The Meaning of Nostalgia


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. —Psalm 137 (KJV)

Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, typically for a particular period or place with positive associations, but sometimes also for the past in general, ‘the good old days’ of earlier life.

At the end of André Brink’s novel, An Instant the Wind, the character of Adam memorably says, ‘The land which happened inside us no one can take away from us again, not even ourselves.’ Nostalgia combines the sadness of loss with the joy that the loss is not complete, nor ever can be.

‘Nostalgia’ is a portmanteau neologism coined in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain, ache). Nóstos is, of course, the overriding theme of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus strives to get home to Penelope and Telemachus after the Trojan War.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas, another survivor of the Trojan War and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, gazes upon a Carthaginian mural depicting battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his kin. Moved to tears, he cries out, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: ‘These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’.

Johannes Hofer intended ‘nostalgia’ to refer to the homesickness of Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lowlands. The symptoms of this homesickness, also known as Schweizerheimweh or mal du Suisse and attributed by military physicians to ear and brain damage from the constant clanging of cowbells, included pining for Alpine landscapes, fainting, fever, and even, in extremis, death. In the Dictionnaire de musique (1767), Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that Swiss mercenaries were threatened with severe punishment to prevent them from singing their Swiss songs and thereby exacerbating their nostalgia. By the 19th century, nostalgia had become a topos in Romantic literature, inspiring a fashion for alpinism among the European cultural elite.

Today, nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but instead as a natural, common, and even positive emotion, a means of escaping the deadening confines of time and space. Bouts of nostalgia are often prompted by thoughts about the past; feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness; particular places and objects; and smell, touch, music, and weather.

When I was 14, I kept a lock of the fur of my English sheepdog Oscar after he got run-over by a tractor and had to be put down. Like the books and toys of our childhood, or our childhood home, the lock became like a time portal, which, for many years, helped me to nostalgize about Oscar.

I say ‘help’ because nostalgia does have a surprising number of adaptive functions. Everyday life is humdrum, often even absurd, but nostalgia lends us context, perspective, and connectedness, reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it seems, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been (and will again be) meaningful moments and experiences.

In that much, nostalgia serves a similar function to anticipation, which can be defined as enthusiasm and excitement for some expected or hoped-for good event. The hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.

Nostalgia is nothing if not paradoxical. In supplying us with substance and texture, it also reminds us of their lack, moving us either to creativity or restoration. This restoration often takes the form of spending, and marketers rely on nostalgia to sell us everything from music and clothes to cars and houses.

Nostalgia also serves important social functions. Many friendships and connections endure solely or mostly out of nostalgia, so much so that inducing or sharing in a nostalgic moment can at once revive a flagging relationship.

Nostalgia is commoner in uncertain times or times of transition or change. According to one recent study, it is also commoner on cold days or in cold rooms, and actually makes us feel warmer!

On the other hand, it can be argued that nostalgia is a form of self-deception in that it invariably involves distortion and idealization of the past, not least because the bad and boring bits fade from memory more quickly than the peak experiences. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retropection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered’.

If overindulged, nostalgia can give rise to a utopia that has never existed nor can ever exist, and yet is pursued at all costs, sapping all life and joy and potential from the present. For many people, paradise is not so much a place that you go to as the place that you come from.

Nostalgia ought to be distinguished from homesickness and from regret.

Although homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia, it refers more specifically to the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home.

Regret is a conscious negative emotional reaction to past actions or lack thereof. Regret differs from disappointment in that regret is of actions, disappointment of outcomes. Guilt is deep regret for actions because they fell short of our moral standards. Guilt is a prerequisite for remorse, which is more mature and turned out than guilt in that it includes an impulse for repentance and reparation.

Nostalgia can more fruitfully be compared to a number of similar or related concepts including saudademono no awarewabi-sabidukkha, and Sehnsucht.

Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word for the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. It is the desolate incompleteness or wistful dreaminess that can be felt even in the presence of its object, when that presence is threatened or incomplete (a great example is contained in the famous final scene of Cinema Paradiso). The rise of saudade is associated with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have entered the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendor de Portugal (‘Let us once again lift up the splendor of Portugal’).

The literal translation of the Japanese mono no aware is ‘the pathos of things’. Coined in the 18th century by Motoori Norinaga for his literary criticism of the Tale of Genjii, it refers to a heightened consciousness of the transience of things coupled with an acute appreciation of their ephemeral beauty and a gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing—and, by extension, at the realization, reminder, or truth that all things must pass. Although beauty itself is eternal in its recurrence, its particular manifestations are unique and special because they cannot in themselves be preserved or recreated.

Related to mono no aware is wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection that is rooted in Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi calls upon the acceptance and espousal of transience and inadequacy to foster a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing, and, with it, liberation from material and mundane distractions. Hagi pots with their pockmarked surfaces, cracked glaze, and signature chip embody wabi-sabi. With age, the pots take on deeper tones and become even more fragile and unique. Also embodying wabi-sabi are haiku poems that evoke transience and loneliness. Here is a pair from me.

The sunlit seabed—

A golden reticulum

Of racing ribbons.

The moonlit lagoon—

Silver scales scintillating

On quivering brine.

The Buddha is reputed to have said, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” That dukkha, or ‘suffering’, is inherent in all life is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second of the Four Noble Truths is that the cause of all suffering is lust, that is, coveting or craving. The deepest form of dukkha is the sense of dissatisfaction that things, being impermanent and insubstantial, can never measure up to our standards or expectations. When we understand this truth, we stop struggling in hope and fear, we stop craving, but instead open up to the ways of the world. It is not that we no longer suffer, but that the sting has been removed because, for want of better expression, we no longer think that our suffering has to do with us.

Sehnsucht is German for ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, or ‘craving’. It is dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the conscious or unconscious yearning for an ideal that comes to seem even more real than reality itself, as in the final lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Universal.

Is it a dream?

Nay, but the lack of it the dream,

And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream,

And all the world a dream.

CS Lewis called Sehnsucht ‘the inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what’. In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he describes the feeling as ‘that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of the The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.’

Lewis redefines this feeling as ‘joy’, which he understands as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, and which I like to think of—in the broadest sense—as our aesthetic and creative reservoir.

The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing more or less than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.



