June 7, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Ways To Deal With External Impressions (Discourses I.27)
KEY IDEAS OF THIS DISCOURSE
- External impressions can be deceptive. The duty of an educated person is to judge all impressions correctly.
- Choose the right resource for the right job. To combat a habit, choose a contrary habit.
- We cannot escape death, but we can escape the fear of it.
- There is no point in trying to convince the skeptics, if you have better things to do with your time.
Impressions come to us in four ways
There are four types of external impressions
- Things are and they appear to be.
- Things are not and do not appear to be.
- Thing are, but do not appear to be.
- Things are not, but appear to be.
An educated person should judge impressions correctly in all these cases.
Find the right remedy for the right problem
If we find it difficult to judge impressions, we need to use the right kind of resources to find a solution.
If the sceptics (who, like Academics and Pyrrhonists, argue that we can know nothing for certain) bother us with their sophisms, let us seek remedy for that.
If we are concerned about the plausibility of things – when things appear good when they are not – let us seek a corrective for that.
If we are troubled by our habits, let’s find a remedy for that. What aid can we find against habit? The contrary habit. Ignorant people commonly say, “He died. Poor man. His father died, his mother too. He died before his time, somewhere abroad.” Listen to all that but distance yourself from such statements.
Check each habit with a contrary habit. If sophistry, then the art of reasoning. Against false impressions, we should have clear preconceptions polished and ready for use.
Why death is no evil
When death appears an evil to you, remember that it is our duty to avoid evil. But we can’t avoid death, because it is a necessity. How can I get away from it? Where will I go? If you are a son of God you can say in a noble manner, “I will go on this journey to win glory for myself or give another the opportunity to gain it. If I cannot win glory, I will not grudge giving the opportunity to another.” Granted that such declarations are beyond us, can’t we at least accept the alternative (that death is no evil) that is within our power?
“Where can I go to escape death? Show me the country, give me the names of those who are safe from death and give me a magic charm against it. If I have none of these, what do you expect me to do?”
“I cannot escape death. Can’t I escape the fear of it? Or do I have to die moaning and groaning too?”
We are frustrated when our wishes are not fulfilled. So, if I can shape external conditions to suit my wishes, I will do so; if I cannot, I stand ready to tear out the eyes of anyone who stands in my way. If you are distressed, don’t spend your time trying to convince the skeptics.
People, by nature, can endure neither being deprived of the good nor meeting up with evil. So, when I can’t change things or tear out the eyes of anyone who stands in my way, I sit and groan, and blame God. What is he to me, if doesn’t look after me?
“You are being impious.”
“What punishment would make my situation any worse? Surely, if piety is incompatible with self-interest, no one will be pious. Aren’t you convinced?”
No time for sceptics
Let a skeptic come forward to oppose us. I have neither time for this nor can I advocate commonly-held beliefs. If I have a property dispute, I would call a lawyer to help me. What will help me here? Someone who is appropriate. If you ask me if the way I see something involves my entire body or only a part of it, I may not be able to answer, because both alternatives seem problematic to me. But I am positive that you and I are not the same person.
“How do you know that?”
“When I want to swallow something, I don’t carry it to your mouth but my own. If I want bread, I don’t pick up a broom, but go directly to the loaf as if it were a target. Do you skeptics, who deny the evidence of all senses, act any differently? Which of you went to a mill when you needed a bath?”
“Well, should we not then defend convention and watch out for any attacks on it?”
“Sure, if you have the time for it. But the broken-hearted person who is trembling and upset needs to spend her time differently, though.”
Think about this
What aid can be we find to combat habit? The contrary habit. Discourses I.27.***(***)