What We’re Really Doing When We Desire
Let us begin very specifically and concretely: Imagine there is an apple in front of you. Whether you wish to eat it depends on a few things: Are you hungry? Are you craving something sweet or tart? Maybe you don’t like its taste very much, but you have an idea that it’s a healthy food and therefore what you should eat in pursuit of health. In all of these cases, your desire for the apple is conditional; it is based on some circumstance within you rather than any quality of the apple itself. Looking closer, you will also see that all of these circumstances relate in some way to lack and deficiency; you are lacking food when hungry, lacking some particular compound or vitamin when experiencing a specific flavor craving, perceiving a lack of health in yourself, or fearing the possibility of a lack of health in the future because you lack assurance of its continuity.
We may then conclude: The apple is desirable if we see it to be a way to eliminate some deficiency. This is true of all desires. It is inherent in the structure of desire. “To want” and “to lack” are even technically synonymous in our English language. Now, we may fear this definition or seek to rebuke it, because we are usually engaged in some form or another of desire throughout our whole lives and do not generally even find desire to be unpleasant. Still, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that desire seeks its own overcoming through the attainment of some object; we call such object a “good.” The apple is eaten, and hunger subsides.
It is possible though, even common and almost ubiquitous, for the desiring-faculty to be fascinated and entranced by its own tools, for example the hormones deployed by the body in order to affect certain motions and sentiments; dopamine, oxytocin, etc. Dopamine is especially volatile because its action is based on anticipation rather than completion or attainment. In such fascination, the desiring faculty begins to take its own resultant sentiments and compulsions to be goods in themselves because it has displaced pleasure away from the actual attainment of non-deficiency (or “wholeness”) and onto the processes which lead towards it. Such fixation is liable to delay or entirely prevent wholeness because attachment to the process of desiring can cause you to wallow in that process indefinitely. This is the mechanism of addiction. The apple is eaten, but the craving for sweetness endures – and is not even rebuked, because that craving was responsible for the enjoyment derived from the apple.
Now we must suppose there were two apples, one shiny and ripe and round, and one bruised, overripe, and misshapen. All reasonable people would easily pass judgement as to which one is more desirable, supposing the apples are of the same breed and differences come down to health and freshness. Why is this? It is because we perceive the ripe one to taste better and have better texture, to be able to address the deficiency that produced our desire more perfectly than the bruised one can. Furthermore, desirable apples will tend to be similar in luster and symmetry while there are nearly infinite ways for an undesirable apple to become ugly, infinite varieties and combinations of bruises, worm-holes, or bulges.
What our forerunners deduced from this, with more detail and proof than I have room for here, is that the better an apple may be, the closer it will resemble a single hypothetical perfect apple. There probably never was, will be, or could be such an apple in material reality; but we can surmise that this perfect apple exists beyond the material and seeks to express itself materially via inducing a particular arrangement of bark, leaf, flesh, flower, seed, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. This arrangement is always somehow minorly or majorly discordant with its ancestral image on account of millions of possible motions or processes, and thus there is variation in the quality of apples.
If we perceive the shiny and ripe apple as able to address the deficiency that produced our desire – to bring about wholeness – more perfectly than the bruised apple, what can we conclude from this? Quite marvelously, that if a more perfect instantiation of the Ideal is more desired than a less perfect one, then what we must be actually desiring is the Ideal itself, and that the Desire-faculty is only latching itself onto particular apples as representatives or incarnations of that Ideal.
Just to cover our bases, now let’s suppose there are hundreds of apples of every different breed and variety and hundreds of people here to pick them; Each individual human will probably take a different particular apple to be his or her most desired. Many may not desire any apple at all. The variety of qualities present in the apples will be as or more numerous than the variety of constitutions, values, and deficiencies present in the people picking them. This does not rebuke the Ideal Apple, it only shows that the apples it bestows its apple-ness to have also refracted through various other forms, such as colors and sizes, like light through prisms, on their way into the material. It may even suggest that the Ideal Apple fathers over a host of ideal apples, such as the Ideal Macintosh or Ideal Fiji, which would further suggest that the Ideal Apple does not actually have any particular color or shape but instead imparts apple-ness as a more subtle quality. And all of this is just as true for humans; the Form of Man may have no particular height, gender, pigmentation, or even shape. Instead the subtle quality common to all humans, what furnishes us with our humanity, is our noetic ability to perceive and to know.
