What’s “Worth Choosing” and What’s “To Be Chosen”

The last meeting of the Stoic Theory Subgroup centered around the general accounts of Stoic ethical theory provided by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers and Stobaeus in the first volume of his collected works (a.k.a. his Eclogues). Stobaeus 2.7.5-2.7.11 itself is verbatim Arius Didymus’s Epitome of Stoic Ethics. (1st Century BCE).

For this blog post, I want to explore the following passages in particular: DL 7.98-99; Stob. 2.7.5h-i, 5o, 6f, 7e [adopting the notation style of Arthur J. Pomeroy in his Arius Didymus: Epitome of Stoic Ethics (1999) and Inwood & Gerson’s The Stoic Reader (2008)]

I have to admit that my initial reading and rereading of these passages left me confused. In some passages, the two doxographers were adamant to make a distinction between things “worth choosing” (haireton) and things “to be chosen” (haireteon). In other passages, they wanted to make a distinction between things “worth choosing” (haireton) and “worth taking/acquiring” (lepton).

After reflecting on these passages and referring to some commentaries, I think I understand the distinctions better… though I’m hesitant about the implications.

I’ll deal with the choosing-taking distinction first since it seems the most straightforward (relatively speaking)…

“Worth Choosing vs. Worth Taking”

“They say that what is worth choosing and what is worth taking are different. For what stimulates an unconditional impulse is worth choosing, whereas what is worth taking is what we reasonably select. Insofar as what is worth choosing differs from what is worth taking, to the same degree what is in itself worth choosing differs from what is in itself worth taking and, in general, for what is good by comparison with what has value.” (Stob. 2.7.5o)

DL 7.99 and Stob. 2.5h-i explains that anything that is “worth choosing” (haireton) is such that it stimulates a reasonable choice. The above passage actually describes this impulse as “unconditional” (autotelous) or — according to other translations — stimulated “unconditionally” (autotelös).

What does “unconditional” mean in this context? First, note that “choice” (hairesis) is actually a technical term that the early Stoics used to pick out a special kind of impulse (hormê), one that occurs in a rational mind and results in action. If the early Stoics wanted to talk about choice in the non-technical sense, they seemed to have used the word “selection” (eklogê). In the passage above, things that are “worth taking” are selected in this sense and they are selected “reasonably” (eulogístos) or with good reasons. This leads me to think that “unconditional” means something like “unmediated by conscious deliberation” — it’s something that happens automatically when a rational mind encounters something good.

So, that which is “worth choosing” are good things. That which is “worth taking” are things with value (but, which are presumably not good in themselves); that is, mere preferable indifferents. This makes sense: if a rational person sees the good, they shouldn’t have to deliberate. If a rational person is confronted with a variety if preferred indifferents, then it ultimately doesn’t matter which one he or she chooses; they’ll need to deliberate a bit to figure out which is most pragmatic to select. The following passage explains how someone should undertake this selection process:

Everything which is natural is worth taking and everything which is unnatural is worth not taking. Of natural things, some are worth taking in themselves, some because of other things. In themselves: everything which is stimulative of impulse in such a manner as to encourage someone to pursue it or hang on to it, such as health, good sense-perception, freedom from pain, bodily beauty. Instrumentally: everything which is stimulative of impulse by reference to other things and not in such a manner as to encourage someone to pursue it, such as wealth, reputation, and things like these. . . (Stob. 2.7e)

So pursue health, good sense-perception, freedom from pain, bodily beauty since that’s all natural… Of course, the major proviso is to pursue these indifferents insofar as they don’t interfere with one’s ability to act virtuously. And if wealth and reputation help you pursue or maintain these other preferred indifferents, then they’re preferable as well. All these are “worth taking” either in themselves or because of other things.

So far so good … now on to the “worth choosing” – “to be chosen” distinction. This is where it gets complicated…

“Worth Choosing” vs. “To Be Chosen”

They say that what is worth choosing differs from what is to be chosen. For every good is worth choosing, but every advantage is to be chosen, and advantage is understood with reference to having the good. That is why we choose what is to be chosen, for example, being prudent, which is understood with reference to having prudence; but we do not choose what is worth choosing, but if anything, we choose to have it. . . (Stob. 2.6f)

OK. We’ve already established that that which is “worth choosing” (haireton) is the good. But, according to the passage above, we don’t actually choose what is “worth choosing.” Instead, we choose what is “to be chosen” (haireteon). An example of what is “worth choosing” is prudence (phrónesis) — a state (or disposition) of the mind. An example of what is “to be chosen” is being prudent (phroneîn) — a predicate used to describe someone who has prudence or acts prudently. In other words, we don’t choose prudence directly despite it being an unqualified good; when we make a conscious choice, we choose to be prudent. But why is this? Doesn’t prudence and someone being prudent just amount to the same thing?

