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Exploring Encheiridion 2 – Episode 32


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Encheiridion 1 focuses on what is up to us and contrasts the tranquil psychological state of those who focus their attention and impulse only on those things and events within their control with the troubled mind of those who attempt to control what is not in their power. The second chapter of Encheiridion further defines the concepts of desire and aversion and adds another important concept: things contrary to Nature. Encheiridion 2 opens with the following advice: Keep in mind that desire presumes your getting what you want and that aversion presumes your avoiding what you don’t want, and that not getting what we want makes us unfortunate, while encountering what we don’t want makes us miserable. We have a few things to unpack in this passage. First is that we should “keep in mind” the lesson of Encheiridion 2. This means we should memorize it, remember it, and regularly remind ourselves about it. The phrase “keep in mind” is translated from the Greek word Μέμνησο, which appears sixteen times within fourteen different chapters of the Encheiridion. As I noted in the introduction to this series, Arrian created the Encheiridion to serve as a handbook that can be kept close at hand or carried in the hand. Arrian filled it with reminders that help us “keep in mind” those Stoic doctrines that are essential to our practice. So, what is so important about the lesson of Encheiridion 2 that warrants keeping it in mind? In short, this lesson defines the key distinction between true freedom and slavery in Epictetus’ teaching, which entails wanting only what is up to us, avoiding only what is contrary to nature, and treating everything else as inconsequential to our goal of developing an excellent moral character and experiencing true well-being. To comprehend this lesson's meaning and its application in our daily lives, we must have a solid grasp of several key concepts, including desire, aversion, things contrary to nature, and reservation. Desires and Aversions Exist in our Psyche When we assent to a value judgment attached to an impression of a thing or event—that it is either good or bad—we create a desire or aversion that acts upon us in the form of an impulse to either seek or avoid that thing or event. Therefore, desires and aversions are not external entities that tempt us or frighten us. They do not exist out there in the world; they exist as real mental faculties in our psyche (soul) that we must restrain and ultimately retrain. The first time I read this new translation of Encheiridion 2 by A. A. Long, his use of the word “presumes” in this passage struck me as odd. I recalled no other translation using that word, so I checked a few others. Pay attention to the language used to describe the activity of desires and aversions in each of these translations: A. Long: desire presumes your getting what you want, aversion presumes your avoiding what you don’t want Robin Hard: desire promises the attaining of what you desire, and aversion the avoiding of what you want to avoid Thomas Higginson: desire demands the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion demands the avoidance of that  to which you are averse W.A. Oldfather: the promise of desire is the attainment of desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided The language being used here is rather curious. It describes desires and aversions as real entities with the ability to make presumptions, promises, and demands. However, according to Stoicism, to act on us in this way, these desires and aversions and the impulses they produce must be real physical faculties in our psyche. In fact, they are. As Marcus Aurelius notes repeatedly in his Meditations, those impulses created by our desires and aversions control us like puppets (2.2; 6.16; 6.28; 7.3; 7.29; 12.19). We must be careful here lest we misinterpret this language to support a form of dualism where a separate mind acts upon our body. That is not the case in Stoic theory.

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