The Stoic sage seeks to make “progress” (προκοπή prokopē) which we could also understand as “improvement.” This the Sophos does through giving attention to four things:
- Applying the principles of Stoic ethics to the situations of everyday life,
- Living virtuously regardless of externals,
- Following nature (or God), and
- Making proper use of impressions (more about this in a later post).
I’m only going to talk about the first of these today but this will not be exhaustive so I reserve the right to revisit it at any time.
In the Discourses, Epictetus devotes Disc. 1.4.1-21 to the subject of making progress.
Moving toward virtue
It is not enough to desire the good, one must detest the bad. These are the two categories: virtue and vice. Only in avoiding the bad can one learn to rid oneself of desire altogether. Things that are not truly good or truly bad are things indifferent. We seek only that which is truly good and we avoid that which is truly bad; to everything else we are indifferent.
Virtue directs us toward three things: eudaimonia (a life that is happy and flourishing), impassivity (indifference to passions so that one is unperturbed by them), and a “good flow of life” (as Robert Dobbin translates it). So then seeking virtue must be a seeking of those things, as well.
Learn; then Do
Two things hinder us from making progress in this respect. The first is by learning but not doing.
Epictetus illustrates this by (Disc. 1.4.5-12) pointing out that the virtuous person is not the one who reads Chrysippus and thus become literate in Chrysippus but the one who exercises his or her volition and actually begins examining herself in light of desire and avoidance. (He also uses a humorous example (Disc. 1.4.13) of an athlete who, when asked to show his shoulders replies, “Here, look at my weights!” Likewise, the modern would-be-sage says, “Check out my blog feed (or Facebook timeline or Twitter feed. But that’s not progress.)
As A. A. Long notes (Epictetus 33), this is really a confusing of means and ends. Epictetus is not like the modern-day academic who is content to discuss abstracts and publish papers that no one will read; the goal of philosophy, to Epictetus’ way of thinking is to produce not academics but “excellent persons,” sages, sophoi, not sophists. “Don’t put your purpose in one place and expect to see progress made somewhere else.” (Disc. 1.4.17)
Stop Trying to be Perfect
The second hindrance is a desire for perfection. In other places Epictetus says that it is impossible to be free from all error (Disc 4.12.19) and so he rarely talks about the ideal sage, instead encouraging his pupils to begin making progress now.
In 1.18-21, Epictetus is concerned about one’s prohairesis (moral character). Having learned the principles necessary to guard oneself so that he or she is living in accord with nature and governing one’s desires, this sage will keep a watch on these principles while going through life, this is the one who is making progress.
This is important because one of the greatest hindrances in a potential sage’s improvement: the foolish notion that if you can’t be perfect at it you might as well not even try. While there is certainly room for an ideal rational perfection (and this is part of Epictetus’ view of God), much of what hinders the sage from real-world perfection are externals, things outside our control (one of Epictetus’ famous two categories to remember, Ench. 1.1-3). This is when we apply one of Epictetus’ greatest pieces of wisdom from Ench 8: “Seek not for things to happen as you wish, wish for them to happen as they do, and you will do well.”
It’s about Progress, not Perfection, so Stop Trying to be Perfect and just Progress
So stop trying to be perfect and simply try to do better each day. Read the Stoics and learn from them and look for opportunities to put into play what you have learned. In fact, that’s what makes you a sage. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better than you were yesterday or last week or last year. This is the difference between perfection and progress, and the sage is content with progress. To paraphrase Epictetus: If you can remember this, you will do well.