(Yes, it is true that the particular material bodies of Apple and Man both have arrived on Earth only after delicate processes of natural selection. But this is no obstacle, because Time is only a measure of motion, and motion is a quality of dis-unity only present in the sphere of Soul which is below and derived from the more united sphere of Nous where intellects and the forms they contemplate have their true subsistence. But we are not quite ready for this part yet).
If we can agree that it has been established that we desire what we think will make us most whole, and what is most conducive to wholeness (or at least is perceived as such) is more desired than what is less, then we may define desire this way: Desire is compulsion towards wholeness. Henceforth we will call it Eros.
Eros compels all things towards wholeness according to their own qualities, because union is generally reliant on likeness. If you cut two apples in half, say a red and a green one, and then glued them together, they would “recover” less wholeness from the operation if red halves were glued to green than they would if green was glued back to green and red back to red. It may seem that this scheme is confounded by (hetero) sexual attraction, which is generally between apparent opposites, but if you observe peoples’ pairings deeply you should actually come to see unions of seeming opposites not as people cleaving to individuals whose natures are alien, but rather that we seek in our partners the bolstering of things which are present but perhaps muted in ourselves, since every human is an entire human and simply expresses different balances of their humanity; Man finds his own Womanhood, and Woman her own Manhood, anchored in and expressed through their partners.
If this were not the case then we would not observe that compatibility in temperament and behavior is so important to the health of relationships. Each must fit the particular shape of the psychological “gap” in the other where what is already and eternally present cannot be made manifest by the normal efforts of a single person. The habitually nervous may love the bold, bold people the gentle, contentious people the patient, and so on. Or such people may hate each other! The nervous might find the bold destabilizing and unpredictable, the bold may find the gentle boring, and the contentious may be frustrated if their attacks are not reciprocated. We will generally observe that we are drawn to conflict with those who abound in or embody qualities that we attend to poorly within ourselves by ignoring or bypassing them or by failing to rein them in. For example, an intolerance of weakness in others may betray a repression of fear, or jealousy of beautiful people may indicate a particular relationship to one’s own appearance. Because Eros compels us to conflict as well as union, we come to learn that wholeness can actually be disrupted by excess as well as lack, because excess creates alack by reducing balance.
In any case, it should be fair to say that in Eros for other people, we are still compelled towards our *own* wholeness, and recognition of ourselves in others, recognition that our wholeness is shared by them rather than being only in our own bodies, is what enables empathy, sympathy, and charity.
So what is it in other people that induces wholeness in ourselves? What portions of us are in sufficient likeness, like halves of an apple, that union can be properly said to induce more wholeness than was present before? Certainly the body finds joy from others, not just from sexual partners but also from the hormonal responses triggered by any positive socialization, laughter and catharsis and the vasopressin bonds of people engaged in a common mission. Indeed many relationships remain only at this level, unfortunately even more in our age than before.
But we have already established that what is physical obtains its ordering, its patterning, its form, from ideals beyond itself, and specifically that human beings are defined by mind rather than by flesh. It must follow, then, that when humans are compelled towards each other it must be on account of something beyond the physical, and that when they seek wholeness through each other they are seeking after a spiritual wholeness. We are trying to do so even at our most debased or selfish, because such disorder results simply from misunderstanding what we are seeking, and so we seek things wrongly and appear to seek the wrong things. The search for satiation becomes compulsive overeating, the search for connection becomes aggressive sexuality that ironically pushes people away from you, the search for peace becomes obsession with distraction.
To understand what these spiritual things we seek in each other are, we require an account of our own structure in order to see what in it is compelled by likeness towards others. Hold out your hand; move your fingers. You are currently experiencing a body. This body’s materials are obtained from the food you eat and from the food your mother ate when you were in the womb. They are marshalled into their proper places by sequences of DNA that encode the exchange of minerals and proteins from one form to another, from food to tissue. Rather than an object, it might even be more accurate to call your body a process. Such is the entire material world, simply a procession of elements alchemizing into each other and into new combinations. It is the river of Heraclitus.
