“There are three areas in which the person who would be wise and good must be trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions – that a person may never miss the mark nor fall into what repels them. The second has to do with impulses to act and not to act – and more broadly, with duty – that a person may act deliberately for good reasons and not carelessly. The third has to do with freedom from deception and composure and the whole area of judgment, the assent our mind gives to our perceptions. Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.2.1-3a
I am a “Friends” fan. My family, in fact, enjoy the series with equal passion. We own the catalog on DVD and will pour through seasons on Netflix regularly. When Thanksgiving comes to town we will watch all the Thanksgiving episodes. Call it a family tradition.
What does “Friends” have to do with Stoic philosophy? I want to use episode 5.15, The One with the Girl Who Hits Joey, to make a point about strong emotions and how we can make poor decisions based on how we deal with them. In this episode, Chandler and Monica are a public couple, but Chandler has managed to anger Monica, through his relationship immaturity, leaving Chandler confused about how to smooth things over. His solution, propose to her.
Rachel: Do you really think the best reason to get married is because you’re sorry?
Chandler: Well, no, the best reason to get married is pregnancy. Sorry’s about fourth, behind being ready and actually wanting to get married.
Passion, unmanaged, can lead us to disaster. In my late teens, I made a car purchase that was beyond unreasonable, but I wanted the car so badly. I assumed an interest rate that was insane. The dealership saw a young kid whose sole focus was owning this car. Sitting in front of the finance manager, I must have been flanked by every person in the dealership. The pressure was on me to sign, and sitting alone I had no one to slap me to consciousness.
Epictetus asks us to consider three critical pieces. First, what are these things we desire, second, why are we acting upon these desires, and lastly have we determined good reasons to act upon these desires. As he tells us, we must know what to commit to and what to avoid. If we fall into something bad, an impulsive marriage or high car payment, we are already a step behind. Thankfully these three areas are intertwined, and we can salvage our situation through proper judgment and right action.
But it’s always better to avoid the tar pit.