IF YOU IMAGINE you received everything you ever wanted, you can be assured of one thing: you would not be happy. In fact, you would be in hell.
Remember the time you got so angry you wanted someone to die? Or perhaps you just wanted to hit them, or hurt them somehow? How about all those times you are driving or waiting in line, and feel so impatient you just want to scream profanities? Maybe you have suffered so much you hit points where you thought, “I don’t want to exist anymore.” Each of us can think of our own examples. It just takes a dose of honesty and we can rest assured, we will still be forgetting a lot.
If you really got everything you wanted, you would find out your desires destroyed you. You would have screamed those profanities. Then what? You would have said that horrible thing to the person you love, and watched in their face a flicker of love and trust that your words snuffed out, forever. Maybe, God forbid, your hand would have flown out to its target of enraged desire, and you would look at the bruised face of … who? Can we face ourselves enough to answer?
This may be enough to send us running swiftly from the agony of self-examination, but that assumes such flight can save us from ourselves. There is a doctrine in Yoga, a terrifying moral logic embedded in karma, that says: you are fated to have to receive everything you ever desired. If you wanted to cheat, steal, murder, someday, in some life, you will. Because only by experiencing the consequences of our desires do we really understand them. And in that understanding lies the foundation for true knowledge of ourselves.
Knowing that such a doctrine exists, you might think, like me when I first heard of it, a desperate thought: “I hope that isn’t true.” Do you feel that, too, when you consider the idea that you might have to have everything you want? If so, you taught yourself the second reason having what we want lands us in hell: we want impossible things. We want what we want. What could be simpler? Then we think for a minute, and realize: I don’t want what I want. So if you had everything you want, you would have what you want and you wouldn’t. Your desires, fulfilled, would tear you apart, rend you in pieces; and who, or what self, what you, could possibly heal them, find a harmony?
Now, more than ever, we might retreat to the comfort of thinking: after death, nothing exists. Let’s say that’s true. We can still ask: Is that real comfort when the reason we find it calming is because we ourselves, at the very moment we taste the balm of our imagined death, cannot bear the thought of what we want taking shape in the world? So death turns into a desired curtailment of our capacity for self-destruction. Or, put truthfully, death becomes an escape from seeing who we really want to be, and, worse, actually becoming ourselves.
We arrive with alarming swiftness at the heart of our problem: we want to be ourselves and we want nothing more than to flee from ourselves. The natural escape is to identify only with the desires we approve of at any given moment, and to forget the ones that shame or horrify us. This way our self-image can maintain a modicum of plausibility to itself. But our conflicting desires remain more permanent than our fleeting succession of identities that we fashion and discard as they become unbearable, even to us.
If the idea that desire is the source of all human problems never made sense before, perhaps its power has begun to dawn. From Buddhism to all the schools of ancient philosophy in the West, the mastery of desire, whether through elimination or simply control, has formed the center of the philosophical and religious life. (In the ancient world and until almost yesterday, there was no significant division between philosophy and religion; but that’s another story.)
In the powerful poetic language of the King James Bible, the terrifying dimension of desire has a name: “[T]he lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Every advertisement that arouses our appetite, every picture that generates a whim, every vaunted image of our noble righteousness, stains us with our own lifeblood — for what we would be, wanting nothing? Desire, lust, love: the very heart of the human life, yet, at the same time, the blood of our being is the poison in our veins. Drain it away, and what remains of our humanity? Let it run its course, and what monsters will humans become?
The threat of inhumanity is the gun we discover we have pulled and pointed at our own heads. We look down the barrel and trace our eyes from the arm to the face of our oppressor, so we can have the solace of rage at our enemy and … there we are, staring back at us, finger on the trigger.
If this experience is essential to the philosophical life, is it any wonder that philosophers have been killed and martyred throughout history? To face ourselves demands an openness to prophecy. When the prophet Nathan comes to King David in the Hebrew Bible to tell him a story of a wicked man who abuses his power, steals from the worthy what is most precious to them, he stirs in David outrage. Show me the man! David says, blood hot with righteous vengeance. Nathan the prophet replies: “Thou art the man.” The prophet in the story is always another person. Drama demands that we first see the prophet as Other.
But once the prophet has spoken, if we listen, we make the prophet’s insight our own. Self-knowledge demands we listen to the prophets. The proof that we have done so? We discover them in ourselves. That discovery has a test and it manifests its reality beyond any argument. The test is simple: if we think we are the prophet, and that our message is only ever for the Other, we remain lost, in exile from ourselves. We are not the prophet’s target — we are the righteous, we are the prophet. We are not the enemy — they are the wicked we see arrayed against us and our just cause: the opposite political party, the beleaguered idiots and villains ruining the world.
Make no mistake: they are real, and all the sages of the past knew this. The shallow and carping objection — “But surely you aren’t saying everyone is equally bad?” — attempts to save us from ourselves. The point lies elsewhere, stuck in our own heart: that every act of condemnation of others, no matter how justified, when separated from the acute awareness that we ourselves merit, at some point, the very same denunciation — that all such “prophecy” destroys us — makes us more blind to ourselves and less capable of genuinely working to right the injustice that we see.
We are impure, not because a religion told us, or because we are beset by bad conscience, or because of neurosis deriving from our parents. We are impure because when we reckon ourselves by our own desires (a standard wholly our own), we discover the very vulnerability and darkness we leap to damn in those we despise. And because of this impurity, the idea that reason alone can save us, or that philosophy is mere cerebral game-playing, is a bad myth. As Costica Bradatan writes,
What makes philosophy such an endurable affair, in the West as well as in the East, is that it engages not only our cognition, but also our imagination, emotions, artistic sensibility, religious impulses — in short, our being complicated, messy, impure creatures.
While not the uplift of conventional self-help, we can discover in this tradition of genuine philosophy a real therapy for desire. Its beginning is so simple, and the fruits so beautiful, that it’s worth seeing, just for a moment, what they look like.
I am outraged at some injustice. The injustice is real, maybe even written on the face of a person mocking another culture or ethnic group. My blood rises, and I reach for my judgment, my condemnation, then pause. I reflect. Have I ever wanted anything that would make another person feel the same way about me? Yes, okay, sure, I admit to myself. But that’s not the point, I tell myself. Is it not? What would have helped me to see my own error? What would have spread more goodness: someone enraged, shouting at me because of how bad I was? Or something else?
Just that movement of the mind, of the soul, of the frail human heart, softens our impulse to spread anger and rage in the name of justice. It might lead to a different judgment, or none at all. I can’t say how it will or should play out for other people. I can say its very practice will reduce the regret we’ll have every time we undertake the harrowing exercise induced in the beginning of this essay. It will make us kinder, more understanding, and, crucially, more just in our dealings with injustice.
This is a small salvation, to be sure, a little therapy for a wound that may be too large for humans to ever wholly heal. But the wound is my own nature. It is not you, it is me. And philosophy began as the tradition that made the world a slightly better place by teaching individuals to begin with themselves, before they start in on others. To turn that path into a way of life, a set of practices that might, over “a long obedience in the same direction” (as Friedrich Nietzsche put it) lead us to happiness, or at least goodness … well, that might just be a revolution, properly understood.
And, once upon a time, it was a revolution. One we have forgotten. Today we need a revolution once again, and this prophetic dimension of philosophy may be a path toward an upending of the unjust order that truly oppresses us. We can also begin the revolution right now, by remembering the simple truth: we are victim and oppressor alike.
Justice begins not with you changing, but with me knowing I must.
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and scholar of religion, currently teaching at Yale University, and the editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic–public divide.