Let’s talk for a moment about life, the universe and everything. I don’t know any question about life, the universe, and everything to which the answer is definitely Forty-Two (see Douglas Adams), but I can tell you what some of the best questions are: Why aren’t we as happy as we want to be? How can we become happy?
So what about the answers? Well, these questions motivated millenia of philosophy, and a good bit of religion, too. A lot of interesting answers have been given, at least as far back as Buddha and as recently as C. S. Lewis. A lot of the big philosophers (Buddhists, Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, Christians medievals, Descartes, Bacon, Lewis) have agreed on the problem: Our desires don’t fit the world. We desire more than this world has to offer. We desire what we can’t have — or what we can have but can’t keep — and we end up losing what we love, or fearing its loss.
There are two general strategies available to fix that problem: 1) We change what we want, so that we want what we can have; or 2) We change the world, so that we can have what we want.
It’s pretty obvious that both approaches are correct in their own spheres. (And there may be a third option to accompany the first two. See this comment and this comment, below.) The first strategy has been used successfully by everyone who has stopped being a baby who wants his food, wants it NOW, and is miserable because he doesn’t get exactly what he wants.
Medical science is a useful component of the second strategy, and I thank both God and Descartes (who advocated medical science as a component of the second strategy) that we now have the ability to prevent polio.
But what are the proper spheres of these two strategies? Which should be more emphasized? How should we modify the world or modify our desires properly? These are all issues that make big differences between all these thinkers and traditions. Give a thorough answer to all this, and you have a nice little philosophy of desire, or theology of desire, going.
Generalizing somewhat, the earlier philosophers take the first (i.e., change our desires to better match the world), and the early modern Western philosophers take the second approach (i.e., change the world to better match our desires).
There are actually two ways of carrying out the first strategy: either we can cut desire down to the size of whatever is attainable in this world, or we can redirect our desires to something beyond this world. Ancient Buddhists, Stoics, and Epicureans have employed the former of these. The latter is the approach of Sufi mystics, the Bhagavad Gita, the Platonists, the Christian medievals, and C. S. Lewis.
Now it’s time to recommend some books! On the subject of the Platonist, Stoic, and Epicurean philosophers of desire I recommend Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire and Pierre Hadot’s What Is Ancient Philosophy?
And on St. Augustine’s philosophy/theology of desire compared and contrasted with Platonism, I recommend — if I may — my own book on Augustine’s Cassiciacum Dialogues. In it, I explain how Augustine mingles the Platonist with the Christian approaches. In one sentence: I explain how Augustine’s theology of desire is a Christian one which takes some insights from the Platonic philosophers. (A bit more detail on where this thesis fits in the context of Augustine scholarship will come up in the next post, and a post after that will summarize the major points of the Cassiciacum dialogues.)
And on the consequences of the modern scientific approach (if you let the worst kind of modern philosophers tell you how to think about right and wrong), I recommend The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis.
And to learn how science fiction film illustrates Lewis, I recommend the upcoming Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man: Finding C. S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television. The book was my idea, and I’m editing it. More on that another time.