Enchiridion of Epictetus – Chapter 2

In Education, Enchiridion of Epictetus, Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want, while aversion purports to shield you from what you don’t. If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy. So direct aversion only towards things that are under your control and alien to your nature, and you will not fall victim to any of the things that you dislike. But if your resentment is directed at illness, death or poverty, you are headed for disappointment. Remove it from anything not in our power to control, and direct it instead towards things contrary to our nature that we do control. As for desire, suspend it completely for now. Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, with discipline and detachment.

While the previous chapter dealt with what we can and cannot control, chapter two teaches us how we should handle our faculty of desire. Before we get stuck in, I would like to highlight the fact that desire itself is not something negative, it’s how we apply it that’s good or bad. After all, if a person had absolutely no desire, then they probably would never leave their bed in the morning.

So what exactly is desire?

Simply put, it’s “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen”.

And what is aversion? It’s a “strong dislike or disinclination towards a particular object, action or event.”

It’s interesting that Epictetus ranks falling victim to something you dislike as worse than not getting what you want. I think that in some parts of the world we have a reached a stage in society where people have an aversion to not fulfilling a certain desire.

So not only do they desire a bigger house or a bigger car, but they actively dislike the idea of not being able to get it. So that’s essentially a double whammy, you are both unfortunate because you didn’t get what you desire, and at the same time unhappy because you didn’t manage to avoid not getting your desire.

Ouch.

So, how can we avoid this?

Well, Epictetus advises us to direct aversion only towards things that are under our control. As discussed in my essay On Control, the Stoic view is that the only we thing we can control are our assents to impressions and impulsions to action. In other words our thoughts and our choices.

This actually makes sense: trying to avoid what you cannot control is pointless, and if you only want to avoid what is in your control you could, theoretically, never experience anything that you don’t want to experience.

For example, it’s pointless wanting to avoid death. It’s going to happen one day, whether you like it or not. It might be tomorrow, it might be in seventy year’s time but it’s a certainty and that’s that. This, however, doesn’t mean that you should cross the road without first checking if there is an incoming car. Given the choice, we might generally want to choose life over death, but perhaps not in every case. There are countless examples in history of men and women who valued their principles above their own lives and so gave up their lives instead of sacrificing their principles. Socrates being sentenced to death in Athens is perhaps one of the most famous examples of this.

It’s not pointless trying to control your choices. Let’s say that our test subject regularly cheats on his wife. If he wants to, he can avoid doing so. That’s completely his choice and nobody can force him to do otherwise. Whether he has the willpower and determination to do so is another matter. The same goes for the smoker, the drinker, the drug addict and the rest of us with our many vices. We do have control of our choices and we should have a strong dislike to acting against our own nature.

Now it is clear: we must only try and avoid things that are under our control to avoid, such as acting contrary to our nature. That’s both our personal nature and human nature. For the rest, I think the infamous Tyler Durden has some wisdom to share with us:

…Let the chips fall where they may.

At first this may appear rather fatalistic, but actually this is the way things are and it doesn’t matter how much you complain or try to fight it. If we are indifferent to everything except the choices we make and the actions we take then it will never be the case that we desire something that we cannot have or that something that we want to avoid happens.

Obviously, I prefer to have money than not to have money, to have a roof over my head over not having a roof over my head and so on, but that’s not the defining factor of my decision making. In other words, I would rather remain an honest, trustworthy and ethical person instead of being incredibly rich. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but one really has to be wary about the decisions you make when you decide that money or material possessions are an important aim in one’s life.

You should make the desire of virtue and the aversion of vice the most important defining factor in your life. Everything else is a preferred or nonpreferred indifferent. So if you have a couple of business ideas and they are both ethical then sure, choose the one which will bring you the greatest profit while not giving you too much stress. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you have an ethical checklist in place.

There is a great piece of advice that I was given by my current mentor and business partner about always acting correctly. It’s called “The Washington Post Test”, and it really simple: whenever you are about to do something, imagine that it is going to be across the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow. This brings up dozens of questions, including:

  • Would you be able to rationalise your behaviour?
  • Would it create a scandal?
  • Would it tarnish any goodwill you have built up?

If you don’t have any ethical checklist in place, the Washington Post Test is a great replacemenet.

The last couple of sentences of this chapter actually reveal the way forward. Let me quote the relevant part again:

As for desire, suspend it completely for now. Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, with discipline and detachment.

Epictetus advises us to completely suspend desire. Now I’m sure how practical or easy to achieve that is but does explain how to go about. We should put our daily choices under the microscope and detach ourselves from the emotion of choice so we can make correct objective decisions. Clearly, this won’t be an overnight transformation but if you think of the thousands of choices we make each day, there is obviously a large for practice (and change) in even a week of trying.

Anyway, that’s it for today but I do have a book recommendation for you. William B. Irvine’s book “On Desire: Why We Want What We Want”

I’ve decided not to link to any articles on desire from elsewhere online as most of them tend to deal on how to get what you desire and rarely touch on the question of the “if“. That said, searching “Desire” on the Stoicism Reddit does dig up some interesting discussions.