Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.23 - On the faculty of expression

Humans have faculties - abilities to see, hear, taste, touch and to think.  In this chapter, Epictetus makes the point that there is one faculty that is better than all the rest; and this one faculty makes use of the other faculties.  The faculty of choice rules all others.  Indeed, we must be grateful to God for the "gifts bestowed" on us, but the one faculty we must pay most attention to is that of choice.

Examples comparing some faculties and the faculty of choice: "And what else does the eye do, when open, than see?  But as to whether it ought to look at somebody's wife, and in what manner, what tells us that?  The faculty of choice.  As to whether one should place any belief in what one is told, or not believe it, and if one does believe it, whether one should be upset by it or not, what tells us that?  Isn't it the faculty of choice?" (v. 12-13, p. 133).

"What is it that makes use of everything else?  Choice.  What is it that takes charge of everything else?  Choice.  What is that that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff?  Choice.  Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?  And how is it possible that what is subject to hindrance should be more powerful than something that is not subject to hindrance? ... But what is capable by its nature of hindering the faculty of choice?  Nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice, but only choice itself when it has become perverted.  That is why it alone becomes vice and it alone becomes virtue." (v. 17-19, p. 133-134)

Lastly, he gives an analogy of the various faculties, by comparing our use of faculties to a traveler who is trying to get home.  "People behave life a traveler who, when returning to his homeland, passes through a place where there is a very fine inn, and because he finds it pleasant, remains there.  Man, you've forgotten your purpose, you weren't travelling to this place, but passing through it." (v. 36-37, p. 135).  Similarly, we use our faculties of vision, hearing, touching, feeling only as a pit-stop or a means of using our ultimate faculty - that of choice.

"Your purpose [is] to render yourself capable of using the impressions that present themselves to you in conformity with nature, and not to fail to attain what you desire, and not to fall into what you want to avoid, and never to suffer failure or misfortune, but to be free and immune to hindrance or constraint, as one who conforms to the governing order of Zeus, obeying it and finding satisfaction in it, and never finding fault with anyone, and never accusing anyone, being able to recite these verses with your whole heart, 'Guide me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny'" (v. 42, p. 136).  This last part reminds me of what Chris Fisher often quotes in his blog posts and podcasts "Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)"

We get to choose our attitude and reaction to events.  Will we always love our fate and in so doing, will never be frustrated or fearful or sad?  Will we always get what we want because we want things to happen exactly as they do?  Or will we let sights, sounds, smells, and events determine our attitude?  Do you choose freedom or slavery?

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