The Stoics reckon that only disciplined desire leads to happiness…
So I’m unpacking some of the wisdom from the ancient Stoics right now.
This isn’t just for your benefit. (Stop making it all about you for once.) I’m actively looking for the tools that are going to get me through this.
I know I make this look easy, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
I mean, I live in inner-city Melbourne. It’s pretty much ground-zero for the lockdown, and Melbourne winters are tough at the best of times.
And a good chunk of my business is in the events space. We were well positioned for the drive to digital already, but still, there was a lot to figure out. And it was difficult to execute when every operator in the space was trying to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.
I’m fully aware of my privilege, and I’m fully aware that a lot of my problems are 1%’er problems (no holiday in Greece this year), but still, this has been a tough year.
2020 has been challenging. And we’re not even done.
And while ‘unprecedented’ is the buzzword of the moment, I know that a lot of this is not new.
Humanity has faced plagues and diseases before. We’ve faced wars and political instability before. Individuals have lived through the collapse of empires and the end of eras.
I’m not the first man to have a rough time of it.
And so going back to the Stoics has given me a lot of peace. I am living proof that my ancestors found a way to survive, and the books of the stoic philosophers are a record of the wisdom that helped them do it.
So one of the key insights is that what we want and what we expect from life – these things are not given. To a large degree, they’re up to us. They’re a powerful point of leverage.
Last week I was talking about the role of expectations, and that misery or joy is often about what happens – not in and of itself – but relative to your expectations.
When life over-delivers on your expectations, you experience joy. So the obvious hack then is to ‘under-calibrate’ your expectations, so life is always over-delivering relative to your expectations.
Easier said than done perhaps, but still it is important to remember that this is an area of our experience where we can exert control.
The idea I wanted to touch on today is similar. This is about what we desire.
In the Stoic philosophy, when we get what we desire we are happy. When we don’t get what we desire, we’re sad.
But nobody has the perfect ability to always give themselves what they desire. It’s not up to them. To a large extent, it’s just up to life.
But if we pin our happiness on the satisfaction of our desires, then we are pinning our happiness on life – something over which we have no control.
Unhappiness is the inevitable result at some point.
The solution – the discipline – is to regulate desire. As much as possible, desire only the things over which you have control, and renounce the things over which you have no control.
As Seneca said,
“It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.”
In fact, freedom from slavish desire is a jewel to be treasured. As Epictetus put it:
“Whenever you see someone holding political power, set against it the fact that you yourself have no need of power. Whenever you see someone wealthy, observe what you have instead of that. For if you have nothing in its place, you are in a miserable state; but if you have the absence of the need to have wealth, realise that you have something greater and much more valuable.
One man has a beautiful wife, you have the absence of longing for a beautiful wife. Do you think these are little things? How much would these very people – the wealthy, the powerful, the ones who live with beautiful women – pay for the ability to look down on wealth and power and those very women whom they adore and get?”
There is a subtle point here that is the key.
It is not simply enough to ‘not desire’ something. You must cultivate the ‘absence of desire’.
You must see this state – this desire-less state – as one of the most valuable things you have. It is an energetic posture.
It is not good enough to just try and tell yourself that you don’t want this or that. You must actively cleanse the mind of desire, and take pride in what these endeavours allow you to achieve.
The razor you need to apply cleaves a line between the desires that you have no control over – fame, money, the beauty of the person who shares you bed; and the desires you do have control over – your personal virtues, your pride, your courage, your wisdom.
So as your life advances, steadily pivot your desires away from the external towards the internal.
This is difficult work. It is work that is never finished. The Stoics believed that this principle had never been perfected in any human ever.
(So don’t beat yourself up too much.)
But it was still an ideal worth aspiring to. And the closer you got to the ideal, the more of your happiness you brought under control, and the better your experience of life became.
Covid has given us a massive lesson in just how much of life is actually under our control. It has shown us just how much we are still slaves to fate.
It has shattered some illusions.
And so now we can either pine for the illusions we lost (like children) or we can face reality for what it is.
And in facing that reality, discipline our desires, to bring more and more of our happiness under our own control.
This not an easy road.
But no road to wisdom is.