Friday, August 23, 2013

The Enchiridion: A Commentary (Part 2)

It's been awhile since I did this and, lacking any other ideas at the moment, I think it's a good time to examine more of Epictetus's work.

Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.

This is pretty much the reasoning behind all Stoic thought on why we should work to rid of ourselves of passions. Both desire and aversion are forms of passions – at least in degrees – that can lead us down some pretty terrible roads. Sure, sometimes we get what we want and avoid what we don't want, but more often not, we're in a state of not getting what we want and usually stuck having everything we don't want. It's not a very happy state and, frankly, it makes a lot of people whiny (more maybe I'm just whiny about it myself).

If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse.

In short, if you only try to avoid things can actually choose to avoid – such as if you get upset at being cutoff in traffic or if someone says something stupid and really want to say something but know better – you'll avoid trouble.

But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control.

Don't want to get sick? Too bad, it's gonna happen. Running away from death? Fat chance. Really, trying to avoid things not in your power is like trying to control the way the world works. Of course, this isn't to say you shouldn't at trying not to get sick – it isn't a license to not wash your hands and eat Big Macs all day – only that it's silly for us to think we can avoid it by our actions alone.

But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

I'll be frank: I'm a little confused by what he says here. The first part I get. By desiring things outside my control, I'm going to be disappointed. (And, as a further thought, this only makes sense to begin with, as I wouldn't desire stuff I already have, so by having desire it mean by default I feel like I'm lacking something and therefore I'm disappointed). It's the second half I'm a little confused about.

The way I see it, he's saying this: “...and of those which are [in your control], and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession.” So, if I am seeing this right, what's he's saying is that, even if the desire for things I have in my control are commendable, but just desiring it I'm still disappointed and probably working against myself. And that does sort of make the last bit make even more sense. After all, if I too strongly feel desire and avoidance for things in my control, I'm still creating problems for myself: should I feel something I was trying to avoid, I'll be upset with myself; and should I not feel something I really would like to, I once again am disappointed.

That's why Epictetus says we need to use these two passions appropriately and, even then, we shouldn't be too harsh in their usage. Don't strongly desire things in your control and don't be too fearful of things you can actually avoid.

IN OTHER NEWS: In order to keep my butt on track with this, I'm doing a post every Friday at 6:00 AM PDT (okay, well, actually, I'm scheduling posts to go up, but the point is, there will be at least one post every Friday). Also, I lost my little blogroll and I think I lost a few pages. I've added back, but I might have missed a few. So, if you have any suggestions on blogs that are Stoic, just give me the heads up and I'll add it to my list.

No comments:

On Personal Thoughts About Personal Epistemology

There are, to my mind, only two ways of understanding the world: the senses and our reasoning. About our senses, we know of our basic o...