The dynamics of desire and aversion lie at the basis of Stoic thought in regards to how we relate to the world. Aversion means a strong dislike and disinclination towards something or someone. Even though this might seem harmless; it can cause a lot of trouble. In this video, I want to share Stoic views on aversion and how to deal with it.
I recently got a question from Frank Bask, asking me:
Can you make a video about aversion? More specifically, aversion to a certain person or group of people, I’ve been struggling with that for the past couple of weeks.Frank Bask
Well, to understand aversion we have to understand its polar opposite as well, which is desire. Because desire is a form of aversion and aversion is a form of desire. I think I’m throwing a bit of Taoism in there by saying that one opposite cannot exist without the other and that both turn around a spindle.
Let’s say that we desire a million dollars. And I mean that we really crave for it. The desire automatically contains the aversion to not having a million dollars, which we could translate into the aversion to being poor. By taking this position we make our future happiness conditional. If we’re able to obtain a million dollars we’re happy. But if we fail, we’re miserable.
This is a quote by Epictetus about this mechanism:
Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.Epictetus, Enchiridion, 2
Does this mean that we should abolish desire and aversion? No, that’s too simplistic. The Stoics of old recognized that human nature has a tendency to desire things that are good for us. They called this phenomenon oikeiosis.
Things that are good for us but not necessarily required for reaching a state of eudaimonia are known as preferred indifferents. Examples of these are wealth, health and a good reputation. The opposite is dispreferred indifferents. Examples of these are death, poverty, and sickness.
So, how does this boil down to the aversion towards a person or a group of people?
Aversing a serial killer is healthy, because incurring a serial killer probably isn’t good for your health. And it would also be wise to be averse to a thief, savage and any other person that will do us harm. Since human nature wants us to live, it makes sense that we naturally avoid the people that pose a threat.
So, we might want to ask ourselves the following questions: are our estimations about the people we’re averse to truly correct? Do the people we’re averse to truly pose a threat?
Many fears are irrational. As Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius:
There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13
According to the Stoics, our capacity for rational thinking is what sets us apart from animals. This means that fears, even though they might be ingrained in the primitive part of our nature, can be overridden by rational thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a way to replace irrational thoughts by rational thinking, and this form of therapy happens to have roots in Stoicism.
Let’s say you’re averse to a group of people because of prejudices based on news coverage in regards to that group. We have a tendency to think that all members of that group are like that, which probably isn’t true. Moreover, we only know this information for sure if we know every single person of that group. Similarly, this applies to a single person we might be averse to. We might have heard some rumors and formed an image in our heads about this person that does not correspond with reality.
As Seneca stated:
Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13
The trick is to challenge the thoughts we have about these people that are irrational and replace them with thoughts that are rational. Instead of thinking; “those people are bad and I should avoid them,” you could think; “I notice I’m averse to these people for reason x and y. Perhaps I should get to know them better and experience for myself if my aversion is justified.“
From the perspective of virtue we could ask: is it justified to be averse to a certain group? Are my thoughts about this group correct? Chances are that the honest answer to these questions is no. And that by aversion based on irrationality, we only cause harm to ourselves and, potentially, to our surroundings.
But what if the answer is yes?
Okay, picture this. Do you really want to give the object of your aversion the power over your happiness? The problem with aversion (that goes together with feelings like hate, disgust, fear) is that – in most cases – you predominantly hurt yourself. Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Curbing aversion helps us to not waste our time and energy on fear and hate towards irrationally perceived evils. Thus, it’s a good idea to approach the mechanism of desire and aversion with knowledge of good and evil, virtue and vice and preferred and dispreferred indifferents.
So, I’d say that if you’re certain that a group or person is up to no good I would loosen up the aversion by developing a healthy detachment from these people. This doesn’t mean that you should be a pushover. One of the Stoic virtues is justice. So if it’s justified to defend yourself against oppressors, I don’t think that the Stoics would disagree.
It’s possible to address certain problems without being attached to them, like removing an overboiling pan from the gas burner without being upset. In this case, you solve a problem while keeping your cool, which sounds like win-win situation to me.
Or, perhaps even better, you could try to be compassionate which is often possible by mutual understanding. As Martin Luther King jr. once said: “I choose love because hate is too big a burden to bear”