Monday, March 25, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 2.18 - How we should struggle against impressions

The entire chapter deals with the discipline of assent, which should be managed by logic.

Our souls or unique minds or our true inner identity is sovereign.  But the body and senses will take over our purest freedom, if we are not careful.  Therefore, it is imperative we exercise the discipline of assent in all matters that are external to the soul; else we slip into a type of bondage.

I'll follow Epictetus' examples.

If you choose to be angry, it is because you've abdicated your responsibility to choose your attitude.  You've left the choice with your base instincts and with others who would trigger you.

The same goes for sex or other pleasures.  "For it cannot fail to come about that, as a result of the corresponding actions, some habits and capacities will be developed if they didn't previously exist, while others that were already present will be reinforced and strengthened" (v. 7, p. 114).

If you see something you want (greed) but counter the first impression with reason "to make us become aware of the evil, the desire will be suppressed and our ruling center will be restored to its original authority"  (v. 8, p. 115).  We can all become imbalanced and if we don't restore our harmony, and instead yield to passion, the next time we are 'tipped' we will fall more easily and quickly.  Then we lose control.  Our ruling center is at the center and we need to remain balanced in it.

He gives an excellent visual: vice (the opposite of virtue, with virtue in the center and vice to the extreme on the left and the right) is like a blister or scar.  The more you agitate it, the longer it will take to heal.  You must allow them to heal well if you would not have the wounds open again.

Another excellent piece of advice from Epictetus: "First of all, keep calm, and count the days in which you haven't lost your temper" (v. 12, p. 115, emphasis added).  I remember Jerry Seinfeld giving some advice about becoming successful.  He described a "don't break the chain" habit, wherein he hangs up a big year-view calendar on his wall.  And every day he created new material, he could put a big red "X" on that day.  Then his goal was simply not to break the chain of red "X's" (link here).  Whether building a habit of doing something or a habit of not doing something, the idea is useful.

On a related note, Seneca advises a daily review at the end of the day; whereby you become the judge and the judged (see On Anger Book 3, 36).  This is a good habit to develop.

Epictetus gives other related advice on developing habits

  • "withdraw to the company of wise and virtuous men, and examine their life" (v. 21, p. 116)
  • "don't allow yourself to be dazed by the rapidity of the impact [of an impression], but say, 'Wait a while for me ... let me see what you are, and what you're an impression of; let me test you out" (v. 24, p. 116)
The challenge of challenging impressions is perhaps the greatest "sport" - that of training yourself to confront the most seductive of impressions (see v. 27, p. 116).  Great is the struggle and divine the enterprise, to win a kingdom, to win freedom, to win happiness, to win peace of mind (v. 28, p. 116)  But it is a worthy fight and challenge.

One word of caution: if you procrastinate this training, "in due course, you won't even be aware that you're acting wrongly, but will begin to put forward arguments to justify your behavior; at which point, you'll be confirming the truth of Hesiod's saying that 'One who delays his work is always wrestling with ruin.' (v. 31, p. 117)

No comments:

Post a Comment