Yet through all this, if you turn your eye upon itself, you will see that there is a continuity of consciousness investing you from one moment to the next. The objects of thought and sentiment that this consciousness fixes its attention upon are always flowing and changing like the elements of the body, but it remains itself. You may say it is not “as real” as the physical because it is more subtle, harder to perceive; but the Platonic and Vedic traditions assert that it is more real than the physical because it is not subject to the same procession of dissolution and transformation. In fact, it possesses true continuity and reality because it is not purely physical, even if its effects reach into the physical world or if its powers here are mediated through structures like the nervous and endocrine systems. This is our true self, which we call “nous,” “atman,” or “intellect.”
On its proper perch within the noetic sphere, beyond motion, extension, space, time, or matter, this true self is at its best because it is at its most united. Nothing is separate from it or alien to it. It beholds all and knows all by virtue of its unity with the ideals of all things, the forms. Included in this unity is every other nous, the intellects of all other beings, who in turn derive their existence and their unity from the Noetic Principle; It is the Eye of the Cosmos, the True Sun. This cosmic Self is whole, united with itself, united with its origin, and united with its products – yes, it has products. In fact, it produces all the things that it looks upon, drawing the Forms out from itself reflexively to impress them on the abyssal waters of matter. Its attention is baited here and there by Eros, either providentially when it looks on the lower things it produces, or piously when it looks above itself to behold it own source and priors.
That source is the ineffable, unspeakable, unknowable “One” (and the constellation of Henads, or Gods, which co-subsist with it, though they are a topic for another discussion) which could be best introduced to a novice as “the single subtle quality which must logically be shared by all things and non-things in order to for them have being or non-being.” Lack is totally obliterated, obliterated so thoroughly that there is not even a “lack of lack” but simply the establishment of it in its proper, lower, place.
This One is beyond being, intellect, form, life, soul, or matter, but produces these things in the same way a candle casts a shadow – they are fractious attempts at imitating, portraying, and assimilating to it, and are all produced because of and through Eros. The master Plotinus explains:
The Supreme is also self-love in that He is lovely no otherwise than from Himself and in Himself. Self-presence can hold only in the identity of associated with associating; since, in the Supreme, associated and associating are as one, seeker and sought as one, with the sought serving as a hypostasis and a substrate of the seeker, once more the Supreme’s powers of being and seeking are identical: once more, then, the Supreme is the self-producing sovereign of Himself.
In short, Eros is the active power of the One sustaining its own wholeness by establishing bonds of causation and regression that continue unbroken throughout the entire cascade of emanation from highest to lowest. As Providence it proceeds from the One, and as Piety it returns to it. The One, when approached in terms of this return rather than the initial procession, comes to serve as the ultimate object of desire, and therefore from that perspective we call it the Good.
When we look on other people and, through Eros, draw nearer to what is supra-material in them, their souls and intellects, by the differences which we witness we come to see parts of our beings that we would be ignorant of if we had only our own bodies and personalities as tools of comparison. We are brought to greater knowledge and therefore greater wholeness. This unity with ourselves is also a further unity with others, because it is an entering of our conscious experience into our shared wholeness.
Our true selves are whole. They are Intellect itself. But we experience disunity and suffering when our own acts of providence lose balance with our acts of piety, drawn by Eros downwards to what is less united in us and therefore coming to take up residence in the river of transient things that pass in and out of existence like a flickering of the candle’s shadow. Misunderstanding enters into our experience, and we become liable to pursue the true objects of our Eros incompletely by attaching value to transient rather than enduring manifestations of those objects. We seek sex divorced from love and food divorced from health.
