Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Conditional Desires and Impulses

It appears to be the case that for Epictetus our ruling part (reason) can do more than simply reject or approve (assent) to our desires & impulses. On occasion, it can apparently also assent, but only with reservations, i.e., conditionally. What is the practical effect on a desire or impulse of being approved by and guided by a conditional assent? Is it supposed to be less intense and perhaps easier to withdraw in the event that it fails to achieve its purpose? Suppose I have elected (“selected”) to pursue some appropriate external in accordance with an impulse to do so, but find that it escapes me. If my assent was only conditional ( “pursue it provided that…” ), am I supposed to be undisturbed at my failure? Is this what the Stoics are trying to set up here: a way to fail with valued externals yet remain untroubled?

The texts are not very forthcoming. Unfortunately, the only explicit reference I can recall to approving our impulses with reservations ( meth’ hypexaireseos ) comes at the end of Arrian’s Encheiridion 2:

For the present then totally suppress desire….Use only impulse and aversion, and even these lightly, with reservation and without straining.

A problem that we immediately face with this text is the distinction between desire and impulse. Desire is a kind of impulse that apparently can be completely rejected, leaving only impulses toward what? Simpler, safer, more basic things such as food and shelter? I can only conjecture.

If we lack explicit references to “reserved impulses” in Epictetus/Arrian, perhaps we have at least several examples of how they are supposed to work. I’m thinking , for example, of Encheiridion 16. The topic there is how we should react to someone who has suffered the death of a parent or a child and is grieving. Reflexively (“impulsively”) we want to express sympathy. And that’s OK, says Epictetus, so long as we remember that the loss was not really an evil. “As far as words" , express sympathy, but do not let these words or the other’s behaviour persuade you that something evil has befallen him. So, we elect to response with sympathy--albeit a kind of feigned, half-hearted sympathy- on the basis of assenting to what judgment? "I may sympathize with this misguided person who believes something bad has happened beacuse...'' You see at once the problems we encounter here.

[ to be continued]


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