Back to Blog Posts

Souls, Chariots, and the Problem of Desire

Originally Posted on admin, August 17, 2007

News & Publications: Santa Fe

Graduate Institute Commencement Address - August 17, 2007

“Souls, Chariots, and the Problem of Desire” David Carl, Tutor

A man sometimes devotes his life to a desire which he is not sure will ever be fulfilled.  Those who laugh at this folly are, after all, no more than mere spectators of life.

                                    Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yam Gruel

Welcome family and friends.  Congratulations graduates.  As we celebrate today your completion of the St. John’s program, I invite you to think back on those desires which led you to join the college in the first place, and to reflect on the status of those desires in your lives today.  I also invite you to think about the more general role of desire in each of our lives, and about how the books we have read together might help us to respond to the various desires that characterize those lives.

I want to talk to you about desire because I think its presence in our lives is a pressing and important question.  What we desire determines what we want, and what we want determines what we do.  It was a particular set of desires that brought you to St. John’s in the first place, and a new set of desires will guide you in where you go next.  In many cases there will be conflicting desires which you must choose between.  There will be some desires you will not be able to fulfill.  This will lead to frustration, perhaps even to suffering.

I admit that from my earliest childhood I have come to associate desire with suffering.  There have always been things, people, and places that I’ve wanted to have, know, or visit but which have remained forever beyond my grasp.  The frustration of so many of my desires reminds me of the words of the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal, who wrote, “my soul is not a soul, it is a conflagration.”  Anyone who has ever felt his or her soul to be the site of such a conflagration understands first hand why I speak of desire as a problem. 

Those of you who have been through the math and science segment of the liberal arts program may recall that Lucretius also describes desire as a kind of all-consuming fire in the soul.  Here is a quote from his poem which speaks specifically of the desires associated with love and sex:

There's the hope, always, that the fire may die
Extinguished by the body which aroused
Its ardor in the first place. . . .


They press their bodies close, join lips and tongues,
Their breath comes faster, faster.  All in vain,
. . . they cannot
Effect real penetration, be absorbed
Body in body, utterly . . .

God knows they try,

Cling to each other, lashed in Venus' chains
Till finally, all passion spent, they die,
Relaxed completely from that violence,
Melted, undone; so, for a little time,
The furious fire subsides.  But it will blaze,
Break out again in madness . . .

(The Way Things Are, Rolfe Humphries trans.)


Lucretius describes desire as a destructive fire and a secret wound.  And perhaps we are inclined to agree with this image of desire because we cannot help but feel constantly betrayed by it.  No matter how thoroughly and how often we gratify our most insistent desires, they always return, hydra-like, to demand again their pound of flesh.  The gratification of our desires fulfills neither them nor us, and indulging them only seems to feed their flames.

And it is not only those desires associated with lust and bodily pleasure that torment us in this way.  Buddhism teaches that even the desire to be free of desire is a desire that impedes us on the path to freedom and enlightenment.  The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus tells us, “It is hard to fight desire; what it wants it buys with the soul.”  For Pascal, Lucretius, and Heraclitus, desire is a problem because it is a war waged within our very souls.  The question I would like to explore with you today is:  What can we do to reclaim desire as an integral part of our selves as wholes, rather than as a fire that threatens to overwhelm our souls?

I would like to rehearse for you a few of the responses to this question which the books on the program offer us.  These responses are unified around the image of the chariot.

In the Bhagavadgita the chariot is the site of Krishna’s revelation to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurushetra.  Krishna is Arjuna’s charioteer.  On the eve of the greatest battle he will ever face, Krishna warns Arjuna against the destructive powers of desire.  He says:

All is clouded by desire:  as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as an unborn babe by its covering.

Wisdom is clouded by desire, the everpresent enemy of the wise, desire in its innumerable forms, which like a fire cannot find satisfaction.

Desire has found a place in man’s senses and mind and reason.  Through these it blinds the soul, after having over-clouded wisdom.

Set thou, therefore, thy senses in harmony, and then slay thou sinful desire, the destroyer of vision and wisdom.

Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul.

(Bk. III, Mascaró trans.)

