Sunday, January 29, 2006

Desiring and Pursuing Externals

A reader offers a bold challenge to my previous post, citing chapter and verse, in favor of his view that Epictetus does not counsel neglect of externals. His arguments merit a considered, if necessarily brief, response.

He alludes first of all to the distinction that the older Stoa drew amongst externals. Some externals, though not good, have some worth and are to be preferred in selecting among externals. Indeed. We addressed this distinction in a previous post in terms of the difference between “selecting” and “choosing” , and wondered whether it was preserved in Epictetus. Not systematically.

Here’s the problem with “selecting” preferred externals like a health and fitness. If we are confronted with a choice between a healthy diet and a poor one, we should prefer and select the healthy one. But (eating) a healthy diet is not something in my control and not a good. Therefore not something I should desire and pursue because my pursuit is all too likely to be frustrated. Unfortunately, a healthy diet is not something that befalls me by chance and luck. I need to design a diet and motivate and discipline myself to pursue it. That is desire and pursue of an external, nothing less.

My reader cites a passage at the end of Discourses I. 4 where Epictetus says he does not neglect [ ouk amelo ] his body or his property. Indeed, he says that. And another passage at Discourses II.5 where he cautions that he must be careless [ amelos] with externals. He also says that. But set these two declarations alongside the argument we examined last tine at the beginning of Discourses I. 4. There, and at many other places in the Discourses, tells us that we must abandon desire for externals and forswear action in pursue of them. I won’t cite that passage yet again, but reread it if you have any doubt about Epictetus is saying. I assume that Epictetus thinks these statements are compatible.

Epictetus seems to think he can say that he does not “neglect” his health and fitness if, when confronted with a choice between unhealthy and healthy, he will select the healthy. But as we started to discuss about above, this is not the way you can acquire and maintain health and fitness ( and any other externals you care to mention). Externals must be objects of desire and deliberate pursuit, not casual selection.

So I say: Epictetus’ claim that he does not "neglect" externals is not credible. He will select them if & when they are offered, but that is just a recipe for neglect and disaster.

1 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>But (eating) a healthy diet is not something in my control and not a good.<<<

No, it is not a good, tho it is something in accordance with nature and it is rational to try to maintain it.

Neither is it in your control, by which the Stoic means that it is not always and invariably in your control. It is possible for you to aim at eating a healthy diet but fail.

>>>Therefore not something I should desire and pursue because my pursuit is all too likely to be frustrated.<<<

Saying this is at variance with Stoic doctrine, and you cannot base an argument against the Stoic position by misrepresenting what they say. The Stoics do not say that you should not pursue a healthy diet -- indeed, they tell you that you should. The Stoics say that you should not desire it because it is not good. But you should pursue it because it is preferred and in accordance with nature. And anyway, why do you think the Stoics say that your desire for this thing (or any thing) is likely to be frustrated? It may be frustrated, as well you know, and this is all the Stoics ever claim on the point.

>>>I need to design a diet and motivate and discipline myself to pursue it.<<<

Indeed.

>>>That is desire and pursue of an external, nothing less.<<<

It might be, and probably is for someone who desires external things. The Stoic does not desire external things, yet has a reason and therefore a motive to maintain healthy eating.

If you think the only possible motive for action is desire, you will have to present an argument to support that claim, as simply making the claim is of course not sufficient.

6:08 PM  

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