If the object of love is wholeness, then the love which is most conducive to wholeness is the best love possible. And if the experience of wholeness is the experience of the nous returned to its proper place, then the best love is the love most capable of drawing a person’s conscious experience back to the seat of their nous. As we have seen, what obscures the conscious experience from the knowledge of the nous is misunderstanding, since Eros itself is always and in all things driving towards wholeness and so cannot be an origin of disunity. Therefore the best love, the love most capable of bringing about wholeness by returning you to yourself, is the love which brings about the eradication of misunderstanding. This is the love of wisdom. Philo-sophia.
If it sounds disagreeably pretentious or dry to you to declare that philosophy is the highest love, you have simply not yet grasped how erotic philosophy truly is. It may even be more appropriate to call it “philo-sophia-philia,” since the actual practice of this love is aimed at the progressive unfolding and uncovering of greater and greater loves until finally the eyes are open to the all-creating, all-pervading, all-subduing love of the Gods as it drives them to enact the dramas of Being and Becoming that are simply an erotic exploration of the inexhaustible possibilities bubbling forth from the One Good. The most potent alchemy of philosophy is to transmute love-as-desire into love-as-gratitude, proving that Eros can indeed persist without lack and be simply a recognition, acceptance, and assimilation of the Good and a reunification of providence and piety into a single act.
Hiding all things and bringing them forth,
Newly birthed in delightful vision,
Again and again from His own heart He brings them,
Acting with joy and in awe of Himself
– The Orphic Rhapsodic Hymn to Zeus
The foundational misunderstanding that hinders this wisdom is the misunderstanding of what and who you actually are. Our presence in the body is good and must have been deemed necessary in order to happen at all, but it is liable to lead us into the belief that we are restricted to the body and would have no existence without it. This introduces complications to the processes of love because, as we touched on earlier, love operates through likeness and therefore ties all things together into one (circular!) chain through the smallest and most gradual increments of difference possible.
The body, naturally and rightly, loves bodily things, the visible and tangible. But if hypothetically it could be said to have its own independent existence (in truth it is only an outgrowth of your soul like a tree from a seed), it would be unreceptive to things that are not bodily and unable to be moved by love for them because of a lack of likeness. The more the conscious experience invests itself in the body and mistakes its product for its own existence, the more obscured from it the supra-bodily goods grow. Yet we have demonstrated that the greatest goods and therefore the best loves are ultimately not bodily (or at least not confined solely to bodies), and so naturally in this position our Eros becomes more and more desperately frantic in its mission of drawing us towards the wholeness that we have retreated from. Our relationship to it becomes more and more disjointed because we lack understanding of what it is trying to affect, and so we drift about attaining an endless procession of particular objects we have anchored our desire to and yet are never satisfied by them. The apple is eaten, but the craving for sweetness endures.
That disappointment is actually the first step of philosophy, because it opens an avenue of inquiry into what we actually want. This in turn requires us to question who and what we are, just as it was necessary for us even in this short piece to discuss the structure of the self in order to better understand how Eros operates on it. Once our understanding of our selves begins to creep upward out of the material, new loves and new depths of love are opened to our conscious experience because we finally begin to recognize the likeness our true selves share with all the supra-material wonders that are worthy of our admiration or participation; the beautiful ideal-forms, the virtues, the spirits of the other people in our lives, the Gods who underpin and exude all of these things, and finally the impossibly subtle principle of the One Good itself.
Now, as lofty as this all may sound, it is not abstract. It is a process of experience and practice that aims to integrate the loves that exert themselves on every level of existence into a coherent Eros that marshalls the flow of all things it touches towards the Good. To say “I love the One” without practicing love for your spouse, friends, parents, pets, clothes, meals, or whatever else you are blessed with, is to overshoot the mark; you would be failing to cultivate your love for the Good while it finds its expression through all of those things.
So what would it look like to be loving all of those things properly, marshalling them and yourself upwards, inviting the Ideal Forms to further invest and perfect them? In short, it would be beautiful; it would be the proliferation and protection of beauty. We learn from philosophy that beauty in bodies expresses itself through health, vigor, and harmony, beauty in objects through symmetry, purity, and ratio, and beauty in minds through wisdom and adherence to virtue, virtue resulting from the proper ordering and sublimating of Eros in all its forms throughout your life; love of family, love of friends, love of ancestors, and love of the righteous and good. Therefore you should drive your body towards bodily beauty by tending to its health, drive your surroundings towards architectural beauty by tending to their cleanliness and orderliness, and drive your heart towards spiritual beauty through cultivating proper loves – and because among these loves are both the love of wisdom and the love of the people around you, the project of philosophy is at its best as a social project. This is fitting for mankind as a social animal, and is also simply practical since psychology shows social pressure and expectations to be more consistently reliable influencers of behavior than individual will.
