Notes on Desire

The early Stoic Epictetus was born into slavery in Greece around AD 50. He regained his freedom at 18, but the only pleasure until then was that his wealthy master allowed him to study philosophy under Musonius Rufus, a famous Stoic.

Having lived with little by necessity for so long, Epictetus maintained a simple lifestyle after his release, and his thoughts about desire became a major part of his message, a message we still remember today. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants,” Epictetus said. Can you leave it alone? If so, you are rich, for you need not even concern yourself with whatever “it” is.

“Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire,” Epictetus’ student Arrian wrote in Discourses, a collection of notes on Epictetus’ informal lectures. The more you can accept the large parts of life you will never visit, see, or experience, the happier you’ll be, Epictetus believed. I’m a 32-year-old man with the knees of a 67-year-old retiree. Never say never, but if I die without ever clipping a snowboard to my feet, I’ll be okay.

In the Enchiridion, literally a “handbook” Arrian compiled from Discourses, Epictetus succinct advice on desire goes as follows: “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, within discipline and detachment.”

Don’t crave what you can’t attain but only be given, and don’t resent what you should be able to attain but can’t. Choose to stay fully in the realm of what you hold sway over, no matter how tiny it may be. Desire only to be free of desire, and you will find a store of wealth that often eludes even the richest: the inner peace that flows from the fountain of “enough.”