Mastering Oneself is Enslaving Oneself

There is a higher part of ourselves, or aspect of ourselves, that is able to want what is good for us. There are lower aspects of ourselves that long for satisfaction of desires that may not be for our good or the good of others. Making the lower part compliant to the wishes of the higher is a difficult task, and one of the most important things we can aspire to.

Let’s take a scenario. What if you could be imprisoned for a given number of hours every week, for the purpose of self-improvement? For the sake of the argument, it’s a nice prison — bright, clean, spacious, pretty.

You choose when and how often and for how long to go, and you choose what things can be in there. Maybe it could contain some healthy foods that otherwise you’d pass over in favour of something easier or tastier or more filling. Maybe a treadmill or some other exercise equipment. Maybe some specific books that you need to read, or language textbooks you want to study.

Would you take that opportunity? Would you put yourself in a situation where the choice is between healthy food and hunger, between using a treadmill or sitting on the floor, between boredom and reading something worthwhile?

There are only two reasons I could imagine turning down an opportunity like that, abstracting from the particulars of a life situation (eg work obligations, family).

I would choose to turn it down if I already had such perfect self-control that I never gave in to distraction, laziness, procrastination, or self-indulgence.

I might also reject the opportunity if I didn’t really want to do the things that I believe are better, if, somewhere in myself, I would miss doing the worse things too much.

I suppose there’s a third possible reason as well, which draws elements from both of the others: it may very well be that if I wanted most to work on growing in self-control, I would prefer to be in a situation in which self-control might be tested. I’m not sure that’s the best approach to growing in self-control specifically or in virtue more generally, but no doubt it is a possible motivation.

We probably don’t have an arrangement like that available to us. But we must find something analogous, many tools by which we can follow through on the decisions of our best self.

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