Sunday, December 24, 2006

Culturing Our Wants

Dear Reader,

Heraclitus wrote Anthrôpoisi ginesthai hokosa thelousi ouk ameinon, which Philip Wheelwright translates as It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish. In other words, if things turned out exactly as we want them to turn out, we would be sorry.

In a simple-minded, caricatured way, this theme is played upon in stories about how genies freed from bottles or lamps always twist our wishes to make us sad, but what Heraclitus is saying is far more profound: if the wishes were not twisted at all, if things turned out exactly as we want them, without any tricks, we would be sad. What we want is not healthy for us. We understand ourselves, the cosmos, and our place in it so poorly that want the wrong things.

This is heresy to us, whether we recognize it as such or not, which is why our stories mock this profundity with our petty stories of malicious genies trying to cheat us out of what is rightly ours. We love our appetites; we adore them; we worship them. We long for fortune to bless us so we can indulge those wants, passionately sure that satisfying our cravings will bring us lasting happiness. Those "sophisticated" enough to give in to despair, who believe they are free of such illusions about their desires, in their ironic detachment do not find happiness either; they are dispassionate and flat personalities because all their passion is still tied up as faith in the things they used to want, and now that they have moved past those wants they have also left behind their zest for life. To the ego, whether naively clinging to its longings or half-dead from bitterly amused detachment from them, desire is the only fuel it has to stoke the fires of a passionate life. For Heraclitus to say that the things we want, our goals, our dreams, our aspirations, our hopes, all will lead us to misery, is a kick in the gut to tell us to stop "thinking" with our gut.

At this point in my entry, I have lost all the intellectuals, since they think this applies to everyone but themselves. Much of my life has been a case-study of the futility of overintellectualization, the discovery that the attempt to identify oneself strictly with the intellect instead of the emotions merely puts an intellectual rationalizing veneer over what then become more unconscious and barbaric emotions. The solution to Heraclitus's puzzling insight is not to try to escape from our wants nor to strive to create a personality that somehow replaces desire with some other kind of passionate furnace - such things are impossible for us. We are not Protean, angelic beings of pure reason who can will ourselves into different forms; we are animals evolved within the matrix of nature and given form, drive, and direction by the forces of nature within us.

We can only become what we already are, like seeds unfolding into flowers. If the things we want drive us, then to improve ourselves we must improve the things we want. We must culture our wants to want better things. To do that, we have to achieve a profoundly better understanding of the cosmos, ourselves, and our place in the cosmos, since only in an accurate understanding of such things have we any basis for knowing what we ought to want. And in the end, although we cannot escape our investment in wanting, since that is the foundation of human personality, we can at least learn not to strive for happiness (that transient fool's-gold that the wheel of fortune gives and then takes away) but for eudaimonea or eucosmia (the well-order inner cosmos of character that results from the process of culturing oneself and one's wants), which creates the ability to make the most of whatever life offers us.

Lit by such ancient Greek ideas, Heraclitus's statement takes on a radically different meaning than it would if read merely as pessimism, fatalism, or schadenfreude. Read deeply, his statement demands that we change. Like many of his statements, this one implies that to make a better world, we need to become better people.

Yours truly,

1 comment:

Larry and Lynda said...

This is an amazing post which means I agree entirely. How random that I found it. Sorry to be 8 years late telling you so.