What is the source of all unhappiness in our lives, and is there a way to overcome it? To answer this question, two and a half millennia ago, a young man named Siddhattha Gotama left his parents’ palace to become a wandering ascetic. After six years of extreme austerities and meditation, he attained enlightenment and expounded his famous teaching on the Four Noble Truths. Since then, wherever he went, he taught those who wanted to listen that the root cause of our suffering lies in our boundless cravings, and that the key to liberation lies in the Noble Eightfold Path.
While it’s unlikely that any of us will be able to complete the path and become enlightened in this lifetime, we can significantly lessen our pain by lessening our desires. This is what Roman philosopher Seneca and Greek philosopher Epicurus discuss in letters to their friends quoted in an altogether indispensable Letters on Ethics. And even though they lived in different times and belonged to different schools of thought, Seneca was a follower of Stoicism and Epicurus was the founder of Epicureanism, both of them agreed on what role desires play in our lives, and how restricting them can make one happy and fulfilled.
Drawing on his boundless wisdom and knowledge of rival philosophical schools, Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius Junior while quoting Epicurus writing to his friend Idomeneus:
It was to him [Idomeneus] that Epicurus wrote that fine sentence urging him to enrich Pythocles in no common or ambivalent way. He says, “If you want to make Pythocles rich, what you must do is not add to his money but subtract from his desires.”
He continues by noting that “this saying is too clear to need interpretation, and too well phrased to need improvement,” and that his only addition is that it applies not only to wealth but to everything else in life. Seneca writes:
If you want to make Pythocles honorable, what you must do is not add to his accolades but subtract from his desires.
If you wish to make Pythocles experience constant pleasure, what you must do is not add to his pleasure but subtract from his desires.
If you wish to make Pythocles live a long and complete life, what you must do is not add to his years but subtract from his desires.
And just to make sure that his friend Lucilius doesn’t miss his point, Seneca throws in another piece of advice:
For about those superfluous desires that can be put off, rebuked, or suppressed, I remind you only of this: such pleasure is natural but not necessary. You do not owe it anything: anything you do devote to it is voluntary. The belly does not listen to instructions: it merely demands and solicits. Still, it is not a troublesome creditor. You can put it off with very little, if you just give it what you owe rather than what you can. Farewell.
Complement these witty and life-changing passages from Seneca’s Letters on Ethics with Socrates on moderation as a harmony that permeates all aspects of the human soul, Aristotle on virtues as habits, and then revisit Seneca on the middle way of restraining ourselves.