Although we cannot say that Krishna’s advice about how to combat this “powerful enemy of the soul” is simple, the result of such a conquest is straightforward.  He tells Arjuna: 

the man who forsakes all desires and abandons all pride of possession and the self reaches the goal of peace supreme.(Bk.II)

This suggests the first option we encounter in response to the recognition of the problem of desire in our lives:  forsake it, struggle against it as a warrior does against a powerful enemy and seek to destroy it.  This violent antagonism against desire is not unique to the Bhagavadgita.  The Dhammapada is a collection of verses from the early Pali sutras of Buddhism.  In this work we are told:

As rain pours through badly thatched houses,
so does desire penetrate the undeveloped mind.
A shower of gold pieces cannot satisfy craving,
Sensual pleasures bring little sweetness,
Cause much suffering.
The disciple of Buddha finds joy
In the extinction of desire.            

(Maitreya trans.)

Like the Bhagavadgita, the Dhammapada exhorts us to violently reject the presence of desire in our lives.   In exchange these works promise “peace supreme” and “freedom” as a result of eliminating desire.  They agree in calling desire “the powerful enemy of the soul,” and their vivid imagery speaks to something in us that already recognizes at least in part the truth of what they say.  We have all experienced desire in the way these books describe it:  as something that torments us, interferes with our better nature and undermines our best intentions.  But do we also suspect that the violent elimination of desire from our lives risks eliminating some essential part of ourselves as well?  Must we live either in exile from desire or as its slave?

Let us consider a second chariot, and travel from India to Greece, in order to see how Plato describes the problem of desire.  In thePhaedrus the chariot is a metaphor for our souls, guided by two horses, the dark horse of passion and the white horse of reason.  The goal, Socrates tells us, is not to eliminate the dark horse altogether, for its passions are essential to our ability to travel towards our goals, but to subject it to the rule of reason, so that it is reason, and not passion, which chooses what those goals are and how we are best to reach them.

In other words, for Socrates, freedom lies not in the ability to gratify our desires, but in the ability to have the right desires.  Desire is not seen as an enemy that must be eliminated, but as an essential part of ourselves that must be controlled by reason.

We might interpret this image of the chariot in Plato as an exhortation to moderation.  We do not need to attack and destroy desire, as we are counseled to do in the Bhagavadgita, we merely need to subject it to our rational faculties.  But such moderation often does not seem so much like a reconciliation of reason and desire as it does a form of compromise in which desire gives way to reason once and for all.  To be moderate is to control the passions, and to control them is a form of subjugating one part of ourselves to another.  The same question emerges:  is there any way for us to experience ourselves as other than divided and at war with ourselves?  Is Plato’s metaphor of the tempestuous chariot our only alternative when we look inside and try to accurately portray the soul?  And if we do succeed in calming the storm that tears at us, must we always do so at the price of one half of ourselves?

Even if we do see Plato’s chariot as more conciliatory toward the presence of desire in our lives than the view found in theBhagavadgita and the Dhammapada, for some people it is still not enough.  There are those who claim that happiness lies not in controlling our desires, but in allowing our desires to control us.  They argue that the more desires we have, provided that we can gratify them, the happier we will be.  Socrates encounters just such a person in the figure of Callicles, with whom he debates in theGorgias.

In Callicles we find a spokesman for precisely the opposite view of desire we encountered in the Bhagavadgita.  It is not desire that enslaves us, but we who, in trying to enslave our desires, limit our pleasures and, by extension, limit our sense of power and enjoyment in life.  Callicles’ position sounds like a philosophical defense of an ancient Greek version of Paris Hilton.  He tells Socrates:

How could a man prove to be happy if he’s enslaved to anyone at all?  Rather . . . the man who’ll live correctly ought to allow his appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them.  And when they are as large as possible, he ought to be competent to devote himself to them by virtue of his bravery and intelligence, and to fill them with whatever he may have an appetite for at the time.  . . . wantonness, lack of discipline, and freedom, if available in good supply, are excellence and happiness . . . (491e-492b & 492c, Zeyl trans.)

