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In philosophy, desire has been identified as a philosophical problem since Antiquity. In Plato's The Republic, Socrates argues that individual desires must be postponed in the name of the higher ideal.

Within the teachings of Buddhism, craving is thought to be the cause of all suffering. By eliminating craving, a person can attain ultimate happiness, or Nirvana. While on the path to liberation, a practitioner is advised to "generate desire" for skillful ends.[1][2]


Ancient GreeceEdit

In Aristotle's De Anima the soul is seen to be involved in motion, because animals desire things and in their desire, they acquire locomotion. Aristotle argued that desire is implicated in animal interactions and the propensity of animals to motion. But Aristotle acknowledges that desire cannot account for all purposive movement towards a goal. He brackets the problem by positing that perhaps reason, in conjunction with desire and by way of the imagination, makes it possible for one to apprehend an object of desire, to see it as desirable. In this way reason and desire work together to determine what is a 'good' object of desire. This resonates with desire in the chariots of Plato's Phaedrus, for in the Phaedrus the soul is guided by two horses, a dark horse of passion and a white horse of reason. Here passion and reason, as in Aristotle, are also together. Socrates does not suggest the dark horse be done away with, since its passions make possible a movement towards the objects of desire, but he qualifies desire and places it in a relation to reason so that the object of desire can be discerned correctly, so that we may have the right desire.

Western philosophersEdit

In Passions of the Soul Descartes writes of the passion of desire as an agitation of the soul that projects desire, for what it represents as agreeable, into the future. Desire in Kant can represent things that are absent and not only objects at hand. Desire is also the preservation of objects already present, as well as the desire that certain effects not appear, that what affects one adversely be curtailed and prevented in the future. Moral and temporal values attach to desire in that objects which enhance one's future are considered more desirable than those that do not, and it introduces the possibility, or even necessity, of postponing desire in anticipation of some future event, anticipating Freud's text Beyond the Pleasure Principle. See also, the pleasure principle in psychology.

In A Treatise on Human Nature Hume suggests that reason is subject to passion. Motion is put into effect by desire, passions, and inclinations. It is desire, along with belief, that motivates action. Kant establishes a relation between the beautiful and pleasure in Critique of Judgment. He says "I can say of every representation that it is at least possible (as a cognition) it should be bound up with a pleasure. Of representation that I call pleasant I say that it actually excites pleasure in me. But the beautiful we think as having a necessary reference to satisfaction." Desire is found in the representation of the object.

Hegel begins his exposition of desire in Phenomenology of Spirit with the assertion that "self-consciousness is desire." It is in the restless movement of the negative that desire removes the antithesis between itself and its object, "...and the object of immediate desire is a living thing...", and object that forever remains an independent existence, something other. Hegel's inflection of desire via stoicism becomes important in understanding desire as it appears in de Sade. Stoicism in this view has a negative attitude towards "...otherness, to desire, and work."

Reading Blanchot in this regard, in his essay Sade's Reason, the libertine is one, of a type that sometimes intersects with a Sadean man, who finds in stoicism, solitude, and apathy the proper conditions. Blanchot writes, "...the libertine is thoughtful, self-contained, incapable of being moved by just anything." Apathy in de Sade is opposition not to desire but to its spontaneity. Blanchot writes that in Sade, "for passion to become energy, it is necessary that it be constricted, that it be mediated by passing through a necessary moment of insensibility, then it will be the greatest passion possible." Here is stoicism, as a form of discipline, through which the passions pass. Blanchot says, "Apathy is the spirit of negation, applied to the man who has chosen to be sovereign." Dispersed, uncontrolled passion does not augment one's creative force but diminishes it.

Eastern philosophiesEdit

Within the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), craving is thought to be the cause of all suffering that one experiences in human existence. The extinction of this craving leads one to ultimate happiness, or Nirvana. Nirvana means "cessation", "extinction" (of suffering) or "extinguished", "quited", "calmed"[3]; it is also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West. The Four Noble Truths were the first teaching of Gautama Buddha after attaining Nirvana. They state that suffering is an inevitable part of life as we know it. The cause of this suffering is attachment to, or craving for worldly pleasures of all kinds and clinging to this very existence, our "self" and the things or people we - due to our delusions - deem the cause of our respective happiness or unhappiness. The suffering ends when the craving and desire ends, or one is freed from all desires by eliminating the delusions, reaches "Enlightenment".

While greed and lust are always unskillful, desire is ethically variable – it can be skillful, unskillful, or neutral.[4] In the Buddhist perspective, the enemy to be defeated is craving rather than desire in general.[4]

See alsoEdit

Literature Edit

  • Middendorf Ulrike, Resexualizing the desexualized. The language of desire and erotic love in the classic of odes, Fabrizio Serra Editore.
  • Nicolosi M. Grazia, Mixing memories and desire. Postmodern erotics of writing in the speculative fiction of Angela Carter, CUECM.


  1. Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Thought and Imagery in Theravada Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 251: "In the end, the flowing streams of sense-desire must be 'cut' or 'crossed' completely; nevertheless, for the duration of the Path, a monk must perforce work with motivational and perceptual processes as they ordinarily are, that is to say, based on desire ... Thus, during mental training, the stream is not to be 'cut' immediately, but guided, like water along viaducts. The meditative steadying of the mind by counting in- and out-breaths (in the mindfulness of breathing) is compared to the steadying of a boat in 'a fierce current' by its rudder. The disturbance of the flow of a mountain stream by irrigation channels cut into its sides it used to illustrate the weakening of insight by the five 'hindrances'."
  2. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "The Wings to Awakening," [1]. See specifically this section.
  3. spokensanskrit dictionary with निर्वन as input
  4. 4.0 4.1 David Burton, "Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation: A Philosophical Study." Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, page 22.

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