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:
 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.
 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 both coloured by 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.
- Discourses, Book IV:74
- Discourses and Selected Writings; Penguin Classics