Sunday, December 11, 2005

Choice and Selection

One of the things I am puzzling over is the degree to which Epictetus preserves the Old Stoa’s distinction between choice and selection. The distinction is not a conspicuous theme of the Discourses, and without it we have some difficulties understanding Epictetus’ attitude toward “choosing” and pursuing important externals like health & family. Choice, according to the Old Stoa, always aims at something which is truly good, while selection tries to find an appropriately preferred external. We would never “choose” to pursue a healthful diet and fitness regimen, for example, but we should probably select them over the alternatives.

Cicero at De Finibus 3.22 gives us an example to illustrate the distinction. Imagine an archer competing in a contest with a great reward for the winner. If our archer is a Stoic, his agenda is a little complicated. He aims of course to hit the bullseye and win the prize, but that favorable external result is something he strictly only selects with a conditional desire or impulse. Successfully hitting the bullseye is not something “in his power.” In Epictetus’ sense, it is not a result he can guarantee however skillfully he shoots. The proverbial gust of wind or wayward bird or latent defect in the arrow can ruin his shot. So his wish to hit the target & win can and sometimes will be frustrated. But since it a was only a conditional desire to hit & win, provided that God or fate has arranged the uncontrollable variables in his favor, he will not be disturbed if his shot goes astray due to one of them. The prize, at all, was only a preferred external.

As I said, his agenda is a little complicated because, besides wishing to hit the bullseye, he also has another and much more important objective. That objective specifies the good which he genuinely chooses. What it is? Well, to make the perfect shot by considering all the variables he can control and judging what he must do and planning & executing his shot without error. This goal is something completely in his power and so can never be frustrated or hindered by winds or birds or such. He need never be disappointed & unfortunate in this unconditional desire for the good of planning his shot perfectly.

That is Cicero’s account of the distinction. As I said, to my knowledge there is nothing comparable in the Discourses. Nor do I recall any talk about conditional or “reserved” desires for preferred externals. It is easy to draw the conclusion that for Epictetus any desire for & pursuit of externals is a mistake and bound to lead to disturbance. But then how are we going to undertake the natural roles he so often commends? A family is not something that arrives COD at my door one day, and I accept or reject it.

Let me stop and hear what others have to say on this problem. I would like to close this piece with one remark on the Stoic decision maker. There is an obvious problem with saying that the only good in choosing is a making good choice. We do not make choices for the sake of making choices. If there was nothing we wished to obtain or avoid, we would not be at pains to plan and deliberate and choose carefully. The decision is for the sake of obtaining that end ( viewed as a good ) and depends upon it. The decision is always a practical thing in Aristotle’s sense and never an artful thing treasured for its own sake. A good choice is certainly a good ( and euboulia a virtue ), but it is a good aimed at realizing the good for which I am making the choice. ( Imagine someone who gets up this Sunday morning and says, " Gee, I feel like making a good hard decision today. I think I'll deliberate and decide whether to propose marriage to my girl friend or join the Foreign Legion. I don't particularly want to do either but what a decision!" )

3 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>We do not make choices for the sake of making choices.<<<

This is one thing that distinguishes you from a Stoic. The Stoic does indeed make choices for the sake of making (good) choices.

>>>The decision is for the sake of obtaining that end ( viewed as a good ) and depends upon it.<<<

That is, of course, the usual non-Stoic view. You cannot point this out and then claim that you have undermined Stoicism!

The Stoic aims to make a good choice. The choice they make will result in the aim to manipulate external things in a certain way (cut a neighbour’s lawn, watch their daughter in her school play, or what have you) — and these things are selected on the basis or what is appropriate and most in accordance with nature, what best meets the needs of current duties, and what best fills the requirements of virtue.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry,

Please tell me about making choices for the sake of making choices. What experience do you have to relate?
I taught decision making for many years and preached the gospel of treasuring your decisions for their own sake and never met one true Boulophil. It was a gospel that attracted no disciples. Decision and deliberations in my experience are tools for the sake of achieving some end, almost always an external regarded as an important good. The end is regarded as superior to the instrument.
You say "the Stoic does indeed make choices for the sake of making choices." Well, tell me about someone who actually takes decisions in this fashion and I shall pack my bags and come and study him.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>Please tell me about making choices for the sake of making choices. What experience do you have to relate?<<<

Well, I have my own exerience. I have these past few years tried to maintain and strengthen what I refer to as a sort of mindfulness in which I am aware of myself as an agent with the characteristics and qualities that the Stoics outline. I try to use impressions properly, on the model of Epictetus' teaching. As I set about my daily activities I am aware of the ends that I prefer, that I am trying to bring about, and I am aware that what I desire is to maintain the right disposition.

>>>I taught decision making for many years and preached the gospel of treasuring your decisions for their own sake and never met one true Boulophil.<<<

Then you have never met a true Stoic. Is that surprising? And why do you base a philosophical argument on it?

>>>Decision and deliberations in my experience are tools for the sake of achieving some end, almost always an external regarded as an important good.<<<

Indeed. This is how most non-Stoics regard matters...

>>>The end is regarded as superior to the instrument.<<<

I don't know what you mean by this.

>>>You say "the Stoic does indeed make choices for the sake of making choices." Well, tell me about someone who actually takes decisions in this fashion and I shall pack my bags and come and study him.<<<

Well, I think I do. At least I am trying to, and I undertstand my progress as a Stoic to be measured by the degree to which I can hold to this outlook and practice. What matters to me is setting about my tasks with the right disposition; that is what I value. How things actually turn out are irrelevant to that.

So I set about trying to secure my preferences with reservation, because this is what it is to be rational, and to follow nature.

6:04 PM  

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