Desire: Curse or Blessing?

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, both Buddhism and Epicureanism view desire as somehow central to the ‘problem’ (if it is a problem) of human existence.  Most (but certainly not all) Buddhisms see desire as universally problematic, while for Epicureanism it is only the preponderance of our desires that are so.  But these two philosophies are, of course, not the only ones that pay attention to the phenomenon – indeed, any life-philosophy worth its salt deals with desire in its own way, whether that be the Taoist harmonization of desire to gel with ‘the Way’, or the Christian realignment of desire to accord with the eternal and unseen order established by God.  What is of interest, of course, and what is almost so fundamental as to escape notice, is that all of the life-philosophies mentioned above view desire as something that is broken, or bad, or a burden, as something that must be overcome, subdued, abandoned, or redirected.  The analysis tends to be that, with the abandonment of desire (whether this is total or restricted to specific desires depends upon the particular theoretical framework) life will become easier and freer.

There is no small degree of wisdom in this general approach.  After all, humans have innumerable desires for innumerable ends and, since it is not possible for all our desires to be fulfilled, we will very often be dissatisfied by the gap between what we want and what the world is willing to provide.  Desire probably should be treated with much more suspicion than is currently en vogue among the West’s cultural and business elites[1] and, hearteningly, there are indeed some indications of a growing interest in minimalism.  But these approaches (particularly the stronger ones, like various strains of ascetic Buddhism) ignore something vital and valuable about desire, something that modern Western culture recognizes and responds to (even though, arguably, this response is disproportionate and overly indulgent).

What the modern West generally recognizes about desire is that desire is what gives life its flavour and its vividness.  It is from the satisfaction of desire that we derive our greatest pleasure and joy.  It is our desires that motivate us to do valuable and important things, like getting an education, and it is our desires that motivate us to do things that need doing but which we would otherwise avoid, like maintaining sewage treatment infrastructure.  Desire is what gives us something to act upon, something to look forward to, and something to hope for.  The West knows that to eliminate desire entirely would leave us without any grounds for action or judgement, and leave life a bland affair.

It isn’t obvious, then, that desire is necessarily a bad thing or that we should seek to uproot it entirely (should it even be possible to do so).  We need to find a middle-way between absolute renunciation and absolute indulgence.  More on this later.


[1] Though by no means am I possessed of socialistic tendencies, I do tend to agree with most critics of consumer capitalism insofar as they are arguing against the insipid, ugly, and crass nature of the phenomenon.  But that is a discussion for another time.

The Human Predicament: Buddhist and Epicurean Understandings

A man in need of no introduction...

The problem presented by the human condition seems an appropriate place to begin any comparative analysis of Buddhism and Epicureanism, as these two philosophies are directly engaged with it (or variations of it) and explicitly understand this engagement to be their primary concern.  Unsurprisingly, given the differing cultural, religious and philosophical contexts out of which these philosophies of life emerged,  each has its own unique account of just what the human situation is and why it is problematic, but there is more than a little overlap between them.  This alone is interesting, but what is even more fascinating is how each of their conceptualizations both agree and disagree with the modern ‘common-sense’ [1] view of the matter, and what they have to say to the modern West.The Buddhist account is striking in its brevity, apparent simplicity (a simplicity that belies its complex analysis), and in its radical nature.  The Buddhist account of the human predicament may be summed up by the use of a single term: dukkha.  This term has no precise English counterpart and has been variously (and unfortunately) translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anxiety’, ‘pain’ and other such cognate terms.  Each of these terms is strongly emotionally charged in English, so perhaps the best translation to use is ‘dissatisfactory’, since it captures some of the sense that dukkha conveys without causing English speakers to recoil.  Choosing the definition of this term is crucial since the Buddhist claim is simply this: all things are dukkha (i.e. dissatisfactory).

