“Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and positions that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning. It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another . . . where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.1-2; 15
I read this quote and thought of how it could be misinterpreted. I have written of the false framing of Stoicism as being a passionless approach to life. Hopefully, it has been shown that all Stoicism asks is that we not be guided by our passions. That we are thoughtful, and mindful when approaching the world. When Epictetus writes, “where our heart is, there our impediment lies” he is not asking us to not want. How would we fall in love, train for a strenuous activity or even embrace learning? All of these are external things, right?
Yes, these are external things, but these are noble things? Loving another person, maintaining physical health and being better educated are all external goals that are worthy of our time. The title of section 4.4 from Discourses is titled “To those who have set their hearts on living at peace”. Epictetus later asks why one would want to read. Entertainment? Knowledge? He argues if these two you are “frivolous and lazy”. He then asks the question:
“And if reading doesn’t secure happiness for you, what use does it serve?” 4.4.4
If loving someone, getting fit, and getting educated doesn’t make you happy then maybe you’re letting these external things control. This is the importance of right thinking. What if these things are taken from you? If you lose a loved one? If you sustain a debilitating injury? If that injury is blindness? Does the desire for these things drag us to unhappiness?
We should never be confused by what Stoicism asks us. Consider this:
“In a word, remember this, that if you attach value to anything at all that lies outside the sphere of choice, you’ve destroyed your choice.” 4.4.23
Maybe if we remember that to wish is to desire…maybe then we better understand this meditation based on the title. Desire Not, Want Not. Do not become a slave to your desires. Know that you always have choices.