Monday, December 26, 2005

Avoiding error

There are three areas of study, Epictetus tells us at the beginning of Discourses II.2, in which the man who is going to become fully virtuous ( kalon kai agathon ) must be trained. First he must be trained in the area that concerns desire and aversion, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he wishes to avoid. Second in the area that concerns impulse to act and refrain from acting, so that he may act in an orderly fashion and after due consideration and not recklessly. Third in that area which concerns the avoidance of error and rashness in judgment, so that he may not give or withhold his assent wrongly.

We have been looking recently at the training Epictetus prescribes for desires. “On Training” ( III. 12 ) is an essay in the discipline of training desire. Some time ago I complained of the lack of a comparable essay in the discipline of avoiding errors in judgment. I had been hoping someone would challenge me with the essay that opens Discourses III, 8. I suppose I will have to spring my own trap.

In the same way as we train ourselves to deal with sophistries, we should train ourselves daily to deal with our experiences, for these too put questions to us.

So-and-so’s son is dead.
You should reply, "it is not a matter of choice, nor an evil [ aproaireton, ou kakon ]”.

So-and-so has been disinherited by his father.
What do you think of that?
"It is not a matter of choice, nor an evil."

Caesar has condemned him.
"Not a matter of choice nor an evil."

He has become very distressed by all this.
"A matter of choice and an evil".

He has borne it nobly.
"A matter of choice and a good thing".

If we make a habit of this sort of thing, we shall make real progress and never give our assent to anything except a compelling experience [ phantasia kataleptike ].

His son is dead.
What has happened?
"His son is dead."
Nothing else?

His ship is lost.
What has happened?
"His ship is lost."

He has been taken to prison.
What has happened?
"He has been taken to prison."

But what about the judgment that something evil has happened to him?
"That would be something you have added." [ III. 8. 1-5, slightly modified]

This remarkable little Stoic recitation could be the subject of a book by itself. We shall have to content ourselves with a few remarks now and later.

Before we venture into the underlying Stoic psychology of perception and judgment, let’s make sure we are clear on what Epictetus is training us to do. There is controversy and uncertainty on even this issue.

In my view Arrian’s notes have unhelpfully mixed two exercises at this point and reversed their natural order. The first exercise, presented second ( following the allusion to kataleptic perceptions ), is about remembering that whatever we experience is itself devoid of evaluation. “This is terrible” or “this a great evil” are beliefs that added by us, and we have control over them. Even if such a thought pops into my head spontaneously when I hear that someone has been dragged off to jail, I can refuse to assent to it and reject it.

He has been taken to prison.
“Yes, and hasn’t that something terrible and a great injustice? How can such things happen in a supposedly just world?”
All that I see that has happened is that he has been taken to prison.

That's the drill here. I can refuse to be carried away by such judgments as these, because judgment is always up to me. It is up to me to consider the proper way to evaluate what I'm experiencing.

The proper way to evaluate what I experience is the topic of the first exercise. It demonstrates that there is only one primary discrimination—whether the thing lies in the sphere of choice or elsewhere. If elsewhere, then it is neither good nor evil. If a matter of choice, then good or evil depending on whether it exemplifies virtue. If he allows himself to be distressed at the loss of an inheritance, then he has inflicted an evil upon himself, while if he accepts it calmly, he shows nobility of character.

So all judgments to which we should assent must begin with an answer to the question “in the sphere of choice or not?” and proceed from that primary discrimination.

Those are the two exercises I think Epictetus is demonstrating here. Exercises that will help us avoid errors in the evaluations we make of what we experience.


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