Thursday, December 08, 2016

What Does Desire Desire?

What exactly happened when man became man? How do we mark the transition?

Among other things, we now had an assoul released from instinctual programming running lose in the cosmos. All other animals do what they are constrained to do, and any "thinking" that goes on is related solely to those fixed and predetermined ends.

A lion, after satisfying its biological needs, doesn't gaze up at the stars and wonder what it's all about. Nor does it ponder things from the gazelle's rather different perspective. And it certainly doesn't sacrifice another lion in order to appease the Lion God and keep the gazelles coming. Rather, it just goes to sleep. Why don't we do that? It would solve a lot of problems.

By the way, some people say -- or everyone, rather -- that human thought is an extension of animal thought. Can't be. I think it's the other way around: whatever goes on in animal brains is an attenuation of properly human thought. Indeed, we see the same principle at work within humanness: smart people aren't simply an extension of the stupid ones. Rather, the stupid ones are missing something.

In the book, I touched on the distinction between appetite, which is biological, and desire, which is metaphysical and more or less infinite. It was the latter to which Buddha referred with his crack about desire being the root of all suffering. That makes perfect sense, as far as it goes. But what if the desire is here for a purpose? What if, like intelligence, it is proportioned to its proper object?

Analogously, think of all the terrible things that have been done with human intelligence. Would it then be fair to say that the root of all suffering is intelligence? Well, animals in the wild don't become neurotic. They aren't conflicted. Perhaps the road to nirvana is unpaved with the transcendence of desire and intelligence. Or could all those Marxists be wrong? In a Marxist paradise there is no reason to think or want, since the state takes care of both.

Central to Girard's theory is the idea that "above and beyond instinctual appetite or what the philosophical tradition calls natural desire is a form of desire that profoundly shapes and fairly defines human motivation, namely mimetic desire, desire aroused by another's desire and that easily leads to rivalry with the model whose desire one imitates" (Bailie).

Respectfully, I'm not so sure. It is no doubt a partial explanation, but is it really sufficient to account for the pervasive violence that erupts with the emergence of man? I suppose I come at it from a different angle than Girard, since he looks at the phenomenon through an anthropological lens, while I look at it more from a developmental-psychological perspective (a subject to which we will later return; for now let's just stick with Girard's view).

The question is, when does man begin to display his propensity for violence? If we take Girard's idea literally, it is when one man sees that another man desires something, which makes it "desirable" to the first. In short, it provokes envy. And this in turn leads to an inevitable crisis, what with everyone wanting what everyone else has.

Now, Girard's theory explains a lot. Along similar lines is one of our Coon Classics, Helmut Schoeck's Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. Envy is indeed a key to human behavior, and managing it is central both to human happiness and even the possibility of human cooperation. We've spoken in the past of how human groups had to transcend the "envy barrier" in order to evolve into higher and more complex forms. Put conversely, envy is one of the primary mechanisms that keeps primitive groups primitive.

Nor can we eliminate it from the human repertoire, any more than we could eliminate lust, or jealousy, or greed, or pride, or sloth. Nevertheless, the entire appeal of leftism is rooted in the placation of envy. Likewise all this talk of "income inequality," which is just a modern way to express and externalize envy.

This is well known, and many wise humans have pointed it out -- for example, Churchill, who said that "Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery." But what if the other guy's stuff is none of my damn business? Is it even possible for a liberal to imagine such an unenvious state of mind?

Jumping waaayyy ahead in the book, to p. 144, Bailie makes the profound point that -- quoting Aquinas here -- "The nearer any nature is to God, the less inclined it is to be moved by another and the more capable it is of moving itself."

Bailie elaborates: "the more open to the divine one is -- the unsurpassable height of which is the co-existence with Christ's own co-existence within the Trinity... -- the less mimetically promiscuous one will be, the less easily one is drawn off balance by the mimetic influence of others."

You might say that you will be yourself instead of someone else. Which you'd think would be easy, but first you must differentiate your own desire from what everybody else wants. Bailie adverts to the Serpent -- and we'll get back to him later -- who first triggers mimetic desire by tempting Eve. What is going there, i.e., what principle is the story trying to convey? It is that we do indeed have a kind of infinite desire but that it is proportioned to the infinite God. Detach this desire from God, and what happens?

