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Look: Calmness is Within

It seems that one of the hallmarks of Stoicism is the pursuit of disillusionment about our conflicted relationship with appearances. Many times, the ability to see the genuine interconnectedness of nature results in a kind of mental calm. In Robert Hard's translation of Epictetus' Discourses, Hard creates a sub-heading for 2.2.: On calmness of mind. At the beginning of this section, Epictetus says:


"Consider now, you who are going into court, what you want to preserve and what you want to accomplish. If you want to preserve your choices and keep it in accord with nature, you'll be entirely safe; you'll have no trouble. If you want to safeguard those things that lie within your own power and are free by nature, and remain satisfied with those, what is left for you to worry about? For who holds power over them; who can take them away from you? If you want to be self-respecting and trustworthy, who can prevent you? If you want to be subject to no hindrance or constraint, who can constrain you to desire things that you don't think that one should desire, or to avoid things that you don't think that one should avoid? Well then, the judge may take measures against you that are commonly regarded as being frightening, but unless you accept them as such by seeking to avoid them, how can he do that? Since desire and aversion are within your own power, then, what else do you need to worry about? Let this be your introductory statement, your exposition, your proof, your victory, your peroration, and your source of renown" (2.2: 1-6).


Wow. (I thought I should include the entire paragraph in order to ensure that the last sentence gets the response that is due). Epictetus reminds us that no one can take away one's pursuit of positive things and seeking to avoid negative things. There is a kind of beauty that results from the realization that if we try to get closer to observing life's circumstances in a virtuous way, we can experience the peace of a unencumbered mind. Since the development of complex languages (and maybe even since the beginning of primates), social structures resulted in detriments: gossip, slander, corruption, cheating, greed, theft, etc. It is beneficial to know that there is a practice that helps us see that there is a period of introspection that results from another's act of injustice, and that we can have a reflective window of time where we can disrupt the impulse to think negatively of our circumstances.


In the ancient Stoic texts, the Stoics commonly mention two distinct actions of the mind: assent and avoidance. In fact, assent is one of the three Stoic disciplines (along with desire and action). When the Stoics talk about assent, they are talking about the acceptance of a certain interpretation of an appearance (also known as a impression). The action of assenting to an appearance is part of the judgement process; it has the power to move someone into action based on the interpretation of the practitioner. Avoidance, on the other hand, involves the Stoic not accepting a certain "interpretation of facts." The Stoics also use avoidance to simply mean "to keep away from doing something." Even if someone were to force us to do something in the physical sense, we still have the ability to avoid our captor's interpretation of a specific event or insight.


In the passage by Epictetus, it is important to realize that, as free individuals, we always have the power of assent and avoidance (the "interpretation of facts" use of the term). This can help encourage us to keep developing our Stoic worldview even in the midst of adversity. Ultimately, this can help us remain balanced and calm in any circumstance.

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