February 10, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Train Yourself in Three Areas of Study

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Not everything that is difficult is suitable for training. We should train hard on things that are important to us.
  2. Training should be tailored for each person, depending on where they are weak now.
  3. The three areas of training are: Desires and aversions; impulse to act or not to act; and evaluating impressions before giving assent.
  4. All useful training should be directed to these areas. Training directed towards externals is not our concern.
Not everything that is difficult is suitable for training

We should not train ourselves using unnatural or strange practices. Otherwise, those of us who call ourselves philosophers will be no better than showmen. It is difficult and dangerous to walk on a tightrope, too.  Should we then practice walking on a tightrope, setting up palms, or throwing our arms about statues? Of course, not. [Here, Epictetus seems to be mocking the Cynic’s practice attributed to Diogenes of hugging statues naked in cold weather. Setting up palms could refer to climbing up a pole with only hands and feet.] Not everything difficult or dangerous is suitable for training, but only that which helps us achieve what we set out to achieve.

“What have we set ourselves to achieve?”

“To have our desires and aversions free from hindrance.”

“What does that mean?”

“We should not fail to get what we desire or fall into what we would like to avoid. It is to this end our training should be directed. Without great and constant training, it is not possible to ensure that our desires will always be fulfilled, or we won’t ever fall into what we would like to avoid.”

You should know if you direct your training towards external things that lie outside your ability to choose, your desire will not be fulfilled, and you will not be able to avoid the things you would like to avoid.

Develop contrary habits to counter current habits

Habit is a powerful force. Because we have made it a habit of exercising our desires and aversions towards externals only, we must now oppose that habit with another, contrary, habit. Where impressions are most likely to mislead us, there we must apply our training to counter the risk.

First area of training: Dealing with desires and aversions

“I’m inclined to pleasure.”

“For the sake of training, move to the opposite direction more than you normally would.”

“I have an aversion to suffering.”

“Train yourself so your aversion to things of this nature is withdrawn.”

“So, who is this person under training?”

“One who practises not exercising all her desires, and practises directing her aversion only in relation to things over which she has choice, practising particularly hard when things are highly challenging. So different people will have to practise hardest regarding different things. What purpose can it serve here – to set up a palm, to carry around a leather tent, and mortar and pestle?” [Cynics lived austerely and carried only a small number of items. Here, once again, Epictetus seems to be mocking their lifestyle.]

“I’m irritable.”

“Train yourself to put up with abuse with patience. If you are insulted don’t get angry.”

Then you will progress so much that even if someone hits you, you can say to yourself, “Imagine that! You’re hugging a statue.”

Keep away from temptations when you begin training

Next, train yourself to use wine with discretion. Don’t train to drink more – there are some so foolish as to train even for that – but to be able to keep away: first of all from wine, then from a pretty girl, or a sweet cake. Then, sometime in the future, you will venture into lists to test if you are still carried away by impressions as much as you once did. But when you start, keep well away from things that are stronger than you. A contest between a pretty girl and a budding philosopher is an unequal one. As the saying goes, “pot and stone don’t belong together.”

Second area of training: Dealing with impulse to act or not to act

After your desire and your aversion, the next topic has to do with your choice or refusal – impulse to act or not to act. Here your aim is to make your impulse to act or not to act obedient to reason; not to exercise your choice at the wrong time or the in the wrong place, or wrongly in any other way.

Third area of training: Dealing with Assent

The third area of study is concerned with assent and with what is plausible and attractive. Just as Socrates used to say that we shouldn’t live an unexamined life, so we shouldn’t accept an unexamined impression but say, “Wait, let me see who you are and where you come from. Show me some identification. Do you have the identification from nature which every impression must carry, if it is to be accepted?”

Useful training should be directed inwards

All training applied to exercising the body may also be usefully applied to desires and aversions. But if they are directed towards showing off, it is a sign that you have turned to externals, hunting for some other victim and are seeking for an audience to applaud you, “What a great person!”

Thus, [the philosopher] Apollonius was right when he used to say, “If you want to train for your own sake, then, when you are thirsty in hot weather, take sip of cold water into your mouth and then spit it out. Don’t tell anyone about it.”

Think about this

Since habit is a powerful influence … we must set a contrary habit to set this habit … we must set our training as a counteracting force. Discourses III.12.6. Epictetus [WO]