Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Training the Will, The Choice & The Banquet (Epictetus)

Enchiridion 10: On the occasion of every eventuality, wish not that things should be different but reflect that even if they should impede the body they do not impede your self, that is your will, and remember to inquire what power you have for turning it to use. If you see a handsome man or pretty woman, you will find that the power to resist is temperance, if pain is presented to you, you will find that it is endurance, if abusive words, you will find that it is patience. And if you have been thus formed to this habit, then you will not be carried away by appearances.

Commentary: The ultimate goal of the Stoics is tranquillity of the mind without which life is considered not worth living, and the ultimate means towards this goal is the discipline of the will, that we may overcome the disturbance caused by desire and aversion.

Enchiridion 13: It is not easy to both keep your will in good condition and external things in good condition. But if a man is careful about the one, it is an absolute necessity he will neglect the other.

Commentary: Epictetus, in attempting to convince us of the importance of perfecting the will, presents us with a choice. We can't have it all! But when must we truly make a choice? The choice is a fallacy of our mythology that tells us how Achilles could either have greatness or length of life (and chose the former), a princess either beauty or wisdom, a husband either wealth or wit. In real life, regardless of our priorities, one thing almost always does not preclude another and many are blessed with neither. (When must we make "the choice"? Perhaps only for worldly things, not for things pertaining to our character.) So rather: keep your will in good condition and you will naturally keep your external world in good condition also; as within, so without. Or am I too optimistic?

Enchiridion 15: Remember in life to behave as if at a banquet. If something is carried to you, then stretch out your hand and take of it with decency. Suppose that it passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it has not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite you. Do so with respect to wife, children, office, wealth, and you will be a worthy participant at the banquet of the gods. But if you take none of these things which are set before you, then you will moreover share with them in power. For, by acting thus, Diogenes and Heraclitus and those like them were deservedly called divine.

Commentary: The metaphor is a beautiful one, yet such behaviour could be described pejoratively as the limited equanimity of the cow if it denies a desire as well as (perhaps because of) the inability for the moment to attain it. But the objects of desire for which Epictetus advocates minimal movement are, like morsels at a banquet, not our own creations but that which life serves us. That we should not be attached to life's fleeting treasures seems obvious, yet would we not do well to be grateful for and enjoy them with a greater alacrity whilst we may, as well as perceive their deeper spiritual and creative influence upon us? If, for example, we learnt to create such delicacies ourselves, we might better serve others, for the delicacy is but a sign of the art of the one who created it. Desire is not merely an impulse, but also the outer form of love. Whilst it would be surely wise to minimise the movements of our material desire, would it not be wiser still to recognise our desire, delve into its significance, and maximise our will's potential to act for our love?

Originally published on Buddhist Travellers in 2011.

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