Monday, November 28, 2005

Putting aside desire

The man who is making progress has learned from the philosophers that desire
has good things for its object and aversion bad things. He has learned that
peace of mind and serenity can only be attained by a man if he achieves what he
desires and does not fall into what he wants to avoid. Such a man either has rid
himself of desire completely or has put it off to another time....
[Discourses I. 4. 1]

But for the present, totally suppress desire, for if you desire any of the
things that are not up to us, you must be unhappy. [ Encheiridion 2 ]

There are other passages in the Discourses where Epictetus urges us to do away with or at least suspend our desires for the time being. At several places Epictetus recommends that this should be the first priority for the proficient, i.e., the one who wishes to make progress toward a tranquil life. Epictetus believes that frustrated desires & unavailing aversions are the main cause of our unhappiness. We are unhappy in our desires because we desire to have or control the wrong things, things that are innately not in our control or power. This is a constant theme in the Discourses.

Interestingly, neither Epictetus nor Arrian seem to speak directly to the question of how we should go about suppressing or suspending our desires. Desires arise all the time for all sorts of things, most of them very dubious goods. We want a bigger house, a new car, more leisure, a better paying & more prestigious job, a better computer. If we carried around a notebook just to log every desire that occurred to us, we’d be lugging a hefty volume in no time. So how are we supposed to turn off this fountain of desire, at least until we know good desires from bad ones?

As I said, there is no essay in the Discourses entitled “On suppressing desire.” There is no passage I know of that turns directly to instructing us in the delicate art of suppressing desires & aversions. Given the constraints of Stoic psychology, there may be a significant problem here. If we accept that desire is a kind of impulse ( horme) in reaction to an experience that reason/memory has labelled as attractive & choiceworthy, the only way to block this impulse is by withholding assent to the judgment that it is good or choiceworthy. But how do we train our faculty of assent to react negatively to what we recall as a pleasant experience?
There are to be sure many hints in Epictetus & Arrian that we may pursue, but no well-articulated therapy of desire. What sort of a problem is this for Epictetus? What do you think?


Blogger robfal said...

Isn't that the point... searching for our own answers to these problems? I have just posted my thoughts on guilt on and feel that what I have stated in the posting is stoic influenced and in no way attempts to give a step-by-step guide to the problems of guilt arising from desires but restates that only through supressing your own desire or anticipation, much the same thing really, can you avoid guilt.

6:45 AM  

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