January 31, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Restrain Your Desires

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. We constantly go after honours, but pay little attention to the nature of our judgements.
  2. Constantly craving for more and more things leads to constant dissatisfaction.
  3. The way out is to drop a few of your desires. Then you will get what you want.
We constantly go after greater honours

A man on his way to Rome came to see Epictetus. The man was engaged in a lawsuit regarding the honour to be bestowed upon him as a patron of a city. He described his situation to Epictetus and asked him what he thought of the matter. Epictetus said:

“If you are asking me what you will do in Rome and whether you will win or lose your case, I have nothing to say to you. But if are asking me how you will do, I can tell you that. If your judgments are right, you will do well; if they are wrong, you will not do well. How a person does depends on their judgment. Every time. Why are you so eager to get elected to this office? Your judgment. What makes you go to Rome? Your judgment. And risking wintry weather and spending your own money too. Why?”

“Because it is necessary.”

“What makes you think that? Your judgment.”

Therefore, if judgements are the causes of your actions, when your judgements are bad, the results will be bad – corresponding to the cause. Well then, are your judgments sound – both yours and your opponent’s? If so, why do you disagree? Do you think that you are right and he is not? Why? Because you think so.  But so does he. And so do crazy people. This is a bad criterion to go by.

But we don’t stop to examine the nature of our judgements

But show me that you have examined your judgments carefully. You are not content to stay home with the honours you have already received, and you travel to Rome in order to receive the new honour of becoming a patron of the city. You desire something greater and more prominent. So, tell me, have you ever been on a journey to examine your own judgements, so you can reject those that are unsound? Whom did you consult for that purpose? What time have you set aside for this? In what stage of your life? Run through those periods in your life. Do it in your mind, if you are ashamed to do it in front of me.

  • Did you examine your life when you were a child? Isn’t it true that what you were doing then was not different from what you are doing now?
  • Did you examine your life when you were a young person? When you listened to those who taught rhetoric and practised it yourself, did you imagine that you were deficient in anything?
  • Did you examine your life when you became a man and took part in public affairs? When you pleaded cases yourself and acquired a reputation, did you imagine anyone else could be your equal? Would you have tolerated it if someone tried to cross-examine you, to show that your judgments were bad?

“Help me with this.”

“I have no rules to offer you on this. If you have come to me for that purpose, you should have come here intending to meet a philosopher rather than a greengrocer or a shoemaker, as you have done now.”

“For what purpose, then, do philosophers offer rules?”

“For this purpose: Whatever happens, our ruling faculty continues to be in accordance with nature. Does this seem small to you?”

“No. It’s of the greatest importance.”

“Well, can that be completed in a short time, in a brief visit? If it can be so completed, do so. And then you will go away and complain, ‘I met Epictetus, but it was like meeting with a stone or a statue.’ Yes, you simply saw me, nothing more.”

You know someone only when you understand the nature of their judgements

You meet someone properly as a person only when you understand his judgments and show him yours in turn. Discover my judgments, show me yours, and then you can say you have met me. Let us cross-examine each other. If any of my judgements is bad, take it away; if any of yours is bad, let’s bring it to light. This is what meeting a philosopher is all about.

But no, this is your way: “We were passing through. And, while we were waiting to charter a ship to go to Rome, we thought we could visit Epictetus to see what he has to say.” Then you leave saying, “Epictetus was nothing at all. He murdered the language and spoke utter nonsense.” What else could you judge, if you came here like this?

“But if I turn to these matters, I won’t own land any more than you do. I won’t own silver goblets any more than you do. And I won’t own fine cattle any more than you do.”

Constantly craving for more makes you dissatisfied with life

It is enough for me to respond this way:

“But I have no need for such things. For you, even if you acquire more things, you’ll need even more. Whether you wish it not, you are poorer than I am.”

“What do you need, then?”

“Things you don’t have now: stability, a mind in accord with nature, and freedom from tension. Patron or no patron, what do I care? But you do. I am richer than you are. I am not anxious about what Caesar will think of me. I flatter no one for that purpose. This is what I have instead of your plates of gold and silver.”

You may own gold wares, but your reasoning, your judgments and assent, your impulses and desires are earthenware. When I have all these in accord with nature, why shouldn’t I devote some time to the art of reasoning? I have leisure and my mind isn’t distracted. What could I better be doing than this as a human being? You have nothing to do and you are restless. You go to the theatre and wander aimlessly.

Why shouldn’t a philosopher cultivate his reason? You have fine crystal vases, I have the argument of The Liar. You have fine glassware and I the argument of the Denyer. [We have already discussed The Liar paradox in Stoic Choices. Chrysippus wrote two works on the Denyer argument, although scholars aren’t sure about the nature of this argument.]  To you, all you have seems small. To me, all I have seems important. Your desires cannot be fulfilled. Mine already are. When children put their hands into narrow-necked jar to get nuts and figs out, the same thing happens. Once they fill their hand, they cannot get it out. They cry. Drop a few and you will easily get it out. You too should drop your desires. Don’t set your heart upon too many things and you’ll get what you want.

Think about this

Everything you already have seems small in your sight but everything that I have seems important to me. Discourses III.9.21. Epictetus [WO]