Yes, beautiful bodies and beautiful buildings and beautiful social orders are not the be-all-end-all of life. Beautiful souls are far more important – but so long as those souls sojourn here without self-knowledge, it is through their own reflections in bodies and objects and other people that they begin to piece together what they are and where they are from. So while in some cases a guru or sage may achieve his aim alone and emaciated in the desert, the vast majority of people are better served by living in a society that encourages, or even demands, beauty and virtue. Even if the wisest will always eventually realize that beautiful bodies, buildings, and laws all pale in comparison to the ultimate One from which they derive their beauty, they will also know that these things must be preserved and proliferated because they are a necessary first step in the ladder of philosophy and give necessary rest and nourishment to the souls of the unready.
Now, because this world is a place of tumult and lack and change, the dramas played out here are necessarily tumultuous and erratic. Just as disappointment is the first call to examination, it is often only by deprivation of beauty that we come to learn to recognize beauty when it is present. This is because the embodied mind requires comparison for understanding, a result of its investment in a world which is constructed out of tension between opposites; Being and non-being, “here” and “there,” distance and identity, protons and electrons. It is all part of the process of exploration.
The real danger – and what is transpiring today – is that society as a whole, in turning away from the divine principles that give that exploration any substance, direction, and meaning, slowly deprives itself of even the basest material goods, exhausting itself and drifting into heat death until its corpse is possessed by someone – or something – more vital and primal. There is a direct thread of causal entropy between the abandonment of virtue, as admittedly difficult and inconvenient as it is, and the total loss of even the most basic worldly competence and the wealth and safety it brings. This is visible, and will continue to grow more and more impossible to ignore, in the institutions of the West which have proven themselves unable to solve any actual problems as they descend into identitarian navel-gazing and fixate their efforts on controlling the simulacra of public perception instead of the reality of conditions.
It is even more viscerally visible in the population of the West, especially among my generation, many of whom openly profess nihilism and publicly ideate suicide. They are so suppressed that many do not even consider physical health and wealth as worthy enough goals to sacrifice their vices for them, although it is perhaps more common that they have just never even been given any actionable information on how to tend to these things. This is even worse, since it indicates a total abdication by wider society of its responsibility to protect the first rungs of the ladder to self-discovery, self-actualization, and properly integrated Eros. The result is mass confusion, mass illness, and waves of self-destructions both minor and major.
The gears are already turning. The beast is too fat to correct its course. By now it even lacks a coherent enough nervous system to identify the problem and its solutions. Instead, wherever mankind will find fulfillment in the next centuries he will have to do so in life rafts, life rafts whose encounters with the primordial waters that the corporate managerial society insulates us from will teach them long-forgotten lessons – lessons like why the Romans knew Venus to be a goddess of sovereignty. Wherever true Civilization will reemerge, it will do so first and foremost as an overgrowth of the inexhaustible Eros of people who have aligned themselves with nature, with each other, with the Gods, and with the One Good which is both the tip and the base of the pyramid.
They say that in a banquet of the Gods, Discord threw down a golden apple; the Goddesses contended for it, and were sent by Zeus to Paris to be judged. Paris saw Aphrodite to be beautiful and gave her the apple. Here the banquet signifies the hypercosmic powers of the Gods; that is why they are all together. The golden apple is the world, which being formed out of opposites, is naturally said to be ‘thrown by Discord’. The different Gods bestow different gifts upon the world, and are thus said to ‘contend for the apple’. And the soul which lives according to sense – for that is what Paris is – not seeing the other powers in the world but only beauty, declares that the apple belongs to Aphrodite.
– Sallust, On the Gods and the World