Zhou X et al: Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion. 2012 Aug; 12(4):700

What Is Courage Made Of?

There is little point in being anything unless we can also be that thing when it matters most. Courage is the noblest of the virtues because it is the one that guarantees all the others, and the one that is most often mortally missing.

But what is courage? It seems like an easy question, until, that is, we try to answer it. In Plato’s Laches, Socrates famously sticks the question to the eminent Athenian general Laches. Also present is the Athenian general Nicias. Here is a brief outline of the conversation that ensues:

S: What is courage?

L: Courage is when a soldier is willing to remain at his post and defend himself against the enemy.

S: But a man who flees from his post can also sometimes be called courageous. Aeneas was always fleeing on horses, yet Homer praised him for his knowledge of fear and called him the ‘counsellor of fear’.

L: Perhaps, but these are cases concerning horsemen and chariots, not foot soldiers.

S: Well what about the Spartan hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, who fled the enemy only to turn back once their lines had been broken? In any case, what I really want to know from you is this: what is courage in every instance, for the foot soldier, for the horseman, and for every other class of warrior, not to forget those who are courageous in illness or poverty and those who are brave in the face of pain or fear.

L: How do you mean?

S: Well, what is it that all these instances of courage have in common? For example, quickness can be found in running, in speaking, and in playing the lyre. In each of these instances, ‘quickness’ can be defined as ‘the quality which accomplishes much in little time’. Is there a similar, single definition of courage that can apply to every one of its instances?

L: I suggest that courage is a sort of endurance of the soul.

S: That can’t be right. Endurance can be born out of wisdom, but it can also be born out of folly, in which case it is likely to be blame- worthy. Courage, by contrast, is always fine and praiseworthy.

L: Very well then, courage is ‘wise endurance of the soul’.

S: Who do you think is more courageous, the man who is willing to hold out in battle in the knowledge that he is in a stronger posi- tion, or the one in the opposite camp who is willing to hold out nonetheless?

L: The second man, of course—though you are right, his endurance is, of course, the more foolish.

S: Yet foolish endurance is disgraceful and harmful, whereas courage is always a fine and noble thing.

L: I’m thoroughly confused.

S: So am I, Laches. Still, we should persevere in our enquiry so that courage itself won’t make fun of us for not searching for it courageously!

L: I’m sure I know what courage is. Of course I do! So why do I seem unable to put it into words?

N: I once heard Socrates say that every person is good with respect to that in which he is wise, and bad in respect to that in which he is ignorant. So perhaps courage is some sort of knowledge or wisdom.

S: Thank you, Nicias. Let’s go with that. If courage is some sort of knowledge, of what is it the knowledge?

N: It is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war, as well as in every other sphere or situation.

L: Nonsense! Wisdom is other than courage. When it comes to illness, it is the physician who knows best what is to be feared but the patient who shows courage. So wisdom and courage can’t be the same thing.

N: That’s wrong. The physician’s knowledge amounts to no more than an ability to describe health and disease, whereas it is the patient who truly knows whether his illness is more to be feared than his recovery. And so it is the patient, and not the physician, who knows best what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.

S: Nicias, if, as you say, courage is the knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, while animals can never be called courageous but at most fearless.

N: The same is also true of children. A child who fears nothing because he has no sense can hardly be called courageous.

S: Right, so let’s investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear is produced by anticipated evil things, but not by evil things that have happened or that are happening. Hope, in contrast, is produced by anticipated good things or by anticipated non-evil things.

N: Right.

S: For any science of knowledge, there is not one science of the past, one of the present, and one of the future. Knowledge of past, present, and future are the same type of knowledge.

N: Of course.

S: Thus, courage is not merely the knowledge of fearful and hopeful things, but the knowledge of all things, including those that are in the present and in the past. A person who had such knowledge could not be said to be lacking in courage, but neither could he be said to be lacking in justice, temperance, or indeed any of the virtues. So, in trying to define courage, which is a part of virtue, we have suc- ceeded in defining virtue itself. Virtue is wisdom—or so it seemed to me just a moment ago.


Courage, says Socrates, is knowledge. Imagine that I am walking along a beach and spot someone drowning. I know that I cannot swim and that there are strong currents in this particular area, but I jump in anyway because a human life is at stake. Very soon, I too need rescuing, and, despite my best intentions, have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. As I completely misjudged the situation, I acted not bravely but recklessly. The lifeguard, in contrast, is a strong swimmer and equipped with a floater. From past experience, she knows that if she dives in she stands an excellent chance of making a rescue. Of course there is some risk involved, but the potential benefit is so large and likely that it far outweighs the risk. If the lifeguard perfectly understands all this, she will ‘courageously’ dive in. If she does not dive in, she cannot be said to have a full grasp of the situation.

One of Socrates’ most famous arguments is that no one ever knowingly does evil. If people do wrong, it is, ultimately, because they are unable to measure and compare pleasures and pains—not, as many people think, because their ethics are overwhelmed by a desire for pleasure. People do evil because they are ignorant. They act with recklessness or cowardice because such is the limit of their understanding. In the long term, courage maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain, both for ourselves and for those around us, which is why Socrates called it ‘a kind of salvation’.

Now, geometry, medicine, and any other field of knowledge can readily be taught and passed on from one person to another. However, this does not seem to be the case with courage and the other parts of virtue, which suggests that Socrates’ conclusion in the Laches is wrong and that they are not knowledge after all. In the Meno, which Plato almost certainly wrote several years after the Laches, Socrates argues that people of wisdom and virtue such as Themistocles are in fact very poor at imparting these qualities. Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever praised Cleophantus for his wisdom and virtue, and the same can be said for Lysimachus and his son Aristides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. As there do not appear to be any teachers of virtue, it seems that virtue cannot be taught; and if virtue cannot be taught, then it is not, after all, a type of knowledge.

If virtue cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good men come about? Socrates replies that he and Meno have so far overlooked that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge. A man who has knowledge of the road to Larisa may make a good guide, but a man who has only correct opinion of the road but has never been and does not know may make just as good a guide. If he who thinks the truth can be just as good a guide to Larisa as he who knows the truth, then correct opinion can be just as good a guide to right action as knowledge. In that case, how, asks Meno, is knowledge any different from correct opinion? Socrates replies that correct opinions are like the statues of Daedalus, which had to be tied down so that they would not run away. Correct opinions can be tied down with ‘an account of the reason why’, whereupon they cease to be correct opinions and become knowledge.

