Here is a seemingly straightforward question: What is human desire? What is the object of desire? In other words: what do we want? Without detours, we will say a multiplicity of objects.
What is human desire? Isn’t desire the essence of man? In the 17th century, Spinoza strongly emphasized this idea. The 19th century, with Hegel, will deepen the dynamic and constructive dimension of desire, which Sartre, in our time, will link to the existential anxiety of consciousness, as well as to the constitutive lack of our being.
From the Latin desiderium, desire in philosophy designates the movement which, beyond the need as such, leads us towards a reality that we see as a possible source of satisfaction. Desire is defined as a tendency that has become conscious.
What Is Human Desire, or What Is the Object of Desire?
The question is admittedly simple, but is it not misleading? It indeed presupposes that there is a single desire with a single object. But at first glance, there seems to be not one, but a multitude of desires, each aimed at a different object. What do we want? So many things! A laptop, a woman, paradise, drink, eat, play, dream, sleep, sing, love, be loved, work, fight, conquer, paint, sometimes even death. What is the common denominator of this motley list that could be extended to infinity? It is as if the question asked simply makes no sense and admits of no single answer.
Desire Aims for Pleasure
However, there would be a first way to go beyond this multiplicity: simply by noticing that through all these things – food, love, etc. – we always desire and obtain satisfaction, pleasure. Do not all men (even all animals, and even all living beings) seek pleasure and happiness?
But that answer rings hollow: the concepts of pleasure and happiness are hollow, for they refer to a host of different and even opposing situations. If each being, through his multiple actions, seeks happiness, then this word means nothing at all, or in any case it hardly advances us. Because the question then is to know what will give us pleasure or happiness?
In this multiplicity of objects that man desires, we can categorize them as follows: the desire for life – the desire for death.
I – The Desire for Life
Fortunately, it is also possible to go beyond this first answer with a less empty idea. Of course, the desires seem multiple and heterogeneous. But don’t they all aim to ensure the survival of the being who desires? This idea works in any case wonderfully for these two fundamental categories of desires which are “hunger” (let us understand by this term all the desires which aim at the survival of the individual: desires of food and water, but also of water. sleep, comfort, security) and “love” (here we mean all desires turned towards others). We will try to defend the idea that all desires are at the service of life using several arguments.
1. Phylogenetic Approach (Darwin)
Phylogeny refers to the development of the species, as opposed to ontogeny, which refers to the development of the individual. According to the Darwinian theory of evolution, by the simultaneous play of chance (random genetic mutations) and necessity (natural selection: death of non-viable beings), only the individuals best suited to their environment survive (survival of the fittest ). It can be deduced from this that the impulses of a living species must necessarily lead to the survival of the species, or at least not lead to death too quickly.
2. Existential Consequences (Schopenhauer)
Schopenhauer developed a philosophy of love from this idea. All love affinities are explained by the need for the survival of the species: the young love the large, etc., in order to produce balanced individuals. Schopenhauer even evokes a “voluptuous illusion”: it is not with the women who seem to him the most beautiful that a man will have the maximum sexual pleasure; the woman who attracts him the most will not give him maximum pleasure but the most viable offspring: our attractions (and therefore our desires) are not at the service of our individual happiness but at the service of the “higher interests” of the species. The individual in love is therefore the “dupe of the species”.
Scientists are now confirming this kind of idea, showing that our criteria of beauty correspond to signs of health: the beings who seem to us the most beautiful are those whose genetic heritage (combined with ours) will produce the most viable offspring…
3. Everything Strives to Persevere in Its Being (Spinoza)
Spinoza achieves the same result in purely logical and philosophical ways. Everything aspires to be preserved. Death and destruction always come from outside. For Spinoza, this is not only true of living beings but of any conceivable entity: each individual, that is to say, each organized physical system, tends to persevere in his being and can only be destroyed by external intervention.
