Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Do not let arrogance grow.
Do not let desires be too permissive.
Do not let aspirations be full.
Do not let pleasures be so excessive.
(Bk. i., sect. i., pt. i., c. ii. Original text: 傲不可长，欲不可纵，志不可满，乐不可极。)
Maybe I have an inner poet in me? Just kidding. This is actually a translation of an excerpt from The Book of Rites, one of the classics in Confucianism. Although I did try very hard to make the English translation rhyme!
Image Source: Unsplash
1: Do not let arrogance grow.
Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism, said, "He who becomes arrogant with wealth and power . . . sows the seeds of his own misfortune . . . he who boasts of his own achievements harms his credibility . . . he who is arrogant experiences no growth in wisdom . . . he who knows glory, but keeps to humility . . . is sufficient in the eternal virtue." (Dao De Jing)
2: Do not let desires be too permissive.
Whether it be Seneca, Socrates, Epictetus, or the Buddha, it's no coincidence that all the great ancient philosophers talked about reducing desires.
Seneca said, "It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil." (On the Shortness of Life).
Socrates said, "The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less."
Epictetus said, "When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar, they can't get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire--don't set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need."
The Buddha said, "There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires."
It's fine to desire the basic necessities in life, such as basic food, shelter, and clothes. Suffering happens when people become greedy for unnecessary things for the purpose of pleasure or social comparison, such as chasing wealth, status, and luxuries.
When we have a strong desire for something, we either end up stressed or end up stressed. That's not a typo. If you don't get what you desire, then you're stressed. If you do get what you desire, you get a temporary sense of relief, but then you're afraid losing it or stressed about the next bigger desire. Not letting desires be too permissive prevents unnecessary suffering.
3: Do not let aspirations be full.
When we think we have fulfilled our aspirations, or when we don't have aspirations, then complacency arises. Complacency creates laziness and prevents growth.
There's always more people in need of help, so how could our aspirations ever be full? When asked what his aspirations were, Confucius said, "To give comfort to elders, to give trust to friends, and to give nurturance to the young." (Analects of Confucius). The Buddha's taught his students, "Cease all that is bad, cultivate all that is good, purifying the mind: this is the seal of Buddhist teachings." Aspirations such as these are lifelong endeavors.
4: Do not let pleasure be excessive.
"Pleasure" in this context refers to sensory pleasures, such as touch, taste, and mind (e.g., highs from drugs). Excessive pleasures result in a big low afterwards and can lead to addiction.
Seneca said, "It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them…And so they are the slaves of their pleasures…Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached." (Letter XXXIX. On Noble Aspirations).
In Ethics 101, author John Maxwell laments how for many decades, Americans encouraged short-term pleasure, and that led to bankruptcy, divorce, and drug addiction. Maxwell says,
“It’s ironic, but to gain freedom, you need to contain your emotions with discipline. That takes character.”
Swap Vice for Virtue
I've found the solutions those these four vices in the book Guide To A Happy Life, which talks about building our character through five virtues:
Filial Piety: being a good son or daughter
Carefulness: being caring and respectful towards all tasks and matters, no matter how small.
Trustworthiness: having good faith, integrity, humility, and carefulness.
Loving Kindness: wanting the best for all people without any conditions or expectations.
Humility: always seeking to improve our virtues and being appreciative of criticism.
To reduce arrogance, grow humility. To reduce selfish desires, grow trustworthiness and loving kindness. To prevent complacency, grow loving kindness and humility. To prevent excessive pleasure, grow carefulness.
A Role Model: Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, had a list of 13 virtues that he aimed to achieve his whole life. These 13 virtues encompass all four things in need of self-control.
Do not let arrogance grow:
Franklin's thirteenth virtue was humility. In his late years, he reflected, “On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it. Yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
Do not let desires be too permissive:
Franklin's fifth virtue was frugality: "Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
His ninth virtue was moderation: "Avoid extremes."
Do not let aspirations be full.
Franklin's sixth virtue was industry: "Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
Do not let pleasures be so excessive:
Franklin's first virtue was temperance: "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
His twelfth virtue was chastity: "Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
Inspired by Franklin's example, I did a self-reflection.
Arrogance and ego is definitely one of my big problems. Although logically I tell myself I should be appreciative of criticism, I still feel uncomfortable when people criticize me. I'm still working on this one. When people praise me, I try to pass the credit off to all the people who helped me, such as my teachers or team members. When people criticize me, I try to remind myself that I'd rather people criticize me wrongfully than to feel like they can't criticize me when I need to hear it.
I used to desire wealth and fame, but after learning Buddhism and Stoicism, my desires are much less and I'm able to be content with what I have. After all, no one dies saying, "I wish I spent more time chasing money and fame."
I like helping people. I view it as my duty to tell others what I wish I had known earlier to prevent them from going through the suffering I went through. This aspiration can carry me throughout my entire life.
I used to think of myself as a foodie, so I indulged a lot in foods. I still have a little bit of that desire, but it's much less than before thanks to a period of illness that helped me research and switch to a very healthy diet.
"One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself."
—Leonardo Da Vinci
How are you doing in these four areas of self-control? Which one would you work on first?