On New Year’s Resolutions and Epictetus’ Discourse 2.10  by Harald Kavli

Is there such a thing as a Stoic New Year’s Resolution, and if there is, what would distinguish it from any other? A typical New Year resolution could be something like to quit smoking, to spend more time with friends and family, to not quarrel as much with your spouse, to learn a foreign language, and so on. If we are going to attempt to answer whether any of those goals could be considered to be Stoic or not, we should begin by thinking about how moral reasoning works for a Stoic.

There are a few things that can be said right off the bat. The first one is that moral reasoning in Stoicism is goal-oriented, or teleological. There is a telos, a goal, for human life, and our happiness and flourishing are related to that goal and can only be achieved if our actions and deliberations are carried out with that goal in mind. For the Stoics that goal can variously be described as to live in accordance with nature, the live virtuously, or to be happy (in the sense of eudaimonia, not a fleeting feeling of contentment).

Secondly, as Julia Annas and others have pointed out several places, moral reasoning is done within an already established context. Long before we begin to reason about what we ought to do, we will have been born into a certain family, at a certain time, in a certain country and so on. We might also find ourselves in a situation where we don’t really begin to think seriously about what we ought to pursue and what is good in life before we are well into adulthood, and we might already be married, have a degree and/or learned a trade. Furthermore, I assume that everybody who reads this are human beings and therefore when we reason about what is good, and what we ought to do, we ought also to consider what is good for a human being and try to figure out what a human being is.

The importance of the last point might not be entirely self-explanatory, but the ancient ethicists tended to think that the good of something is closely related to the function of that something. A good life for a lion is a life as a lion – that is hunting on the savannah, and not living in a cage, even though a life in the cage might in a best-case scenario be both safe and comfortable.

Another aspect of our setting for moral reasoning is the events of the day. Those are in one sense, indifferent, since we can flourish in any imaginable situation, but in another sense, they are quite important. The particular events of the day poses challenges for us, if we want to live virtuously. 2021 was in many ways extraordinary. The pandemic that hit us in 2019/2020is still ongoing, and many people still suffer from the consequences. The pandemic also further aggravates a polarizing of politics. It is getting easier and easier to see the world as “us and them”. We rational opposed to the crazy others. We are the righteous, they are the wicked. This is a dangerous perspective and runs contrary to a view of humans as fellow citizens of the world. Furthermore, many of the problems that we faced last year, will probably still be with us the next, so we should take the current trends and problem into account when we set up goals for the new year.

Discourses. 2.10

One particularly important text when it comes to moral reasoning in Stoicism is Epictetus’ Discourse 2.10 – “How may the actions that are appropriate to a person be discovered from the names that apply to him”. The Greek word that has been translated to “name” is onoma, but I think that a better translation in this particular case would be “role”, and Epictetus seems to transition seamlessly between “name” and “role” (prosōpon) in the text. I will therefore allow myself to use the terms interchangeably.

The first name or role is that of being a human. And that, according to Epictetus, means to be someone who “has no faculty more authoritative than choice, but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection (2.10.1)”. Furthermore, humans are distinguished through our possession of reason from animals. As rational beings, we are citizens of the world, and the calling of a citizen is to  “Never to approach anything with a view to personal advantage, never to deliberate about anything as though detached from the whole, but to act as one’s hand or foot would act if it had the power of reason and could understand the order of nature, and so would never exercise any desire or motive other than by reference to the whole (2.10.4)”.

Already here we have several ideas that we can bring to bear when we try to find a good New Year’s resolution. Our faculty of choice, the fact that we are rational animals, and the fact that we are citizens of the world. I will discuss the first of these, in the next section and then turn to the other two points in the section after that.

The Faculty of Choice

The term that has been translated as “the faculty of choice,” prohairesis, is quite difficult to translate in an uncontroversial way into English (or any other language that I know, for that matter). “Agency”, “moral choice” and “will” or even “free will” have all been used in the past. The important thing to get is not how to translate the term, but rather what the term means for Epictetus, and why it is important. For Epictetus, the faculty of choice is the locus of ourselves. It is central to the concept of goodness and strongly connected to virtue and vice, happiness and wretchedness.

