbling, you cannot build even a small building on that. If you attempt to build a larger and heavier one, it would collapse even faster.

You are taking the life of my old friend, with whom I share this universe and this city, even though he has not done anything wrong. This is an act of murder and you say that you must stand by your decision. If the idea to kill me ever entered your mind, would you stand by that decision too?

Unexamined decisions are a sickness

It was hard work, persuading him to change his mind. But there are some people these days who cannot be persuaded at all. Now I understand the meaning of the proverb, (which I didn’t understand before) “A fool you can neither bend nor break.” I hope I never have a clever fool for a friend. “I have decided!” he says. So do crazy people. The more delusional they are, the more medication they need. Do what sick people do. Call a doctor and tell him, “Doctor, I am sick. Help me. I will accept whatever you prescribe.” You will do something similar in this case. “I don’t know what I should be doing. I have come to you to find out.” But instead you say, “My mind is made up about this. Talk about something else.” What “something else?” What is more important and more helpful to you than making you understand that it is not enough to arrive at a decision and refuse to change it? This is crazy, not healthy.

“I intend to die, even though I don’t have to.”
“Why, man? What’s the matter?”
“I have decided.”
“It’s lucky for me that you have not decided to kill me!”
Someone else says,
“I won’t take any money for my services.”
“Why man? What’s the matter?”
“I have decided.”
“I am positive that someday you would change your mind, start accepting money, and declare equally passionately, ‘I have decided!’ What’s there to stop it?”

Your sickness of mind is similar to that of sickness of a body, with sickness showing up in different parts of the body at different times. When you add strength of purpose to this sickness, it gets past help and healing.

Think about this

“But we must stick with a decision.”
“For heaven’s sake, man, that rule applies only for sound decisions.”
Discourses II.15.7, Epictetus [RD]