Friday, February 10, 2006

Desireless action

A reader writes to argue that the Epictetean Stoic will not neglect his health or fitness or any other important external. The Epictetean Stoic, he says, can select and PURSUE an external like fitness even though neither it is not a good and not something he should desire. The first question is whether a desireless pursuit of some external is psychologically possible for a Stoic. For a Stoic, recall, all action comes from impulse ( horme ), and often from a special kind of impulse called desire. No impulse or desire, no action.

Confronted with a choice between a preferred and "dispreferred" external, a Stoic can select the preferred ( without desiring it ). But securing externals like fitness or a good diet is not a matter of picking among things offered to me. Important things do not fall to me by chance or at random. I have to pursue them assiduously. "Desireless" pursuit strikes me as a complete no-go in Stoic terms and in modern psychological terms as well. What will motivate and sustain my often arduous and uncomfortable pursuit of a goal but a strong desire for it conceived as something important good? I cannot imagine that occasional impulses toward dispreferreds me will not be sufficient to sustain any serious goal seeking.

The classic study of the Stoics on impulses, desire, and the action remains B. Inwood's Ethics and Action..., which I recommend to all.

You say also that I misrepresent Epictetus on the likelihood that our pursuit of externals will fail. I don't think so. Consider: if you think that your pursuit of externals will likely be successful, then why the devil don't you pursue them? Epictetus' principal argument against pursuing externals is that we must fail in such attempts on things not in our power. And, as a result, become distressed and unhappy with our failure. But if we are likely to succeed with externals, why not go down both roads at once, and pursue and enjoy both inner peace and outer prosperity as well?

It is one thing if you don’t want a life that is prosperous and successful—to each his own—but another to claim, as Epictetus constantly does, that pursuing externals will wreck your chances at a calm and virtuous inner life. Epictetus does not ( and probably cannot ) qualify his denunciation of desiring and pursuing externals. He cannot, like an Aristotelian, say “beware of overpursuing externals that are good in moderation or of pursuing some externals that seem good but aren’t.”

5 Comments:

Blogger Dave Bennett said...

Everywhere I turn in Pihlosophy it seems that Aristotelians are pitting themselves against Stoics. It is visible here and with some of my teachers. I am perhaps not as well read as I would like, but would like to understand what it is that clashes at so many points between Stoics and Aristotelians.

Maybe that is a simplistic question but, it is one I have been searching to find and answer to for the past week.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Dave Bennett said...

P.s. I picked up a copy of The Handbook and Discourses last friday. Your sight has inspired me to read it.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Dave,

You raise a difficult and complicated question, even if we restrict ourselves just to Stoic vs Peripatetic ethics/eudaemonics.
Perhaps I'll feel inspired to tackle it in a series of posts. But for now, may I recommend to you a well written and accessible book that compares the eudaemonic advice the principal Hellenistic schools gave their proficients. I refer to Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Dave Bennett said...

Yeah, I believe I said it earlier, but I am currently readin Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness.

You can sort of see the tensions running through her book there, I noticed she has somewhat of a contempt for Stoic thought when she reveiws Sophocles and Aeschylus's tragedies.

I would be very interested in a series of post about that, but I also will look in to getting the other Nussbaum book.

Thanks for your reply and your help

9:46 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>What will motivate and sustain my often arduous and uncomfortable pursuit of a goal but a strong desire for it conceived as something important [and] good?<<<

I am not sure whether you are claiming (a) that stong desires are necessary for some special types of action (a weaker thesis), or (b) that desires are necessary for all actions (a stronger thesis).

Contrary to your position is what I believe to be the position that Stoics hold, that desires are not necessary for actions (the contrary of both theses).

Clearly desires are not sufficient, as we often have desires that we don’t act on. Someone might have a desire to eat a cream cake, but they have a reason for not doing so (they are on a diet), so don’t. You might reply that in such a case this person had a desire that their diet be successful; but if we generalise this point to all actions that people have reasons to abstain from, then it will be trivially true that agents always have desires for what they do. What you have not done is show that it is not possible for an agent to act as they do for a reason with no attendant desire. The fact that we do act for reasons for ends that are contrary to what we desire does not encourage me to think that we must also have a desire to act for such a reason. I think it is false to ascribe to the agent some psychological state, ‘the desire to do what is reasonable’, when they have a reason to do what they do.

Even when we are aware of having a desire to do what is reasonable (as I am sure we may sometimes do), the desire needn’t feature in my reasoning about what to do. The fact that I hold something reasonable gives me reason to do it. And this is certainly the case when I have a desire not to do what I hold to be reasonable.

>>>Consider: if you think that your pursuit of externals will likely be successful, then why the devil don't you pursue them?<<<

I do! But in my focus on making Stoic progress, I do not desire the external things I try to secure, and I do not believe that they are good. They are good for the success of my undertakings, to be sure (in that with them my undertakings prosper, and without them they don’t), but the only good for me is the way I set about these undertakings (i.e., virtuously). I select what I will pursue on the basis of what is required to satisfy my duties and obligations, and what is befitting for someone who wishes to make progress as a Stoic in terms of what is in accordance with nature. And I pursue everything ‘with reservation’.

>>>Epictetus’ principal argument against pursuing externals is that we must fail in such attempts on things not in our power.<<<

I just cannot see this as a valid interpretation of Arrian’s text. Not least because it’s plain stupid. Common sense says, and common experience confirms, that sometimes I will succeed in getting what I aim for, and sometimes I will fail. Epictetus says that we cannot guarantee success, not that we can guarantee failure. Your obstinacy on this point puzzles me.

Had Epictetus really claimed what you believe then we would no doubt read in the ancient texts of the student who declared, ‘Look, I shall now blow my nose!’ And he did; and then he said, ‘Behold I have secured something that was not in my power!’ We can all do something of the sort as often as we like, but we cannot guarantee success. Have you not seen the out-takes in those TV blunders shows? Well, those are examples of people doing something they thought they would succeed in but didn’t. It is always possible for anything we try to do to fail, that is all Epictetus is saying on this point. The next thing he says is that if we place our happiness in succeeding in any one thing which does fail, then we will not be happy. The Stoic believes that they can guarantee happiness by not making it depend upon securing external things, and the way they do it makes happiness enduring and persistent.

>>>But if we are likely to succeed with externals, why not go down both roads at once, and pursue and enjoy both inner peace and outer prosperity as well?<<<

Because you cannot serve two different masters at the same time. The two projects interfere with each other. If my aim is to secure inner peace, and I believe that doing so is dependent upon securing external things, then I am bound to be disappointed at least some of the time. Having practised the art of Stoic living, to the extent that I have managed it, I can honestly say that my well-being is completely independent of having external things. ‘Propersity’ for me has no connection to external things, but only to the way I set about things.

You see, if my prosperity depended on having external things, then my prosperity could never be more than partial (since I could never secure all the external things I wanted, were I to value them as good and desireable), and I am inclined to think that that sort of prosperity is just not worth striving for. Far better is to work for a prosperity that is always complete and safe no matter what your material situation is.

8:56 AM  

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