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.