What would today be most people’s opinion about how to cope with desires? Post-modern attitudes flatter the quest for pleasure. Most of the time we are encouraged to satisfy all our desires. “Fulfil your desires” is today a rather commonplace advertising precept. Present day morality is anything but repressive, one would rather think of it as fairly laxist. It is obvious to us that happiness is the same thing as the satisfaction of all one’s desires. Sexual liberation brought with it the idea that one must above all not repress desires; more than that, one must give an outlet to all one’s desires, express them and even yield to them uncritically. He who would want to repress his desires would today be looked upon as a weird exception to a generally accepted rule teaching just the opposite.
Yet, from time to time we also have the bitter experience that the multiplication of desires leads to dissatisfaction, disgust and boredom. “The nearer desire is to the goal, the further is the possession of its object”. Weary of desiring without finding fulfilment, we have reached a point of despair such that we can almost say with Proust: “if happiness or at least the absence of suffering can be found, it is not in the satisfaction, but in the reduction, the progressive yet final extinction of desire that we must look for it.” Asceticism would then be the true morality of desire. Hence the question is: is happiness to be found in the fulfilment or in the suppression of desires?
A first step would be to ask first of all what is happiness and is it in any way related to the satisfaction of desires? We cannot set out to analyse how to master desires unless we are more specific about desire as a component of happiness. How are we to view the outcome of our desires? Let us consider what most people think: for most of us happiness is the same thing as the gratification of desires; it is the blissful state of contentment of he who has at last found what he was looking for, the object of his desires. The happy man is he who after a bitter struggle to gain satisfaction finally reaches the top where, surrounded by luxury’s all accessories, can at last collapse in the sofa: “phew! Now I have realised all my desires!” Indeed what would become of us could we not endlessly pursue desires? Of this Rousseau says: “the man who has nothing to desire is most certainly more unhappy than he who suffers.”
Let’s start off from there. If living is desiring, then not desiring means not living. This is a very human experience. Desire is human. More, it is the essence of man, as Spinoza explains. If the violence of desire may be a cause for worry, a morality aiming for its suppression comes close to suicide. If to live is the same as to desire, then ceasing to desire is in a way dying . Denying desire would be tantamount to denying our self assertion, our will to be. It is even impossible to want to suppress desiring. It would amount to an insuperable contradiction: to desire not to have any desires!
We have no difficulty justifying our endless pursuance to satisfy our desires. Only, there are those who dare to desire and those who don’t and who therefore have no other solution than self-restriction. When thought of as alternatives, this has us distinguishing between the strong who satisfy their desires, and the weak who are unable to do so. The repression of desires seems so unnatural to us that is can only pertain to a weak mind. One must be timorous, shy, constrained, inhibited to be so frightened of one’s desires that one’s only way out is in their mortification. The weak person denies his desires and his behaviour is one of impotence taking him down the path of resentment and frustration. The strong mind gives free reins to his desires and brings them to gratification. Thus Balzac describes the man of genius: “He desired like a poet imagines, a man of science calculates, an artist sketches, a musician formulates a tune… He flung himself in his thoughts towards the thing he wanted with an unheard of energy, he devoured time. When fancying the success of his undertakings, he always left aside the means of execution”. Contemporary cinema and literature celebrate this frenzy and exaltation of desire. For us post-modern men desire implies that one lives one’s desires to the fullest, that one is already where one desires to be, what one desires to be and nothing else. For Balzac it means that will, world and desire coincide in one lightning possession of the universe. It is the will to power at work. Desire is the ardour of the strong soul, it is the very stuff of the hero. Balzac writes this about the hero:
“Already in childhood he had shown the greatest ardour in all things. In him, desire became a superior force and the model of everything”. He who lacks ardour is most certainly weak. He who voluptuously enjoys his own power is strong and conquering.”
