The Problem of Desire
The psychology and philosophy of desire.
Posted Nov 07, 2014
[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]
Desire and destiny are almost the same word. ‘Desire’ derives from the Latin desiderare, ‘to long or wish for’, which itself derives from de sidere, ‘from the stars’, suggesting that the original sense is ‘to await what the stars will bring’.
According to the Hindu Rig Veda (second millennium BCE), the universe began, not with light as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but with desire, ‘the primal seed and germ of Spirit’.
Desires constantly arise from within us, only to be replaced by yet more desires. Without this continuous stream of desiring, there would no longer be any reason to do anything: life would grind to a halt, as it does for people who lose the ability to desire. An acute (short-term) crisis of desire corresponds to boredom, and a chronic crisis to depression.
It is desire that moves us and gives our life direction and meaning—perhaps not meaning in the cosmic sense, but meaning in the more restricted narrative sense. If you are at all reading this book, this is because, for whatever reason or reasons, you have formed a desire to read it, and this desire motivates you to read it. ‘Motivation’, like ‘emotion’, derives from the Latin movere, ‘to move’.
Brain injured people who lack the capacity to emote find it difficult to make decisions because they lack a basis for choosing between competing options. Hume famously argued that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, that is, one cannot deduce or derive moral conclusions from mere facts, and, by extension, that all ethical principles are grounded in emotion.
The paradox of desire
We were born out of desire and cannot remember a time when we were without it. We are so used to desiring that we are not conscious of our desires, which only register with us when they are very intense, or when they come into conflict with our other desires.
Mindfulness meditation may not in itself prevent us from desiring, but it can give us better insight into the nature of desiring, which can in turn help us to disengage from unhelpful desires. ‘Freedom’, says Krishnamurti, ‘is not the act of decision but the act of perception.’
Try for just a moment to stem your stream of desires. This is the paradox of desire: that even the desire to stop desiring is itself a desire.
To get around this paradox, some eastern thinkers conceive of the cessation of desire—that is, of ‘enlightenment’—not as the culmination of an intentional process, but as a simple accident. Spiritual practice does not invariably or inevitably lead to the cessation of desire, but merely make us more ‘accident-prone’.
The problem of desire
If desire is life, why should we seek to control desire? —For the simple reason that we seek to control life, or, at least, our life, to make it more pleasant or less painful, and more constructive or less destructive.
In the Hindu tradition, desire is a life force, but also the ‘great symbol of sin’ and ‘destroyer of knowledge and self-realization’. In a similar vein, the second of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that lust, in the broad sense of coveting or craving, is the cause of all suffering.
The Bible opens with a cautionary tale: had Adam and Eve resisted the temptation to eat from the forbidden tree, they and we would not have been banished from Eden. Four of the seven deadly sins (envy, gluttony, greed, and lust) are centred around desire. Christian rituals such as prayer, fasting, and confession all aim, at least in part, at curbing or regulating desire, as do monastic ideals such as poverty, chastity, and communal living. But of all the controls on earthly desire, the most ingenious by far is the promise of life-after-death.
All suffering can be framed in terms of desire. If unmet desire is painful, so are fear and anxiety, which can be understood in terms of desires about the future, and anger and sadness, which can be understood in terms of desires about the past. The mid-life crisis is nothing if not a crisis of desire, in which a middle-aged person comes to the realization that their reality does not measure up to their youthful dreams and desires.
If desire itself is hurtful, so are its products. The accumulation of houses, cars, and other riches robs us of our time and tranquillity, both in their acquiring and in their keeping, not to mention in their losing. Fame is at least as compromising as it is gratifying, and can soon turn to infamy. This need not mean that we should shun fame or riches, merely that we should not set out for, or set store by, them. In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and above all by what we do not.
An excess of desire is, of course, called greed. Being insatiable, greed prevents us from enjoying all that we already have, which may seem like little but still is far more than our forebears could ever have dreamt of. Greed blinds us to everything but its object, reducing life in all its richness and subtlety to a never-ending quest for more.
The origins of desire
Desire is intimately connected to pleasure and pain. We feel pleasure at the things that, in the course of evolution, have tended to promote the survival and reproduction of our species, and pain at those that have not. Things like status, sex, and sugar are wired to be pleasurable, and therefore desirable. But contentedness does not favour survival and reproduction: as soon as a desire is met, we stop taking pleasure in its object and turn instead to formulating new desires.
The problem is just that: our desires evolved ‘merely’ to promote survival and reproduction. They did not evolve to make us happy or fulfilled, to elevate us, or to give life a meaning beyond them. But today, survival is no longer such an issue, and with eight billion people putting pressure on the planet, reproduction can seem almost irresponsible. Yet here we still are, with impulses and desires adapted to another age.
Even our intellect, in which we have so much faith, evolved to assist us in the pursuit of survival and reproduction. Its primary purpose is not to help us resist our desires, and still less to transcend them. On the contrary, it is in thrall to our desires, even though it fools us that it is in charge.
The world as will
One of the most inspired theories of desire is that of Arthur Schopenhauer. In his masterwork, The World as Will, Schopenhauer says that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction.
For Schopenhauer, the whole world is a manifestation of will, including even the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract are objectified hunger, and so on. Everything about us, including even our cognitive faculties, evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the exigencies of will.
Although able to perceive and reason, our intellect is not designed or equipped to pierce through the veil of mâyâ [illusion] and apprehend the true nature of reality. There is nothing in us that can oppose the demands and dictates of will, which drive us unwittingly into a life of inevitable struggle, frustration, and pain.
Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…
The genesis of desire
It is not so much that we form desires, but that desires form in us. Our desires are hardly ‘ours’. We only figure them out, if at all, once they are fully formed. To figure out my friend’s desires, I observe my friend and infer his desires from his behaviour—and so it is also with my own desires.
If I am a shrewd observer, I may well know more about my friend’s desires than he does himself, not least because he may be defending against those desires that he finds unacceptable. Thus, he may be keeping those unacceptable desires out of his conscious mind by denying or repressing them. Should they nonetheless stray into his conscious mind, he could yet distort or disguise them, for example, by reinventing lust as love. Advertisers exploit these notions by sowing the seeds of desire into our unconscious mind, before supplying our conscious mind with some kind of rationalization by which to ‘legitimize’ our desire.
Schopenhauer compares the conscious mind, or intellect, to a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. He anticipates Freud by equating the blind giant of will to our unconscious drives and fears, of which our conscious intellect, the lame man, is barely cognizant.
For Schopenhauer, the most powerful manifestation of the will is the impulse for sex. It is, he says, the will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring that draws man and woman together in a delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, their shared delusion dies down and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.
Few of our desires make it into our conscious mind. Those that do, we adopt as our own. But before a desire can surface, it has to compete with other conflicting desires that are also in some sense our own—and the desire that prevails is often the one that is at the limit of our understanding. This competitive process of desire formation is most evident in people with psychosis, who hear voices that seem alien to them but are in fact their own.
To quote once again from Schopenhauer:
We often don’t know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired.
Desires in practice
That our desires are not truly our own is easy to demonstrate. When we make a New Year’s resolution, we declare to ourselves and to others that, in some small measure, we are going to take control over our desires—implying that our desires are not normally under our control. The same goes for vows and promises. But even with the most solemn and public of marriage vows—witnessed, in the case of Charles and Diana, by over 750 million people—we often fail to prevail.
What’s more, it is often over the most inconsequential desires, such as what to wear or what music to play, that we exercise the most control, while whom we lust after or fall in love with seems mostly if not entirely without our control. Yet, a single rogue desire can lay waste to the best-laid plans of half a lifetime.
In many cases, we simply do not know what we want. But even when we think we do, we cannot be sure that it will be in our best interests. A young woman may dream of studying medicine at Oxford, even if achieving her aim means going under a bus in three years’ time, or never realizing her much greater potential as a novelist. A rejection from Oxford, crushing though it may be, would be the best thing that could happen to her.
Types of desire
Most of our desires aim at satisfying another, more important desire. If I wake up feeling thirsty and desire a drink, I also desire to switch on the light, find my slippers, and so on. My desire for a drink is a terminal desire, because it seeks to relieve me of the discomfort of thirst, whereas all the other desires in the chain are instrumental desires, with no aim other than to enable my terminal desire for a drink.
In general, terminal desires are generated by feelings and, therefore, are highly motivated; whereas instrumental desires are generated by the intellect, and are merely motivated by the terminal desire at which they aim. Some desires can be both terminal and instrumental, as when we work for a living, and also enjoy the work that we do. These are the best desires.
My desire for a drink is also a hedonic desire, insofar as it leads to pleasure or the avoidance of pain or discomfort. Most terminal desires are hedonic, though some might be motivated by sheer will power, for example, when I wish to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.
However, it could be argued that there is no such thing as a non-hedonic terminal desire: even doing the right thing ‘for the sake of doing the right thing’ provides a certain kind of pleasure or satisfaction, and in that much is no more than a hedonic desire in disguise.
Even so, physiological desires such as hunger and thirst tend to be strongly motivated, whereas more abstract terminal desires tend to be less motivated insofar as our emotions fail to back them, or back them only feebly. The degree of emotional backing for abstract terminal desires seems to be completely out of our control. In the words of Schopenhauer, ‘Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.’
Conversely, it is possible for the intellect to rebel against the emotions and reject a highly motivated terminal desire. But the master is stronger than the slave, who risks being whipped back into his den. Instead of confronting the master head-on, the slave stands a better chance of prevailing if he replaces the master’s desire with another, or reframes the master’s desire in the master’s own terms—often by arguing that resisting the desire will lead to even more pleasure in the long run. The slave can also try to trick the master, for example, with a ‘cemetery meditation’ against lust, which involves imagining the body of the longed-for person, now dead, in various stages of decomposition.
Finally, desires can be divided into natural and unnatural. Natural desires such as the desire for food or shelter are naturally limited. But unnatural or vain desires such as the desire for fame, power, or wealth are unlimited. Epicurus taught that natural desires, being both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, ought to be satisfied; while unnatural desires, being neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy, ought to be eliminated.
By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, we can minimize the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires and bring ourselves as close as possible to ataraxia, or perfect mental tranquillity. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy,’ said Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’
Unnatural desires are so-called because they are not naturally but socially determined. Were we the last person on earth, it would make no sense to be famous, powerful, or wealthy. Also socially determined are destructive desires, such as the desire to make others envy us, or the desire to see others fail (or, at least, not succeed as much as us). By overcoming the desires to please, impress, or surpass others, we can start living life for ourselves, free from unnatural and destructive desires.
It is only by mastering our desires that we can live life to its fullest. And it is only by mastering our desires that we might, at last, find some measure of peace.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.