Is Stoicism of any use?

I have been reading Epictetus.  Along with Marcus Aurelius, he keeps popping up in my general reading around philosophy and desire.  They were both Romans (MA was Emperor between 161 and 180 AD).  The classical Greco-Roman perspective was patriarchal with big dollops of misogyny.  So – I’ve said it – that’s the way it was then – but we can still think about their philosophy even so.  They were both adherents of the Stoic school of philosophy.  Epictetus was earlier (c.AD 55-135), and he influenced MA.  Epictetus was born a slave, which is interesting in itself, as he talked a lot about freedom and slavery in relation to desire in his Discourses.  His master had access to the Imperial household, recognised and supported Epictetus’ abilities, and eventually freed him.  For his own safety (philosophers in Rome were out of favour with the Emperor Domitian), Epictetus moved across the Adriatic and founded a school of philosophy at Nicopolis on the west coast of Greece.

Epictetus’ general advice was to focus both your desire and your aversion only on whatever is within your control.  Only then can you be considered free.    He asks, “Can you be forced by anyone to desire something against your will?”1  This gives his student (and us) pause for thought.  He talks a lot about will – of course – and the exercise of restraint.  Anyone who has tried to deal with eating issues knows that will power has its limits – or can work so well that it kills you.

But let’s persevere with Epictetus.  I am going to quote here the entire Chapter 2 from his Enchiridion2:

[1] The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want, while aversion purports to shield you from what you don’t.  If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy.  So direct aversion only towards things that are under your control and alien to your nature, and you will not fall victim to any of the things that you dislike.  But if your resentment is directed at illness, death or poverty, you are headed for disappointment.

[2] Remove it from anything not in our power to control, and direct it instead toward things contrary to our nature that we do control.  As 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, with discipline and detachment.

Epictetus maintains that if you can do this, it will lead to a state of tranquillity.  In many ways this sounds like the state of equanimity so valued in the practice of Buddhism, where one is no longer gripped by the craving of attachment and aversion.  And, as in Buddhism, it cannot actually be reached by a simple act of will – but requires deep awareness and examination of attachment (desire) and aversion.  Epictetus is not entirely anti-desire – nor were any of the Stoics as far as I know.  The Stoic approach is more what you might call common sense and sticking with the achievable that is moderate and honourable.  He makes it sound simpler than I think he knows it is.  He shows how there has to be a weighing up of what you desire more/most.  If you feel you deeply value freedom and honour (as the Stoics tend to), the choices of turning from desires that are outside your control and engaging in “discipline and detachment” become more obvious.  So – you have to go down deep to feel what it is that you really want.  These deep desires need to be achievable and (as described in the 20/10/2018 post) “hedonic” to be effective at helping to moderate all the other competing desires that can arise.

Amy brought up the Rebel in her comments on 01/11/2018.  I think the roots of this might be in the desires for freedom and for having one’s autonomy respected, deep desires coloured by both cultural and personal differences in their meaning.  You can see these desires arise in infant development, rise again in adolescence – but then often getting lost in the competing desires/demands of adulthood, sometimes leaving people with a sense of not having really lived their own life.  Epictetus must have been able to live with not being free in the ordinary sense (he had no choice while he was a slave), but he obviously deeply valued inner freedom.

Do I want to be “tranquil” whatever that means?  Where was my “choice” in the episode of the Snickers bar (01/11/2018)? And, as I pointed out, there are cultural forces like shame that enter in.  Is this part of “discipline and detachment?  It doesn’t quite feel like that.  But Epictitus does make sense to me, too – especially in the idea of desire needing to be somehow “achievable”.  And inner freedom feels immensely desirable.  Do we all want to be free?  And what does that mean to each of us?  I was listening today to some songs of freedom from the South African freedom struggle – the desire was powerful there.

  1. Discourses, Book IV:74
  2. Discourses and Selected Writings; Penguin Classics

Who or what is taking me for a ride?

If I put “desire” into the alchemical vessel, will its golden essence be found?  That’s kind of what I’m hoping to do, but I’m thinking it’s very easy to end up with fool’s gold.

