The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I hope to analyze the effects my desires have had on me and attempt to temper them with a stoic perspective. I’ll probably be unsuccessful, but oh well. (One definition of zen, by the way, is “an approach to religion, arising from Buddhism, that seeks religious enlightenment by meditation in which there is no consciousness of self,” emphasis being my own.)
“Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.”
This is a fairly obvious statement – if you desire something and you don’t get it, you wind up disappointed. Similarly, if you wish to avoid something and you fail to, you also seem to be impacted negatively. Epictetus would argue, however, that these negative repercussion are not necessary; they are in fact a symptom of our faulty way of viewing the world.
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and in one word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men….”
What he is saying here is that we, as humans, have only limited control over our situation in life. Things which we routinely think of as “ours” (to include “our” body) are not, in fact, completely under our control. (Can you, for example, control whether or not your body contracts disease, whether or not it grows cancer, whether or not it circulates blood and whether or not your brain is sending electrical impulses? You can influence some or all of these things, but the stoics would draw a sharp distinction between things that you can control and things that you can influence.) Hardship and personal agony result from the dissonance between perceiving things as under our control which are not – after all, it is only natural to feel miserable if something you think you can control goes awry.
- “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible…But the terror consists in our notion of death that is terrible.”
- “If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own.”
- “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For it is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”
“Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.”
“Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait til it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner in the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire.”
And when better to start, than now – as I’m getting ready to change my career up and spend the next three years (starting in March) overseas in various countries? I wonder if I am strong enough, however.