Since virtue is not knowledge, all that remains is for it to be correct opinion. This much explains why virtuous men such as Themistocles, Lysimachus, and Pericles were unable to impart their virtue to their sons. Virtuous people are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are inspired but have no real knowledge of what they are saying. If ever there were a virtuous person who was able to impart his virtue to another, he would be said to be among the living as Homer says Tiresias was among the dead: ‘he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades.’

Like all virtue, courage consists not in knowledge but in correct opinion. Virtue relates to behaviour, and in particular to good behaviour or ethics. In ethics, the choice of one action over others involves a complex and indeterminate calculus that cannot be condensed into, and hence expressed as, knowledge. Whereas knowledge is precise and explicit, correct opinion is vague and unarticulated and more akin to intuition or instinct. Thus, correct opinion, and so courage, cannot be taught but only ever encouraged or inspired.

From this I conclude that the best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired—which is, I think, a far more difficult thing to do. Unfortunately, it seems that many people are simply not open to being inspired, not even by the most charismatic people or greatest works of art and thought.

As Hemingway scathed, ‘He was just a coward and that was the worst luck any man could have.’

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

The Secret of Self-Esteem

Where does self-esteem really come from?

‘Confidence’ derives from the Latin fidere, ‘to trust’. Self-confidence essentially means to trust and have faith in oneself. It is our certainty as to our judgement, ability, and so on—in short, our certainty as to our aptitude to engage with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, rise to new challenges, take control of difficult situations, and accept responsibility and criticism if things go wrong.

Just as the foundation of successful experience is self-confidence, so the foundation of self-confidence is successful experience. Although any successful experience contributes to our general self-confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, but very unsure in another, such as public speaking.

In the absence of confidence, courage takes over. Confidence operates in the realm of the known; courage, on the other hand, operates in the realm of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome: you cannot be a confident swimmer unless you once had the courage to lose your footing in deep water. Courage is more noble than confidence, because it requires more strength, and because a courageous person is one with limitless capabilities and possibilities. In the lonely hearts, ladies often specify that they are looking for a confident man, but who they are truly looking for is a courageous man.

While self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, it is possible to have high self-confidence and yet low self-esteem, as is, for example, the case with many celebrities. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare, ‘to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate’, and self-esteem is the cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. Our self-esteem is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act. It reflects, and also in large part determines, our relation to ourself, to others, and to the world.

It is possible that self-esteem evolved as a barometer of status or acceptance in the social group, or else to lend us the strength to act in the face of fear and anxiety. Psychologist Abraham Maslow included it as a deficiency need in his hierarchy of needs, and argued that a person could not meet his growth needs unless he had already met his deficiency needs. To me, it seems that we are each born with a healthy self-esteem (and a small smattering of self-confidence), which is then either sustained or undermined by our life experiences.

In the West, self-esteem is primarily based on achievement, whereas in the East it is primarily based on ‘worthiness’, that is, on being seen and accepted as a good member of the family, community, and other in-groups. In the West, you can get away with being a bad in-group member so long as you are successful; in the East, you can get away with being unsuccessful so long as you are a good in-group member.

One problem with achievement-based self-esteem is that it promotes the fear of failure and the pursuit of success at all costs. Moreover, because achievement is not wholly within our control, and because its effects are transient, it cannot offer a secure foundation for our self-esteem. Worthiness-based self-esteem also has its limitations. First, it relies heavily on the acceptance or rejection of others, and so, like achievement-based self-esteem, is not wholly within our control. Second, because acceptance is contingent upon conformity with the in-group, it severely restricts our range of possibilities.

People with healthy self-esteem are able to take risks and to give their all to a project or ambition, because, although failure may hurt or upset them, it is not going to damage or diminish them. They do not rely on externals such as status or income, or on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. To the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and take good care of their health, development, and environment. They are open to growth experiences and meaningful relationships, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.

It is instructive to compare healthy self-esteem with pride and also with arrogance. If self-confidence is “I can” and self-esteem is “I am”, then pride is “I did”. To feel proud is to take pleasure from the goodness of our past actions and achievements.

Pride could not be more different from arrogance in that, if pride stems from satisfaction, arrogance stems from hunger and emptiness. Arrogance derives from the Latin rogare (ask, propose), and means ‘to claim for oneself or assume’. Arrogance does not amount to excessive self-esteem, for just as there can be no such thing as excessive physical health or excessive moral virtue, so there can be no such thing as excessive self-esteem. Instead, it betrays all the opposite.

Arrogant people require constant reassuring and bolstering both from themselves and from others, which accounts for their boastfulness, entitlement, anger, and reluctance to learn from mistakes and failures. In contrast, people with healthy self-esteem do not seek to pull themselves up by pushing others down. Instead, they are happy simply to revel in the miracle of existence, with cheerfulness, humility, and quiet action.

Just as high self-esteem does not amount to arrogance, so low self-esteem does not amount to humility. Humble people understand that there is more to life than just themselves, but that need not mean that they do not have a healthy self-regard.

Needless to say, only a minority of people with low or insecure self-esteem are arrogant: most simply suffer silently. People with low or insecure self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as its victim. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem still further, sucking them into a downward spiral.

Low self-esteem can be deeply rooted, with origins in traumatic childhood experiences such as prolonged separation from parent figures, neglect, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In later life, self-esteem can be undermined by ill health, negative life events such as losing a job or getting divorced, deficient or frustrating relationships, and a general sense of lack of control. This sense of lack of control may be especially marked in victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or victims of discrimination on the grounds of religion, culture, race, sex, or sexual orientation.

The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder and mental distress is very complex. Low self-esteem predisposes to mental disorder, which in turn knocks self-esteem. In some cases, low self-esteem is in itself a cardinal feature of mental disorder, as, for example, in depression or borderline personality disorder.

The Buddhist take on poor self-regard is that it is akin to a negative emotion or delusion because, if a person is not secure in himself, he is left to frantically pursue everything except what is truly important: his own growth and that of others. Moreover, his agitation is vain: it does not change the past, it does not change the future, but only makes the present miserable.

