That’s what my friend E. quipped to me a couple years ago. And though I’ve forgotten the context in which he said it, it’s lingered with me since then. It is true: a desire can be hot enough to melt someone completely out of shape. A person’s entire personality can become an instrument of acquiring what he needs, or at least of dulling the pain of not having it. And he becomes another person because of it. (Galadriel, renouncing the ring: I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.)
The roots of this phenomenon are material, since even the most animal needs can make someone drop everything to fulfill them. Anyone who’s really thirsty, for instance, stops thinking about anything besides cold water, which he thinks is the only thing necessary for happiness. (Christ on the cross stopped longing for heaven after a point and said: “I thirst.”) Health, too, is a sick man’s imagined paradise. This makes evolutionary sense: a creature that feels no soul-bending needs is devoured by another creature that does.
But in human experience, it’s not just a matter of flesh trying to preserve itself by means of its desires. We don’t, after all, think constantly about how we’re going to survive and procreate, but we are forced here and there by wants that seem purely spiritual to us. A cow who’s lost her calf doesn’t understand anything about Darwinian theory, but she does feel that the only important thing is gone forever.
The point is partly that one considers what one doesn’t have to be the most vital thing in the universe. For John Milton it was light. To say that Milton revered light is an understatement: he believed that light is as ancient and eternal as God himself. The only necessary explanation of this belief is that Milton was completely blind from 1652 onwards. A few years before his death, he put these words into the mouth of Samson, blinded by the Philistines in Gaza:
O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies, O worse then chains,
Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annull’d, which might in part my grief have eas’d...
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more then half.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all;
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
The only thing necessary for Milton’s eternal happiness was the only thing that he lacked. His only consolation was that he had some inner, spiritual vision to replace his eyes—and sure enough, his later poetry is suffused with this sense of spiritual insight. But this was a coping mechanism. God is light, he wrote, and that wasn’t just a metaphor.
You don’t need a sharp mind to think of more examples. But here are some anyway: the Jews, despised wanderers for two thousand years, became a people that worshipped a homeland. The Roman Epicurean, troubled by the triumph of pain and decay, thought constantly about the gods, whose lives are eternal and painless. And when I lived in flat and gray Chicago, I caught myself thinking that to live in the mountains and to see the stars was the only way to live a beautiful life.
I don’t just mean that the grass is greener on the other side. My point is that denial is so powerful that it shapes an animal’s mind and body. Conscious existence, as a result, is founded on want. For example: until a fish gets swallowed by a bigger, more frightening fish, its only thought is how to find some smaller, less frightening fish to swallow. Since its entire existence is a great panic for life and food, a fish amounts to no more than a belly with fangs. Because we are at more ease than a fish, we can afford to be more capacious, and think about Homer and J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars in addition to life and death. But real tranquillity and self-mastery is reserved to only a few human beings: there are enough gnawing hungers in the world to put even a prosperous person under their yoke.
|Pictured: hunger gnaws at the world.|
One’s soul, to repeat, is stamped by what one wants far more than what one has. We are what we want. You don’t usually think about what you do have—whether it’s wifi, love, or beauty. The wealthy, for instance, have the privilege of forgetting all about vulgar money, and the powerful can be eccentric without being tethered by a desperate race for popularity. (Money and power can therefore be good for your soul: they stop you thinking about money and power, thoughts that can wreck you more than money and power themselves.)
You do think, all the time, about what you don’t have, but want. This is healthy if it is in your power to take what you need. Then you can live your life as an unfolding of your powers, embodying yourself—that is, your desires—in the world around you. You are good at what you have been shaped by your desires to be, and are therefore happy. (When Aristotle equated virtue, by which he meant skill at being human, with happiness, I think this is what he meant.) But serving an unslakable desire can make you into something miserable. More about that in part II.