4. Everything Is the Will to Power (Nietzsche)
But can we explain the multitude of human desires by the simple desire for conservation? The survival of the human species is largely assured, and yet man does not cease to desire. How to explain this? If we observe reality closely, whether it is an Amazon jungle or a human society, we will not see a desire for conservation but a desire for expansion. This is Nietzsche’s big idea:
“Wanting to preserve oneself is the expression of a situation of distress, of a restriction of the true fundamental impulse of life, which tends to the expansion of power and quite often, in this will, it brings back into the cause and sacrifice self-preservation. That one considers as symptomatic that certain philosophers, like for example the consumptive Spinoza, saw, must have seen precisely in the so-called drive of self-preservation the decisive element: – they were precisely men in a situation of distress. […] The struggle for life is but an exception, a momentary restriction of the will to live; the great and the small struggle revolve everywhere around preponderance, growth, development, and power, in accordance with the will to power which is precisely the will for life. » Nietzsche, Le Gai savoir (original Title : Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, la gaya scienza ; in English : the Gay Knowledge), p.349
“Above all, a living being wants to deploy its strength. Life itself is a will to power, and the instinct of self-preservation is only an indirect and most frequent consequence. – In short, here as everywhere, let us keep superfluous teleological principles, such as the instinct of conservation (we owe it to Spinoza’s inconsistency). » Nietzsche, Beyond good and bad, p.13
“To live is essential to strip, to hurt, to dominate what is foreign and weaker, to oppress it, to impose its own form harshly, to embrace it and at least, at best, to exploit it […]. Anybody […] will have to be a will to power, it will want to grow, expand, monopolize, dominate, not out of morality or immorality, but because it lives and life is a will to power. » Nietzsche, Beyond good and bad, p.259
We can reconcile Nietzsche with Spinoza by distinguishing “being” and “state”: to persevere in one’s being does not mean to remain in the same state, but on the contrary to grow, develop, flourish.
5. The Desire for Immortality and Eternity (Plato)
Let’s take the idea even further. If our desire to live and exist is the cardinal desire, then it means that we desire eternal life. We find this idea in Plato:
“Diotima: Ultimately, Socrates, the love of what is beautiful is not as you imagine it.
Socrates: Well, what is it?
– The love of procreation and childbirth in beautiful conditions.
– Let’s say that’s the case.
– That’s exactly it. But why “procreation”? Because, for a mortal being, generation is equivalent to perpetuation in existence, that is, to immortality. Now the desire for immortality necessarily accompanies the desire for good, from what we have agreed if it is true that love has for its object the eternal possession of good. From this argument, it emerges that love necessarily also has immortality as its object. »Plato, Le Banquet, 206e – 207a
This conception explains not only that mothers sacrifice themselves for their young, but also the desire for glory and the desire for intellectual and artistic creation:
“Diotima: In human beings anyway, if you take the trouble to observe what it is about the pursuit of honors, you will be confused by its absurdity, unless you put back in your mind what I just said, at the thought of the terrible state in which the search for fame and the desire “to ensure for eternity an imperishable glory” put human beings. Yes, to achieve this goal, they are ready to take all the risks, even more than to defend their children. They are ready to squander their wealth and endure all penalties and even give their lives. […] It is […] in order to keep their excellence immortal and to gain such glorious fame that human beings as a whole do whatever they do, and this all the more so as their qualities are higher. Because it is immortality that they love.
That said, those who are fertile according to the body preferably turn to women; and their way of being in love is to seek, by fathering children, to secure, they imagine, immortality, memory and happiness, “for all time to come.” There are still those who are fruitful according to the soul; yes, there are some who are more fruitful in their soul than in their body […]. In this class, we must classify all the poets who are procreators and all the craftsmen who are qualified as inventors. But the highest and most beautiful part of the thought is that which concerns the ordering of cities and domains; it is given the name of moderation and justice. »Plato, Le Banquet, 208c – 209a
In The Desire for Eternity, Ferdinand Alquié develops this idea, according to which all desire is basically a desire for eternity: “All human consciousness desires eternity. “(Desire for Eternity, p. 10). We also find this idea in Nietzsche:
“Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit
Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit! ”
“ [But all pleasure wants eternity
Want the deep, deep eternity!] ”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, IV, The Drunken Song, 12).
II – The Desire for Death
But this desire for eternity is crazy, inordinate, and insatiable: man is doomed to die. Moreover, the desire for eternity is in a sense opposite to life: for life is change, movement, hassle, and crash, and not this serene calm of eternal bliss. Doesn’t the desire for eternity hide deep within him an obscure desire for death?
“ To be, or not to be, that is the question. Is there more nobility of soul to endure the slingshot and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to arm oneself against a sea of sorrows and stop it with revolt? To die … To sleep, nothing more … And to say that by this sleep we put an end to the ailments of the heart and to the thousand natural tortures which are the legacy of the flesh: this is an outcome that we must wish with fervor. To die … To sleep, to sleep! Maybe dreaming! Yes, there is the embarrassment. For what dreams can come to us in this sleep of death, when we are freed from the embrace of this life? This is what must stop us. It is this reflection that has brought us the calamity of such a long existence. Who, indeed, would like to endure the flagellations, and the contempt of the world, the insult of the oppressor, the humiliation of poverty, the anguish of despised love, the slowness of the law, the insolence of power, and the rebuffs which resigned merit receives from unworthy men if he could get rid of it with a simple punch? Who would want to carry these burdens, growl, and sweat under an oppressive life, if the fear of something after death, of this unexplored region, from which no traveler returns, did not disturb the will, and make us endure the ailments that we are afraid of launching into those we do not know? Thus conscience makes cowards of us all; thus the native colors of resolution turn pale under the pale reflections of thought; thus the most energetic and the most important enterprises turn away from their course, at this idea, and lose the name of action …” Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1.
