Monday, 17 June 2013

First Impressions

And so, make it your exercise to say to every harsh-looking external impression: "You are merely an appearance, and are not at all what you seem to be."  After that, go on to examine that external impression and judge it according to these standards that you have, the first and most important of which is this:  Whether the impression is among the things under our control or among the things not under our control.  And if it is among the things not under our control, have ready at hand this conclusion: "It is nothing to me."

                                           - Encheiridion 1

     External impressions can be deceiving.  What appears harsh or unfavourable is usually just that - an appearance.  And it is, unfortunately, a false appearance that we have created for ourselves through faulty reasoning.
     A classic example of this phenomenon is the analogy of a sudden wave that is about to overtake a ship at sea.  The first and most basic impression of this event is at once the most simple and the most true: "There is a wave about to envelope me and I will probably drown."  It is the passenger, though, who adds this conclusion: "And this is a bad thing."  If this passenger had stuck to his first impression of the wave, he might have faced his last moments bravely, as a man, without any fear and panic, neither lamenting nor impiously cursing against the Universe.
     This passenger cannot be faulted for his initial wave of fear, which is more of a bodily reaction, like a sneeze or the blush of modesty.  Man does, after-all, have a natural inclination towards self-preservation.  But the passenger is entirely at fault when, through his own poor reasoning, this bodily reaction develops into the actual Vice of Fear.  He has forgotten his standards, and has thus failed to judge the situation properly, causing his own grief.  Surely, in such an extreme example as this one, an individual should readily be able to recognize that a wave at sea is a thing very much out of his control!
     No ancient Stoic would claim that it is easy to arrive at such a state, where our actions and very thoughts are harmonious with the loftiness of our philosophy, to the point where we can scorn death, even when it is about to take us with little warning, like this passenger at sea. The ugliness of Vice, and that particularly hideous Vice called Fear, once it has gained a foothold, will constantly derail the train of our reasoning faculty [and thus, the ancient Stoics taught, in opposition to many other schools of virtue ethics at the time, that the Vices must be rooted out entirely, not simply moderated]. This is why Epictetus urged his students to make it their exercise to meet external impressions with proper reasoning. It is only through exercise and practice that we can realistically expect it to become our habit to measure all external circumstances with our stoic standards.  Then, instead of this bodily reaction of fear developing into the Vice of Fear, the habit of bravely will develop into an actual Virtue, and we will look straight on at the wave and say: "It is nothing to me."