Epictetus argues that we can be slaves to our desires. In one example, a man clearly desires power and thinks he gains it by becoming Caesar’s friend; though in doing so, he becomes more like a slave. Although he may have increased his social status, he proves to be worse off and more enslaved than when he started. He now has to pay attention continuously to Caesar’s every word. He has to agonize constantly over whether the great Caesar views him favorably, and watch that he doesn’t do or say anything foolish. I agree that we can be enslaved by our desires. I think the man who became Caesar’s acquaintance was enslaved by his own ambition for power. The only way for him to fulfill his ambition for power was to flatter or submit to many different people. In a sense, all politically powerful people are enslaved by their desires for power. Even Julius Caesar, who was considered the most powerful man in Rome, had to be careful not to offend the Roman senators.
Even in certain cases where we desire something beneficial, we can still be slaves to our desires. For instance, if a man diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live desires nothing more than to be rid of the disease, he is a slave to his desire. It is a pointless longing, as it is impossible to get rid of the cancer. Instead of enjoying his last months of life, the man, enslaved by his desire to get well, cannot accept his fate and spends his dying months obsessing over getting well and lamenting his impending death. Although Epictetus is right that we can be enslaved by our desires, it doesn't necessarily imply that we are—especially since we sometimes act on healthy desires that make us happy. For instance, an obese person who desires to lose weight could fulfill his desire by eating a healthy diet and exercising. Eating well and working out are not only good for him, but they make him feel better about himself. Epictetus might respond to this by saying that regardless of whether one enjoys what he is doing, he’s still a slave to his desires. It might be the case that it doesn’t feel like slavery. The overweight person might have the illusion that he is doing what he wants, while at the same time, he’s forbidding himself to eat his favorite foods and making himself go to the gym. Even though he might enjoy being healthy, he’s nonetheless forcing himself to do things he sometimes does not want to do, so therefore he is enslaving himself. I agree with Epictetus that many desires are not attainable and thus they shouldn’t be desired. It’s pointless to desire to win the lottery because it’s virtually unattainable, and if we don’t win, we’ll wind up unhappy. If a person who is 4’11” desires to be the next Shaquille O’neal, he’s only setting himself up for disappointment because there’s no chance that this will happen. I do, however, think that we should take risks once in a while and desire things we have a decent shot at fulfilling. Epictetus would say that the obese man should not worry about losing weight, but should focus rather on desiring things he can “control,” like being an agreeable person. If the man dedicates himself to it, though, he can control his weight, and there is a good chance that he will fulfill his desire by losing several pounds. In a sense, by ignoring the problem, he would become a slave to obesity, as his lifestyle would be severely limited by his condition. He would likely be unable to do many things he enjoys and he’d probably feel unhealthy much of the time. Without a desire to lose weight, chances are much higher that he would die of cardiac arrest or another complication related to being morbidly obese.