A married person falls deeply in love with someone else. A man of average income feels he cannot be truly happy unless he owns an expensive luxury car. A dieter has an irresistible craving for ice cream. Desires often come to us unbidden and unwanted, and they can have a dramatic impact, sometimes changing the course of our lives.
In On Desire, William B. Irvine takes us on 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. Spicing his account with engaging observations by writers like Seneca, Tolstoy, and Freud, Irvine considers the teachings of Buddhists, Hindus, the Amish, Shakers, and Catholic saints, as well as those of ancient Greek and Roman and modern European philosophers. Irvine also looks at what modern science can tell us about desire--such as what happens in the brain when we desire something and how animals evolved particular desires--and he advances a new theory about how desire itself evolved. Irvine also suggests that at the same time that we gained the ability to desire, we were "programmed" to find some things more desirable than others. Irvine concludes that the best way to attain lasting happiness is not to change the world around us or our place in it, but to change ourselves. If we can convince ourselves to want what we already have, we can dramatically enhance our happiness.
Brimming with wisdom and practical advice, On Desire offers a thoughtful approach to controlling unwanted passions and attaining a more meaningful life.
While most contemporary philosophers mull over theoretical matters and shy away from giving advice on how to live, Irvine plumbs the age-old question: how do we master our desires? When it comes to desire, he says, "we are like a vacation home owner who, regardless of who shows up at the door... welcomes the visitor and convinces himself that he must have invited the visitor." Our evolutionary past, Irvine claims, has wired us for endless dissatisfaction since, from an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't matter if we're miserable as long as we survive and reproduce. Early humans who basked in contentment, he argues, were less likely to survive than ones with a nagging itch to better their lot. Given this treadmill, how can we lead happy, meaningful lives? Irvine shares the advice of those who claim that "undesirable desires arise because we care what other people think of us." Examining teachings of Zen Buddhists, the Amish, the Hutterites, Hellenistic philosophers (the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) and others, he concludes, "the best way to gain... lasting satisfaction... is to change not the world and our position in it but ourselves... we should work at wanting what we already have." This is no easy task, and Irvine admits that readers seeking further instruction had best look elsewhere.