Stoic Protection From the Dangers of Desire

Desire has a reliable way of making us view our lives through the lens of what we don’t have.

This lens obscures from our sight the many blessings we already have and puts us into a discontented state of ungratefulness.

There’s a passage in Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s novel in which the main character Marco Polo describes the cities he visits, that illustrates this state of mind in a beautifully subtle way:

Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by camel. The city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea.

When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red wind-socks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel;

In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea…

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.

While it may seem like Polo’s description of the fictitious city of Despina is no more than a comparison of different physical perspectives, it can actually be read as a meditation on desire.

That’s because sailors see the city as a camel while camel drivers see it as a ship, each revealing their desire to be taken away from their current situation to the opposing one.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca’s advice would have been for each to realize that they already had what the other one sought:

We hold nothing dearer than a benefit, so long as we are seeking one; we hold nothing cheaper after we have received it. Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for receiving others.

Letters 81.28

The Stoics of course weren’t against the pursuit of new goals, provided they served some good purpose, it’s just that they were also mindful to appreciate the things they already had as a way of tempering excessive desires.

Detailing another fantastical city, this time Anastasia, Marco Polo says the following:

I should now list the wares that can profitably be bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalcedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram…

But with all this, I would not be telling you the city’s true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.

Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

The point is clear enough: we trade our time for the means to acquire what we want (or what we think we want) and yet when we get what we want it doesn’t bring with it the satisfaction we expected.

Rather, it just gives rise to further wanting and only gives us the illusion that we’re making some kind of progress.

The Stoics felt that self-mastery was the more worthwhile pursuit.

In other words, happiness and contentment reside in building your internal world as opposed to adding things to your external one.

Musonius Rufus, the Roman Stoic who taught Epictetus, summarized the rewards of this mental undertaking clearly, drawing upon the virtue of temperance that can serve us well today:

And yet would not anyone admit how much better it is… in place of enduring hardships for the sake of money, to train oneself to want little; instead of giving oneself trouble about getting notoriety, to give oneself trouble how not to thirst for notoriety; instead of trying to find a way to injure an envied person, to inquire how not to envy anyone; and instead of slaving, as sycophants do, to win false friends, to undergo suffering in order to possess true friends?

That One Should Disdain Hardships

Rufus’s advice perhaps runs contrary to common behavior in modern society, but that’s exactly the point: look at how common it is for desire-led actions to leave people feeling unfulfilled or worse, to harm others.

When these consequences threaten to materialize, a different perspective is needed.

Before you follow a desire, ask yourself if fulfilling it may harm your character.

Ask yourself if fulfilling it is worth the necessary hardship.

Ask yourself if fulfilling it will fulfill you.