Carrots, Not Sticks

Discipline Your Desire Using Stoic Psychological Exercises

Brittany Polat
Dec 14, 2019 · 8 min read

As a Stoic, you know it’s not appropriate for you to aim your desires toward indifferent things such as money, social status, or even good health or good relationships. These external things may be worth working toward as preferred indifferents, but they are not goods in themselves. To the untrained mind, such “goods” seem to be an unmixed blessing. But Stoics realize that the only true good is virtue: a virtuous disposition of the soul, and the acts of selecting and desiring virtue. Even if life gives you nothing but lemons, you can still be happy drinking your virtuous lemonade.

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But what does it actually mean to discipline your desire? All too often, I think we Stoics focus on the desires we are supposed to eliminate without introducing a sufficient notion of the desires we are supposed to pursue. Obviously, we should get rid of our cravings for inappropriate things, but it does not follow that we should not desire anything. I don’t think we’re supposed to eliminate desire, but we should channel it in the appropriate direction — we should use more carrots than sticks, so to speak. This is a crucial difference that has important implications for our outlook and our daily practice.

First, let’s look at what Epictetus has to say about the discipline of desire. While he’s certainly not the only Stoic to discuss the discipline of desire, he is perhaps its most strenuous proponent, and his teachings on this discipline are foundational:

There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not act, and, in general, appropriate behavior, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgment, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.[i]

According to Epictetus, then, the purpose of the discipline of desire is for us to not fall into what we want to avoid and not fail to get what we desire. He’s not saying that we should get rid of all our desires, only that we should learn to direct our desires toward what is in our power. In fact, this is what he says repeatedly:

Now, since it lies in the nature of every mind to give its assent to what is true, and to dissent from what is false, and to suspend judgment with regard to what is uncertain, it lies in its nature likewise to be moved by desire towards what is good, and by aversion from what is bad, and to remain indifferent towards what is neither good nor bad.[ii]

For things that lie within the sphere of choice, as being both your own and present, you have a measured and well-controlled desire; while for things that lie outside the sphere of choice, you have no desire, so as to allow no place to that irrational element which is violent and impetuous beyond measure.[iii]

Our minds should be “moved by desire towards what is good.” We should be pulled toward virtue — we should actually desire those good things that lie within our sphere of choice. Of course, this sort of desire won’t be uncontrollable or irrational, but will be “measured and well-controlled.” It seems to me that the primary purpose of the discipline of desire is not to extinguish desire, but to redirect it in appropriate measure toward what is truly good.

This is a crucial distinction when it comes to living a Stoic life. It’s hard enough to turn away from all those things conventional morality says are good, like money, pleasure, and popularity. But to do it without having anything to turn toward is basically impossible unless you withdraw from the world and live an ascetic life. We need some kind of energy, some kind of goal, to sustain us through the hard times. We need to apply a counteracting pressure in the face of temptation or flagging motivation. When we re-affirm our belief that virtue is the only good worth having, we are focusing not on the allure of what we’re leaving behind, but on the allure of what we want to become.

Most Stoics, unlike Plato and some other Western philosophers, do not believe the human soul is split into components such as desire and appetite. Instead, Stoics think the beliefs we hold about life are what influence our feelings and actions. So if you believe having more money is the most important thing in life, you will devote your time and energy to earning money, even sacrificing your friends or your character to get more. On the other hand, if you believe virtue is the only good, your actions, emotions, and character will align with this belief.

I think this unified psychological view is a great strength of Stoic philosophy. But it also leaves some people wondering how to account for so-called failures of will, when people act against their better judgment. What’s going on when you eat just one more piece of pie (even though you know you shouldn’t) or when find yourself bitterly disappointed for not getting that promotion at work (even though you know it’s an indifferent)? Why do we find it so hard to discipline our desires, even if we’re on board with Stoic theory?

In these cases we haven’t completely transferred our desires away from indifferents and toward virtue. If we were fully, completely committed to the idea that virtue is the only good, we wouldn’t be tempted to do inappropriate things like eat another slice of pie. We would have no desire for an external good that doesn’t conform to virtuous living. Even though we are genetically programmed to find eating pie pleasurable, as we develop in virtue we start to understand that the temporary pleasure of eating pie is nothing compared to the long-lasting satisfaction of a life well-lived. We gain experience thinking and acting virtuously, and we start to develop a taste for moral excellence over pie. We shift our desire away from short-term pleasure and toward living in agreement with nature.

