On Charitable Interpretations

When someone acts badly toward you or speaks badly of you, remember that he does or says it in the belief that it is appropriate for him to do so.
– Encheiridion 42

This is most clearly seen with those who genuinely believe their criticisms. It is useless to blame them for the wrong when they do not see it as wrong. It is instead a matter of knowledge and education.

But even if the person does not believe their criticisms, they still act on the basis of what they believe to be good. Whether it is good for themselves or good for others, everyone believes their actions to be justified on some level or else they would not do them, whether it is some confused notion of gain for them or punishment for you. This too is founded on ignorance and false beliefs. It is the stoics imperative to understand the nature of the action if they are to live in accordance with nature and not be misled by appearances. Though they may speak badly to us, no harm but that which we admit can come of it. Rather, it is the speaker who is harmed by their misinformed beliefs. Such as these should evoke our sympathy, not anger, for sympathy is the appropriate response when we see someone injure themselves due to misfortune of their ignorance.

Starting from these considerations you will be gentle with the person who abuses you. For you must say on each occasion, “That’s how it seemed to him.”

The Fountain


Water winding skyward thrusting
The firmament fingered by this fountain
With vagary it varies, its movement vexing
A perplexing pattern, pleasing yet unplanned
Seen and unseen, I seek understanding
But meaning eludes, the mystery immense
Thought forsaken, I feel the flow
Rising, writhing, my heart responds
Diaphanous in the daylight, a delicate dance
Its noble spray a song within my soul

What should we seek?

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen
– Encheiridion 8

Seek your desires amongst the things that lie within, for then you can achieve them. Desiring that which lies without is futility, a chasing after clouds and grasping at the wind. Instead, hold that which lies outside with an open palm, accepting with equal serenity both their comings and their goings.

Desire

For the time being, eliminate desire completely, since if you desire something that is not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate, and at the same time none of the things that are up to us, which would be good to desire, will be available to you.
– Encheiridion 2

I feel as though this is where I am at this moment. I struggle with a amorphous desire, a longing to be something other than what I am, and yet I cannot say what it is. My doubts swirl about me, and so I think it best to do as Epictetus suggests and put desire out of mind, and to focus on the redirection of aversion. This at least is a simpler task, for its objectives lie clearly before me.

It is like the Tao. I feel like it is something you find by not looking for it, but rather by allowing it to come upon you.

When the superior man hears the Way,
he is scarcely able to put it into practice.
When the middling man hears the Way,
he appears now to preserve it, now to lose it.
When the inferior man hears the Way,
he laughs at it loudly.
If he did not laugh,
it would not be fit to be the Way.
– Tao Te Ching 41

Likewise, the sage in stoicism is wise without trying. He has found perfect harmony with nature and does nothing out of step with it. It is the perfection of effortless effort, of action through inaction. There is still too much restlessness in me, too much effort in my action. Better to leave off striving and instead seek quietude. If I seek stillness, best to start with the cessation of ineffectual struggles to be still.

Aversion

Detach your aversion from everything not up to us, and transfer it to what is against nature among the things that are up to us
– Encheiridion 2

Bring yourself into harmony with the world. Recognize that the things that are against nature are not outside of us, but rather the misguided reactions within us. It should be these that merit our antipathy. To bring ourselves into accord with the world, we must redirect our energies away from external facts, facts which naturally flow from the nature of the world, and focus inwardly upon the attitudes we hold with regard to these facts. Only then does suffering end, when we bring ourselves into agreement with the nature of the world.

If you undertake an action, do not forget the nature of the action. If someone is rude or annoying to you, you can confront them about their behavior. If you are fortunate they will cease their offense, if you are unfortunate, they will continue their offense, and if you suffer misfortune they will increase their offense. But in none of these do you have a choice in the outcome, no control over the results. You will be enslaved to the will of others and your happiness will be in their hands. Instead, look to confront your own attitude regarding their behavior, and bring it into conformity with the nature of your circumstances. Then you will have control and suffer neither loss or misfortune, but will bring about peace of mind independent of the whim of others.

Simplicity is freedom

But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.
– Encheiridion 1

Indeed, I have heard that
One who is good at preserving life
does not avoid tigers and rhinoceroses
when he walks in the hills;
nor does he put on armor and take up weapons
when he enters a battle.
The rhinoceros has no place to jab its horn,
The tiger has no place to fasten its claws,
Weapons have no place to admit their blades.

Now, What is the reason for this?
Because on him there are no mortal spots.
– Tao Te Ching (50)

I feel like these two passages are saying the same thing, that entanglements in the world trap us and make us vulnerable, and that conversely, that by simplifying our lives, we can eliminate these points of weakness that bring us harm and can build a foundation for happiness. This is the first step towards happiness, the letting go, a withdrawal of the self into the self. In order to grow, we must first be reduced, until only the essential remains, for without a secure foundation, the growth will be unstable and shall easily collapse beneath its own weight.

Suffering is the weeds in the garden of happiness. It chokes everything else and consumes its resources. This is why its elimination must be the first step in the path. Conversely, a right understanding of the world yields the end to suffering, for nothing that can harm us shall lie outside of our will, and all that lies outside the will can do us no harm. Look to what distresses you and you will see an unnatural affection, a disorder with the nature of hte universe and a perversion of the will and the self.

Thus, it is imperative to seek simplicity in every exercise of the will, and secondly to give careful thought to every anxiety so that the nature of its cause might be rightfully understood and properly ordered in relationship to what lies within us.

The Things Up to Us

250px-Fibonacci_spiral_34.svgSome things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing.

I wonder if these things, if anything in fact, is actually up to us. But even if they are not, even if beliefs regarding agency and free will are unfounded, they can be a useful deceit, a way of habituating the mind towards a certain way of thinking and acting. I know I lack discipline and a temperate disposition, but what am I to do about it? I believe the answer is to perpetrate the deception that I do possess these attributes. I no longer care if this is authentic of me, or whether I possess the capacity of agency and free will to even purposefully affect these changes within myself. Such concerns pale beside the need. And so I will pretend, and not care about the questions that arise, for the necessity of my own happiness dictates that I do so.

This is how I now view stoicism. I no longer know whether its claims about me are true or merely a useful fiction. What I do know is that such questions no longer matter to me. What does matter is that I change, that I become something other than what I currently am, for I cannot abide for long what I currently am. I am a misanthrope, and the reason I hate humanity is because I hate myself. I hate my failures, my weaknesses, my many failings. I often wish I could die, but know that I cannot without causing greater harm to my family than my continued living. That is an intolerable outcome for me. My wife and children are the only ones that give me hope.

No, I do not believe in free will. I believe agency is nothing more than the identification of something within a causal chain for which its antecedents are ambiguous. But so what? What will I do differently if I have free will? Nothing. I will still purport myself as though I control some aspects of my life, for this seems to be the most useful approach to the subject.