As I’ve been practicing Stoic philosophy, I’ve come to realize that Stoicism isn’t really about virtue – it’s more about using good judgment to seek virtue. I’m not the first person to see things that way. “Do you want to know what philosophy promises the human race?” Seneca says to Lucilius. “Good judgment.”[i]
Virtue doesn’t exist in isolation, in some kind of pure form (sorry, Plato), although of course the concept of virtue can still be a useful one for us. In the world of humanity, virtue resides in virtuous actions, thoughts, and motives. When I think about my own actions, for example, I can’t separate my own virtue (or lack thereof) from the way I think and act. Could I be virtuous if I act viciously? Or could I actually be vicious if I act and think virtuously? I don’t see how that is possible. In a very real sense, as Epictetus says, we are our choices:
For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.[ii]
These are strong words. We are not merely the sum of our choices, or the product of our choices; we are our faculty of choice.
After pondering this somewhat bizarre line of thinking, and trying to put it into practice, I’ve realized that Epictetus is right. (Of course he’s right–has he ever been wrong about human nature?) And this leads us to an even stranger meta-conceptual truth about Stoic philosophy: philosophy is the act of choosing to do philosophy. By making the choice to use your reasoning ability to seek out the best, most virtuous behavior, you are doing philosophy. Why? Because you are trying to bring your thoughts, actions, and motivations in line with your beliefs about what is true and good.
Let’s think about it this way. Say you are confronted with an irritating situation, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Most people don’t realize it, but we have a choice about what to think and feel in this situation. The non-philosopher will probably take the conventional route of feeling angry. The Stoic philosopher, who knows that this is merely a dispreferred indifferent and not a cause for anger, has a choice. He can choose the conventional option and become angry, or he can choose the Stoic option and not feel irritated at all.
What does he decide? Hopefully he will choose the Stoic option – and in making that choice, he is doing philosophy. He is bringing his thoughts in line with what he believes to be true. He is using his reasoning ability to become more virtuous. That is philosophy in action.
Epictetus speaks in the highest possible terms about our faculty of choice –prohairesis. Not only does discussion of the “sphere of choice” pervade his basic philosophical precepts, but he uses superlatives mainly for speaking of the gods and choice. Here is but a small sampling of his dictums related to choice (I have added italics for emphasis):
The gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven’t placed within our power.[iii]
The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and that of the bad likewise. What are externals, then? Materials for our choice, which attains its own good or ill through the way in which it deals with them.[iv]
Consider who you are. First of all, a human being, that is to say, one who has no faculty more authoritative than choice, but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection.[v]
Where does the good lie? ‘In choice.’ Where does the bad lie? ‘In choice.’ And that which is neither good nor bad? ‘In things that lie outside the sphere of choice.’[vi]
What is it that makes use of everything else? Choice. What is it that takes charge of everything else? Choice. What is it that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through a noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff? Choice. Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?[vii]
But if you ask me, ‘What is the most excellent of all things,’ what am I to say? The faculty of expression? I cannot, but must rather say the faculty of choice, when it becomes right choice. For it is choice that makes use of the faculty of expression, and of all the other faculties, both great and small. If it be rightly directed, a person becomes good; if it be badly directed, he becomes bad. It is through choice that we encounter good fortune or misfortune, and that we reproach one another or are pleased with one another. It is this, in a word, that brings about unhappiness when neglected, and happiness when properly tended.[viii]
In this line of thinking, philosophy is not the pursuit of virtue, but first and foremost the act of choosing to pursue virtue. That decision must come before everything else. We must choose to leave behind convention and unexamined impressions. We must actively decide to engage our reasoning ability to make the wisest possible choice in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves.
If you read the Discourses with this in mind, you notice that this is what Epictetus recommends. All of his advice to his students centers around the act of choosing to do philosophy. His more specific recommendations – for example, making proper use of impressions, remaining vigilant, or practicing the disciplines of desire, impulse, and assent – are specific ways of exercising the capacity for choice. These are ways of breaking down the problem of choice, of dealing with the problem of choice, and of knowing what we should choose. Choice is a very tricky problem, and it must be carefully examined. We must have the discourse to talk about it, and we need many psychological tools to help us use our capacity for choice wisely.
For example, when we are confronted by a disturbing impression, what should we do? Throw it away. But first we must make the choice to do philosophy at all. As always, we have a choice: we could do what most people do, and let the impression get the better of us. That choice does not qualify as philosophy, because we have not applied our reason to seek out virtue. But if we make the decision to apply reason and examine our impression, we have made the decision to do philosophy. It’s entirely possible that we do not have appropriate knowledge and wisdom to act in a sage-like manner. But simply by making the decision to apply our reasoning in the service of virtue, we have done philosophy.
