Painting Arete

I’ve been painting my new apartment.  The place was badly in need of a new look after languishing under the previous tenant.  I’ve been able to get in to the space before the move date  since it is in the same house as my previous digs (which have grown too small).  So, I have had the intention of doing the job in thorough fashion.  I should add that interior painting is something that, in theory, I do well having made some cash at the trade in younger days.  Unfortunately, a combination of the holidays and a nasty sinus infection wore away at my resolve.  In the end it has been a more rushed and sloppy job than I would have liked.

I have consoled myself (echoed by others) that it really isn’t worth fretting about the place as it is just a rental.  It is true that I do not own this home and I have no idea how long I will be living here.  Still there has been a nagging feeling that such considerations shouldn’t matter.  If the real measure of the good is what impacts my essential character then isn’t it fair to say that my dwelling and how I treat it are reflections of that character?  It shouldn’t really matter if the space is one I own or is merely temporary.  If it is true that material life is temporary by nature and beyond our control then even if I had the deed to the property is it anymore truly “mine” than if I built a lean-to out of pine branches in a forest for the night?  The house could burn down or be swept away by floods.  My financial fortunes could take a turn and the property seized by creditors.  Ownership may prove to be less real then we like to think.  Would such an event alter my own character and so be either good or evil?  If the Stoics have it right (not to mention Buddhists and Taoists but let’s stay with the West) then no it would not be good or evil per se.  To paraphrase the trial of Socrates, they can take my house but they can’t harm me.

I don’t want to run too far with this idea as, after all, there is such a thing as resale value and ownership does have certain advantages.  Just because something is neither truly good nor evil doesn’t mean it is without any value or strategic importance.  My real point here is how much should it matter if my dwelling space is rented or owned, transient or long term?  I don’t think it really matters that much.  How one treats that dwelling is going to reflect one’s character.  When taking on a task the quality and skill with which one performs that task is going to either display Arete (excellence) or not.  If Arete is the outward manifestation of one’s internal condition shown through acts of skill then the state of one’s dwelling (or one’s physical estate in general) must qualify as a barometer.  So if I do a sorry job of painting my apartment am I letting my Virtus grow lame?  I think the answer has to be yes.

For the record, the apartment looks reasonably good and I am going to go back and do some touch-ups.  As Epictetus warns us, one must take stock of realistic conditions before making grandiose commitments lest you end up compromising your tranquility and your character through failures.  That may well be my real lesson here.

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