I have never really cared much about Black Friday (or, as it has now become, Black November). I’ve always hated crowds, and shopping has never been my thing. Still, I find myself looking with more sympathy than I thought I’d have on the people fighting for deals today (although I am avoiding the frenzy myself). Who is it that gets in these fights? I think it’s a bit lazy to say that the fighters are always entitled jerks overcome with greed. I strongly suspect that the value of a “deal”, for someone who might want the basic dignity represented by certain possessions or amenities, is strong enough to make the desire for such things genuinely desperate. This isn’t, for at least some people, about being the first person to own such-and-such a video game, or a cheap flat screen TV, or a cheap tablet — for some (perhaps many), I think it’s about the human status the access to such things confers upon those who have it. That fact that I feel no need to chase the deal says, relative to such cases, less about any Stoic simplicity or virtue on my part, and much more about my (currently) privileged status.
Today’s morning reflection comes again from Marcus Aurelius (this time from Meditations 6.50):
Try to persuade them; and act even against their will, whenever the principle of justice leads you to do so. But if someone uses force to resist you, change your approach to accepting it and not being hurt, and use the setback to express another virtue. Remember too that your motive was formed with reservation and that you were not aiming for the impossible. At what then? A motive formed with reservation. But you have achieved this; what we proposed to ourselves is actually happening.
This quotation is used to introduce today’s theme, Action and the Stoic Reserve Clause. It’s a useful thing to remember for a teacher who uses texts of this kind with undergraduates, who often find the idea of resigning oneself to letting events occur as they will unacceptably passive in the face of violence, injustice, etc. I think calling it a “reserve clause,” thought, may be just a little bit misleading to the casual reader.
The key to making sense of what Marcus Aurelius is doing here is recognizing that this isn’t just a way to weasel out of Stoic discipline by saying “Want things to happen as they do, except under circumstance [x]. Then you should totally kick ass and take names.” One remains committed to controlling only what one is genuinely able to control — what’s required in this instance is learning to form one’s intentions always with the awareness of the possibility that things will go in a way other than you plan. Learning to commit oneself to forming intent in such a way seems indispensable to creating the sort of world in which Stoic mindfulness is a genuine option for all as an activist goal for a Stoic with the appropriate sort of social conscience.
This is the sort of intent that is absent, I imagine, in the committed Black Friday fighter, regardless of why s/he is deal-hunting. One fights for the treasured object because one has not found a way to form intent with reservation and then to make the decision to let go of the deal. The danger, of course, is in living in a world that forces some (but not others) to form all intent with reservation. As important as it is for Epictetus’ thought for him to have had experience of enslavement, one doubts that this makes enslavement a good deal, even for learning to be a Stoic.