Monday, 8 July 2013

Baby Steps

But, for the time being, remove your desire completely; for if you desire any of the things that are not under your control, you will surely be unfortunate. Moreover, none of the things that are under your control, which would be good for you to desire, are presently within your grasp. Employ, for now, only choice and refusal, and do so lightly and with reservations, without too much straining.  

                                                          Handbook 2

     One learns to crawl before walking, to mumble before talking. We do not come to any destination without first travelling toward it, or achieve immediately any difficult goal without working diligently for it. 
     In a recent post, we read how Epictetus taught that "the promise of desire is the attainment of what you strive for." That is, if we only desire that which is within our control (namely our own Virtue) and only desire that things happen exactly as they happen, then we will, as it were, always get what we want. And the person, Epictetus says, who does not get what he wants is unfortunate. This is a true teaching, and, in fact, absolutely central to Stoic ethics. When we arrive at the point where our desires are entirely correct desires and we therefore achieve always those desires, we can then be called wise, good, and, as a result, truly happy. 
     But this is the end of stoic ethics, the final destination of all stoic learning, cultivation and training. It is, simply put, too much for the beginner to be expected to have complete control over his own desires, to be able to instantly choose what he wants and does not want. The beginner has neither learned enough to know what he should desire, nor has been through enough exercise and training to have the discipline always to desire the right things even if he knows what they are. Desire, for the novice, can be a dangerous thing. Epictetus, then, urges the novice to remove desire completely, until such time as he can master it.          
     It is enough for the beginner to practice the consent or refusal of external impressions. It rained during my picnic. I can consent that it indeed rained, but refuse to think that rain is a bad thing. This is exercise enough for the novice, and the circumstances of daily life alone will certainly provide him with ample opportunities for a thorough daily workout. And even at that, like the new bodybuilder, the novice must be careful not to strain himself too much.   
     The ancient Stoics taught that the wise man, the good man, is equal to the gods, dissimilar to them only in his mortality. Yet they also admitted that this good man is an extremely rare creature. Becoming this good man is our ultimate goal and it the reason the Stoic works so hard; but, while all can, few will achieve this goal. We can be assured, though, that we are making progress whenever we become simply better men.