The Buddhist notion of diligence is to delight in positive deeds, and the person who does not engage in such virtuous activity is a victim of kausidya, that is, ‘laziness’ or ‘spiritual sloth’. Kausidya has three aspects: not doing something out of indolence (laziness), not doing something out of faintheartedness (poor self-regard), and seeming busy but in reality wasting time and energy on meaningless activities that will not accomplish anything in the long run (manic defence). Only when we refrain from these three aspects of kausidya are we truly diligent.

Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to perfectly encapsulate the Buddhist attitude in this poem-prayer.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

Aside from prayer, is there any way in which we might increase our self-esteem?

Many people find it simpler to work on their self-confidence than on their self-esteem, and end up with a long list of abilities and achievements to show for themselves. As they also depend on this list for their self-esteem, they cannot afford to look upon themselves as they truly are, with all their imperfections and failures. And so they are unable to recognize, let alone address, their real problems and limitations, and, more tragically still, to accept and love themselves as the less-than-perfect human beings that they truly are.

As anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of abilities and achievements is neither sufficient nor necessary for healthy self-esteem. While people keep on working at their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the void with status, income, possessions, relationships, sex, and so on. Attack their status, criticize their car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you attack and criticize.

Similarly, it is no good trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty and condescending praise. No one will be fooled, least of all the children, who will feel confused if not exasperated, and be held back from the sort of endeavour from which real self-esteem may grow. And what sort of endeavour is that?

Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given our best, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we come to terms with a difficult truth, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we bravely live up to our ideals, we can feel ourself growing. That is what growth depends on. Growth depends on bravely living up to our ideals, not on the ideals of the bank that we work for, or our parents’ praise, or our children’s successes, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourself.

Socrates bravely lived up to his ideals—more than that, he bravely died for his ideals. He is notable both for what he is and what he is not. And what is he not? He is not someone who ever lost faith in the mind’s ability to think, learn, decide, and choose, that is, to apprehend and master reality. Nor is he someone who ever betrayed knowledge and integrity in favour of deception and unconsciousness. In seeking to align mind with matter, he remained faithful both to himself and to the world, and here he is today still alive in this sentence.

More than a great philosopher, Socrates was the living embodiment of the dream that philosophy might one day set us free.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Ambition

A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. —Marcus Aurelius

Ambition derives from the Latin ambitio, ‘a going around (to solicit votes)’, and, by extension, ‘a striving for honour, recognition, and preferment’.

Ambition can be defined as ‘a striving for some kind of achievement or distinction’. It involves, first, the desire for attainment, and, second, the motivation and determination to strive for its accomplishment even in the face of failure and adversity.

Some people achieve for the sake of achievement alone, or for the sake of developing skills and competencies, but ambitious people qua ambitious people achieve first and foremost for the sake of the rewards of achievement, such as money, honour, power, or fame, which elevate them above other people.

Ambition is often confused with aspiration. Aspiration derives from the Latin spirare, ‘to breathe’, and evokes a column of rising smoke. Unlike mere aspiration, which has for its object a particular goal, ambition (or degree and nature of ambition) is a character trait, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter his ambition any more easily than he might any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another for which to keep on striving.

There are a number of variant conceptions of ambition. For example, in his Ethics (1677), Benedict de Spinoza remarks that ‘everyone endeavours as much as possible to make others love what he loves, and to hate what he hates’.

This effort to make everyone approve what we love or hate is in truth ambition, and so we see that each person by nature desires that other persons should live according to his way of thinking…

Ambition is often spoken of in the same breath as hope, as in ‘hopes and ambitions’. Hope is the desire for something combined with some anticipation of it happening. In contrast, ambition is the desire for attainment combined with the willingness to strive for its accomplishment. So ambition, although arguably a type of hope, is both more specific and more self-reliant than hope in general. The opposite of hope is fear, hopelessness, or despair; the opposite of ambition is simply lack of ambition, which is not per se a negative state.

Ambition is sometimes thought of as a form of greed, or the acceptable face of greed, which can be defined as the excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved. However, in contrast to greed, which limits us to its object, ambition can enable us to flourish while also contributing to the greater good. Ultimately, the difference between greed and ambition is perhaps one of emphasis, with greed being limiting or destructive and ambition constructive or life-affirming.

In Eastern traditions, ambition is reviled for tying us to worldly goods and witholding us from spiritual practice and the virtue, wisdom, and tranquillity that spiritual practice can bring. In contrast, in the West ambition is generally lauded as a pre-requisite for success, even if this has not always or unmitigatingly been the case. For instance, in the Republic (4th century BC), Plato famously argues that, because good men care nothing for avarice or ambition, they are only willing to rule if there is a penalty for refusing, with the greater part of this penalty being that they should be ruled by bad men.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Plato’s student Aristotle has a more nuanced approach to ambition. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between deficiency and excess, in other words, as a disposition to aim at the mean, which, unlike the deficiency or excess, is a form of success and worthy of praise. For example, he who flies from everything becomes a coward, while he who meets with every danger becomes rash, but courage is preserved by the mean.

Aristotle affirms that, while it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why the one is easy and the other is difficult. By the same token, men may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Aristotle proceeds to list and discuss the principal virtues together with their associated vices, which correspond to the excess and deficiency of their associated virtue. In the sphere of ‘minor honour and dishonour’, he names ‘lack of ambition’ as the vicious deficiency, ‘ambition’ as the vicious excess, and ‘proper ambition’ as the virtuous mean.

Still today, people speak of ambition in the manner of Aristotle, as ‘healthy ambition’, ‘unhealthy ambition’, and lack of ambition. Healthy ambition can be understood as the measured striving for achievement or distinction; unhealthy ambition, such as, for example, the ambition of the tyrant, as the unmeasured or disordered striving for such. Healthy ambition is constructive or life-affirming, unhealthy ambition limiting or destructive and, in fact, akin to greed.

In the Politics, Aristotle advances that men’s ambition and their greed are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice. In the Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon refines this thought: as long as ambitious men find the way open for their rising, they are busy rather than dangerous; but if they are checked, they ‘become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye’. Bacon advises princes to exert restraint in employing ambitious people, and to handle them ‘so as they be still progressive and not retrograde’.

