Friday, December 23, 2005

No wine, pretty girls, or sweet cakes?

Training for Epictetus is not about building stronger muscles and quicker reflexes, but about disciplining our desires. Unfortunately, “disciplining” our desires for the Stoics seems to reduce to trying to extirpate them, or at least all of them that reference the external world. The inadvisability and indeed the impossibility of doing so is a theme we are exploring here. “On Training” ( Discouses III. 12) has some particular recommendations I’d like to look at today.

Next, train yourself to make a decent use of wine, not in order to drink more, for some are so foolish as to train themselves even for this, but to be able abstain, first, from wine, and then from pretty girls and sweet cakes. After a while you may venture into the arena at the proper time, as a sort of test, to see whether what you experience gets the better of you as much as it did before. But for now, remove yourself a safe distance from whatever is stronger than you. A contest between a beautiful girl and a young man just taking up philosophy is an unequal one. As they say, pot and stone do not belong together. [ 11-12 ]

The training programme here recommends complete abstinence, apparently with the hope that abstinence will somehow suppress our desires for these sorts of things. And the principal therapy seems to be removing oneself from the things that tempt you. A somewhat difficult therapy to follow in modern urban life.

It would be fun to discuss to discuss more effective strategies for combating our attraction to pretty girls & sweet cakes, but why should we--and the Stoics--put ourselves to the trouble of trying to suppress these sorts of desires? Forget for the moment the question of whether an unwilling abstinence will be at all effective. Why do we want to suppress ( versus moderate or educate) our desires for these sorts of externals? ( Neither I nor Epictetus is considering the special case where some has already developed a serious dyscontrol problem with reference to these substances or activities.)

The main Stoic position is that we must learn to make wise choices or selections in the realm of externals. Wise choices are choices that make proper use of externals with a view to sustaining the natural or normal life of a human being. Things that sustain our life are “preferred”. Health is preferred, family is preferred, a useful livelihood and civic involvement are preferred. These preferreds are plainly things we must pursue at the cost of considerable energy and expense, but somehow not desire at all, or desire only with “reservation.”

I have in a previous post commented on the psychological impossibility of pursuing big goals like family and career without a strong desire for them. I don’t want to cover that ground again. Instead, I want to ask why we are supposed to train ourselves to ABSTAIN from externals like wine and pretty girls and sweet cakes. Abstain rather than make proper use of.

Is wine in modest amounts not good for me? It is. Then why should I not enjoy it instead of abstaining from it?
Is having a family not something good for me? It is. Then I had better be attracted to pretty girls or that is never going to happen.
Are sweet cakes not good me? Well, that’s another issue.

The proper use of externals that have value is not abstaining from them but employing them in the proper measure. Enforced abstinence is a recipe for creating dyscontrol problems, not preventing them. Our normal desires need to be schooled and perhaps moderated, not suppressed. We should not train with Epictetus.


Blogger Henry Jones said...

I think it is reasonably straight forward to glean how the Stoic training programme is supposed to work. For a start, the programme does not aim at producing complete abstinence, but the capacity to sustain abstinence in periods of hardship. There is no merit in enduring abstinence for its own sake. But if your happiness depends upon having wine, say, and is ruined when you cannot get wine, then clearly training yourself to cope with abstinence will see you in a better state than that in which you undertake no training and suffer misery when no wine is to be had.

The choice is yours. Carry on with the ever-present threat of having to undergo privations attended by loss of happiness, or become a Stoic and train yourself to be immune to all and any privations attended by absolutely no loss of happiness.

>>>...with the hope that abstinence will somehow suppress our desires...<<<

Oh dear. This old chestnut again. Nowhere does Stoicism recommend the suppression of desires. What the Stoic does is to judge matters of value differently (specifically that virtue is the only good, vice the only evil), and having mastered this new way of judging, the advanced Stoic student will simply stop having desires for external things. They will not firstly have desires which secondly they will set out to suppress.

>>>And the principal therapy seems to be removing oneself from the things that tempt you. A somewhat difficult therapy to follow in modern urban life.<<<

Speak for yourself. I have had no difficulty with this whatever. And after all this time I find myself wondering what it is that does tempt me, and for the life of me I can think of absolutely nothing.

>>>Enforced abstinence is a recipe for creating dyscontrol problems, not preventing them. Our normal desires need to be schooled and perhaps moderated, not suppressed. We should not train with Epictetus.<<<

As usual, you have set up a straw man, cast it down, and congratulated yourself on such a fine victory. Epictetus does not talk of enforcing abstinence for its own sake, nor about suppressing desire. He does not need to talk about ‘schooling’ or moderating desire. The Stoic simply stops having desires.

The Stoic is like the runner who is now standing at rest. The person who is at rest is not really still running, but somehow restraining their legs from carrying them off in one direction or another. Their legs have simply stopped moving. There is no longer any running, as there is no longer any desire for the Stoic.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Henry,

I think perhaps you misunderstood me when I spoke of suppressing desires. The term “suppressing” has a technical meaning in psychiatry, where it means to conceal or hide some offensive thought or memory from consciousness. I find that special meaning infiltrating the ordinary usage of many people. Of course Epictetus is not interested in covering anything up, but the training he and Arrian recommend is all about modifying or eliminating the desires of the proficient. The proficient is enjoined again & again to “set aside” his desires for the present and rely on more trustworthy natural impulses. Many ( or all?) of the proficient’s desires are never meant to return if training succeeds. Take the proficient’s desire to be admired. Look at Arrian’s recommendation in Encheiridion 33. Epictetus elsewhere recommends “geotherapy” for young men who are prone to undertake activities for the sake of winning admiration. Geotherapy meaning going somewhere you will not be tempted or have the opportunity to indulge your erstwhile passions.

You say several times that the advanced student “will simply stop having [ inappropriate ] desires”. OK, but that means your advanced student is not merely akratic but fully virtuous: he acts and desires only the right. That tends to collapse the advanced student into the Sage, who by definition has no wayward desires. The problem is that stipulating that provides no answer to the question of what we do until we are (if ever) free of all inappropriate desires. As long as we have such desires, we are in the business of needing to get rid them, suppressing them in the ordinary sense.

1:34 PM  

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