The Great Conversation: Desire

By Matt McKeown

There are few ideas more deceitfully simple than desire.

Desire is a more complicated subject than it may appear at first glance. We need to make certain distinctions; for example, are we discussing “anything we find attractive” or “what we deliberately try to get”? A person who wants to lose weight may also want to eat junk food. Are both of these things “wants” in the same sense? Does one of them have a better claim to be called a “desire”?

Desire is typically associated with physical and instinctive wants—”appetite” is often used as a synonym. The earliest philosophers, going back to pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Empedocles, spoke of desire as inhering in all living things and even in inanimate objects. Through Aristotle, this became a standard element of Medieval physics: the general placement of the four elements was said to be a result of their “kindly enclyning,” i.e. innate inclination, to be in this or that location. This may sound silly to our ears, but (as C. S. Lewis points out in The Discarded Image), our language of matter “obeying laws” as if it were a conscientious citizen would have sounded pretty silly to them.

But of course most discussions of desire have to do with human appetites. The tension between what we want and how we ought to behave, according to both social convention and our own consciences, is a major part of the discussion due to its universality. Plato set up a threefold contrast between the appetitive, “spirited,” and rational elements of the soul in the Republic, and argued that virtue consisted in uniting the three under the monarchy of the rational. The idea of a divided soul remained a useful one. In some passages of the New Testament and of early Christian ascetics, desire almost becomes a synonym for temptation, particularly sexual temptation.

Nor—though their value system was different—did the rebellious romantics and self-styled pagans of later eras really disagree with the identification. Many poets of courtly love in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries formulated a sort of half-sincere cult of romance, deliberately rivaling the rites and demands made by the Catholic Church. William Blake inaugurated a rather different idiom, treating desire as spiritual but accusing Christianity of immorally repressing it.

We are always striving for forbidden things and coveting what is denied to us.

The word repression, of course, makes us think of Freud. Desire was key to his concept of the psyche. Like Plato he drew up a threefold soul, though he mapped it differently. Raw, undisciplined desire he called the id. The ability to think things out and consider the future was the ego, which (he held) developed out of the id as a way of maximizing pleasure. The superego grew in a similar way from the ego, and internalized social norms for similar reasons. Since these two limiting faculties result in a lot of temporarily or even permanently unsatisfied desires, the mind might shove these desires down into the unconscious, where they could cause no trouble—or so one might think. From there, Freud believed, they would leak out in the form of dreams and psychological complexes. Eugene O’Neill put these ideas to great dramatic use in his adaptation of the Oresteia, titled Mourning Becomes Electra.

Desire also plays an important role in the theory of ethics. Does desire play an important part—does it it play any part—in evaluating the rightness of an action? Is it, as the saying goes, the thought that counts? A strict utilitarian and a Kantian would likely both say no: the one evaluates actions by whether they promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, the other by whether the act itself is objectively right. Indeed, the Kantian might argue that a virtuous act done in spite of the doer’s own inclinations is better than one done in accordance with them, because it is more disinterested.

A virtue ethicist like Aquinas, by comparison, would align more closely with hedonists like Epicurus or Lucretius. Virtue ethics posits that what matters is less the virtuous act itself than the spiritual quality of the doer’s soul; virtuous acts are important because of the habits they both flow from and help to form. The more virtuous a man is, on this logic, the more he will enjoy virtuous behavior. And the final goal of virtue itself, human flourishing, is something to be enjoyed too.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, On the Soul
St Augustine, Confessions, bk. III
Dante, The Banquet
Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away


If you liked this piece, try this author profile of Martin Buber, this essay on the idea of beauty, or this post on C. S. Lewis’ advice for reading old books.

Published on 21st October, 2020.

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