cognitive biases story telling

Stoics on wanting

Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling-block. You do not know what you want. 

Deciding what one wants is an incredibly important – according to all philosophers. The word goals has come into our lingo in a new way in the last 10 years.

Seneca remarks on the importance of deciding on one thing rather than wavering. At the same time he acknowledges that to demand absolute consistency would be an unreachably perfect standard to set:

Men do not know what they wish, except at the actual moment of wishing; no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game. Press on, therefore, as you have begun; perhaps you will be led to perfection

For men who leap from one purpose to another, or do not even leap but are carried over by a sort of hazard, – how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting?

I do not say that the philosopher can always keep the same pace. But he can always travel the same path.

Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.

“It is bothersome always to be beginning life.” Or another, which will perhaps express the meaning better: “They live ill who are always beginning to live.” It is because the life of such persons is always incomplete.

Not knowing what one wants is incredibly damaging according to Seneca. It leads to a reactionary life.

There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.

Seneca spoke about the value of expectations and desires. This is a really tough one. On the one hand, life becomes easier when you drop your expectations, which is what the following quote is about. However, does this mean dropping your standards? I think a better interpretation would be losing a sense of entitlement that luck and external circumstances owe you anything. I think Seneca means that rather than finding satisfaction in attaining external goals, happiness should come from within. In other words, the goals you set shouldn’t relate to things like living in a house of x sq. footage and having y dollars in the bank, but rather becoming a certain kind of person.

“If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This idea is too clear to need explanation, and too clever to need reinforcement. There is, however, one point on which I would warn you, – not to consider that this statement applies only to riches; its value will be the same, no matter how you apply it. “If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.”

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