If it seems strange to us to think about philosophy as basically a capacity for rational choice, that’s because we’re not used to seeing it in that way. For a very long time in the West, it is religion that has been used as a guide for proper thought and action, not so much philosophy. But why shouldn’t philosophy (rather than religiosity, intuition, or moral convention) guide our every thought and action? We have revived Stoicism for modern times. Maybe we need to revive the centrality of choice, too.
Putting Philosophy To Use
It’s possible that I’m reading too much into Epictetus’ words, and this isn’t really what he was talking about. I have no way of knowing what he meant to say in those famous lectures. Maybe I’m way off the mark. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it matters. What interests me, and probably most modern Stoics, is applying ancient wisdom to live better lives today. And I believe that focusing on philosophy as choice can help us a great deal. I have already felt a profound difference in my own Stoic practice as a result of this new perspective.
When you picture your Stoic practice as a series of moment-by-moment choices, your philosophy becomes urgent, vital, almost alive. Philosophy isn’t something that you just practice sometimes, like you might practice tennis or piano. Philosophy is something that you practice every minute of your life. This is because every moment requires a decision from you. What do I do in this moment, in this situation – practice philosophy or not? Do I make the effort to bring my thoughts and actions in line with my principles, or do I let it slide? Seeing philosophy as a choice forces you to confront your principles daily and hourly. There is nowhere to hide.
And not only does philosophy become necessary – inescapable – but it also becomes more possible. It’s not some grand venture that you might get around to when you’re better prepared. It’s a simple choice you have to make right now. Do you practice philosophy, or do you not? If you do not consciously choose in this moment to practice philosophy, then by default you are not practicing philosophy. It’s a binary choice. There is no in-between.
Epictetus, and also Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, provide us with a great deal of helpful advice about how to make the right choice. This is why we read their works today. The doctrines, the psychological techniques, the external body of work that we call Stoic philosophy, is essential to help us on the path to wisdom. We need the theory in order to know what virtue is, and how we should apply it in specific situations. Epictetus is quite clear that theory is necessary to support action. At one point he says that the task of philosophy is in establishing standards, so that we may know how to judge things properly.[ix] But what is the task of the philosopher?
My principal task in life is this: to distinguish between things, and establish a division between them and say, ‘External things are not within my power; choice is within my power.’[x]
We must make the choice to choose.
At first, this way of seeing philosophy might seem exhausting in its insistence for action. How could anyone ever hope to reach this standard? To be virtuous, you would have to bring every choice you ever make in line with virtue. Yes, exactly. That’s why only the perfectly virtuous person is wise, and the rest of us are drowning below the surface. Only the sage knows how to align every choice with wisdom. Only the sage knows how to direct every thought toward what is noble and true–to always say yes to philosophy, even unto the moment of death.
And yet, this is what it would mean to be truly free: to maintain your capacity for choice up until the very end. “For my part,” Epictetus says, “I’d wish that death may overtake me when I’m attending to nothing other than my power of choice, to ensure that it may be unperturbed, unhindered, unconstrained, and free.”[xi] Epictetus may not have considered himself a sage, but he continues to inspire and show us the path to virtue.
On a practical note, I think that the rest of us can still make progress in our capacity for choice by viewing every moment as an opportunity for philosophy. I was delighted to learn that the root word of prohairesis is something like “grabbing.”[xii] What better metaphor do we need than reaching out and grabbing philosophy?
When you are confronted with a choice – do I see this as distressing or not? Do I respond the Stoic way or the non-Stoic way? – you can always reach out and seize the philosophical response. I’ve started keeping this choice before my eyes at all times as I go about my daily business. I find that when it put things in terms of a binary choice, the decision is much easier. I don’t have to do anything complicated or grand. All I have to do is choose philosophy.
[i] Seneca, Selected Letters, 48.7.
[ii] Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1, 40.
[iii] 1.1, 7
[iv] 1.29, 1-2
[v] 2.10, 1
[vi] 2.16, 1
[vii] 2.23, 17-18
[viii] 2.23, 27-29
[ix] 2.11, 24
[x] 2.5, 4
[xi] 3.5, 7
[xii] Greg Sadler, “What Does Epictetus mean by Prohairesis?”, PocketStoic. Available at https://medium.com/pocketstoic/what-does-epictetus-mean-by-prohairesis-cd23fed321d
Brittany Polat practices Stoicism daily with her three young children and describes her experiences at apparentstoic.com. Her book on Stoic parenting, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, is scheduled to appear in 2018.