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The Art of Living

The Discipline of Desire

Massimo Pigliucci helps us to know our limits.

“Of all existing things some are up to us, and others are not up to us. Up to us are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not up to us include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1). Thus begins one of the most famous pieces of practical advice from ancient philosophy, which I will try to put into practice in this very column.

First, a quick refresher. Last issue we looked at the three disciplines articulated by the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Each discipline is meant to help us to improve in one of three areas that, together, make for a virtuous and smooth flow of life. The three disciplines are: desire, which deals with retraining ourselves to prefer what’s good for us and shun what is bad; action, which concerns how we interact with others; and assent, which is devoted to our judgements, and therefore how we practice the first two disciplines.

Here I want to focus on desire. The basic assumption of Epictetus’s discipline of desire is that we are often mistaken about what is or is not good for us. I may think, for instance, that eating gelato is a good thing – until I realize that my doctor may object the next time she sees my cholesterol chart.

According to Epictetus, one crucial notion we need to absorb is that the sphere of our choice is very small, and that we should train ourselves to want, or pay attention to, only things that fall within it. Everything else we ought to approach with equanimity. This he calls the fundamental rule of life. For instance, what about eating gelato is up to me, and what is not? Pretty much the only thing that is up to me is the decision to try to get hold of some, or, conversely, the decision to skip it on the grounds that it would have an adverse effect on my cholesterol. That’s it. Whether my cholesterol will be affected by my eating or not eating the gelato is the result of factors that are not within my agency, such as the details of my metabolism, the laws of biochemistry, and so forth.

While eating or not eating a gelato on one particular occasion is hardly a momentous decision, the same principle applies to everything I decide to do or not do. Take a more consequential example: tackling a job interview. It is natural to us to focus on the outcome of the interview – that is, on whether I will or will not get the job. But that, Epictetus maintains, lies squarely outside of my sphere of choice, because it depends on factors such as the competition I face, the match between my resume and the job requirements, and even the mood of the interviewer who will make the final decision. Instead of wasting time and emotional energy worrying about the outcome, I should focus on what lies within my agency. That includes the decision to apply for that particular job; putting together a resume tailored to the occasion; writing a good cover letter; doing background research so that I am well prepared for the interview; going to sleep early; and not drinking the night before, so that I’ll be fresh and focused; doing my best not to be late to the appointment; and so on.

My friend Greg Lopez and I devised an exercise to practice this aspect of Epictetus’s Discipline of Desire – part of a series of such exercises collected in A Handbook for New Stoics (published by The Experiment). Here is how it works. Whenever you’re facing an important challenge, draw or mentally construct something like the following table:

Up to me: Not up to me:
Refine resume What the interviewer will think of my resume.
Do research Whether research will help during interview.
Go to bed early Whether I will sleep.
Plan not to be late Whether I will actually be on time.

Now you try. Pick a challenge you’re facing soon and write as many entries as possible in both columns.

But wait a minute, you may object: aren’t there things that fall in-between the two categories? Things that are in my power to influence, but not determine?

Counterintuitively, no, there aren’t. Take the above example: will I get the job? You may think that this is a classic case of an outcome you can influence in part, but which is also in part the result of external factors.

This is true, so far as it goes. But how, exactly, do you influence the outcome? Exclusively by exercising your judgment about how to refine your resume, how to do research, whether to go to bed early, whether to set up multiple alarm clocks and leave the house with plenty of time to spare, and so forth; and then by attempting to execute those judgements. That is, you are in charge of your intentions and your attempts to implement them: you are not in charge of the outcomes. It may be that you’ll be late because of an unexpected strike affecting the public transport system, or that you won’t sleep the night before, since you’re very nervous and can’t manage to calm down.

Once it sinks in that everything you do can be approached with something like the above table, you will have mastered an incredibly powerful tool for a better, more smoothly-flowing life.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character (Basic Books). More by him at massimopigliucci.org.

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