This immediately strikes the modern Westerner as wrong – obviously, there are things in life that are dissatisfactory (e.g. rainy days, grumpy co-workers, traffic jams and taxes), but equally as obviously it seems that there are things in life that very much are satisfactory (e.g. sunny days, friends, our favourite songs, a good meal or sex).  This is to misunderstand the Buddhist claim, however.  It is not that there is nothing whatsoever that is pleasant or enjoyable, but that there is nothing that is perfectly so.  Everything changes, or fails to live up to our expectations, and there are experiences that are themselves pleasurable, but are causally dependent upon unpleasant experiences (e.g. filling an empty stomach).  And we must not forget those things that are essentially unpleasant: pain, fear, hunger, anxiety, sickness, anger, and death, to name a few.  Even worse, humans are trapped in the cycle of birth-death-rebirth.  Most Westerners feel that this would be a good thing, but recall that Buddhism maintains that everything is dissatisfactory – rebirth on this account means endless dissatisfaction!

… and one who sadly does: Epicurus

Epicureans take a somewhat similar position.  Human life is broadly dissatisfactory on this view as well, although (unlike the Buddhist picture) in a far less radical way.  On the Epicurean picture, humans are animals like any other [2] and are saddled with numerous (infinite?) desires.  This plethora of desires leaves us in a bad way – we are constantly let down because we can’t hope to satisfy them all.  On the Epicurean schema, there are different sorts of desire.  Some of these are impossible to satisfy (e.g. the desire not to die), some are practically impossible (e.g. to be the richest man alive), and others are quite readily satisfied.  But where the Epicurean analysis is interesting is in what it says about the source of the desires.  The claim is this: some of our desires are ‘natural’, arising from our given animal natures (a list of such desires would presumably include items like: sex, food, shelter, etc.), but some arise solely as the result of living in human societies (e.g. desires for social status or dominance).  It is these latter sorts of desires that bring us the greatest unhappiness in life.

So what the two visions share is an explanation of the human situation as one of being trapped in the unhappy circumstance of having desires/wants/needs that cannot be met.  It is obvious that, from these analyses, the answer is to somehow overcome this situation.  But more on this later.


[1] I speak of ‘common-sense’ items with some degree of trepidation – it is embarrassingly often the case that what some philosopher takes to be ‘common-sense’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

[2] Of immense interest is that the Epicureans had a theory of evolution (obviously, it differs in many respects from the Darwinian/neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm we take for granted today).

Introducing a Stream of Discussion: Buddhism and Epicurianism

I, like everyone else, am a product of my time.  I was shaped by my particular cultural background and the upbringing I received (under the guidance of my parents and teachers) into being materialistic (in both senses), utilitarian, reflexively politically correct, career worshipping and interested only in politics and being entertained (if these two may even be separated).  Also, like many others in my society, I found myself dissatisfied with many aspects of life, even though I live in the midst of material plenty.  Even though this is all I knew and believed to be good, there was doubt that it was good enough.

So like many modern Westerners, I found my way to Buddhism.  I didn’t go looking, exactly, but I just happened to be introduced to it at a moment at which I was particularly receptive.  It recognized and affirmed my felt dissatisfaction with what the culture does not and, more importantly, frantically refuses to – that the rat race sucks and toys aren’t much of a compensation.  It offered transcendence without need to grovel before capricious, sometimes psychopathic gods.  Even better, it proposed a plan of practise – meditation, mind-cultivation, and ethical improvement.  All to the good.  This was before I was introduced to philosophy.  I had no idea about the Cynics, the Stoics, or the Epicureans – I had no idea that there was anything like that in my own cultural tradition!  (This is an indictment of my parents and the schools – why aren’t we any longer teaching the young their own background?)  So when I discovered philosophy, I became very excited.

Epicureanism is particularly interesting to me.  I think it has something important to say to the modern world, just like Buddhism has something important to say to the West.  These are two subjects that I will be investigating on occasion, both comparatively and on their own terms.