1. The Kamikaze Structure of Desire
Let us begin by noting an important peculiarity of desire: if desire aims at satisfaction, its own satisfaction (as one naturally thinks), then it basically seeks its own disappearance: for satisfaction puts an end to desire. Desire seems to have an essentially self-negating, suicidal, kamikaze structure: by seeking to be satisfied, it wants to disappear. Whatever object is sought; the goal is always the end of desire. Desire is a tension that longs for relaxation, for rest. But the supreme rest is death. From there to identifying supreme with death, as Lacanian psychoanalysts do, there is only one step. It would be because we never get the supreme satisfaction that we can continue to desire, therefore to live. One possible objection, however, would be to conceive of desire as a cyclical process, and to see satisfaction as the means, not to cease to desire, but on the contrary to regenerate the organism and to rekindle desire.
2. Introjected Aggressiveness (Nietzsche)
But other arguments can lend a hand to the idea of a will to death, starting with human aggressiveness. This will for the death of the other can easily backfire. Nietzsche, the first great thinker of the will to death (which he calls “disease”, “degeneration” or even “nihilism”), understood it as aggression turned against oneself. In particular, in Christian religion and morality (the supreme expression of nihilism, according to Nietzsche), we are witnessing the reversal of our natural cruelty against ourselves: it is the bad conscience that priests excel at inducing in man. ” You suffer? It’s your fault! You sinned! Atone now! Do abstinence! “Thus the ascetic would be this very cruel man, but who knew how to turn his cruelty exclusively against himself, against his desires and his life, taking intense pleasure in repressing them daily.
3. The Conservative Nature of Drives (Freud)
Freud, who introduced the formula “death drive”, brings another argument. Its starting point is that drives are fundamentally conservative: they seek to restore a past state. That is to say, that desire is not aimed at a real external object but at a kind of internal hallucination, a memory trace left in the psyche by an original satisfaction.
For example, the oral drive aims to regain the pleasure of sucking that we experienced when, as babies, we suckled the mother’s breast. Therefore, neither the beers, nor the cigarettes, nor even the kisses that this drive prompts us to seek will ever be able to satisfy us: for the real object of desire is a bygone memory.
But what is our deepest past, if not the inorganic state that preceded our life? Before it was alive, the organism was non-living. This curious idea allows Freud to explain certain neurotic behaviors in which patients tend to destroy themselves.
4. The Pleasure of Getting Lost
Let us end with this strange but very deep desire: the desire to lose oneself, to dissolve, to forget oneself, to dilute oneself in the world. The desire to be one with the cosmos, the desire to no longer be oneself. Most of the great mystics have given an account of this feeling, which is one of the sources of religious feeling, but it is found in the most ordinary situations. In drunkenness, in music and dance (even trance), in the contemplation of beauty, etc. This feeling can be analyzed as the pleasure taken in the momentary suspension of the feeling of the self, that is to say of the heavy control of the moral conscience. We can also see it as a pleasure taken in schizophrenia because schizophrenia precisely designates the fact of no longer clearly distinguishing between oneself and the outside world.
Conclusion: The Indeterminacy of Desire
To conclude on the hypothesis of a desire for death, let us say that there must at least be beside this Thanatos there is Eros, otherwise, it would be difficult to explain that life persists and develops. There would therefore be two fundamental tendencies: a vertical desire and a horizontal desire. On the one hand, a desire to get up in the morning: a desire for action, movement, life, change, chaos, noise, even hassle. On the other, a desire to lie down in the evening: a desire for rest, even eternal rest; a desire for calm, serenity, bliss.
To conclude more generally on the object of desire, let us stress its indeterminate nature, due to the cultural and spiritual nature of human desire. Man, thanks to his mind, is capable of experiencing the strangest desires. Thus, only natural needs could be assigned an object; desire, on the other hand, being cultural, would be essential without an object of its own, since it could target any object. However, the psyche also has its law, and it is possible to study them: this is what psychology and psychoanalysis do.
At the most fundamental level, we can challenge the idea that desire has a predetermined, intrinsic object. Basically, desire is nothing more than energy, vitality, blind force. The chosen object is always a pretext and could be replaced by another. This is the idea expressed by Schopenhauer:
“ The absence of all goals and limits is […] essential to will itself, which is an endless endeavor. […] The goal achieved is never more than the starting point of a new career, and that to infinity. […] In short, the will always know, when the conscience lights it, what it wants at such and such a time and in such a place; what she usually wants she never knows.” Schopenhauer, The World as Will and as Representation.