Yes, history, most especially the bad stuff. All hell breaks loose. This is a huge subject to which we will return in due time, after laying the foundation.

You won't hear me denigrating the free market, nevertheless, it does unleash mimetic desire like nothing in history. It is as if it serves to pander to our infinite desires, detached from God. All day long we are bombarded with images of Things To Want. People order their whole lives around obtaining these Desirable Things, only to find out -- repeatedly! -- that none of them can scratch the itch of mimetic desire, at least for long. One desire simply displaces another.

Not to give undue credit to myself. Rather, it is simply in my nature to be a neo-traditional retro-futuristic bohemian fringe-dweller. Nevertheless, I have to say I saw through this cycle of desire rather early in life. I concluded that there was nothing there for me in conventional aspirations. Only later did I put one and one together and consciously aspire to the third, which is what the blog is all about.

Anyway, back to Desire Unhinged. For Bailie, "culture" is the mechanism that emerged in order to manage it: "culture became necessary for survival precisely when the instinctive dominance-submission mechanisms that served to curtail violence in the animal kingdom proved inadequate to that task of a creature endowed with seemingly insatiable, metaphysical, and fickle desires."

Mimetic rivalry. Is it any wonder the first thing that happens upon our expulsion from paradise is an envy-drenched murder over whom God likes best? How can a culture of cooperation ever emerge out of such a matrix? "How can such violence be transformed into the nascent social consensus upon which conventional culture depends?"

The short answer is that "Archaic religion, the emergence of which marks the birth of culture itself, was born of the transfiguration of violence into religious awe and holy dread..." Our furbears projected violence "onto expendable victims... thereafter ritually reproducing the catharsis with which the original violence was concluded, thereby rejuvenating the social solidarity it produced."

Maybe you have a better idea for why human sacrifice was so ubiquitous. Certainly their gods appeared to demand blood: "Ritual sacrifice was clearly how the world worked."

Think about that one: how the world worked. It's like a scientific theory. And guess what: it did work, certainly for much longer than our democracy has worked. We are the ones in uncharted territory, not them. We are the ones who have to try to figure out how culture can exist without scapegoats.

Or maybe you don't know about the 20th century, with its 100 million victims sacrificed to pagan ideologies...

7 Comments:

Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

On systematically missing the point: Christianity as just another vehicle for satisfying desire.

12/08/2016 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

The question is, when does man begin to display his propensity for violence? If we take Girard's idea literally, it is when one man sees that another man desires something, which makes it "desirable" to the first. In short, it provokes envy. And this in turn leads to an inevitable crisis, what with everyone wanting what everyone else has.

I'm reminded of our dogs and their chew toys. Quite often, one dog would only really enjoy the chew toy that she had if the other dog - or lacking an adequately interested dog, a human - tried to take it away.

12/08/2016 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Or maybe you don't know about the 20th century, with its 100 million victims sacrificed to pagan ideologies...

I have a horrible suspicion that this century may well top the last. It would be wonderful to be proven wrong, though.

12/08/2016 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

still confused about "culture" -- is all Bailie means by that word is "cooperation"? been reading Pieper and Guardini on culture -- Thomistic, Romantic ideas.

12/08/2016 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

julie sez:
"I'm reminded of our dogs and their chew toys. Quite often, one dog would only really enjoy the chew toy that she had if the other dog - or lacking an adequately interested dog, a human - tried to take it away."

Yup, that was going to be my comment. After reading One Cʘsmos all these years and understanding the view that Man is a quantum leap over animals, I still have a persistent view that our differences are on a continuum. Admittedly, one with a huuuuuge gap. Probably projection on my part. Maybe I just want my dear old pets to be waiting for me when I cross over.

12/08/2016 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, a higher mammal can exhibit something like envy. We used to have a dog who wasn't happy unless she got both bones, hers and her brother's. But that's still tied to an object of instinct. Imagine that envious desire unattached to anything in particular but provoked by everything in general! Not for nothing is it addressed by one of the Commandments.

12/08/2016 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Being more like God makes us more like our true selves.

Sadly, much religious practice seems to creating an image -- contrary to the commandment, of a socially acceptable human and trying live in that persona.

12/08/2016 01:24:00 PM  

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