To get a handle on this, I think it would be helpful to understand some Stoic physics. The early Stoics were materialists of sorts. They claimed that the only things that could be said to exist are bodies — corporeal things — because they seem to be the only types of things that have causal efficacy. That is, bodies are the only thing that can act on other things and be acted upon. This commits them to less intuitive claims: the soul (psuche, “mind” hereafter) is corporeal;  God is corporeal… anything they want to exist has to be corporeal. Thus, the good is corporeal and… virtue (e.g., prudence) is corporeal. Virtue is just the corporeal mind in a certain state or disposition — the mind organized in a certain way so that it behaves a certain way. On the other hand, being virtuous is an incorporeal abstraction — it only ‘exists’ as a shorthand way to describe how a virtuous mind is disposed to respond.

We consciously choose to be prudent by acting prudently in particular situations (that is, we choose to to have being prudent predicated to ourselves when confronted with different ways to act). But what’s really happening — according to the early Stoics — is that somehow we are “choosing” the only thing worth choosing: prudence itself.

To explain why I put quotations marks around this second “choosing” and why there seems to be two kinds of choosing being made, we have to review a little bit more physics. The early Stoics endorsed a kind of determinism. In simple terms, this means that our actions are determined by the physical laws of cause-and-effect. And since the mind is physical, it too responds in a predictable fashion. A greedy mind will act greedily, a courageous mind will act courageously, and a prudent mind will act prudently. When the mind is stimulated by something, it responds automatically with a corresponding “impulse.” this is the kind of “choosing” in the technical sense of the word (discussed in the first section of this blog) and not the conscious deliberative process we normally associate with the term.

Now, the following is me thinking fast and loose; welcome to my sloppy thought process… The conclusion I’m taking is that the Stoics took there to be two explanatory levels for every choice one makes: LEVEL ONE is the conscious decision-making process where the agent’s incorporeal will seems to choosing one option from among a plethora of incorporeal hypothetical choices;  LEVEL TWO is the deeper non-conscious level where all the cause-and-effect takes place among corporeal entities that actually exist; the mind is stimulated by something and it responds automatically according to the kind of mind it is. Level one supervenes on level two: we have the experience of making decisions about how to behave or of assenting to certain propositions (in later Stoic terms) but, at the deeper level, our minds are merely reacting to stimuli in the manner in which they’re disposed. The two levels certainly are correlated, but I can’t say how exactly. Since the early Stoics claim that only corporeal entities have causal efficacy, the two-level theory seems to imply that consciousness (including conscious decision-making) is merely an epiphenomenon of deeper physical operations. I’m not going to defend that position at the moment (for the sake of publishing the blog post in a somewhat timely manner), but I’ll be thinking about it and perhaps publishing further thoughts on it later. 

Last Thoughts: Seneca Interjects

If you’re still with me, that means that you’re a glutton for punishment when it comes to theoretical problems. And it also means that this last section might be most pertinent to you.

I’ll be drawing from one last authority on the matter: Seneca. He actually wrote on the “worth choosing” – “to be chosen” distinction in #117 (CXVII) of his Moral Letters to Lucilius. Here, he begrudgingly explains the early Stoic theory to his friend:

Our school holds that what is good is a body, because what is good acts, and whatever acts is a body. What is good benefits; but in order for something to benefit, it has to act; if it acts, it is a body. Stoics also say that wisdom is something good. It follows that they have to say that it is corporeal. But they do not think that being wise has the same status: it is incorporeal and supervenient on something else, namely, wisdom. Hence it neither acts upon nor benefits anything. “What’s that? Don’t we say that being wise is something good?” We do say it, but with reference to what it depends on, that is, with reference to wisdom itself. [So wisdom is good, but being wise is — strictly speak — not good]

