P1)Appearances are everything.
P2) Reality is nothing.
P3)Reality is better than appearance.
C) So, aim at nothing.
I am interested in how the argument can be read either as a recommendation of giving up or as a recommendation of overcoming. Either one reads the conclusion as the statement of the worthlessness of aiming or one reads it as capturing the terror and unnaturalness of aiming from a particular position.
In his Discourses, brought to us by the faithful pupil Flavius Arrian, Epictetus says, “whenever a man feels that it is rational he goes and hangs himself. In short, if we observe, we shall find mankind distressed by nothing so much as by the irrational, and again attracted to nothing so much as to the rational. Now, it so happens that the rational and irrational are different for different persons…”
How we have strayed (advanced? progressed?) beyond the Epictetian insight. It is so common to hear the political commentator excoriate his opponent as insane, irrational, beyond the pale, deranged. And, rhetorically, such is the dehumanizing preparation for genocide. By the removal of the essential humanity (the rational) the justification for treatment of the other as brute is begun. The worst acts begin with seeds planted in the soil of the heart.
I digress but come full circle. The reading or hearing an argument or the engaging in thought both take place within a character and a condition. And here is everything. Putting the thinking in good condition merely enables the crystallization of the feeling and character that give the thinking content. Epictetus is not a relativist about character. But he is keenly aware that thought is at best dependent on the character of the one thinking.
Proper interpretation of the above argument? First, know that it won’t matter. Even the proper interpretation is at best an approximation, and it is understood by the one giving it and the one reading it relative to his own condition.
Second, an interpretation: If you have sincerely turned and looked away from that which has been good to you but which you have now found evil, and you at best know what to turn away from, but it has not yet become clear what you are turning to, you will want to stay focused on the unclarity that is the nothing yet and avoid attention to the way things have looked so far which has been everything.
To turn away from crack, porn or sugar is to turn away from that which one has habitually followed. Desire is like light. Until ones character changes the light may still shine on crack, porn or sugar regardless of the turning. But this will mean that in some very real sense the turning away from “the light” will feel unnatural. What can one see without the light of desire? Nothing. But when desire is bent it is better to aim at not-desire, or nothing. What is it like to walk forward in darkness? Terrifying!
Aim at nothing. It is the recommendation for the repentant, the individual aiming at progress.