If one is to formulate a morality of desire, this one must not negate desire, but agree with it. If on the path of one’s desire one happens to run into the obstacle of an oppressive morality, one must gather enough strength, audacity and pride to overcome it. Reject all morality and desire with neither restrictions nor limitations, such goes the new morality! Let us read what André Gide has to say on this: “It was all about rejecting, for a time, all morality and no longer offer any resistance to desires. They alone had something to teach me. I yielded.” Which is then the best morality? The one that teaches you to go against all moral and to place your vital blossoming above moral rules!
In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles, the archetypal hedonist, is adamant: “I shall now tell you in honesty what is just and beautiful according to nature: it is that to live a good life, one should allow one’s passions to grow as much as they can, instead of repressing them, and once they have reached their maximum strength, then one should be bold enough and smart enough to be able to satisfy them, and fulfil them as they manifest.” Indeed, what do we love in movies, if it is not the representation of people who dare to live their fantasies to the utmost? People who are able to love (outside the moral limits imposed by society), people who make money (in unconventional ways), people who kill (unimpeded by the law), all this in a kind of climax of force and images that fascinate us. Television serials illustrate this ecstasy of desire’s multiple forms. They show us a frenzied virtual liberation of all desires that we, people in the real world, could never achieve: a star freeing her sexuality from the constraints of social morality, a hero who releases his desire for revenge against a brigade of “baddies” forcefully eliminated with grenades and machine guns, in the manner of Rambo or Terminator, girls who flirt unashamedly etc… How could one avoid thinking that our fascination for what goes on on the screen is not a tacit connivance with a doctrine such as Callicles’?
Where would Callicles stand were he born today? In politics? In finance? In business? In showbiz? For sure, he would be most at ease in our world. In post-modern tendencies, he would find an echo of his own force and cynicism. How could we reconcile with “justice and temperance’s pretended beauty” when deep down we are thinking that: “I want to do what I want, and above all be accountable to no one! Moderate my desires? How frustrating! Don’t talk to me about morality, its is just a lot of restrictions one wants to impose on me!” What does Callicles have to say about this? “This truth you are looking for, Socrates, I give it to you here: luxury, incontinence and freedom, when sustained with force, together make up virtue and happiness; the rest, all these beautiful ideas and unnatural conventions, are just sham and stupidity.” Let’s translate this: when one has the means (power and money), one satisfies one’s desires and one couldn’t care less about morality and justice. Morality and justice? Inventions by the weak to protect them against the strong, thinks Callicles. In Nature, there is neither human justice nor human morality; what we find is the one true law, that of the strongest. However, the common man does obviously not have the strength to become a tyrant and satisfy all his desires. Therefore he denies force. This is how envious and malcontent people speak, it is the discourse of the weak and powerless. They are those who speak of justice and morality, of moderating one’s desires! Real life is the life of the strong, it is in orgy and voluptuousness, not in the restriction, limitation and suppression of desires!
Wow! As an apology of immorality you couldn’t do better! Socrates first remark in what follows is that at least Callicles has the merit of being frank. He says loud what most people only dare to think in silence. Perhaps do we need the figure of Callicles to see the brutal satisfaction of our desires for what they are: avidity and violence. We discover then what a predator desire is. Callicles frightens us because he shows us with what violence desires are unleashed. Their force will only cease to fascinate us once we become aware of the destructive violence that comes with desire. This violence is not only that of “someone else”: the tyrant, the assassin, the maniac. It is within me whenever I choose to listen only to my desires, when I follow only the intoxication of desire, when I refuse and reject everything else. The morality, which advocates the unlimited satisfaction of desires, refuses to see beyond myself.
When I listen only to myself I deny the existence of other people, when seeing only my own interest I reject the interest of everybody else. This is avidity without restraints, it has us exploiting everybody, without ever giving anything.
Let’s think about this: can anyone reasonably subscribe to a doctrine advocating for the unbridled satisfaction of desires? It is not a matter of lacking audacity, it is that this doctrine does not stand up.
