Ninth Taoist Contemplation: Control of Desires

 Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyleVatican Sayings 68-69

Goods that are difficult to acquire make one cause damage. – Tao Te Ching 12

Lao-Tse explains that the high use the low as their foundation and basis. A mountain is not a mountain, except with relation to the valley or the lower slopes. And, what is a king without subjects?

The value of small things lies in that they are enough, and true goods (natural and necessary desires) are easy to attain; ergo that which is difficult to attain is not a true good. Like with all else, in Taoism, having an accurate perception of reality and of the true measure of what’s needed, helps us to fully enjoy the things that we do have.

Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44

It’s important to have a healthy relation to reality and to things, and to have clear insight into how much we really need of what really makes us happy. The more we have in excess, the more we fear to lose. This is true even of time.

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and her has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 50

And so the key here is to curb mindless desires that ignore the fundamental nature of things, so that we have no vulnerable points where life can harm us. Lack of excessive desire and need for praise, diminishes petty passions; in this manner, Taoism favors detached action.

Nothing can replace this introspective process. Like Socrates, who stated that he knew nothing (although we question if he really meant this literally), Lao-Tse found virtue in acknowledging that we are unaware of our faults and taking the first steps to uncover them so that we may diagnose what we Epicureans call the diseases of the soul.

To know that you do not know is highest
To not know but think you know is flawed

Only when one recognizes the fault as a fault
can one be without fault

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 71

As a result of these insights, Epicureanism offers a program to control desires. The introspective process deals with learning to discern clearly between those that nature has made natural and necessary, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are neigher natural nor necessary and, therefore, empty. Through this process, we come to understand the doctrine of the principal things, or of the chief goods, which was explained by Philodemus in On Choices and Avoidances. As far as empty desires, they can be easily dismissed, but if we have bad habits based on false views about the value of things, then this may require more discipline.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Vatican Saying 46

You must unlearn what you’ve learned. – Jedi Master Yoda

In this case, it is said that we fight cultural corruption by controling our unnecessary desires, by unlearning them. In other words, the dispositions and false beliefs underlying these desires do not come from nature. They come from culture.

The techniques used in treating the diseases of the soul are many, and beyond the scope of this blog. They can be learned in the chapter on Epicurean therapy in Tending the Epicurean Garden, and Martha Nussbaum in her book The Therapy of Desire covers the therapeutic practices of the Epicureans together with those of other schools.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Ninth Taoist Contemplation: Control of Desires

  1. Pingback: The Pleasure-Aversion Faculty: An Introduction | The Autarkist

  2. Pingback: Contemplations on the Tao Series | Epicurean Database

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