Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Desire

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
© 2007 William Irvine
337 pages

Why do we want what we want? William Irvine’s On Desire examines the nature of desire, exploring first how profoundly it affects our lives, then surveying psychological inquiries into its basis before at last turning to consider how religions, philosophies, and odd ducks have attempted to grapple with it.  Irvine is author previously of A Guide to the Good Life,  a manual on the practice of Stoicism, and the two works have a common subject and a likely audience.  On Desire  is one part science and another philosophy,  thorough but concise. 

We are not merely what we think deliberately;  anyone can realize their mind has a life of its own with a simple experiment: simply shut your eyes and attempt to count slowly to ten.  The count will not even reach five before thoughts start floating up and competing for attention. Where do these distractions come from?  After a brief introductory section in which Irvine comments on how profoundly our life can be changed by desires beyond our control --  falling in love, for instance --   the second part of the book offers that desires are ultimately the result of our instincts, a kind of biological incentive system that’s had a cobbled-together evolutionary history. 

That our minds are driven by evolutionary forces is natural, but not ideal;  following every desire is not the road to happiness. Indeed, even if the desires didn't lead to our immediate destruction (like the urge to pet a sleeping lion), heeding every impulse leaves a person constantly in need of stimulation. That in mind, it is no accident that virtually every religion, and most moral philosophies, have addressed the matter of desire, and in the third section of the work Irvine examines Abrahamic, Greek, and Buddhist approaches. While the Abrahamic religions typically couch mastery of desire so that people can attain heaven and everlasting bliss,  the Greek schools (Stoicism and Epicureanism) and Buddhism have a more this-worldy approach:  desire is countered to achieve tranquility or to maximize enjoyment.   After surveying the advice given to students by such luminaries as Augustine,  Seneca, and Henry David Thoreau,  Baxter notes that despite the variety of contradictions, there are some common lessons that can be distilled.

The foundational observation is that desires should not be trusted. If we practice mindfulness, we will immediately realize their impermanence;  like a child blowing bubbles,  one desire will be a phantasm among dozens, constantly moving, eventually fading. Desires compete with one another, and so thick are they that our intellect is crowded out; it plays 'second fiddle'. The most potent desires are the ones we have the least control over, but no desire is really insatiable.   Even though they cannot be fulfilled, they can be resisted; our biological incentive system may try to punish us, but it's not the end the world. Ultimately, the only way to truly fight desires is to change ourselves to learn to appreciate -- through philosophy, religion, etc -- what we have, to  use techniques both ancient and modern to strengthen our minds against the distractions of the moment.  Irvine covers a lot of varied practices within the text for those who develop an interest.

On Desire is a superb work,  quite attractive to anyone with an interest in mindfulness. My own Stoic leanings predispose me to enjoy it, of course, but I think it laudable also for demonstrating how our evolutionary history has consequences in our present life; although we'd like to think that natural history is history, a closed book, in truth we are driven by the same instincts today that wrote that book. The thoughtfulness of a work such as this gives us the ability to avoid much of the suffering that nature's book is replete with.  

Irvine's own The Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, any book in Stoicism

1 comment:

  1. I need to upgrade this on my to-read list. I really enjoyed his other book. I'd certainly enjoy this one too!


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