Initially there are drives/needs: for food, sex, safety, security, a sense of self-worth etc.  These are baselines for desire rather than desire itself, but the potential for confusion is present even at this level.  For instance, the overlap in desire imagery between food and sex has often been noted.  The connection between fear and desire can be seen in some of the possible “impurities” below.  When basic needs/drives are frustrated or damaged, they might lead to problematic desires connected with:

  • Addictive behaviours & substance addiction
  • Obsessions, including sexual obsessions
  • A focus on worldly desires such as for wealth, power, conquest, fame, etc.
  • Longing: It seems to me this is not as able to motivate action as desire is. It even can lead to chronic inaction. Pothos was one of the Erotes and symbolised longing or yearning.  It’s interesting that his flower was one that was used at funerals!  Are we in the realm of Freud’s Thanatos?
  • A focus on physical pleasure/hedonism: Might this be a distraction or escape from facing inevitable mortality?


Before going deeply into desire, the surface area needs to be examined – then, ideally, to go down layer by layer.  I seriously doubt I will be that systematic but, as archaeologists know, what is discovered on the surface can give important information about what might be below.  I wrote an essay in high school on “Why I want to be an archaeologist.”  Was this the beginning of my desire to dig down deeply?  Instead I became a therapist, and it’s my daughter who now has a PhD in archaeology.  I’m not sure I have an archaeologist’s patience.  There will be a few spontaneous plunges and resulting re-surfacing that might happen in this enquiry.

On the surface of my life is a certain desire to eat in a unregulated manner that seems to take possession of me and does not really relate to any current actual need for food (although it probably relates to my very early actual needs for food/comfort etc.).  There is a difference, according to much on-line advice, between hunger (naturally arising from natural need) and appetite (the desire for food), which in either extreme (excessive or repressed) falls within the impurity of addiction in the above list.

I have always had difficulties with impulsive/emotional eating, often when I am tired, or when I am living in my head or when I am unhappy, frustrated, anxious or angry.  I am one of millions who suffer from this.  There are so many of us you might as well call it normal.  But it is very humiliating be thrown out of control so frequently around food, and this is made worse by the pressures and shame our culture projects onto women’s bodies and appetite.  Ever since knowing the circumstances of my birth, I have felt my eating issues were rooted in my birth experience and then compounded by my relationship with my not-quite-available mother as I grew up.  I have written about my birth and my mother elsewhere in Nothing Special, Experiencing Fear and Vulnerability in Daily Life (2015, Triarchy Press), but, in a nut-shell, I was separated from her at my hospital birth and brought to her every four hours for “ten minutes a side” –  then firmly taken from her again.  My father was away and the hospital wouldn’t let my mother go home until he returned two weeks later.  My mother said by then I was “a very good baby”, meaning I didn’t make much of a fuss.  In my childhood, while she was providing my food (and she was very good at this), I remained unaware of any impulsive eating.  But I did suck my thumb (a lot) until I was 11/12 years old when shame of the behaviour finally out-weighed the desire.  I also went through a period in late childhood of stealing – mostly little things from five & dime stores that I didn’t even want.  The shame I felt every time was excruciating.  This came to an end when I stole $5 from my mother’s purse.  She asked me about it and I denied knowing anything, but the unbearable shame about lying to my beloved (if unobtainable) mother brought an end to my stealing.  I am noticing the connection between desire and shame arising here.

It was when I left home and started feeding myself that the sense of a lack of control around eating began to be felt.  I have found various ways of managing my weight through my adult life – but not a way of managing the feelings of shame and being out of control around certain foods (usually fatty, sweet things).  I was breastfed, and honour my mother in her insistence on this against the prevailing culture of the time.  Having breastfed my own children, I now know how sweet breast milk tastes.  Sweet is a very primal taste and is associated with feeling nourished, relaxed and held.  Only, indulging in sweet foods doesn’t really provide that, does it?  At least not for long.  It’s been like this: I’m driving home from a long day and know I will be passing a shop.  The desire-thought for a Snickers bar arises in my mind (a neat package of sweet, fat & protein – like breast milk).  I recognise it and think I’ve got a handle on it. I try to let what arises in my mind just flow through me: “You deserve it after such a hard day!” – the taste memory arises – “You’re too weak to stop yourself, aren’t you!” – I smell the Snickers bar.  But I then remind myself about how bad I will feel afterwards, both physically and emotionally, and tell myself that what I really need is a couple of crackers and a cup of tea, followed by a 15 minute lie-down.  Yes – I am almost home and relax a bit.  Suddenly someone else takes control of the car and of me, and I am turning into the local shop, getting out, buying a Snickers bar and eating it immediately in the car.  I drive home feeling defeated and humiliated – but also sort of satisfied.  I have been struggling with various versions of this scenario throughout my adult life and still can’t seem to get out of being taken for a ride by this kind of desire now and again.  I know there are many others who can immediately relate to this.  What to do?