May 13, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Use Reason To Evaluate Impressions Correctly (Discourses In Plain English 1.20)

Key ideas of this discourse

We unthinkingly accept our first impressions as true. We are given the faculty of reason and yet we don’t use it. It is essential that we distinguish impressions correctly, because the choices we make are the source all good and evil.

Reason is the supreme faculty because it can examine all other faculties as well as itself.

We should not accept untested impressions. Yet, we accept first impressions as being true and are unconcerned about good and evil.

The essential teaching is simple: “Follow God and distinguish impressions correctly.” Yet, clearly distinguishing impressions requires long study and effort. But it is well worth it, because this is the greatest art of all.

Arts and faculties cannot examine themselves

Take the art of shoemaking. It concerns itself with leather, but leather is not shoe-making. Therefore, shoe-making does not examine itself. Again, grammar is applied to written words. But grammar itself is not written words. Therefore, grammar does not examine itself. It is so with every art and faculty. Every art focuses on some subject and can only examine things that are of the same nature as the faculty but not things of a different nature.

Nature has given us reason so we can examine all faculties.

“Why has nature give us the faculty of reason?”
“To make proper use of impressions.”
“What is reason itself?”
“It is a collection of various impressions. Nature made reason capable of examining itself.”
“To examine what? Why are we given this wisdom?”
“To examine what is good, what is bad, and what is neither. So, what is wisdom?”
“A good thing.”
“And foolishness?”
“A bad thing.”
“You see then that wisdom can examine itself and its opposite.”

Do not accept untested impressions

For that reason, our most important job is to test out impressions and accept only those that pass the test. We believe our interests are affected by money. So, we have developed the art of assaying if the coins are counterfeit: by sight, touch, smell, and hearing. The assayer drops a silver coin and listens closely to its ring. Not once but many times. By frequent attention to it, he has become quite a musician. Similarly, whenever we believe it makes a difference, whether we get something right or wrong, we must pay close attention and distinguish those things that might mislead us.

But when it comes to our poor ruling faculty, we yawn and go back to sleep, accepting every impression that comes our way. It does not occur to us that this will affect us in any way.

Do you want to know how unconcerned you are about what is good and bad and how eager you are about things that are indifferent? Compare your attitude towards physical blindness with blind judgements. You will see that you are far from having the feelings that you should have in relation to good and evil.

“But this requires long preparation, much effort, and study.”
“So what? Do you expect to master the greatest of arts with little study?”

Essentials are simple, understanding them is not

Yet, the most essential teachings of philosophers are succinct. Read (Stoic philosopher) Zeno’s works and you will see. How long does it take to say, “Follow God and the essence of good consists in the correct use of impressions”? Then if you ask, “What is God?”, “What is an impression?”, “What is the nature of the individual in the universe?” the discussion becomes lengthy.

If Epicurus should come along and say that goodness must reside in our flesh, the discussion grows longer still. You need to learn all about our principal part, our substantial nature, and our essential nature. It is unlikely the good of the snail lie in its shell. Why should it in the case of human beings? [So, we challenge Epicurus.]

“What do you yourself have that is superior to that, Epicurus? What is there within you that deliberates, examines everything, and decides that flesh is the principal part? Why do you light your lamp and labor for us, writing so many books? That we may not be ignorant of the truth? Who are we? What are we to you?”

So, the argument becomes long.

Think about this

The most important task of a philosopher, and his first task, is to test out impressions and distinguish between them, and not to accept any impression unless it has been duly tested. Discourses I.20.7. Epictetus/Robin Hard