Inchoate thoughts. Lately I’ve been spending a great deal with thinkers of antiquity such as Epicurus, Lucretius, and the Stoics for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me. I suppose that I’m looking for a naturalistic ground of value and ethico-politico thought that wouldn’t appeal to anything transcendent or otherworldly. I’ve found myself simultaneously exhilarated and repulsed by Epicurus. Exhilarated because of his model ethics– shared by these other thinkers –of ethics as a sort of therapy of the soul, a therapy of desire, that frees us of the desires that plague us while also advising us to pursue those relations, those objects, that are most conducive to our well being. How could a psychoanalyst fail to be delighted with Epicurus. Here it wouldn’t be a matter of agreeing with the letter of Epicurus’s doctrines, but with the core idea that animates them.
On the other hand, I find myself repulsed by Epicurus due to his conception of human desire. In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus writes:
We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is worthy of choice, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, teat all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good. Again, we regard. independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s se therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul. Of all this the d is prudence. For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for ad a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.
Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desire: natural desires, of which there are two: the necessary natural desires and the non-necessary natural desires, and groundless desires. Necessary natural desires, non-necessary natural desires, and groundless desires. The necessary desires consist of our desires for things like food and water. Without these things we suffer a great deal, but, Epicurus contends, these desires are easily satisfied. The natural non-necessary desires are desires that arise from our nature, but we don’t suffer if we don’t fulfill these desires. This would be our desire for things like sex. Much later, Lucretius will argue that we should cut erotic desire out of our lives as much as possible because of the turmoil that so often accompanies it.
For Epicurus, it is the “groundless” desires that cause us the lion’s share of our turmoil and from which we need to be cured.
The groundless desires– referred to in some translations as “empty desires” –are not natural in the sense that we are not born with them, and are desires that we acquire from our introduction to culture or society; from, as it were, the signifier or the symbolic. These are our desires for things such as luxuries or commodities, prestige, fame, and recognition. It is these desires, says Epicurus, that give rise to the need for something like a therapy of desire or a philosophical therapy; for there is something horrific in these desires. No object is ever enough for the voracious, gnawing, omnivorous groundless or empty desires. Each luxury we enjoy, each increase in wealth, every bit of prestige or recognition we gain only leads to the desire for more. Where the natural necessary desires are finite and therefore easily satisfied, the groundless or empty desires are infinite and can never be satisfied. “Encore!”, they command.
It is this voracious, infinite desire, not the lack of the objects of these desires, says Epicurus, that is a central source of the turmoil and discontent of our souls. A large part of Epicurus’s philosophical therapy will thus consist in curing us of these groundless or empty desires. These are false desires based on false beliefs. Unlike the natural, necessary desires that pertain to our biological being, if we don’t acquire the objects of groundless desire we don’t suffer. The work of philosophical therapy as Epicurus conceives it will consist in patiently curing the person of these groundless or empty desires. It seems that for Epicurus we need only live a “natural” life, a life based on our natural desires, to achieve ataraxia or peace of mind and the most pleasurable life; for the necessary, natural desires are easily satisfied.
If we jump ahead two thousand years to the Age of Modernity we get a very different conception of desire. The Age of Modernity or the Enlightenment could just as easily be called the Age of Infinity, for there is a certain way of philosophizing innocently about the infinite that we find in thinkers such as Pascal, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. These thinkers are intoxicated by the infinite and, in many instances, not just the infinity of the universe or of God, but also the infinity that is within us.
In a passing remark in the Meditations, Descartes will write,
Nor should I think that I do not perceive the infinite by means of a true idea, but only through a negation of the finite, just as I perceive rest and darkness by means of a negation of motion and light. On the contrary, I clearly understand that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one. Thus the perception of the infinite is somehow prior to my perception of myself. For how would I understand that I doubt and that I desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there were some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison with which I might recognize my defects? (Meditation 3)
This brief passage contains an entire Cartesian theory of desire. I desire, argues Descartes, not because I am a creature of biological needs, but because we contain the ideas of infinity and perfection within us. These ideas, says Descartes, are not acquired through experience, but are determinations that belong to our essence. If we were speaking “Heideggerese”, we could, in an amusing poke at his philosophy of finitude, say that the ideas of the infinite and the perfect are “existentiales” or fundamental constituents of Dasein’s being. For Descartes, then, desire does not refer back to a biological substrate of natural needs, but is animated by the infinite. Not only is desire everywhere an index of the infinite within us, but our very cognition and reason itself would not be possible without this dimension of the infinite within us.
We can imagine a discussion between Epicurus and Descartes on the issue of desire. Epicurus would say that desire has a natural substrate that then gets captured by culture, by the symbolic, perverting it, leading to the groundless or infinite desires for which no satisfaction can ever be found. Descartes would perhaps readily agree that desire is often captured, but would reproach Epicurus for focusing on the content of these desires, ignoring their form. He would recognize, perhaps, that desire gets caught in the grip of, for example, commodity culture, thereby seeking an endless stream of commodities to satisfy it without the bad infinity of consumerism ever being able to find an end point, but he would nonetheless point out that what is remarkable is the form of this desire; that infinity is somehow present within us, filling us with unrest and perpetually propelling us elsewhere. Just like Kant’s reason where reason is never satisfied with mere understanding but always asks for more systematicity, the infinite propels us ever on.
In Descartes, of course, this conception of desire– of desire as the index of the infinite within us –is attached to an entire theology and theological project. I don’t support any of that. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a phenomenological truth to what Descartes suggest. We seem to be haunted by infinity, such that finitude is impossible for us. The infinite is our lot. In this regard, there seems to be something sad in Epicurus’s conception of desire; not to mention in Spinoza’s conception of conatus, where we are reduced to the mere endeavor to persist in our being. This infinity of desire seems akin to Derrida’s pharmakon, such that it is both a poison and a cure. It is a poison insofar as we suffer from the infinite and the infinite is perpetually captured or seduced by commodity culture and the desire for prestige or honor. However, it is cure also in that it is that which draws of forth, that allows us to stand beyond, the finitude of our historical setting, of our experience, our lives to will something different and otherwise. The infinite within us is our immanent transcendence, our transcendence within finitude, beyond our historical circumstances. It is the crack in our “being-in-the-world”, in our historicity, that allows the elsewhere and otherwise to approach us… But how to conceive this infinity in naturalistic terms?