The Problem of Desire


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 of the Latin is ‘to await what the stars will bring’.

According to the Hindu Rig Veda (second millennium BC), the universe began, not with light, but with desire, ‘the primal seed and germ of Spirit’.

Desires constantly arise in us, only to be replaced by other desires. Without this continuous stream of desires, 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 crisis of desire corresponds to boredom, and a chronic crisis to depression.

It is desire that moves us, and, in moving us, gives our life direction and meaning—perhaps not meaning in a cosmic sense, but meaning in the more restricted narrative sense. If you are at all reading this article, that is because, for whatever reason or reasons, you have formed a desire to read the article, and this desire motivates you to read it. ‘Motivation’, like ’emotion’, derives from the Latin movere, ‘to move’.

Brain injured people who lack emotions find it difficult to make decisions because they lack a basis for choosing between competing choices. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), the philosopher David Hume famously argued that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, that is, that one cannot deduce or derive moral conclusions from mere facts, and, by extension, that all moral conclusions are grounded in nothing but emotion.

The paradox of desire

We were born from desire, and cannot remember a time when we were without it. So habituated are we to desiring that we are not conscious of our desires, which only register if they are very intense or if they come into conflict with other desires. Meditation may not in itself prevent us from desiring, but it might give us a better insight into the nature of desire, which, in turn, can help us to disengage from unhelpful desires. ‘Freedom’, said the 20th century mystic and philosopher 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 in itself a desire. To get round this paradox, many eastern spiritual masters speak of the cessation of desire, or ‘enlightenment’, not as the culmination of an intentional process, but as a mere accident. Spiritual practice, they maintain, does not invariably or inevitably lead to the cessation of desire, but merely makes us more ‘accident-prone’.

The problem of desire

If desire is life, why should we desire to control desire? —For the simple reason that we desire to control life, or, at least, our life.

Hinduism may name desire as a life force, but it also calls it the ‘great symbol of sin’ and ‘destroyer of knowledge and self-realization’. Similarly, the second of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that the cause of all suffering is ‘lust’ in the broad sense of ‘coveting’ or ‘craving’. The Old Testament opens with the cautionary tale of Adam and Eve: had these earliest of our ancestors not desired to eat from the forbidden tree, they would not have been banished from the Garden of Eden into our world of woe. In Christianity, four of the seven deadly sins (envy, gluttony, greed, and lust) directly involve desire, and the remaining three (pride, sloth, and wrath) involve it indirectly. Christian rituals such as prayer, fasting, and confession all aim, at least in part, at curbing desire, as does humility and self-abasement, conformity, communal living, and the promise of life-after-death.

All suffering can be framed in terms of desire. Unmet desire is in itself painful, but so is 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, when a middle-aged person comes to the realization that his reality does not live up to his youthful, some might say immature, desires.

If desire is hurtful, so are its products. For instance, the accumulation of houses, cars, and other riches robs us our time and tranquility, both in their acquiring and in their keeping—not to speak of their losing. Fame is at least as compromising and inconvenient as it is pleasurable, and can quickly turn into infamy. This need not mean that we should shun fame or riches, merely that we should not set out for them or invest ourselves in them.

An excess of desire is, of course, called greed. Because greed is insatiable, it prevents us from enjoying all that we already have, which, though it may seem like little, is far more than our forebears could ever have dreamt of. Another problem of greed is that it is all-consuming, reducing life in all its richness and complexity to nothing but an endless quest for more.

The origins of desire

Desire is intimately connected to pleasure and pain. Human beings feel pleasure at the things that, in the course of their evolution, have tended to promote their survival and reproduction; they feel pain at the things that have tended to compromise their genes. The pleasurable things, such as sugar, sex, and social status, are wired to be desirable, whereas the painful things are wired to be undesirable.

Moreover, as soon as a desire is fulfilled, people stop taking pleasure in its fulfillment and instead formulate new desires, because, in the course of evolution, contentedness and complacency did not tend to promote survival and reproduction.

The problem is just that: our desires evolved ‘merely’ to promote our survival and reproduction. They did not evolve to make us happy or satisfied, to ennoble us, or to give our life any meaning beyond them. Neither are they adapted to modern circumstances. Today, survival is no longer the most pressing issue, and, with more than seven billion people thronging our polluted planet, reproduction can seem almost irresponsible. Yet here we still are, chained to our desires like a slave to his master.

Our intellect, in which we place so much faith, evolved to assist us in our pursuit of the desirable and avoidance of the undesirable. It did not evolve to enable us to resist our desires, still less to transcend them. Although out intellect is subservient to our desires, it is good at fooling us that it is in control.

The world as will

One of the most inspired theories of desire is that of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer argues 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 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, judge, 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 frustration, strife, 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 merely work them out, if at all, once they are already fully formed. To work out my friend’s desires, I observe my friend and infer her desires from her behaviour. And so it is also with myself: I infer my desires from my behaviour. If I am an interested party or a shrewd observer, I might well know more about my friend’s desires than she does herself.

Another reason I might know more about my friend’s desires than she does herself is that people tend to defend against their more unacceptable desires by repressing or denying them. If an unacceptable desire nonetheless succeeds in surfacing into their conscious, still they may modify or disguise it, for example, by elaborating an entire system of false beliefs to reinvent lust as love.

