Confession of a Flawed Progressor

Two. And a half. Days. Two and a half days of almost completely neglecting all of my duties, goals, and commitments—as a student, employee, husband, and God knows what else. A failure of monumental proportions, when you compare it to the high standard of Stoic principles at least, hidden away in secret during the hours that no one sees. All the traits were there: “to what level have we sunk? To that of sheep” (Discourses, 2.9.4); full-fledged indulgence in rationalization and “infirmity,” that “persistent judgment in a corrupted person that certain things are very much worth pursuing that in fact are only slightly worth pursuing” (Letters, 75.11).

I won’t beat myself up for it—I should “be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment” (Discourses, 2.22.35), nor should I “be disgusted, or lose heart, or give up if I am not successful in accomplishing every action according to correct principles,” but rather “when you are thwarted, return to the struggle” (Meditations, 5.9). I can however, benefit from the humility such failures teach me—so that when I am tempted to be upset with others, I will remember that “you yourself still hold the same opinion about what is good as he does, or another not unlike it; and you are thus obliged to forgive him” (Meditations, 7.26). “Don’t claim to be a philosopher,” says Epictetus sharply, “and don’t fail to recognize who your masters are” (Discourses, 2.13.23).

Self-torment, no—but in times like these I benefit greatly from reading the reprimands of the ancients. “Some people are Vatinius and Cato by turns,” says Seneca, explaining that “the best evidence of a bad character is variability and constant shifting between pretense of virtues and love of vices” (Letters, 120.19—20). Epictetus always hits me hard, moreover, when he looks over my studious notes on all the Stoics have taught, but notices the inconsistency between the principles I commit to memory and the ones I actually put into action. “You’re often led astray by your impressions, and disturbed by them and, and you often allow their persuasiveness to get the better of you,” he observes. “And so at one time you think them good, and at another time you think the same things to be bad, and then at another to be neither good nor bad” (Discourses, 2.22.6). He then advises me that “it is one thing to put bread and wine away in a store-room, and quite another to eat them,” and then, less ominously, he finally issues the rebuke: “why call yourself a Stoic, then, why mislead the crowd?” (Discourses, 2.9.18–9).

He is right. I am not a Stoic—I am far too inconsistent to be worthy of that label. I am “inclined to pleasure” and “inclined to avoid hard work” (aren’t we all), but when I know I ought to be throwing “myself beyond measure in the opposite direction, for the sake of training” (Discourses, 3.12.7), I instead sit trapped by my own infirmity of judgment, enamored by the sweet siren-calls of Desire and Delight. Tomorrow I will be in the audience at Stoicon 2016 in Manhattan—presenting myself to the modern Stoa as an enthusiast, a prokopton, a “blogger.” What a fraud!

I write of asceticism, and of pursuing an ideal “spirit of virtue” that guides all my thoughts and actions at every moment of every day, and of treating indifferents as truly indifferent, preferring nothing unless it serves the purpose of virtue.  But I am not advanced enough for that calling: I have no time to worry yet about how to bring a spirit of virtue into my leisure hours, where there is no threat to duty but where the  telos of my philosophy still demands that love of virtue be my guide—that sacred deity that “will be manifest in us” if only we worship it with a “pure and righteous will” (Letters, 115.5). A lovely vision, but right now it’s all I can do merely to keep on top of the duties that are not indifferent at all. I have not yet mastered the Discipline of Desire, much less of Action, and so I’m kidding myself if I think I am ready for advanced, ascetic applications of the Discipline of Judgment. “Things lurk inside us,” says Seneca, “that make us lazy in relation to certain objectives and rash in regard to others.” That much I know. But he goes on:

As long as these things have hold of us, you may say “These are your duties to your father, those are what you owe to your children, and these to your friends and your guests,” but greed will hold us back in the act of trying. Someone knows that he should fight for his country, but fear will dissuade him. He knows that he should exert himself to the utmost for his friends, but his pleasures will stop him.

— Letters to Lucilius, 95.37.

Right beliefs about what is good and bad matter. Consistency, too, matters. This is not an idle philosophy.

So, back to the struggle, as Marcus says. Clearly I need to study harder, memorize more, if all it takes is one delightful leisure activity to so totally destroy all the good habits and progress I have made. So here: half the day is still ahead of me. Let us reclaim it for reason.

And how do I reclaim myself for virtue? Will power is not strong enough, and logic by itself doesn’t grip me deeply enough: what I need is to be “held in awe of virtue and fall in love with virtue,” as Seneca says; I “must want to live with virtue and refuse to live without it” (Letters, 95.35). I must remember the beauty and joy that draws me to philosophy in the first place. Worship, then, is in a sense essential to moral practice: worship of the ideal person. “Blessed is he who improves us not only when present but even when imagined! Blessed too is he who can revere some person so deeply as to bring order and composure to his existence just by remembering that person” (Letters, 11.8). “If we could only examine the mind of a good man,” explains Seneca elsewhere in a passage of praise for the Sage, “O what a beautiful, what a sacred sight we would see! What grandeur, what calm would shine forth in it, and what constellations of virtues: justice on one side, courage on the other, moderation and prudence over there” (115.3).

This beauty is the way that we know that virtue is what is most appropriate for the nature of man. Only by keeping this beauty fixed in my mind can I remember that I believe that virtue ought to be my telos at all times.


This somewhat generic “confession” could be about any moral failure—and I intend for it to be a resource I can look back at any time I need a dose of resolve.  But if you must know: I’m at that stage of grad school that requires me to spend long hours working independently at home with minimal supervision.  No coursework, no grades, and nobody holding me strictly accountable to clock in from 9 to 5.  Usually I do pretty well and work very diligently.  But sometimes I fail miserably—knowing every step of the way that I am sabotaging my own goals and betraying my principles, minute after minute, hour after hour!

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3 thoughts on “Confession of a Flawed Progressor”

  1. But–you *are* an enthusiast, a prokopton, and a blogger! Feeling that one is a fraud is a hazard of moving in academic circles, and it’s unfortunate. This must be tongue-in-cheek. Two and a half days? I’ve wasted years, ha ha… That was then, this is now. Great post and such nicely strung-together, juicy quotes.

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    1. Hah, yes, the “fraud” language is basically tongue-in-cheek. No imposter syndrome, at least not today!

      Make sure you say hi tomorrow! My name tag should say “Siggy” :).

      Like

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