Socrates responds to Callicles with another story about our souls.  Our souls are like jars we are striving to keep full.  The jars of fools are leaky vessels, the jars of disciplined and wise men are tightly sealed.  Socrates would like to convince Callicles to [quote] “choose the orderly life, the life that is adequate to and satisfied with its circumstances at any given time instead of the insatiable, undisciplined life.”

But when Socrates asks if he is persuading him toward such a life, Callicles says,

You do not, Socrates.  This man who has filled himself up has no pleasure any more, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone . . . .  Rather, living pleasantly consists in this:  having as much as possible flow in.

Socrates’ response only makes the dilemma more vivid.  Instead of raising the possibility of higher pleasures that could be enjoyed only by those who no longer frantically spend their lives in the act of filling up their jars, he asks,

Isn’t it necessary then, that if there’s a lot flowing in, there should also be a lot going out and that there should be big holes for what’s passed out?

But Callicles’ admission that this is so simply asserts that living with big holes is precisely what is desirable:  to live largely and insatiably, to affirm and pursue one’s desires rather than control or deny them.

Socrates response does not satisfy Callicles, whose argument posits a life which refuses satisfaction on principle, but it does highlight the classic debate between the impulse to gratify every desire that we have the power to indulge versus the impulse to free ourselves from the slavery of desire through cultivating discipline and self-control.  Which path leads to the greater good for human beings?  Which path is more courageous, more noble and more honorable?  Which path is more likely to lead to our greater happiness?  Before considering how your time at the college may have equipped you to begin answering these questions, let us move from ancient Greece and India to early modern Europe.

Nearly 2000 years after Callicles rejected the path of elimination found in the Gita and the path of control found in Plato, Thomas Hobbes offered us another defense of desire.  In the Leviathan Hobbes writes:

The thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies, to range abroad and find the way to the things desired . . . for as to have no desire is to be dead, so to have weak passions is dullness . . .

Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand.  Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.

Rather than identifying its presence as the cause of suffering, desire is now seen as the source of felicity itself.  Callicles calls the life without desire, “living like a stone,” and according to Hobbes, “to have no desire is to be dead.”  The Buddhist solution of eliminating desire, according to Hobbes, is pursued only at the price of being a man.  Looking around at men over the past 2,000 years, perhaps the Buddhist would agree.

Our choices so far include: 1) forsake and abandon desire entirely, root it out and destroy its presence in our lives in order to liberate ourselves from its onerous burden; 2) admit the role that desire plays in the motion of our souls, but submit that desire to the force of reason and learn, through discipline, to control desire; 3) abandon ourselves to the power of desire and seek happiness in our efforts to gratify every desire as it arises, embrace the image of ourselves as leaky jars and live in the constant effort to continuously fill and refill those vessels.

I would like to make one final stop on our tour of chariots.  Alongside the classical images of the chariot in Greece and India I would like to place the prefatory verses to William Blake’s epic poem “Milton”.  Blake writes:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear:  O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

As we have already seen in the Bhagavadgita, Lucretius, and Pascal, the arrows of desire, fired from the chariot of fire, suggests a martial and conflagrational image.  But Blake is not trying to avoid these things; he is asking that they be brought to him.  Blake wants a direct encounter with desire, not its extinction or its submission to reason.

It was William Blake who first infamously suggested that Satan might be the hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and it is Blake, in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” who offers us a new way of thinking about desire.  Here are a few lines from his “Proverbs of Hell”:

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Elsewhere he writes,

“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained, and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.  And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.”

Here we have something more subtle than the hedonistic or materialist defense of desire offered by Callicles and Hobbes.  Desire, for Blake, is a step on the road that leads to the palace of wisdom, and its proper cultivation avoids pestilence and leads to fecundity and freedom.  How does this work?

Blake has a short poem entitled “The Question Answerd” which reads:

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.

Although the desires associated with sex are unforgiving and insatiable, as Lucretius so vividly describes, the desire of love may be something different.  Indeed, in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes draws for us an image of love as one of completion and union with the desired other.  So long as we remain fragmented we search relentlessly for our other halves, but once we find them, true wholeness is possible through the unifying power of love.

