Our spirits are driven by two things: appetite and Reason.
Appetite is the hunger for pleasures, and Reason is the rational impulse. When Reason does not control the appetite, then the appetite usurps the leadership position of the spirit.
And this is a sure road to ruin.
Appetite leads us around aimlessly by the nose, this way and that, like some kind of insensate farm animal.
Reason, then, must be in the driver’s seat at all times. She must command. Maybe this is why I spelled Reason with a capital R: it is a way of calling attention to its primacy.
When Reason commands, all is well; when she does not, peril awaits us. As Cicero says,
Ita fit, ut ratio praesit, appetitus obtemperet.
And this means, so it happens, that when Reason is in charge, the appetite falls into line. All of this is another way of calling attention to the virtue of self-control. Without self-control, without a firm hand on the reins of the spirit, bad things always happen.
It all sounds so simple. But the problem is that it isn’t. Or, at least, it’s not a simple matter to practice self-control. In nearly every waking minute of our lives, we are encouraged to loosen the reins of Reason over our appetites.
The voluptuary impulses, already so strong, certainly do not need any encouragement from the outside: and yet this is what we expose ourselves to, day after day.
So the disciplining of the appetites is the first step on the path to wisdom.
The second step, perhaps, is making ourselves understand the true bounty that exists in the world. The world will always provide. Because we will invoke its aid.
How little do we really need for our survival and happiness! You can’t really believe this until you have traveled a bit here and there. And then you will see. Our ancestors were satisfied with rough and meagre foods to satisfy themselves, and tolerated the abuses of weather and wind the best they could. And yet they found a way to make things work.
When you visit countries that we call “primitive”, you are often surprised by the brilliant colors in people’s local dress. It is interesting how people in poor countries often dress in wonderfully decorated clothing, while we automatons from the industrialized world clothe ourselves in drab, dull hues.
Why is this? Perhaps because the poor man is more proud of his clothing that we are of ours. He wishes to show it off. He is satisfied with a brilliantly colored tunic and headpiece. He and his woman make do with what they have.
But we find it difficult to do this. We cannot tame our desires, our appetites, nor lash them into shape. And so they gallop our of control, this way and that, like a coach pulled by a team of frightened horses.
Have confidence in your abilities. Have confidence in the power of your physical body. It can withstand more pressures and hardships than you can presently imagine.
And when you begin to believe this, you will begin to unclench your fists a bit. You will begin to stop worrying about losing some of those things that you think are so important.
Let it go, and it will come back. It sounds trite, but it is true.
The humanist Coluccio Salutati, in his essay De seculo et religione (On the World and Religious Life), described how the material pleasures of the world can function as pernicious distractions. He tells how Sardinian and Sicilian peasants live on
…twice-baked bread and a little cheese, along with platters of legumes for lunch. For supper, they have little fish preserved in a lot of salt…They satisfy their thirst with water and a little vinegar.
They rarely drink wine, we are told. And yet they find a way to make do with what they have, and are content with that. It really takes so little to make us happy.
There is something else that I’ve noticed along these lines that is difficult to describe, but nonetheless exists. And this is the augmenting effect of letting go of our appetites. What do I mean by this. I mean that when we stop obsessing about our appetites, and what we have and don’t have, then things seem to increase naturally without any conscious effort on our part.
Spend some of your treasure, and it grows anew. It grows greater than before. Don’t ask me why this happens. I just know it happens.
Things increase by themselves, once we stop stressing about them so much. It seems strange, but I believe there to be much truth in this. Invest something to get something back. Put something in, if you want something out.
Holding on too tightly is the only big mistake we can make. Let things go, as they will go. The world will provide, one way or another. We have to have this faith, this firm conviction, to make the next step in the march of progress.
Seeing all this, we should feel fortified in the knowledge that no matter what may happen to us–no matter what accidents of fate may occur–we will always be able to find a measure of happiness in the life of this world.
 De officiis I.28.101
 De seculo et religione I.35.17