This touches upon an important problem with ambition: that ambitious people experience an almost constant sense of dissatisfaction coupled with frustration at resistance or failure. As with the mythological Sisyphus, there can be no end to their toils and cares. And as with the mythological Tantalus, they can never quite reach the golden fruit that can quell their hunger or the fresh water that can quench their thirst.

As part of his punishment, Tantalus also had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity. Similarly, ambitious people, in proportion to their ambition, live with failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is this fear of failure that checks and curtails the ambition of all but the most courageous of people.

Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in despair. To live in ambition is also to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, ambition can be counterbalanced with gratitude. Gratitude, the feeling of appreciation for what we already have, is especially lacking in future-focused people. Yet, ambition is far more innocuous, indeed, becomes almost entertaining, if, even without it, life already seems worth living.

Another problem with ambition is that it calls for sacrifice: ambition without at least the willingness to sacrifice is not ambition but mere fantasy. Unfortunately, in many cases, the prize is not worth the sacrifice; indeed, an argument could be made that, when it comes to pure ambition, the prize is never worth the sacrifice. Fortunately, ambition is rarely pure but usually intermixed with more laudable ends, even if these may be more incidental than deliberate or determining.

In that sense, ambition is like the dangling carrot that pulls the donkey-cart. On average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income and have more prestigious careers, and, despite the pangs of their ambition, report higher overall life satisfaction. Of course most ambitious people fall short of their ambitions, but that still leaves them considerably ahead of their less ambitious peers.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that the effect of good birth, that is, of ancestral distinction, is to make people more ambitious. He does however warn that to be wellborn is not to be noble, and that most of the wellborn are wretches nonetheless.

In the generations of men as in the fruits of the earth, there is a varying yield; now and then, where the stock is good, exceptional men are produced for a while, and then decadence sets in.

Both nature and nurture have a role to play in the development of ambition. For instance, in a family of several children, the youngest child compares himself with his older siblings and, falling short, may become highly competitive and ambitious, or, to the contrary, withdraw in the conviction that he is fundamentally inadequate.

Purely psychological factors are also very important. Ambition can be thought of as an ego defence against psychogical stress, but if a person lacks the strength or the courage to take responsibility for his actions, he may instead respond with less potentially productive forms of ego defence, for example, by deluding himself that he is a ‘team-player’ or that everything is unfair. If his ego is rather strong, he may, alternatively, become dismissive or destructive, the latter being a means both of attracting attention and of sabotaging himself.

In sum, ambition is a complex construct that is driven by a host of positive and negative factors, among which intelligence, past achievement, fear of failure or rejection, envy, anger, revenge, feelings of inferiority or superiority, competitiveness, and the instinctual drives for life and sex.

One ego defence that merits particular exploration in this context is sublimation, which is considered by many to be the most successful of all ego defences. If a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog, or he may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. The first instance (kicking the dog) is an example of displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less important, which is an immature ego defence; the second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of uncomfortable feelings into socially condoned and often productive activities, which is a much more mature ego defence.

An example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is the person with sadistic or homicidal urges who joins the army to provide an outlet for these urges, or, like Justice John Laurence Wargrave in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), becomes a judge who liberally awards the death penalty in murder cases. At the end of the novel, in the postscript, a fishing trawler finds a letter in a bottle just off the Devon coast. The letter contains the confession of the late Justice Wargrave in which he reveals a lifelong sadistic temperament juxtaposed with a fierce sense of justice. Though he longed to torture, terrify, and kill, he could not justify harming innocent people; so instead he became a ‘hanging judge’ and thrilled at the sight of convicted (and guilty) people trembling with fear.

Another example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is that of the middle-aged protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Aschenbach, the alter ego of Mann, is a famous writer suffering from writer’s block. While staying at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on Venice’s Lido Island, he is taken by the sight of a beautiful adolescent boy called Tadzio who is staying at the hotel with his aristocratic family. Aschenbach becomes increasingly obsessed with Tadzio, even though he never talks to him and still less touches him. Instead, he sublimes his longing, which he eventually recognizes as sexual, into his writing. Thus, in Chapter 4:

… he, in full sight of his idol and under his canvas, worked on his little treatise – those one-and-a-half pages of exquisite prose, the honesty, nobility and emotional deepness of which caused it to be much admired within a short time. It is probably better that the world knows only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work.

In life, few things are either good or bad, but, rather, their good and bad depend on what we are able to make, and not make, out of them. People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and the strength (strength that is often born of insight) not only to control but also to tap into the blind forces of ambition, to shape and mold their ambition so that it aligns with their interests and ideals and fires them without at the same time diminishing them or others. A person and the life he leads shrinks or expands into his ambition. Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Hope


Hope is the dream of a waking man. —Aristotle

HOPE can be defined as the desire for something combined with an anticipation of it happening. In short, hope is the anticipation of something desired.

To hope for something is to desire that thing, and to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the probability of it happening, though less than one, is greater than nought. If the probability of it happening is one or very close to one, it is not a hope but an expectation; if it is nought it is a fantasy; and if it is very close to nought it is a wish. The borderline between a hope and a wish is moot, and more a question of emphasis than anything else.

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates says that the statesman Pericles gave his sons excellent instruction in everything that could be learnt from teachers, but when it came to virtue he simply left them to ‘wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord’. This usage of ‘hope’ suggests that hoped for things are partly or even largely outside our personal control.

Even though hope involves an estimation of probabilities, this rational, calculative aspect is often imprecise—indeed, it is often unconscious. When we hope, we do not know what the odds, or at least our odds, might be, but still, choose to ‘hope against hope’. This combination of ignorance and defiance, this ‘hoping against hope’, is integral to hope.

One opposite of hope is fear, which is the desire for something not to happen combined with an anticipation of it happening. Inherent in every hope is a fear, and in every fear a hope. Other opposites of hope are hopelessness and despair, which is an agitated form of hopelessness.

With any hope, the desire can be more or less strong, and, independently, so can the anticipation. For example, it is possible to desire something very strongly, and yet believe that it is very unlikely to happen. In general, something that is strongly desired seems more likely to happen; conversely, something that is very likely to happen, by virtue of being attainable, seems more desirable. In other words, desire is somewhat correlated with anticipation. These same patterns and principes also apply to fear.