Desire, for Blake, is not, as it is for Callicles and Hobbes, an end in itself.  It is, as with Plato’s chariot, a means to an end.  Blake writes not of desire itself, but of its “lineaments,” in other words, the outline, plan, or trace of desire.  And what we require from one another are “the lineaments of gratified desire.”  Blake offers not a constant and restless pursuit of one insatiable pleasure after another, but a deliberate move toward a form of completion and unity which takes the body and soul equally into account, not setting them at war with one another, but seeking a way of unifying them through the love that men and women require from each other.  I read Blake as offering us a bridge that spans the spiritual concerns of the Gita, the erotic qualities of reason found in Plato, and the fundamental humanity of our bodies recognized in Callicles’ hedonism.

But lest we imagine that Blake has resolved all the tensions arising from the presence of desire in our lives, let us conclude by going back once more to the very beginning.  Let us go back to what is perhaps the most ominous of possibilities about desire as revealed to us by one of the West’s first philosophical minds:  the possibility that desire, for all its ability to torment and delight us, has ultimately little to do with who we are and what we wish to become.  Heraclitus tells us:  “If every man had exactly what he wanted, he would be no better than he is now.”

“If every man had exactly what he wanted, he would be no better than he is now.”

Heraclitus offers a trenchant observation about desire when he tells us that realizing all our wishes will not change who we are; we will continue to live with and as ourselves no matter how much money, sex, power, or material goods we can accumulate and surround ourselves with.  We must become who we wish to be independent of the fulfillment of our desires.  Montaigne said it this way:  “man cannot discover his needs by consulting his desires.”

I once wrote about magazine ad I had seen for the Visa credit card.  The ad copy promised:  “it’s not just everywhere you want to be, it’s everything you ever wanted.”  This claim left me speechless.  Perhaps we have learned from Marx that the creation of desire is the most powerful tool a culture wields, for if society can tell us what we want, it has already begun to tell us how to live.  And so perhaps there is at least one version of what we want, a particular field of our desires, about which the claim in this ad is true.  If so, our challenge may be to discover what, if anything, we want that Visa cannot provide us with.  How will we discover, beneath the distracting veneer of our transient desires, what we in fact truly need, and how will we discover whether there is a way to become “better than we are now” that consists in more than getting “exactly what we want”?

I hope your time at the college has prepared you to ask this and other questions about the presence of desire in your lives.  For example:  How do we discover those desires that are not something separate from ourselves, but are instead the expression of our truest needs?  How are we to see ourselves as those whole human beings, who, according to Aristophanes in the Symposium, it is the essential task of love to help us become?  How can we experience ourselves as whole, not torn asunder by our desires, but through them integrated on a daily basis in the joys of love, companionship, food, reading, and the other truly human pleasures that need not be seen only as the source of suffering in this world (though they may at times indeed be such) but also as the source of what makes us human?

I regret that time has not allowed me to explore with you the many other experts on the question of desire we read here at the college.  We have not looked at Aristotle’s detailed taxonomy of desires in the Nicomachean Ethics; nor have we considered that most charming and persistent interrogator of desire, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who tells us a story about a Knight who searches not for the Holy Grail but for the illusive answer to the question, “what is it that women most desire”; we have not looked into that vast catalogue of desires that are the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare, nor have we talked about the simple but brilliant formula of stoicism, which teaches us that the secret to obtaining all of our desires is not to get more, but simply to want less; we have not discussed the subtle and complex works of Taoism, the central text of which opens with a discussion of desire, nor have we considered the playful Vimalakirti, who provides us with an oddly Buddhist version of William Blake’s approach to desire.  A thorough investigation of desire might lead us with profit back to any of the books we have read together at the college, from Job to Dōgen or from Augustine to Genji.  Our desire to read and reread these books, to explore and investigate their ideas, to share them in conversation and through writing, may be as persistent and insatiable as any of the physical desires that assail our bodies and souls alike.  But it is a desire I hope the college has awakened and nurtured in you, and it is a desire I hope you will carry away from here intact.


Thank you for listening, and once again, congratulations on the fulfillment of this particular one of your desires.