B. Restraining and moderating one’s desires.
It is important to examine what follows in Plato’s text. If Callicles is right, first of all “ it would be wrong to say that those who have no needs are happy”. One can just see Callicles shrugging his shoulders: “if so, stones and corpses would be very happy”. But precisely, the satisfaction that desire is pursuing, is it not a contentment which would reduce and suppress the need? We could liken the soul to a barrel and desires to holes pierced in the bottom of the barrel. The barrel with no holes is easy to fill. Once full, there is no need to add anything whatsoever. Is this not the very picture of fulfilment? On the contrary, the soul which is pierced with innumerable desires is impossible to fulfil. No sooner have you poured anything into it than it flows out; thus you must refill it all the time: it never finds satisfaction and contentment. Is this not the exact picture of the soul’s void and misery? Is it not a hellish torture to be condemned to pursue desires indefinitely without ever being able to find contentment? This is the absurdity of an existence ruled by desires. What should we think then of he who incites us to endlessly multiply our desires? Is he not a daemon? Is it not preferable, Plato says, “to choose an orderly life, content and satisfied with what each day has to offer, rather than an unfulfilled and unbridled one?” If your rule of life is the satisfaction of all your desires, then you have condemned yourself to a life of suffering.
The multiplication of desires and the dissatisfaction that follows have already brought us enough misery. What we need now is more an art de vivre, an art of living, which will show us how to live an ordered life in contentment and satisfaction. However, since we start out as human beings and not as religious saints, we also want a life which would include a few pleasures. The morality of Epicure proposes just that. What we need to learn is a certain sense for measure. We shall have to distinguish between the attitude that consists in satisfying legitimate needs and that consisting in pursuing illegitimate ones. It is the pursuit of excess that denatures man and not the quest for a legitimate pleasure. “If all men enjoy food, wine and sex in some manner, all do not enjoy it to the right extent.” Finding the just measure in all things is en essential ingredient to wisdom. When one falls into excess, no pleasure is any longer satisfied. The frantic pursuit of desires is followed by irritation from discontentment, weariness, disgust and boredom. The flesh is sad when it has been over-exposed to stimuli. A life exalted by desires very rapidly becomes empty and blasé.
To remedy to desire’s immoderation, one has to learn to moderate one’s desires and adopt as a consequence a correct attitude towards them. This is possible only if we work out a precise classification and if we adopt a clear rule of conduct for each one of them. All desires do not fall in the same category. There are: a) natural desires and other which are more artificial. Epicure distinguishes between natural desires and b) useless desires. Whatever is not natural and does not correspond to the expression of our nature is vain. It is natural to seek friendship, to give the body what it needs. It is useless to be made to believe that wealth, reputation and fame cannot be done without. Natural desires can be either c) necessary, like those that relate to the needs of the body or d) unnecessary like those relating to aesthetic pleasures. Finally, in the class of necessary desires one can furthermore distinguish desires necessary for e) the tranquillity of the body; such as a regular life, the absence of pain, f) desires necessary for life itself, such as the satisfaction of hunger, thirst and sleep, g) desires necessary for happiness, such as wisdom, knowledge of Nature, contemplation.
For each of our desires we should ask ourselves in which category it goes and estimate the appropriate consequences. One must be a little calculating and, for each desire, ask oneself the following question: “what good will result for me if I satisfy this desire, and what will happen to me if I do not?” As regards useless desires, one must flee them like the plague and get rid of them. They will incite us to pursue imaginary goals and breed innumerable sufferings. We shall have to repress this sort of desire. As for natural desires, although non-necessary, we shall have to find the proper balance between the satisfaction of this desire and its excess. Sexuality, listening to music, being captivated by the charms of painting etc… all this is not essential to life. Therefore it is enough in this respect to avoid any damage to the body, while allowing the desire to fill its function. As for natural and necessary desires, we shall have to find out how best to satisfy them. One must above all see to it that all pain be suppressed. Talking of needs, this should not be too difficult as they are limited by the demands of nature. They are easy to satisfy. The most important thing is to preserve the well-being of the body, since on this rests the condition of all true contentment.
