Desire to learn

We’re doubling up in CoPhi this afternoon, making up for ground lost to Monday’s Labor Day off. That means we’ll be introducing not only Buddha, Confucius, and the Taoists, but Socrates and Plato as well. Wouldn’t that be an interesting dinner party?

Speaking of the Symposium

“And what does he gain who possesses the good?” “Happiness,” I replied; “there is less difficulty in answering that question.” “Yes,” she said, “the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things. Nor is there any need to ask why a man desires happiness; the answer is already final.” “You are right.” I said. “And is this wish and this desire common to all? and do all men always desire their own good, or only some men?-what say you?” “All men,” I replied; “the desire is common to all.” “Why, then,” she rejoined, “are not all men, Socrates, said to love, but only some them? whereas you say that all men are always loving the same things.” “I myself wonder,” I said,-why this is.” “There is nothing to wonder at,” she replied; “the reason is that one part of love is separated off and receives the name of the whole, but the other parts have other names.”

Diotima is pushing Socrates up her ladder of love, to an appreciation of immortal beauty and truth. Her improbable Platonic theory holds that love is an impulse ultimately to possess abstract universals, not particular persons, places, and other “good things” whose deficiency will become evident to the scrupulous lover of wisdom in his ascent from the cave of phenomenal ignorance to the light of the Forms.


I think, to the contrary, that William James shared far more sense on this subject when (we noted yesterday in Happiness) he wrote in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,

The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all. Some desires, truly enough, are small desires; they are put forward by insignificant persons, and we customarily make light of the obligations which they bring.  But the fact that such personal demands as these impose small obligations does not keep the largest obligations from being personal demands.

Desires in the human sphere, at this end of the ladder, run the gamut from large to small, grand to petty. But for most of us, most of the time, they’re precise and particular. The Platonic philosopher who dreams of Truth and Beauty is really chasing particular true and beautiful persons, places, and things. And the philosopher, no less than anyone else, is liable to error and delusion when imagining what those occasions of fulfillment will be like. Living is the process of learning which of our elusive desires can be met, which can be reasonably aspired to, and which must be sacrificed.

Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?‑-he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?‑-both cannot be the choice of his heart. 

Not if he’s a virtuous Victorian, anyway.

And, living well is the process of learning (against the grain of our habitual blindness) that others’ many and various desires merit consideration too. There’s real truth and beauty in seeing this particular light.

5:30/6:26, 74/87

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