Enchiridion II


Remember that desire demands the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion demands the avoidance of that to which you are averse; that he who fails of the object of his desires is disappointed; and he who incurs the object of his aversion is wretched. If, then, you shun only those undesirable things which you can control, you will never incur anything which you shun; but if you shun sickness, or death, or poverty, you will run the risk of wretchedness. Remove [the habit of] aversion, then, from all things that are not within our power, and apply it to things undesirable which are within our power. But for the present, altogether restrain desire; for if you desire any of the things not within our own power, you must necessarily be disappointed; and you are not yet secure of those which are within our power, and so are legitimate objects of desire. Where it is practically necessary for you to pursue or avoid anything, do even this with discretion and gentleness and moderation.

What are the undesirable things that you can control? They are things like your attitudes towards events or people. Things occur that are outside your control, but you do get to decide how you react to them. Ray Wylie Hubbard put this in the end of his talking blues song "Mother Blues" as 'keeping his gratitude higher than his expectations.' The same things are happening to you externally, but the internal thing that you can control changes what the experience is like for you in crucial ways. You can shun the bad reactions, and pursue the good ones.

I saw someone remark the other day that if you choose not to find the joy in snowy days then your life will have less joy, but the same amount of snow. That is roughly the insight here.


Elise said...

Is this the insight from Hamlet?

for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

To me, the interesting point in this section is the admonition to “for the present, altogether restrain desire” because - as I read it - I do not yet understand (“not yet secure of”) what desires are within my power. It sounds like I’m presumed to already understand what aversions I should avoid but knowing which desires to pursue or avoid is more advanced knowledge.

Grim said...

Obviously some desires for outside things are going to be difficult to avoid. Desire for food, water, rest, shelter, these things all lie in the area Epictetus has identified as out of our proper control -- 'not our business' -- and yet they are necessary conditions for survival.

Desire for the health of the body is another one that is hard to avoid, as we've already discussed. You should not have an aversion to being sick, or maimed, or forced to encounter exterior filth; but you should also try to suppress the desire for health and wellness, too.

There's a reasonable argument that the mind and body are not as separate as he is taking them to be: that the ability of the mind to function well, which is definitely 'our business' on his terms, depends at least partly on the body being in some kind of decent condition. Certainly if the body is injected with certain drugs, the mind will cease to function completely -- either through death or unconsciousness. This is the Nero-era Roman Empire, though, and for the moment you might have to bookmark that objection as something to work out later.

J Melcher said...

But for the present, altogether restrain desire; ... you are not yet secure of those which are within our power,

This sounds to me a temporary instruction. What the teacher tells the student. Not now, not yet but implicitly, later.

As if a securely Stoic philosopher might loosen his self-restraints on desire ... "I would happier with that, but I do not NEED that, and I will not be less happy than now, without that. "

Elise said...

It wasn't an objection just an observation on the apparent difference between his admonition on aversion and his admonition on desire. I will bookmark it, however - I'll be interested to see what Epictetus believes I need to know in order to safely desire anything.