Living with one’s desires is therefore rather complex an art. It is far from being as easy as common sense would have you believe. It is not just a question of avidly “enjoying” life by flinging yourself on whatever pleasure is immediately available. A desire is something that one chooses. One must be able to circumscribe the origin of false desires before they make us suffer. One must beware the fears suggested to us by our imagination and to the cortege of insane desires it has in stake for us. Above all, one must keep one’s peace of mind, rest, a state of self-containment and the plenitude of the soul: the ataraxia. Moreover, a desire is calculated through its consequences. Relying on immediate gratification is deceptive. Sometimes one must know how to refuse a pleasure because its consequences would be damaging to the mind and body (for instance gluttony and excessive sexual activity). Sometimes one has to put up with a moment’s pain for a greater future good (have a tooth pulled out in order not to suffer later). Only wisdom can guide us, the wise man being the one who because of the force his spirit knows how to refuse vain desires and thereby gains freedom of the mind. One must definitely not let desires get the upper hand, and allow oneself to yield to their seductive appeal. A happy life demands an ascetic discipline or it cannot be happy.
The result we obtain is quite an odd one: Epicure’s purpose is to come forth with a philosophy of pleasure, while the means to reach contentment is rather ascetic, implying the renunciation of a lot of pleasures. True hedonism is quite austere a wisdom compared to what is called “hedonism” in our post-modern mentality. Bread, water and friendship. This is the formula for an epicurean lifestyle. There is both grandeur and beauty in this restraint, in this conquest of a happy moderation, much more than you would find in unrestrained avidity. Yet, the mastery over one’s body comes with a price: the necessity to give up the conquering dimension of desire.
Is it not human after all to want more than the bare necessities, to desire the best and the perfect? Can this be said to be just a matter of “vanity”? Suspecting desire of vanity by comparison with the simple frugal need when it is directed towards higher and more generous goals is what makes the nobility of human life. Who can find contentment in confining himself within the narrow frames of simple needs? The vital self, the natural self, can it genuinely fulfil the thirst of human senses? Would it not be preferable that we entertain the greatest, the loftiest desires rather than limiting ourselves to natural desires?
C. On the Moderation of Desires
It is part of the greatness of man that he is able to desire beyond the offer of mere nature. Is it possible to at once maintain the ardour of desires and the necessity of controlling them? This problem is that of reconciling the impetuousness of desires with the constant necessity to conform to reality. As long as we identify with our desires, we have expectations resulting in impatience, the smallest obstacle seems an insufferable hindrance and desiring makes us suffer all the time. Were we able to at once take things as they come by accepting present reality, while still pursuing our desires, then we would gain a flexibility which would help us avoid suffering from the impatience created by desire: being here and now, and yet desire what is best.
Let us suppose that I am to attend an important meeting. I am driving on the road and suddenly the engine begins to cough. Oops! A breakdown! What will most of us do? We get out of the car and start banging at it! Blasted car, will you get going! We so identify with our desires that we behave like children, like the little boy stamping his feet because he didn’t get it his way. The proper attitude would be to keep your calm and see what can be done: open the boot, see if there is anything I can do, call another driver etc… A proper action will only take place if I have first accepted reality, and not if I start out by refusing it in the name of my desires. By identifying with my desires, I turn into a capricious child who wants it all and right now, who has no patience. I catch myself thinking that the world should be at my command, that I am the centre of the universe.
Let us return to a more grown-up attitude. There are things that depend on me and other things that do not. The course of the world, the state of my body, none of this depends on me. It is not you that make the wind blow, says Epictete, it is Eole. Your task on this immense ocean is to do a correct job at the helm of your will. Whether there be a lull, a tempest or a favourable wind does not depend on you. Therefore, if I desire to reach a destination, I must also take reality into account. What does depend on me is precisely the correct attitude. On what depends a correct attitude? On how I look at whatever is there. On my representation. My representation of the world belongs to me. I do not have to kick the car! I can behave more intelligently, and adopt a correct attitude. It depends only on me. Likewise, my desires only depend on me. It is I who posit the goal I want to reach, it is I again who has to find the means to get there.
