The Discipline of Desire: Quit Counting on Telekinesis

Today we venture into the three fields of Stoic study, or topoi.

There are three areas of study in which a student of philosophy must be trained. The first is desire and aversion, so that the student will always obtain what he desires and will never fall into what he would prefer to avoid. The second is the impulse to act and not to act, and general appropriate behavior; so that the student may act in an orderly manner after careful thought, and not carelessly. The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and in general, whatever is related to assent.

(Epictetus, Discourses 3.2)

  1. Desire (and aversion) – so we can always get what we want and avoid what we don’t want
  2. Impulse to Act (and not act) – so we can behave appropriately after thinking through the situation carefully
  3. Accurate judgement (and deception) – so we can learn what things we should give our assent to

The Stoics saw these fields as necessary in order to create and life a happy life. Let’s take a look at what each field is exactly. In an effort to avoid a lengthy post, we’ll break each area up separately, starting with Desire.


Desire

First of all, since we can’t change externals around us (we don’t have the power to change things just by snapping our fingers), we need to take a look at what it is we desire and whether the things we desire are rational things to want. (Think of a parent asking their child what they would like for their birthday, and the child asks for a unicorn. The parent is probably going to ask the child if they have any other, more feasible suggestions).

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Set your sights on Virtue.

The Stoics believed it’s important to know what to desire, so we can avoid the mistake of asking for unrealistic things (such as unicorns or other externals like wealth or fame).

The first and most important area of study has to do with passions, for these stem only from not getting our desires and from acquiring what we are averse to. This introduces disturbances, misfortunes, sorrow, lamentation, and envy; and renders us envious, and therefore incapable of listening to reason.

(Epictetus, Discourses 3.2)

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We tend to put our desires into things that we can’t control. Then when things don’t go the way we want them to, we throw adult temper tantrums. We have decades of experience living in this universe. We should know better!

We tend to hope for things that are not in our power. But when we do this, we put that hope in the hands of others or in the hands of Fate. Then when we don’t get the things that we want, we get angry, sad, frustrated, etc. Epictetus says that these emotional passions are the source of all misery for humans. And trying harder to get what we want, when the power lies in someone else’s hands, isn’t going to do any good. Instead of wasting our efforts with that route, we should change what we actually desire. We should limit our desire to something entirely within our own control, which is Virtue, and therefore focus solely on becoming the best person we can be.

 

The Stoic’s main goal, then, is to pursue Virtue because it is the only reasonable thing to desire, the only thing we have total control over acquiring, the only thing that will completely eliminate the possibility of being disappointed. Stoics will still pursue “preferred indifferent” things (for example, good health) in order to fulfill their projects and duties. But the Stoic will not be upset over setbacks or failure because they realize that none of these setbacks are up to them and that getting upset is pointless.

Imagine you’re driving to work…

  • You think to yourself, “I desire to get to work on time without any disturbances.”
  • Suddenly a car cuts in front of you and starts driving really slowly.
  • You realize this car is going to cause you to be late. This car is getting in the way of your desire!
  • You feel frustration boiling up inside. You mutter, Gah! This other car is going to make me late. Don’t they understand that it’s rush hour?? Some people should just get off the road! Stupid driver!
  • You blare the horn and ride the car’s tail, but no matter what you do, they simply won’t drive faster or get out of your way.
  • Eventually you make it to work, but you’re pissed off and now you have high blood pressure.

 

road-rage

Get out of the way!! Your driving techniques are preventing me from happiness and achieving everything I want in life! —— Umm…. irrational.

 

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Believing that your angry mind power will make the car in front of you drive faster sounds a bit like believing in telekinesis.

It’s common to have a emotional reaction when we don’t get what we want. But believing that your angry mind power will make the car in front of you drive faster sounds a little like believing in telekinesis. Since we can’t change things that are beyond our power, we should change our desires to be toward things that are in our power, like Virtue.

It is in maintaining this consciousness of what is truly good (virtue), and awareness that the indifferent things are beyond their power, that makes this a discipline for the Stoic prokoptôn.

(Seddon, Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes)


Use today to identify what you find yourself desiring. Ask yourself, is this rational? Or am I placing my hopes in the hands of someone else? If so, try to redirect that specific desire to something that is within your control, something that would instead lead to your development of becoming a better person.

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