Enchiridion by Epictetus, chapter 2 – Use choice and refusal, but lightly

Desire and aversion

Believe it or not.

We can make some choices regarding things we desire, or are aversive of.


Sometimes, I would agree, it does not feel quite like that. I myself have some aversions which most of the time seem almost completely and utterly out of my control. Perhaps there are some desires like that, too.

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, knows that feeling when you very well know the right thing to do but the desire, oh the desire. It feels momentarily like a force of nature, overwhelming and outside your circle of control.

Anyone suffering from any kind of phobia sure knows the feeling.

When your basic needs are generously met already, it is possible to fall into wanting really stupid things very strongly. Or one may feel the desire to avoid something that is not that big of a problem anyway. Combine that with a sense of entitlement and now you are suffering from what is called a First World Problem.

See here for more on these:

However, your desire and aversion are not completely out of your control.

They are products of your thinking and your judgements.

You can influence those.

The (false) promise of desire

Even if First World Problems are not exactly what you are suffering from right now, there is still a chance that you want to hold on strongly to what you desire.

As if it is already yours.

As if it belongs to you.

Or, in the words of good ol’ Sméagol: “My Precious…”

(Aversion, on the other hand, is not much more than a desire not to have something)

“Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous”

So if you get carried away by your desire, it easily feels like you were already “promised” something. Not getting it feels almost as if something was taken from you.

“Aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse”

Likewise, aversion in our minds promises and demands that this thing X will not, and must not happen. If it does, it feels “wrong”, even if the event is completely natural and something to be expected.

The consequence of getting carried away by desire or aversion

“However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched”

It seems to me much worse to be wretched than disappointed.
In some translations it is said
“He who fails in his desire is unfortunate”
“The person who falls into what they would avoid, faces misfortune”
If you are unfortunate, you don’t get what you want.
If you face misfortune, you are having bad luck.

What to do then?

“Hate” the right things

If your goal is to avoid discomfort caused by external circumstances, or poverty, sickness and death at all cost, you must get disappointed. One of these will eventually come to each of us with no exceptions. Most of us will experience loss and grief of many sorts during our lifetime.

Do you get upset by things that happen around the world? Do the news cause you anxiety? Do you worry about things that are not in your control? Future? Past regrets?

Being consumed by such things is not good for you and (for the most part) it is in your power to stop it!

“Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control”

According to Stoics, “natural” is what fulfils us as human beings, makes us the best version of ourselves. When a viewpoint you have prevents you from this, direct your aversion to that viewpoint. Try to get rid of it.
If you often feel aversion to something outside your control, choose to work on that. Say: “I don’t like that about myself”. Then do something about it.

Do not hate external circumstances, things that happened already or things that might happen in the future. Hate your aversion to those. Be aversive of your own non-virtuous responses to these things.

  • If you find unwise thoughts in your head, be aversive of those.
  • If you find lack of courage in yourself, be aversive of that.
  • If you find yourself being unkind, be aversive of that quality in you and try to get rid of it.
  • If you find yourself wanting something in excess, be aversive of that want.

Work on these and your time and efforts will not be wasted.

What about desire? Why not?

Epictetus suggests us that for the time being, utterly remove desire! Do not want anything! Easier said than done? Sure!

If you desperately want things outside your control, you will be unfortunate. Unfortunate how? Well, you may not get what you want. You may get what you want but be unable to keep it. You may get it once but fail next time. You may get what you want and then not like it anymore.

What about things that are under my control? They would sure be great to desire, but… you are no ready!  They are probably not within your grasp yet.

So the advice is to put desire on hold for a bit. Let it cool down.

Employ only choice & refusal

As someone who wants to employ Philosophy in your life, you are like a Stoic student, a  Prokopton. It means someone who is making progress. Not being ready or perfect but working on it and making constant progress.

Take baby steps and keep making progress.

  • Moment to moment, from situation to situation, employ only choice and refusal.
  • Do that lightly, without strain and with reservation. Remember the reserve clause.
  • Use what you have learned to make the best possible decisions on what you choose (or refuse) to think, say or do. When and how to act or not to act.
  • Recognise and examine your judgements, examine every impression
  • Do not expect anything to be perfect or yourself to get ready soon, just steer things to the right direction with your choices.

Sources, inspiration and more material

Epictetus, the Enchiridion – Commentary chapter 2 – by Dr. Greg Sadler

Enchiridion by Epictetus, chapter 2

Enchiridion by Epictetus

Enchiridion by Epictetus

ENCHIRIDION OF EPICTETUS – CHAPTER 2 (a blog post by Emanuele Faja)

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