It can be instructive to compare hope with optimism and faith. Optimism is a general attitude of hopefulness that everything will turn out for the better or best. In contrast, hope is more particular and more specific (even a pessimist can be hopeful), and also less passive, more engaged, and more vested. To hope for something is to make a claim about something’s significance to us, and so to make a claim about ourselves.

The 13th century philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas said that faith has to do with things that are not seen, while hope has to do with things that are not at hand. If hope is more active than optimism, faith is more active still. Faith is deeply committed.

Hope features prominently in myth and religion. In Aesop’s fables, hope is symbolized by the swallow, which is among the first birds to appear at the end of winter. The famous moral, ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ belongs to the fable of the Spendthrift and the Swallow (or the Young Man and the Swallow).

A young man, a great spendthrift, had run through all his patrimony and had but one good cloak left. One day he happened to see a swallow, which had appeared before its season, skimming along a pool and twittering gaily. He supposed that summer had come, and went and sold his cloak. Not many days later, winter set in again with renewed frost and cold. When he found the unfortunate swallow lifeless on the ground, he said, “Unhappy bird! what have you done? By thus appearing before the springtime you have not only killed yourself, but you have wrought my destruction also.”

In Greek myth, Prometheus stole the secret of fire and offered it to mankind. To punish mankind, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to mold the first woman, a ‘beautiful evil’, out of earth and water, and ordered each of the gods to endow her with a ‘seductive gift’. He then gave this woman, called Pandora (‘All-gifted’), a jar of evils, and sent her to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora had been warned not to open the jar under any circumstance, but her natural curiosity got the better of her and she lifted the lid, disseminating every evil over the earth and, in so doing, bringing man’s golden age to its close. Pandora hastened to replace the lid, but all the contents of the jar had escaped—all, that is, except for Hope, which lay all by herself at the bottom of the jar.

Aside from the blatant misogyny, the myth of Pandora is difficult to interpret. Does it imply that hope is preserved for men, making their torments more bearable? Or, to the contrary, that hope is denied them, making their lives even more miserable? A third possibility is that hope was simply another evil in the jar, either a mechanism for tormenting men anew or the kind of false hope that is empty and corrupting. All of these interpretations are in the nature of hope, and so perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate.

In Christianity, hope is one of the three theological virtues alongside faith and charity (love)—‘theological’ because it arises from the grace of God, and because it has God for its object. Christian hope is not to be understood as the mere probabilistic anticipation of something desired, but as a ‘confident expectation’, a trust in God and His gifts that frees the believer from hesitation, fear, greed, and anything else that might keep him from charity, which, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13, is the greatest of the three theological virtues. ‘But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’

Thus, Christian hope is more akin to faith than to hope, it is faith in the future tense. Like prayer, it is an expression of the subject’s limitations, and of his connection with and dependence on something other and greater than himself. Hope is attractive because it is an act of piety, an act of humility.

The inscription on top of the gate to hell which features in Dante’s Inferno suggests that Christian hell amounts to hopelessness, that is, the severance of the bond between man and the divine.

Through me you enter the city of woe, through me you go to everlasting pain, through me you go among the lost people. Justice moved my exalted Creator: by the Holiest Power was I made, and Supreme Wisdom and Primal Love. Nothing before I was made was made but things eternal, and I too am eternal. Abandon all hope, Ye Who Enter Here!

Back upstairs in the land of the living, there is a saying that, ‘there is no life without hope’. Hope is an expression of confidence in life, and the basis for more practical virtues such as patience, determination, and courage. It provides us not only with goals, but also with the motivation to achieve or attain those goals. As Martin Luther says in Tabletalks, ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.’

Hope also makes present hardship less difficult to bear, whether this be loneliness, poverty, sickness, or just the trafficky daily commute. Even in a theoretical absence of hardship, still hope is needed, for man in general is not content to be content, but yearns for enterprise and change.

At a deeper level, hope links our present to our past and future, providing us with a metanarrative or overarching story that lends our life shape and meaning. Our hopes are the strands that run through our life, defining our struggles, our successes and setbacks, our strengths and shortcomings, and in some sense ennobling them.

Running with this idea, our hopes, though profoundly human—because only humans can project themselves into the distant future—also connect us with something much greater than ourselves, a cosmic life force that moves in us as it does in all of mankind and all of nature.

Conversely, hopelessness is both a cause and a symptom of depression, and, within depression, is a strong predictor of suicide. “What do you hope for out of life?” is one of my stock questions as a psychiatrist, and if my patient replies “nothing” I have to take that very seriously.

Hope is pleasurable, because the anticipation of a desire is pleasurable. But hope is also painful, because the desired thing is not yet at hand, and, moreover, might never be at hand. The pain of harbouring hopes, and the even greater pain of having them dashed, explains why people tend to parsimony with their hopes.

At the same time, the sheer desire for something to happen can lead us to overestimate the probability of it happening, and, in particular, the probability of it happening to us. Many if not most hopes are to some extent false, but some, such as the hope of winning the lottery, are beyond the pail.

Whereas realistic or reasonable hopes may lift us up and move us forward, false hopes prolong our torment, leading to inevitable frustration, disappointment, and resentment. By preventing engagement with reality, false hopes entrench an attitude of passivity and servility.

Letting go of false hopes can set us free, but, unfortunately, freedom is not for everyone. Although akin to the grandiose delusions seen in mania, false hopes may be all that a person has to keep going, to prevent the ego from disintegrating, and, in short, to keep sane. Such a person simply cannot afford to be free.

Hope generally gets a bad press from philosophers because it is largely irrational and so inimical to the values and self-construct of the philosopher, who yet would not philosophize without the hope that philosophizing might do something for him. For many philosophers, hope is a sign of helplessness, a regression from reality into fantasy, good for children and Pandora, perhaps, but certainly not for grown-up men.

Existentialists philosophers share their brethren’s disdain for hope, arguing that, by hiding the hard truths of the human condition, hope can lead us into a life that is disengaged and inauthentic.

Yet, the existentialists also have something very interesting to say about hope.

In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, a mythological king of Ephyra who was punished for his chronic deceitfulness by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.