[The following objection is made:] “You want to be wise; therefore being wise is a thing ‘worth choosing;’ if it is ‘worth choosing,’ it is something good.” Our school is forced to twist words and insert one more syllable into the expression ‘worth choosing’ [haireton] which our language does not allow to be inserted. If you permit me, I will make the insertion. “What is good,” they say, “is ‘worth choosing’; what accrues to use when we have obtained the good thing is ‘to be chosen’ [haireteon]” The latter is not sought as something good, but is an addition to the good that has been sought.” (2-5)

Although, in the letter, he’s clearly unhappy with the minutia that these theoretical distinctions are dwelling upon, he states off the bat that he neither agrees nor disagrees with them. He spends most of the letter going back and forth between an imaginary defender of the teaching and an imaginary critic. Here is one of the more diplomatic criticisms he expresses:

You are expecting me to deny that a race is different from racing, heat from heating, and light from lighting. I grant that these are different but not that they are of a different status. If health is an indifferent, the same goes for being in good health. And if beauty is an indifferent, the same goes for being beautiful. If justice is something good, so also is being just; if shameful behavior is something bad, so also is behaving shamefully, just as much as, if eye soreness is something bad, the same goes for having sore eyes. As proof of this, consider: neither can exist without the other; in fact, some people find them to be one and the same. (8)

He then continues with the argument that if prudence is good, then being prudent must also be good:

. . . I want to be a prudent person just for this reason: so that I may be prudent. Well, then! Mustn’t the latter be a good, given that without it, the former isn’t a good either? It is your doctrine, surely, that prudence should not be accepted if it is not to be used. What is the use of prudence? to be prudent. This is what makes prudence supremely valuable. Remove its use, and prudence becomes superfluous. . . Prudence is the disposition of a perfected mind, and being prudent is the use of a perfected mind. How can the use of something not be good if the thing itself is not good without its use? (16)

In the end, Seneca is pretty disgruntled that Lucilius seems to have made him go through all this trouble in discussing a theoretical debate that he doesn’t much care for. After about twelve paragraphs, he starts reflecting on the nature of the debate itself and starts to unravel a bit:

What I was just talking about a while ago lowers and diminishes us; it does not sharpen the mind, as you people suppose, but merely narrows it. Are we, I beg you, going to waste our effort on something that may be false and is certainly useless? We need that effort — we owe it to greater and better things! How am I going to be better off from knowing whether prudence and being prudent are different, or from knowing that the former is a good but the latter is not? I’ll risk this one. Let’s roll the dice: you get wisdom and I get being wise. We shall come out even. (19-20)

He then expresses what he finds most important. And, for those that are gluttons for punishment when it comes to theoretical problems (like myself), let’s take his words to heart:

I would rather you show me the way to achieve these things. Tell me what I ought to avoid and what I ought to sim for, what practices will enable me to strengthen my flagging mind, how I may ward off things that catch me by surprise and upset me, how I can be a match for any number of misfortunes, how I may dispel the troubles that have come upon me and the ones that I have brought upon myself. Teach me how to bear sorrow without groaning and success without making others groan, and how not to await the final and inevitable moment passively but to decide for myself when to make my escape. (21)

The Stoics believe that studying theory helps us gain clarity when we run up against uncertainty in our personal practice. I wholeheartedly believe that we must study theory in conjunction with applying what we learn — theory and practice go hand-in-hand. BUT must we get so far into the weeds?

I initially picked up the topic of this blog post because I thought it important to understand the nuances of such distinctions for the purpose of guiding my decision-making. Should I frame virtue as a state or disposition of my mind? or as an activity that my mind performs? or as something that my mind possesses? What has priority? Does framing virtue in a particular way help me make decisions? Is conscious decision-making merely an epiphenomenon of deterministic physicalist operations? If so, do we have free-will?

Frankly, although I’m confident that I have learned how to articulate distinctions that I didn’t realize existed before, but I need to maintain a balance in my life between indulging in theoretical exercises and just trying to be a good person…  I do hope to write another blog post or article on the potential epiphenomenalism of early Stoic Theory, but in the meantime, I still have to interact with the world and other people. In between learning about theory, I will keep Seneca’s words in mind and learn how to “strengthen my flagging mind,” how to “ward off things that catch me by surprise and upset me,” how to “be a match for any number of misfortunes,” and how to “dispel the troubles that have come upon me and the ones that I have brought upon myself.”

— Justin K.


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