December 16, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Three Aspects of Stoic Training
Key ideas of this discourse
Stoic practices fall into three areas: desire, action, and assent.
Of these the most important and urgent is to deal with our desire. We should always be able to get what we want and always be able to avoid what we don’t want.
We cannot deal with wrong judgments (assent) if we are not in control of our desires (desire) and actions (action).
Three fields of study
If you want to be noble and good, you need to train yourself in three areas:
Dealing with desires and aversions: To always get what you desire and never get what you want to avoid. [The discipline of desire]
Dealing with choices to act or not to act: To always act appropriately. Not to act carelessly but in an orderly fashion after due consideration. [The discipline of action]
Dealing with judgment: To avoid error and hasty judgment. [The discipline of assent]
Why they are important
Of these three, the most important and urgent is the first one – dealing with our passions. Passions arise only when we are frustrated in our desires or faced with what we don’t want. It is this that introduces confusion, turmoil, misfortunes, and calamities; it causes sorrows, grief, and envy; and it makes us envious and jealous. These passions make us incapable of listening to reason.
The second discipline (action) is concerned with acting the right way. I should not be unfeeling like a statue but should take care of my natural and acquired relationships – as a human being who honours gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.
The third (assent) belongs to those already making progress. It is concerned with achieving certainty in the matters already covered, even while we are asleep, drunk, or depressed. No untested impression can catch us off-guard. Some argue that this is beyond us. But that’s because philosophers these days neglect the first two areas and concentrate on the third, concentrating upon equivocal arguments, and arguments developed through questioning and those that are fallacious, like “The Liar.”
“True, but it is because we need to protect ourselves against being deceived when dealing with these matters.”
“Who needs to? Only the person who is already excellent and good.”
Is it only in this regard you fall short? Have you mastered other subjects? Aren’t you liable to be deceived when handling money? When you see a pretty girl, can you resist the impression? Don’t you feel a tinge of envy when your neighbour receives an inheritance? Is proper judgment the only thing you lack? Poor man, even while you are studying all this, you are fearful and anxious at the thought that someone may despise you and ask whether anyone has said anything about you.
We don’t value our choices and look for outside approval
If someone should come and tell you that, “When discussing philosophers, someone said that you were the one true philosopher,” your little soul grows from an inch to a yard. But if someone else who was there should say, “Nonsense. He is not worth listening to. It is a waste of time. What does he know? He has the basics, nothing more,” you are distraught. You turn pale and cry out, “I’ll show him what sort of a man I am. I am a great philosopher!” But this very behaviour shows what you are. Why do you pretend it to be something else? Don’t you know that [the Cynic philosopher] Diogenes showed up a sophist that way, by pointing at him with his middle finger [a rude gesture]? When the man became furious with rage, Diogenes said, “That is the man. I have pointed out him to you.” A human being is not like a stone or a stick, to be shown by pointing one’s finger. But when a person shows what his judgments are, then he has shown what he is as a human being.
Let us look at your judgments too. Is it not clear that you place no value on your own choices but look beyond them – what someone else will say, what someone else will think of you, whether they will think that you are a scholar, whether you have read [the Stoic philosophers] Chrysippus and Antipater? Well, if you have read [the Stoic philosopher] Archedemus too, you have everything! Why are you still worried that you may fail in showing us who you are? Will you let me tell you what you have shown yourself to be? A person who comes before us mean, hypocritical, quick-tempered, and cowardly; finding fault with everything, blaming everybody, never at peace, and arrogant – this is what you have shown us.
Go away now and read Archedemus; then, if a mouse falls and makes a noise, you will die of fright! Like it happened to – what was his name? – oh yes, Crinis, who also prided himself on understanding Archedemus. [Crinis was a not-so-prominent Stoic philosopher who was supposed to have died by a stroke caused by fright at a mouse falling from a wall.]
Discipline of assent belongs only to those who are already at peace
Idiot, why don’t you leave things that don’t concern you alone? They are suitable only for those who can learn from them with an undisturbed mind and truly say, “I don’t give in to anger, sorrow or envy. I am free of restraint and compulsion. What do I lack? I am at leisure, I have peace of mind. Let’s now deal with equivocal arguments. Let’s see how one may adopt a hypothesis and yet may never come to an absurd conclusion.” These things belong to people of that type. Those who are safe may light a fire, dine and, if they please, even sing and dance. But you are coming to me when your ship is already sinking. You are now starting to hoist topsails!
Think about this
[Passions] are produced in no other way than by the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of aversions. Discourses III.2.2 Epictetus [CG/RH]