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Friday Philosophy: Desire

William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.  His book, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, is a wide-ranging tour of our impulses, wants and needs, showing us where these feelings come from and how we can try to rein them in.  In the excerpt below Irvine looks at love as a desire.

Some desires are formed as the result of rational thought processes. Suppose I want lunch.  I conclude that the best way to get it, give that my refrigerator is empty, is to drive to a nearby restaurant. As a result, I form a desire to drive to the restaurant in question. This process is perfectly, admirable rational.

It would be a mistake, though, to suppose that all our desires are formed in this manner.  To the contrary, many of our most profound, life-affecting desires are not rational, in the sense that we don’t use rational thought processes to form them.  Indeed, we don’t form them; they form themselves within us.  They simply pop into our heads, uninvited and unannounced.  While they reside there, they take control of our lives.  A single rogue desire can trample the plans we had for our lives and thereby alter our destinies.

If we are to undertake desire-indeed, if we are to understand the human condition-we need to acknowledge the possibility of spontaneous desire…

Falling in love is the paradigmatic example of an involuntary life-affecting desire.  We don’t reason our way into love, and we typically can’t reason our way out: when we are in love, our intellectual weapons stop working.  Falling in love is like waking up with a cold-or more fittingly, like waking up with a fever.  We don’t decide to fall in love, any more than we decide to catch the flu.  Lovesickness is a condition brought upon us, against our will, by a force somehow external to us…

When we are lovesick, we lose a significant amount of control over our lives.  We start acting foolishly-indeed, we become fools for love.  Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca described love as “friendship gone mad.”  French aphorist François duc Le Rochefoucauld declared, “All the passions cause us to make mistakes, but love is responsible for the sillies ones.  Freud called lovesickness “the psychosis of normal people.”…

We can likewise find in Plutarch descriptions of lovesickness as a medical condition.  He tells us that in the third century B.C., Erasistratus was asked to diagnose Prince Antiochus, the son of King Seleucus.  The symptoms: “his voice faltered, his face flushed up, his eyes glanced stealthily, a sudden sweat broke out on his skin, the beatings of his heart were irregular and violent, and, unable to support the excess of his passion, he would sink into a state of faintness, prostration, and pallor.”  Erasistratus’s diagnosis: the lad was lovesick.

Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, has much to say about lovesickness as a medical condition.  He observes that “of all passions…Love is most violent.”  He also offers a cure for lovesickness: “The last refuge and surest remedy, to be put in practice in the utmost place, when no other means will take effect, is, to let them go together, and enjoy one another.”

The symptoms of lovesickness are well known to anyone who has been afflicted by it.  First comes a fixation on a person-a crush. (The common use of the word crush, by the way, is syntactically backward: we speak of having a crush on someone, but what really happens is that we feel crushed by them-we feel as if there were a heavy weight on our chest.)  With this crush, we lose control of part of our thought processes inasmuch as we cannot stop thinking about the object of our desire.  We experience what psychologists call intrusive thoughts.

When we are lovesick, our love makes sense to us, much as our delusions make sense to us when we are in the grip of a high fever or our nightmares make sense to us while we are asleep.  To our friends and relatives, though, our infatuation might make no sense at all: “What can he possibly see in her?” they will ask.  And in the same way as a fever can pass or we can awaken from a nightmare, lovesickness can end, at which point we might go up to our friends and relatives, bewildered, and ask, “What did I see in her?”  In the words of French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”…

…In love, then, we have a dramatic illustration of the rolse desire can play in human life.  It can grab us by the scruff of the neck, shake us for a spell, and then dicard us.

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