For Epictetus, our faculty of choice is potentially free, although it is quite often corrupted. It is corrupted when we wrongly ascribe a kind of value to something that should not be considered to hold that kind of value. If I exercise because I think that it is a good to have a six-pack, I am setting myself up for failure. I fail to realize that the good for man is not having a sixpack, but rather to be virtuous. When we do wrongly ascribe value to things, we form desires and aversions, and thus make ourselves slaves of whoever can grant to us or take away from us certain things. We should therefore work on our faculty of choice, in order to make it free, and we do that for instance by paying attention to our moral reasoning, and also by bringing the goal of having a free faculty of choice into our moral reasoning. A New Year’s resolution such as “I want to quit using tobacco” can then be a result of such a reasoning if quitting tobacco is done for instance for the sake of making your faculty of choice free. Greg Sadler and I had the pleasure of discussing the faculty of choice at the Brazilian Epictetus seminar, hosted by Aldo Dinucci. The presentation is available here.

Rational Animals – Citizens of the World.

The Stoics thought that rationality implies sociability (see for instance Meditations IV.4). We are kosmopolitai, citizens of the world. This means several things, but one key aspect for the purpose of this article, is that we should not reason as if we are detached from the rest of the world, but rather as if we are parts of the whole, and that our good is related to the good of the whole. This does not mean that we should disregard our own good, but rather that we should understand that our good isn’t necessarily all the things that we tend to pursue. Rather, our good consist in functioning well within the whole that we are parts of.  This is particularly important in our polarized and uncertain times, when it is all too easy to detach oneself from either the world entirely or at least from large portions of the people we are fellow citizens with.

A New Year’s resolution like “I want to quarrel less with my spouse” could then potentially be the product of a Stoic line of reasoning, if it is done for the sake of increasing the fellow feeling with a fellow citizen (and not, for instance, for the sake of avoiding the hassle). A perhaps even more ambitious goal could be to reach out even further and bring someone into your circle of concern who is now very far outside of it. In a world that is getting increasingly more and more polarized, it might even be worth the effort to try to reach out to someone who you consider to be if not entirely evil, then at least thoroughly misguided, and try to understand why he and she sees the world in the way that he or she does.

Concluding Remarks.  

What then, is a good Stoic New Year’s Resolution? To become virtuous, perhaps? To become virtuous could indeed be a Stoic New Year’s Resolution, all though unlike learning a new language to a reasonable degree of proficiency or quitting tobacco, it is not a project that can be realized in a year. Furthermore, as Julia Annas points out “Virtue is not an aim to be gained in competition with your other aims; it is an overall aim to be achieved in and by the way you deal with your other aims. (Annas 2007, 148).”

The other aims are related to the situation and context in which we are imbedded. Projects such as getting an education, preforming a job, running for office, being in a family are all “other aims”, and virtue is related to the way we try to conduct those other aims. A Stoic New Year’s resolution should then be to carry out some kind of project virtuously. Learning another language can be such a project, if for instance it is done for the sake of increasing the fellow-feeling or understanding of other people, and to be able to understand why they see the world in the way that they do. This, in turn, is done for the sake of justice, which is a virtue, which is fundamental for living a flourishing life.

Works cited: 

Annas, Julia. 2007. “Epictetus on Moral Perspectives”. In: The Philosophy of Epictetus, T. Scaltsas & A. Mason (eds.). Oxford University Press.
Epictetus. 2014. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.

 

Harald Kavli is the assistant editor of Stoicism Today and studies philosophy at the University of Oslo.

 

One thought on On New Year’s Resolutions and Epictetus’ Discourse 2.10  by Harald Kavli

  1. […] fellow editor, friend, and colleague, Harald wrote a piece recently containing some helpful advice about Stoicism and New Years Resolutions here in Stoicism Today just two weeks ago.  There are literally thousands of other blog posts and […]

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