A Stoic Response To Desire

“The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want…If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy…For desire, suspend it completely for now. Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, within discipline and detachment.”

—Epictetus, Enchiridion, 2.1-2

Late Stoic thought of the second century paints a vivid picture of the work of philosophy in producing both self-coherence and progress—a prescription for handling ourselves and our actions in the world. Epictetus said this about the path of progress,

“There are three areas in which the person who would be wise and good must be trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions—that a person may never miss the mark in desires nor fall into what repels them. The second has to do with impulses to act and not to act—and more broadly, with duty—that a person may act deliberately for good reasons and not carelessly. The third has to do with freedom from deception and composure and the whole area of judgment, the assent our mind gives to its perceptions. Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.”

—Epictetus, Discourses, 3.2. 1–3a

Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.

The Stoics held that there were four passions that stifle progress and contribute to our misery. They divided the four passions into two types. One: for things not in present possession or anticipated in the future, which are desire (ἐπιθυμία) and fear (φόβος). Two: for things presently engaging a person, which are pleasure (ἡδονή) and distress (λύπη). Here, we’ll focus on the passion of desire.

Epictetus states the Stoic position most clearly in Discourses (4.1.175): “Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.” In Aristotle, this was understood as “appetence”—a longing or craving—and was something shared with animals and different from purposive choice (prohairesis), which involves reason and deliberation. In our prohairesis, not in external things, Epictetus says, “God laid down this law, saying: if you want some good, get it from yourself.”

How often do we sit around waiting, hoping, begging, craving, wishing for luck to strike, or change to happen? We hope that we might meet the right person…meanwhile we maintain the exact same social circle and habits we’ve always had. We wish we could lose that weight…as if someone other than us was the one cheating on our diet. We want our work to be recognized, to accomplish the goals we’ve set for ourselves…but we hold ourselves back from really trying.

As Epictetus put it, we could sit and pray our nose doesn’t run…or we could just start blowing our own nose. Self-Reliance, that’s the key. Each one of us has to take responsibility for ourselves, not putting it on the Gods or the whims of Fortune to determine whether we get what we want.

Be the luck you want to strike, the change you want to happen, the gift you want to have. Blow your own nose. As sportscaster Adam Lefkoe said in our interview of the NFL’s—where Stoicism has spread like wildfire—most renowned coach,

“I find [Bill] Belichick’s mantra “Do Your Job” to be a three-word embodiment of Stoicism. He is defined by his intense focus and dispassionate nature. He lives for process. He prepares for any possible situation or outcome. He works harder than any other coach in the NFL and doesn’t have time to worry about losses…he’s “on to Cincinnati.”

Marcus Aurelius said that principles and action need to be the source of desire and must be limited to only what’s in our control. “Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress,” he wrote. “And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over.”

So what we require in our ascent, in our forward progress, is deliberate action, not hope for uncertainties. Desire is form over function. Deliberate action is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not desire.

Desire is: I really want ______ to happen. When ______ happens, then I’ll be happy, then I’ll be able to ______. Deliberate action is: I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.

“A desire presupposes the possibility of action to achieve it; action presupposes a goal which is worth achieving,” as Ayn Rand wrote. Which is why a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level. It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave desire for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you hope might happen or wish to be. Attach to the process, not the outcome. Prepare and act. Don’t hope and wait. Then, we can do great things.

You want something. Great. How do you get there? What are you doing to get there? If those questions have clear answers to guide deliberate actions, you have a goal to see to, not a desire to pray on.