Camus concludes, ‘The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ [La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut s’imaginer Sisyphe heureux.]

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.


We can have hopes, indeed, we have to have hopes; but we also have to have insight into our hopes, and into the process and nature of hoping.

Otherwise, we will take ourselves too seriously and suffer for it.

The Problem of Desire


Desire derives from the Latin desiderare, ‘to long or wish for’, which itself derives from de sidere, ‘from the stars’, suggesting that the original sense of the Latin is ‘to await what the stars will bring’.

According to the Hindu Rig Veda (second millennium BC), the universe began, not with light, but with desire, ‘the primal seed and germ of Spirit’.

Desires constantly arise in us, only to be replaced by other desires. Without this continuous stream of desires, there would no longer be any reason to do anything: life would grind to a halt, as it does for people who lose the ability to desire. An acute crisis of desire corresponds to boredom, and a chronic crisis to depression.

It is desire that moves us, and, in moving us, gives our life direction and meaning—perhaps not meaning in a cosmic sense, but meaning in the more restricted narrative sense. If you are at all reading this article, that is because, for whatever reason or reasons, you have formed a desire to read the article, and this desire motivates you to read it. ‘Motivation’, like ’emotion’, derives from the Latin movere, ‘to move’.

Brain injured people who lack emotions find it difficult to make decisions because they lack a basis for choosing between competing choices. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), the philosopher David Hume famously argued that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, that is, that one cannot deduce or derive moral conclusions from mere facts, and, by extension, that all moral conclusions are grounded in nothing but emotion.

The paradox of desire

We were born from desire, and cannot remember a time when we were without it. So habituated are we to desiring that we are not conscious of our desires, which only register if they are very intense or if they come into conflict with other desires. Meditation may not in itself prevent us from desiring, but it might give us a better insight into the nature of desire, which, in turn, can help us to disengage from unhelpful desires. ‘Freedom’, said the 20th century mystic and philosopher Krishnamurti, ‘is not the act of decision but the act of perception.’

Try for just a moment to stem your stream of desires. This is the paradox of desire: that even the desire to stop desiring is in itself a desire. To get round this paradox, many eastern spiritual masters speak of the cessation of desire, or ‘enlightenment’, not as the culmination of an intentional process, but as a mere accident. Spiritual practice, they maintain, does not invariably or inevitably lead to the cessation of desire, but merely makes us more ‘accident-prone’.

The problem of desire

If desire is life, why should we desire to control desire? —For the simple reason that we desire to control life, or, at least, our life.

Hinduism may name desire as a life force, but it also calls it the ‘great symbol of sin’ and ‘destroyer of knowledge and self-realization’. Similarly, the second of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that the cause of all suffering is ‘lust’ in the broad sense of ‘coveting’ or ‘craving’. The Old Testament opens with the cautionary tale of Adam and Eve: had these earliest of our ancestors not desired to eat from the forbidden tree, they would not have been banished from the Garden of Eden into our world of woe. In Christianity, four of the seven deadly sins (envy, gluttony, greed, and lust) directly involve desire, and the remaining three (pride, sloth, and wrath) involve it indirectly. Christian rituals such as prayer, fasting, and confession all aim, at least in part, at curbing desire, as does humility and self-abasement, conformity, communal living, and the promise of life-after-death.

All suffering can be framed in terms of desire. Unmet desire is in itself painful, but so is fear and anxiety, which can be understood in terms of desires about the future, and anger and sadness, which can be understood in terms of desires about the past. The mid-life crisis is nothing if not a crisis of desire, when a middle-aged person comes to the realization that his reality does not live up to his youthful, some might say immature, desires.

If desire is hurtful, so are its products. For instance, the accumulation of houses, cars, and other riches robs us our time and tranquility, both in their acquiring and in their keeping—not to speak of their losing. Fame is at least as compromising and inconvenient as it is pleasurable, and can quickly turn into infamy. This need not mean that we should shun fame or riches, merely that we should not set out for them or invest ourselves in them.

An excess of desire is, of course, called greed. Because greed is insatiable, it prevents us from enjoying all that we already have, which, though it may seem like little, is far more than our forebears could ever have dreamt of. Another problem of greed is that it is all-consuming, reducing life in all its richness and complexity to nothing but an endless quest for more.

The origins of desire

Desire is intimately connected to pleasure and pain. Human beings feel pleasure at the things that, in the course of their evolution, have tended to promote their survival and reproduction; they feel pain at the things that have tended to compromise their genes. The pleasurable things, such as sugar, sex, and social status, are wired to be desirable, whereas the painful things are wired to be undesirable.

Moreover, as soon as a desire is fulfilled, people stop taking pleasure in its fulfillment and instead formulate new desires, because, in the course of evolution, contentedness and complacency did not tend to promote survival and reproduction.

The problem is just that: our desires evolved ‘merely’ to promote our survival and reproduction. They did not evolve to make us happy or satisfied, to ennoble us, or to give our life any meaning beyond them. Neither are they adapted to modern circumstances. Today, survival is no longer the most pressing issue, and, with more than seven billion people thronging our polluted planet, reproduction can seem almost irresponsible. Yet here we still are, chained to our desires like a slave to his master.

Our intellect, in which we place so much faith, evolved to assist us in our pursuit of the desirable and avoidance of the undesirable. It did not evolve to enable us to resist our desires, still less to transcend them. Although out intellect is subservient to our desires, it is good at fooling us that it is in control.

The world as will

One of the most inspired theories of desire is that of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer argues that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction.

For Schopenhauer, the whole world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract are objectified hunger, and so on. Everything about us, including even our cognitive faculties evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the exigencies of will. Although able to perceive, judge, and reason, our intellect is not designed or equipped to pierce through the veil of mâyâ (illusion) and apprehend the true nature of reality. There is nothing in us that can oppose the demands and dictates of will, which drive us unwittingly into a life of inevitable frustration, strife, and pain.

Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…

The genesis of desire

It is not so much that we form desires, but that desires form in us. Our desires are hardly ‘ours’. We merely work them out, if at all, once they are already fully formed. To work out my friend’s desires, I observe my friend and infer her desires from her behaviour. And so it is also with myself: I infer my desires from my behaviour. If I am an interested party or a shrewd observer, I might well know more about my friend’s desires than she does herself.

