Epictetus part 2: Desire and aversion

Note: this is the second part of a weekly series, discussing the works of Epictetus. The first 53 parts are devoted to his Enchiridion (Handbook). A new post will be released every monday morning.

Have you ever desired something so much, and failed to attain it? How did it make you feel? Or have you ever felt a great aversion towards something and had all your fears come true? We all know how it feels: you’re sad, depressed, and not at all happy. The ideal of contentment (eudaimonia) seems very far away. Desire and aversion can affect your spirit enormously. That is why the second paragraph of Epictetus’ Enchiridion focuses exactly on dealing with these two forces: desire and aversion. First, he explains the inherent nature of desire and aversion:

Remember that desire promises the chance of reaching what you desire, and that aversion promises to not fall into that which you averse; that he who fails to reach the object of his desire is unfortunate, and that he who falls into the object of his aversion, is unhappy.

In other words: if you focus on what happens in the future, and it turns out in a way that you don’t like, you will be unhappy. Either you want something which you don’t get (failed desire) or you don’t want something that you get (failed aversion).

Next, Epictetus teaches us how to deal with desire and aversion. For this, he reminds us that we should first distinguish between what is within our control and what is not (as was the topic of last week’s post). As for aversion, he advises us to only have aversion towards things that are both unnatural and within our control:

If, then, you only have aversion towards the things that are unnatural and in your control, you will never fall into the object of your aversion. But if you have aversion towards sickness, death or poverty, you will be unhappy. Therefore, take away your aversion to all the things that are not in our control and transfer it to the things that are unnatural and in our control.

As for desire, Epictetus advises (for the time being) to not desire anything:

Let go of all desire for the moment: for if you desire what is not in our control, you will surely be unfortunate, and of the things that are within our control, how great they may be, nothing is yet in your possession. Only exercise pursuit and avoidance slightly, with exception and reservedly.

At a quick glance, you might think that there is a difference between dealing with aversion (focus it at the unnatural things in our control) and with desire (let go of it completely). However, Epictetus advises us to ‘Let go of all desire for the moment‘. He doesn’t say that we can never desire. In fact, the last sentence of this paragraph can be interpreted as a leave to have desires, as long as you exercise caution. It is clear that we should never desire what is not within our control, because doing so may lead to disappointment. It is also clear that desire for unnatural things (even if they are in our control) is bad. After all, as stoics, we should live in accordance with nature. As for the things that are natural and within our control, I think we can desire them as long as we are cautious. However, to be able to desire these things, we must know what they are. Since we have just started our Stoic Journey, Epictetus advises us to abolish all desire for the moment. Let go of your desire and focus your aversion solely on unnatural things in your control.

Do you have another explanation for the apparent difference in dealing with aversion and dealing with desire? I would be happy to discuss it in the comment section below.  

3 thoughts on “Epictetus part 2: Desire and aversion

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