This is obviously a difficult task that requires strenuous training. But we can make headway by identifying and practicing techniques to direct our desire away from inappropriate goals and toward appropriate goals. I’ve found two exercises that help develop a better perspective on desire: finding virtuous inspiration and identifying my own good with the greater good. These are classic Stoic techniques, but I would like to explore their benefit specifically with reference to the discipline of desire.

Find virtuous inspiration. I find it very helpful to have a vivid, distinct idea in my mind of what someone with a virtuous disposition would desire. I build myself a picture of this person from fictional and historical characters, from real people I know, from traits the ancient Stoics discuss (being noble-minded and great-hearted, for example). If you are a goal-oriented person, it helps to have a character-based goal in your mind to aim for.

What would a noble-minded and great-hearted person desire when confronted with the situation I’m facing? What specific impressions would she assent to? Would she remember to align her own desires with what is actually happening around her? Would she have a smooth-flowing life? This is what I want to desire, too, and that’s how I want to respond to impressions. That’s who I want to be. Often this portrait of virtue helps me re-align my thoughts with virtue and channel my energy in the right direction.

Identify your own good with the greater good. This exercise is significantly harder, mainly because it requires a bit of meditative imagination and poetic license. Philosophy is a rational exercise, but it can also be a spiritual one — spiritual in the sense that we must reform our entire spirit if we are to live a truly philosophical life. Many of us today find it difficult to reconcile sharply-pointed rationality with the soft and fluid edges of spiritual transformation. But philosophical spiritual exercises, like those described by Pierre Hadot, do not require metaphysical beliefs about god-like entities. They are simply the means by which we transfer our rational beliefs to our innermost spirit. Our goal as Stoics is not merely to transform our theoretical understanding of virtue, but our entire disposition and our outlook on life. As a layperson might say, you need to feel it in your bones. And as Epictetus might say, we should distinguish good from as bad as naturally as we distinguish black from white.[iv]

The project of disciplining your desire makes a lot more sense when you consider that each one of us is just a tiny piece of a much bigger picture. If we want to really understand our place in the world, we need to develop a sense of our relationship to the rest of the universe. This is precisely what we find many Stoics doing through metaphors (e.g., we are all parts of a larger body) and exercises (e.g., the point of view of the cosmos). As Pierre Hadot puts it,

The philosopher must abandon his partial, egoistic vision of reality in order, by way of physics, to rise to the point of seeing things as universal Reason sees them. Above all, the philosopher must intensely wish the common good of the universe and of society, by discovering that a part can possess no other proper good than the common good of the All.[v]

The effect of this metaphorical exercise is somewhat similar to what Buddhist meditators reportedly experience — a blurring of the boundaries between yourself and everything else. It no longer makes sense to wish for your own good above that of others, because they are actually the same thing. Obviously you’re not literally melting away into the All, and there’s no need to hold a literal belief in universal Reason in order to adopt this broader perspective.[vi] Stoics have always believed that our moral intention is key, even though we may not have enough knowledge to fully understand the workings of the universe. For me, the point is to transform yourself into someone with purely virtuous motivations, regardless of the specific theological beliefs you hold.

Identifying your own good with the greater good allows you to direct your desire not toward material benefit for yourself, but toward something much bigger than yourself. An unwise desire for pie (or whatever else you might crave) feels absurd when you view yourself in a larger context. Instead of doing battle with yourself at the scene of the pie, you have prepared your mind in advance by changing your mental relationship to external items.

Clearly, sometimes we do need to use sticks to discipline our desire; we have to be stern with ourselves at times and work hard not to falter in our path toward virtue. However, on the whole carrots often work better than sticks to change long-term behavior. I think we will make the most progress if we design our Stoic practice around pursuit of the good, keeping in mind that we all need inspiration and motivation to keep going.

[i] Epictetus, Discourses, 3.2, 1–2

[ii] Discourses, 3.3, 2

[iii] Discourses, 4.1, 84

[iv] Discourses, 4.1, 134–137

[v] Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Michael Chase, 2004, Harvard University Press, p. 99.

[vi] There is a wide range of beliefs about Stoic theology in contemporary Stoicism, and I respect the beliefs of anyone who gives them serious thought in order to live a better and more authentic life. For my part, I am neither a professional philosopher nor a classics scholar, so I do not presume to argue about what the ancient Stoics actually believed regarding theology. My interest lies only in living a better life in the 21st century.

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Brittany Polat

Written by

Brittany writes about personal development and incorporating Stoicism into everyday life. See more on her website, www.apparentstoic.com.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Brittany Polat

Written by

Brittany writes about personal development and incorporating Stoicism into everyday life. See more on her website, www.apparentstoic.com.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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