Another reason I might know more about my friend’s desires than she does herself is that people tend to defend against their more unacceptable desires by repressing or denying them. If an unacceptable desire nonetheless succeeds in surfacing into their conscious, still they may modify or disguise it, for example, by elaborating an entire system of false beliefs to reinvent lust as love.

Advertisers exploit this process of desire formation by sowing the seeds of desire into our unconscious, and then supplying some flimsy reasons with which our conscious can justify or rationalize the desire.

Schopenhauer compares our conscious or intellect to a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. He anticipates Freud by equating the blind giant of will to our unconscious drives and fears, of which our conscious intellect is barely cognizant.

For Schopenhauer, the most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. It is, he says, the will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring that draws man and woman together in a delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, their shared delusion fades away and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.

Few of our desires surface into our conscious, and those that do, we adopt as our own. But before a desire surfaces into our conscious, it competes with a number of conflicting desires which are all also in some sense ‘ours’. The desire that eventually prevails is often the one that is at the limit of our understanding. This competitive process of desire formation is most evident in psychotic people who hear one or several voices that speak from a point of view that seems alien to them, but that is, of course, their own. To quote once again from Schopenhauer,

We often don’t know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired.

Desires in practice

That our desires are not truly ours is easy to demonstrate. When we make a New Year’s resolution, we declare to ourselves and to others that, in some small measure, we are going to take control of our desires, implying that our desires are not normally under our control. The same goes for vows and promises. But even with the most solemn and public of marriage vows, we often fail to prevail.

Moreover, it is often over the least consequential desires, such as what to wear or what music to listen to, that we seem to exercise the most control, while whom we lust for/fall in love with seems mostly if not completely out of our control. Yet, a single rogue desire can lay waste to the best intelligence of half a lifetime.

In many cases, we simply don’t know what we desire. But even when we do know what we want, we cannot know for sure that it will be good for us. A young man may dream of studying medicine at Oxford, but realizing his dream could mean that he is run-over by a bus three years hence, or that he never realizes his far greater potential as a novelist. Whenever our desires are frustrated, we ourselves should not feel frustrated, because we cannot be sure that what we wanted would truly have been good for us.

Types of desire

Most of our desires are simply a means to satisfying another, more important, desire. For instance, if I feel thirsty and desire a drink in the middle of the night, I also desire to turn the light on, to get out of bed, to find my slippers, and so on. My desire for a drink is a terminal desire, because it relieves me of the pain of thirst, whereas all the other desires in the chain are instrumental desires because they are instrumental to fulfilling my terminal desire.

In general, terminal desires are generated by our emotions, whereas instrumental desires are generated by our intellect. Because terminal desires are generated by our emotions, they are highly motivated, while instrumental desires are merely motivated through the terminal desires that they aim at. In some cases, a desire can be both terminal and instrumental, as when we work for a living, and also enjoy the work that we do.

My desire for a drink is also a so-called hedonic desire, in that it leads to pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Most terminal desires are hedonic, but some might be motivated by sheer will power, as, for example, when I decide to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

Of course, it can be argued that there can be no such thing as a non-hedonic terminal desire, since, even when we do the right thing ‘for the sake of doing the right thing’, we experience pleasure in doing so (or avoid pain, for example, the pain of guilt), and so our desire is merely a hedonic desire in disguise.

Nonetheless, some terminal desires, such as hunger and thirst, are evidently more biological than others, and these tend to be highly motivated. On the other hand, more abstract terminal desires may be less motivated because our emotions fail to back them, or back them but only feebly. Unfortunately, the extent to which a non-biological terminal desire is supported by the emotions seems to be completely out of our control. In the words of Schopenhauer, ‘Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.’

Conversely, it is possible for the intellect to rebel against the emotions and reject a highly motivated terminal desire, but the slave is not as strong as the master and risks being whipped back into his den. Instead of confronting his master head-on, the intellect stands a better chance of prevailing if he replaces his master’s desire with another, or reframes the master’s desire in the master’s own terms—typically by arguing that resisting the desire will lead to more pleasure in the longer term. The intellect can also try to trick the emotions, for example, with a ‘cemetery meditation’ against lust, which involves imagining the dead body of the lusted-after person in various stages of decomposition.

The intellect can fully grasp some truth, but unless the emotions share in that truth, the person cannot find the power to act upon it. This is why good teaching is not just about knowledge, but also, and even mostly, about inspiration.

Finally, desires can also be divided into natural and unnatural desires. Natural desires such as those for food and shelter are naturally limited. In contrast, unnatural or vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth are potentially unlimited.

The Ancient philosopher Epicurus teaches that natural desires, though difficult to eliminate, are both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, and should be satisfied. In contrast, unnatural diseases are neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy, and should be eliminated.

By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimize the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia (perfect mental tranquility). ‘If thou wilt make a man happy,’ says Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Desires and society

Unnatural desires, which are unlimited, have their roots not in nature but in society. Fame, power, and wealth can all be understood in terms of the desire for social status. Indeed, were we to be the last person on earth, being famous, powerful, or wealthy would not only be of no use but would be meaningless. Our desires would be radically different than they are now, and, leaving aside our loneliness, we would stand a much better chance of satisfaction.

Society also gives rise to destructive desires such as the desire to make others envy us, or the desire to see others fail, or, at least, not succeed as much as us. We suffer not only from our own destructive desires but also from the destructive desires of others, turning into the target and victim of their insecurities. As Schopenhauer says, ‘What every one most aims at in ordinary contact with his fellows is to prove them inferior to himself.’

By overcoming the desire to satisfy, please, impress, or better others, we can start living for ourselves, free from unnatural and destructive desires.

Diogenes the Cynic, who was a contemporary of Plato in Ancient Athens, taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society.

After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions.

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who, it is said, came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” To his credit, Alexander still declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes replied parrhesia, which means free speech or full expression. He used to stroll around Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped and asked what he was doing, he would reply, “I am just looking for a human being.”


Luckily, there is no need to imitate Diogenes, and still less to banish desire. Instead, we need to master desire, because, paradoxically, it is only by mastering our desires that we can live life to its fullest. And it is only by mastering our desires that we might at last find some measure of peace.

Further Reading

On Desire, William Irvine

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