August 30, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Choose Habits To Fight Impressions
Key ideas of this discourse
When you repeat a behavior, it leads to a habit. When you don’t repeat a behavior, it does not lead to a habit.
We sustain habits by feeding behaviors associated with them. When we keep feeding anger, for example, we become ill-tempered.
We can avoid being carried away by negative passions by not doing the behaviors associated with them.
Our behaviors are the result of impressions. Don’t be carried away by emotions. When an impression creates a negative emotion, take a few minutes to examine its true nature.
Avoid behaviors that feed a negative habit from the beginning. If you keep postponing, you will reach a stage where you will become too weak to fight them and you will start making excuses.
When we feed habits, they become strong
Every habit is formed, and every capacity strengthened, by our doing things associated with it. Walking makes you walk better, running makes you run better. Want to be a reader? Read. Want to be a writer? Write. Go for a month without reading, you will see the effect. Lie down for ten days and then try to get up and walk, you’ll see how weak your legs have become. So, if you want to do something, make it a habit. If you don’t want to do something, do something else in its place.
Each time you are angry you feed the anger habit
This is true of things of the mind as well. When you are angry, it is not an isolated bad thing. You have encouraged a habit, adding fuel to the fire. When you yield to lust, don’t think of it as a temporary setback. You have fed and strengthened your weakness. You can expect habits to get stronger by actions associated with them. This is how current habits become stronger and newer habits are formed.
Feeding undesirable habits leads to mental weakness
Here is how you become mentally weak, according to philosophers. When you become greedy, if you use reason to alert you to the danger, your passion will subside and your mind will be returned to its former balance. But if you don’t do anything, the mind will not return to its balanced state, but will be excited by another impression, yielding to passion even more quickly. If you keep yielding to passion, the mind will become insensitive to greed. Eventually, greed will become entrenched.
If you had fever and recovered, you are not in the same state as before, unless you are fully cured. This is true of the unhealthy passions of the mind as well. They leave certain scars and traces behind. Unless you make sure that you are totally cured, the spots that are not fully cured become vulnerable if you have a relapse.
If you don’t want a bad habit, don’t feed it
So, if you don’t want to be bad-tempered, don’t feed the habit. Don’t do anything that will strengthen the anger habit. Calm down. Don’t be angry today. Or the following day. Count the number of days you can go without getting angry. “I used to be angry every day. Then every other day. Then every third,” and so on. If you manage to spend thirty days without getting angry, give thanks to God. Your habit was weakened at first and then destroyed. If you continue like this for three or four months without your passion causing you distress as it did before, believe me, you are in excellent health.
Today if I see an attractive person, I do not say to yourself, “It would be nice to sleep with this person! How lucky is this person’s spouse!” Saying things like that is like saying that an adulterer would be lucky too. I don’t start picturing the person taking their clothes off and joining me in bed. Then I congratulate myself and say “Well done, Epictetus. You solved a very difficult problem, one that’s even more difficult than the ‘Master’ argument.” (explained in Discourses II.19.) If the other person is willing, she calls to me, leads me by the arm and snuggles up to me. That would be a hard test. That test would be even harder than The Liar Paradox and The Quiescent.
[The Liar Paradox: If a person says, “I am lying,” does she lie or tell the truth? If she lies, then she’s telling the truth. If she’s telling the truth, then she’s lying. Chrysippus is supposed to have written six books on this subject. The Quiescent: When do grains make a heap? Two grains? Three? Four? … A wise person would stop answering such a question.]
How do we resolve it, then? Begin by wanting to please yourself and appear worthy in the presence of God. Desire to become pure in your own eyes and those of God. Then, if you face a dangerous impression, follow Plato’s advice. Go to places of worship and atone with sacrifice, so bad things can be avoided. It is enough even if you seek the company of people of good character. Model your behaviour after such people, whether they are alive or dead. Consider Socrates. He lay next to [the Athenian aristocrat] Alcibiades and teased him about his beauty. Think how proud he must have felt to have won a victory over himself. For sure, an Olympic sized victory, worthy of [the founder of Olympic games] Heracles. We can justly greet that man, rather than boxers, gladiators, and other athletes, “Greetings, hero!”
Don’t accept impressions without testing them
If you think of such thoughts when faced with any impression, you will master it and not be swept away by it. Don’t get carried away by an impression, no matter how intense it. Instead, say, “Hey impression, wait for me a while. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me test you before accepting you.”
Do not let the impression pull you into imagining pleasant consequences of following it. Otherwise it will lead you to any place it wants. Think of a better and more honourable thought to replace the mean and unwholesome impression. Make it a habit. You will see what shoulders, what muscles, and what vigour you develop. As it is, all people do is have academic quibbles. Nothing more. A true trainee is one who trains himself to test any impression that comes his way. Steady yourself, poor thing, don’t get carried away by impressions. It is a great battle and it is divine. It is a battle to win your kingdom, freedom, happiness, and serenity. Remember God and ask for his help and protection like sailors do in a storm.
Impressions can drive out reason
Is there any storm that is more powerful than impressions that drive out reason? What is a storm itself, except another impression? If you take away the fear of death, all you face is lightning and thunder while the mind remains calm and peaceful. But if you don’t do it this time, and say to yourself that you will do it the next time, and then do the same thing the time after that, you can be sure that this what you will face in the end: You will become so sad and weak that you won’t even know where you have gone wrong. You will start making excuses for your behavior confirming (the poet) Hesiod’s verse
“Make a bad beginning and you’ll contend with troubles ever after.”
Think about this
Every habit and faculty is confirmed and strengthened by the corresponding actions, that of walking by walking, that of running by running. Discourses II.18.1. Epictetus [WO]
Make a bad beginning and you’ll contend with troubles ever after. Discourses II.18.32. Epictetus [RD]