Moral Choice within the Whole

“Consider who you are.  To begin with, a Man, that is, one who has no quality more sovereign than moral choice, but keeps everything else subordinate to it, and this moral choice itself free from slavery and subjection…. In addition to this you are a citizen of the world, and a part of it, not one of the parts destined for service, but one of primary importance, for you possess the faculty of understanding the divine administration of the world, and of reasoning upon the consequences thereof.  What, then, is the profession of a citizen?  To treat nothing as a matter of private profit, not to plan about anything as though he were a detached unit, but to act like the foot or the hand, which, if they had the faculty of reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise choice or desire in any other way but by reference to the whole.” — Epictetus

How does this affect  me?  The ability to embrace the responsibility of living as a Man, a creature defined by moral choices depends first and foremost on the choice to declare my moral freedom.

In order to enable my freedom to make moral choices, I must start by unburdening myself of the past.  This is not an emotional question (as in the psychoanalytic approach) or a call for “closure” — rather it is a matter of rigorously and consciously setting aside unnecessary distractions.  Taking responsibility for my life entails the responsibility to consciously choose to set aside distractions, including and especially those that come from within.

The concept of simplification that has guided me in recent months is a manifestation of that fundamental moral decision — a setting of the stage.  The commitment to simplification is at the heart of my current moral process — the definition of who I am and what I am to do.  It is the fundamental focus that precedes the question:  “To what end?”

Simplification is not a purely negative process, as in shedding the unnecessary accumulation of historical artifacts and habits.  It is also an active process of positive choices.

A sensible guideline might be to accept quite narrowly, parsimoniously, that which most specifically enables the mission that Epictetus outlines above.

“Never exercise choice or desire in any other way but by reference to the Whole.”  I understand this as a fundamental minimalism. I am to carve out the minimal necessary space for myself, a conceptual monk’s cell.  The monk’s devotion is to the whole outside that cell, most clearly understood as God (and His subordinate world).  The monk does not act, think or feel in order to change that world (or even primarily to study it), but rather to cherish and respect It, to surrender to It, to worship It.

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