Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.
One of the great fears many of us face is that despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life. In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.
What do you want out of life? In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?
Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute o even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living.
It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things, indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
Why is it important to have such a philosophy?
Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive –that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.
The second component of a philosophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living.
Stoic Psychological Techniques
Around the world and throughout the millenia, those who have thought carefully about the workings of desire have recognized this –that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life. How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have?
The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value–that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.
The dichotomy of control
While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves–more precisely, by changing our desires.
And he is not alone in giving this advice; indeed, it is the advice offered by virtually every philosopher and religious thinker who has reflected on human desire and the causes of human dissatisfaction.
‘Some things are up to us and some are not up to us’ Epictetus
He offers our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions as examples of things that are up to us, and our possessions and reputation as examples of things that aren’t.
If we want things that are not up to us, though, we will sometimes fail to get what we want, and when this happens, we will ‘meet misfortune’ and feel ‘thwarted, miserable, and upset.’ In particular, Epictetus says, it is foolish fos us to want friends and relatives to live forever, since these are things that aren’t up to us.
Although the Stoics advocate fatalism, they seem not to have practiced it. What are we to make, then, of their advice that we take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us?
To solve this puzzle, we need to distinguish between fatalism with respect to the future and fatalism with respect to the past.
When a person is fatalistic with respect to the future, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on future events. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about the future or trying to alter it.
When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she adopts the same attitude toward past events. She will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past.
To engage in negative visualization is to contemplate the bad things that happen to us. Seneca recommends an extension of this technique: Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened.In particular, instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose our wealth, we should periodically ‘practice poverty.’
To help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.
He attributes this technique to his teacher Sextius, who, at beadtime, would ask himself, ‘What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?’