Advertisers exploit this process of desire formation by sowing the seeds of desire into our unconscious, and then supplying some flimsy reasons with which our conscious can justify or rationalize the desire.

Schopenhauer compares our conscious 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 is barely cognizant.

For Schopenhauer, the most powerful manifestation of 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 fades away and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.

Few of our desires surface into our conscious, and those that do, we adopt as our own. But before a desire surfaces into our conscious, it competes with a number of conflicting desires which are all also in some sense ‘ours’. The desire that eventually prevails is often the one that is at the limit of our understanding. This competitive process of desire formation is most evident in psychotic people who hear one or several voices that speak from a point of view that seems alien to them, but that is, of course, 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 ours 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 of 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, we often fail to prevail.

Moreover, it is often over the least consequential desires, such as what to wear or what music to listen to, that we seem to exercise the most control, while whom we lust for/fall in love with seems mostly if not completely out of our control. Yet, a single rogue desire can lay waste to the best intelligence of half a lifetime.

In many cases, we simply don’t know what we desire. But even when we do know what we want, we cannot know for sure that it will be good for us. A young man may dream of studying medicine at Oxford, but realizing his dream could mean that he is run-over by a bus three years hence, or that he never realizes his far greater potential as a novelist. Whenever our desires are frustrated, we ourselves should not feel frustrated, because we cannot be sure that what we wanted would truly have been good for us.

Types of desire

Most of our desires are simply a means to satisfying another, more important, desire. For instance, if I feel thirsty and desire a drink in the middle of the night, I also desire to turn the light on, to get out of bed, to find my slippers, and so on. My desire for a drink is a terminal desire, because it relieves me of the pain of thirst, whereas all the other desires in the chain are instrumental desires because they are instrumental to fulfilling my terminal desire.

In general, terminal desires are generated by our emotions, whereas instrumental desires are generated by our intellect. Because terminal desires are generated by our emotions, they are highly motivated, while instrumental desires are merely motivated through the terminal desires that they aim at. In some cases, a desire can be both terminal and instrumental, as when we work for a living, and also enjoy the work that we do.

My desire for a drink is also a so-called hedonic desire, in that it leads to pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Most terminal desires are hedonic, but some might be motivated by sheer will power, as, for example, when I decide to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

Of course, it can be argued that there can be no such thing as a non-hedonic terminal desire, since, even when we do the right thing ‘for the sake of doing the right thing’, we experience pleasure in doing so (or avoid pain, for example, the pain of guilt), and so our desire is merely a hedonic desire in disguise.

Nonetheless, some terminal desires, such as hunger and thirst, are evidently more biological than others, and these tend to be highly motivated. On the other hand, more abstract terminal desires may be less motivated because our emotions fail to back them, or back them but only feebly. Unfortunately, the extent to which a non-biological terminal desire is supported by the emotions 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 slave is not as strong as the master and risks being whipped back into his den. Instead of confronting his master head-on, the intellect stands a better chance of prevailing if he replaces his master’s desire with another, or reframes the master’s desire in the master’s own terms—typically by arguing that resisting the desire will lead to more pleasure in the longer term. The intellect can also try to trick the emotions, for example, with a ‘cemetery meditation’ against lust, which involves imagining the dead body of the lusted-after person in various stages of decomposition.

The intellect can fully grasp some truth, but unless the emotions share in that truth, the person cannot find the power to act upon it. This is why good teaching is not just about knowledge, but also, and even mostly, about inspiration.

Finally, desires can also be divided into natural and unnatural desires. Natural desires such as those for food and shelter are naturally limited. In contrast, unnatural or vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth are potentially unlimited.

The Ancient philosopher Epicurus teaches that natural desires, though difficult to eliminate, are both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, and should be satisfied. In contrast, unnatural diseases are neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy, and should be eliminated.

By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimize the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia (perfect mental tranquility). ‘If thou wilt make a man happy,’ says Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Desires and society

Unnatural desires, which are unlimited, have their roots not in nature but in society. Fame, power, and wealth can all be understood in terms of the desire for social status. Indeed, were we to be the last person on earth, being famous, powerful, or wealthy would not only be of no use but would be meaningless. Our desires would be radically different than they are now, and, leaving aside our loneliness, we would stand a much better chance of satisfaction.

Society also gives rise to 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. We suffer not only from our own destructive desires but also from the destructive desires of others, turning into the target and victim of their insecurities. As Schopenhauer says, ‘What every one most aims at in ordinary contact with his fellows is to prove them inferior to himself.’

By overcoming the desire to satisfy, please, impress, or better others, we can start living for ourselves, free from unnatural and destructive desires.

Diogenes the Cynic, who was a contemporary of Plato in Ancient Athens, taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society.

After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions.

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who, it is said, came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” To his credit, Alexander still declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes replied parrhesia, which means free speech or full expression. He used to stroll around Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped and asked what he was doing, he would reply, “I am just looking for a human being.”


Luckily, there is no need to imitate Diogenes, and still less to banish desire. Instead, we need to master desire, because, paradoxically, 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.

Further Reading

On Desire, William Irvine

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