I don’t know what I will encounter on the road of my desires, but this should not be a reason to refuse to undertake anything, on the pretext that there are obstacles. Descartes, inspired by the stoics, says: “Reason wants us to choose the surest way, and our desire will be fulfilled once we have followed it”. It is possible that we meet with brigands on the road. That does not depend on us. All we can do is to choose the surest means and leave the rest to Nature. It is therefore of the utmost importance in life’s circumstances to learn to distinguish between what depends on us and what does not. Let us mind what is in our power and leave it to Nature to take care of the rest. This implies doing our best and not desiring the impossible. It is better to be one’s own master than to want to change the order of the world. Nevertheless, it is useless to resign, and to renounce all desires and leave it all to fate. The best attitude is that of moderation, the middle way between desire’s exuberance and its frustration.
Where then do we find the exact point of contentment? It is where we put it. Is it only to be found in the capturing the prey of one’s desire or is it to be found in a state of one’s consciousness in which the mind finds contentment in itself? What has been philosophers’ felicity since Ancient times, Descartes remarks, is that despite pain, ill fortune or poverty, they kept in mind that nothing depends on us except our thoughts. If I keep my thoughts within reasonable limits, I no longer have to experience the torment of envy or wanting the impossible. I find satisfaction in the contentment I find in mastering my own self. The art of desiring consists first of all in have contentment depend on the Self and not on the object of desire. It is not a question of being fatalistic to the point of eradicating desire, but not to be totally dependent on the satisfaction it gives us. “It is certain that when one practices this distinction between fatality and fortune, one easily gets used to regulating one’s desires in such a way that, since their fulfilment depends only on us, they can therefore always give us total satisfaction.”
With moderation comes the awareness that we must mind other people. Without abolishing desire’s necessity, it makes it compatible with a concern for the quality of our relation to others, and this is a virtue. The moderate man is he who learns to be cautious and to keep an equal attitude to all things. This equanimity is what ensures peace to the soul in the midst of events, in such a way that contentment is no longer the result of asceticism. Contentment will be found in the realisation of desires, but desires that have been educated by a sense of acceptance of reality. True contentment precedes desire. The wise man knows how to desire while still taking things as they are. He knows that he cannot decide of the fruit of an action, of its result, but only of the action itself. Hence, he little by little achieves detachment through ceasing to completely identify with desire.
It is for this reason that desire can keep its place insofar as we are no longer dependent on it. If there is no more dependence, desire is no longer a problem. Let’s be even bolder: why then deny desire? Let us have great desires, immense desires, generous desires: desires so great that they go beyond the interests of our small person, our little self, to embrace once in a while the whole of humanity. Let us desire in all things the best in the interests of all mankind! Only this power of Desire is conform to the expansion of Life.
In this sense, it is even a cause for pride to desire what seems impossible in the eyes of sceptics and the malcontent. Sceptical and powerless people have never changed anything! When something we desired, becomes reality after having been looked upon as impossible, then this impossibility gives us joy!
If we remain in duality, then desires confront us with a cruel dilemma: in order to achieve true contentment, such that the soul feels no more emptiness, must one suppress all desires or satisfy them? Ascetic deprival, if it is only a constraint, gives no satisfaction. It desiccates life, it extinguishes vitality. However, one must also know how to recognize the beauty of austerity and not reduce it to mere mortification. The immoderate quest to satisfy all our desires does not give true contentment, because it is destructive, because it yields dissatisfaction, and leads to disgust and boredom.
What we must appreciate is the fruit all desires are looking for, this quest for self-contentment, for a plenitude of the Self which leaves no void. Does plenitude really belong to the object of desire? What if it doesn’t? If ever we carefully considered what the Plenitude of consciousness is, maybe we would find that it is not as far away as the mirage of desires makes us believe. What we need so badly is it not first of all to be? What does it mean to be fully? Is the feeling that I am not independent of desires’ turbulence? Is it not the fullness of our experience of being which precisely allows us to master our desires?
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm