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Desire is the immediate movement or act of the mind towards an object which presents some quality on account of which we wish to obtain it. The objects of desire, therefore, embrace all those attainments and gratifications, which mankind consider worthy of being sought after. The object pursued in each particular case, is determined by the views, habits, and moral dispositions of the individual. In this manner, one person may regard an object, as above every other worthy of being sought after, which to another appears insignificant or worthless. The principles which regulate these diversities, and consequently form one of the great differences in human character, belong to a subsequent part of our inquiry.
In forming a classification of the desires, we must be guided simply by the nature of the various objects which are desired. Those which may be specified as the most prevalent, and the most clearly to be distinguished as separate, may be referred to the following heads.
I. The gratification of the animal propensities,—commonly called the appetites. These, which we possess in common with the lower animals, are implanted in us for important purposes; but they require to be kept under the most rigid control, both of reason and of the moral principle. When they are allowed to break through these restraints, and become leading principles of action, they form a character the lowest in the scale, whether intellectual or moral; and it is impossible to contemplate a more degraded condition of a rational and moral being. The consequences to society are also of the most baneful nature. Without alluding to the glutton or to the drunkard, what accumulated guilt, degradation, and wretchedness follow the course of the libertine,—blasting whatever comes within the reach of his influence, and extending a demoralizing power alike to him who inflicts and to those who suffer the wrong. Thus is constituted a class of evils, of which no human law can take any adequate cognizance, and which therefore raise our views, in a special and peculiar manner, to a supreme Moral Governor.
II. The Desire of Wealth, commonly called Avarice;—though avarice is perhaps justly to be regarded as the morbid excess or abuse of the propensity. This is properly to be considered as originating in the desire to possess the means of procuring other gratifications. But, by the influence of habit, the desire is transferred to the thing itself, and it often becomes a kind of mania, in which there is the pure love of gain, without the application of it to any other kind of enjoyment. It is a propensity which may, in a remarkable manner, engross the whole character, acquiring strength by continuance, and it is then generally accompanied by a contracted selfishness, which considers nothing as mean or unworthy that can be made to contribute to the ruling passion. This may be the case even when the propensity is regulated by the rules of justice;—if it break through this restraint, it leads to fraud, extortion, deceit, and injustice,—and, under another form, to theft or robbery. It is therefore always in danger of being opposed to the exercise of the benevolent affections, leading a man to live for himself, and to study only the means calculated to promote his own interest.
III. The Desire of Power, or Ambition. This is the love of ruling,—or giving the law to a circle whether more or less extensive. When it becomes the governing propensity, the strongest principles of human nature give way before it,—even those of personal comfort and safety. This we see in the conqueror, who braves every danger, difficulty, and privation, for the attainment of power; and in the statesman, who sacrifices for it every personal advantage, perhaps health and peace. The principle, however, assumes another form, which, according to its direction, may aim at a higher object. Such is the desire of exercising power over the minds of men; of persuading a multitude, by arguments or eloquence, to deeds of usefulness; of pleading the cause of the oppressed;—a power of influencing the opinions of others, and of guiding them into sound sentiments and virtuous conduct. This is a species of power, the most gratifying by far to an exalted and virtuous mind, and one calculated to carry benefit to others wherever it is exerted.
IV. The Desire of Superiority, or Emulation. This is allied to the former, except that it does not include any direct wish to rule, but aims simply at the acquirement of pre-eminence. It is a propensity of extensive influence, and not easily confined within the bounds of correct principle. It is apt to lead to undue means for the accomplishment of its object; and every real or imagined failure tends to excite hatred and envy. Hence it requires the most careful regulation and, when much encouraged in the young, is not free from the danger of generating malignant passions. Its influence and tendency, as in other desires, depend in a great measure on the objects to which it is directed. It may be seen in the man who seeks to excel his associates in the gaiety of his apparel, the splendour of his equipage, or the luxury of his table. It is found in him whose proud distinction is to be the most fearless rider at a steeple-chase or a fox-hunt,—or to perform some other exploit, the only claim of which to admiration consists in its never having been performed before. The same principle, directed to more worthy objects, may influence him who seeks to be distinguished in some high pursuit, calculated to confer a lasting benefit upon his country or on human kind.
V. The Desire of Society. This has been considered by most writers on the subject as a prominent principle of human nature, shewing itself at all periods of life, and in all conditions of civilization. In persons shut up from intercourse with their fellow-men, it has manifested itself in the closest attachment to animals; as if the human mind could not exist without some object on which to exercise the feelings intended to bind man to his fellows. It is found in the union of men in civil society and social intercourse,—in the ties of friendship, and the still closer union of the domestic circle. It is necessary for the exercise of all the affections; and even our weaknesses require the presence of other men. There would be no enjoyment of rank or wealth, if there were none to admire;—and even the misanthrope requires the presence of another to whom his spleen may be uttered. The abuse of this principle leads to the contracted spirit of party.
VI. Desire of Esteem and Approbation. This is a principle of most extensive influence, and is in many instances the source of worthy and useful displays of human character. Though inferior to the high sense of moral obligation, it may yet be considered a laudable principle,—as when a man seeks the approbation of others by deeds of benevolence, public spirit, or patriotism,—by actions calculated to promote the advantage or the comfort either of communities or individuals. In the healthy exercise of it, a man desires the approbation of the good;—in the distorted use of it, he seeks merely the praise of a party, or perhaps, by deeds of a frivolous or even vicious character, aims at the applause of associates whose praise is worthless. According to the object to which it is directed, therefore, the desire of approbation may be the attribute either of a virtuous or a perverted mind. But it is a principle, which, in general, we expect to find operating in every well-regulated mind, under certain restrictions. Thus a man who is totally regardless of character,—that is, of the opinion of all others respecting his conduct, we commonly consider as a person lost to correct virtuous feeling. On the other hand, however, there may be instances in which it is the quality of a man of the greatest mind to pursue some course to which from adequate motives, he has devoted himself, regardless alike of the praise or the disapprobation of other men. The character in which the love of approbation is a ruling principle is therefore modified by the direction of it. To desire the approbation of the virtuous, leads to conduct of a corresponding kind, and to steadiness and consistency in such conduct. To seek the approbation of the vicious, leads, of course, to an opposite character. But there is a third modification, presenting a subject of some interest, in which the prevailing principle of the man is a general love of approbation, without any discrimination of the characters of those whose praise is sought, or of the value of the qualities on account of which he seeks it. This is vanity; and it produces a conduct wavering and inconsistent,—perpetually changing with the circumstances in which the individual is placed. It often leads him to aim at admiration for distinctions of a very trivial character,—or even for qualities which he does not really possess. It thus includes the love of flattery. Pride, on the other hand, as opposed to vanity, seems to consist in a man entertaining a high opinion of himself, while he is indifferent to the opinion of others;—thus we speak of a man who is too proud to be vain.
Our regard to the opinion of others is the origin of our respect to character, in matters which do not come under the higher principle of morals; and is of extensive influence in promoting the harmonies, proprieties, and decencies of society. It is thus the foundation of good breeding, and leads to kindness and accommodation in little matters which do not belong to the class of duties. It is also the source of what we usually call decorum and propriety, which lead a man to conduct himself in a manner becoming his character and circumstances, in regard to things which do not involve any higher principle. For, apart entirely from any consideration either of morality or benevolence, there is a certain line of conduct which is unbecoming in all men; and there is conduct which is becoming in some, though it might not in other men,—and in some circumstances, though it might not be so in others. It is unnecessary to add, how much of a man's respectability in life often depends upon finding his way, with proper discrimination, through the relations of society which are amenable to this principle; or, by how many actions, which are not really wrong, a man may render himself despised and ridiculous. The love of esteem and approbation is also of extensive influence in the young,—both in the conduct of education and the cultivation of general character; and it is not liable to the objections, formerly referred to, which apply to the principle of Emulation. It leads also to those numerous expedients by which persons of various character seek for themselves notoriety or a name: or desire to leave a reputation behind them, when they are no more. This is the love of posthumous fame, a subject which has afforded an extensive theme both for the philosopher and the humorist.
VII. The Desire of Knowledge, or of Intellectual Improvement,—including the principle of Curiosity. The tendency of this high principle must depend, as in the former cases, on its regulation, and the objects to which it is directed. These may vary from the idle tattle of the day, to the highest attainments in literature or science. The principle may be applied to pursuits of a frivolous or useless kind, and to such acquirements as lead only to pedantry or sophism;—or it may be directed to a desultory application, which leads to a superficial acquaintance with a variety of subjects, without a correct knowledge of any of them. On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge may be allowed to interfere with important duties which we owe to others, in the particular situation in which we are placed. A well-regulated judgment conducts the propensity to worthy objects; and directs it in such a manner as to make it most useful to others. With such due regulation, the principle ought to be carefully cultivated in the young. It is closely connected with that activity of mind which seeks for knowledge on every subject that comes within its reach, and which is ever on the watch to make its knowledge more correct and more extensive.
VIII. The Desire of Moral Improvement. This leads to the highest state of man: and it bears this peculiar character, that it is adapted to men in every scale of society, and tends to diffuse a beneficial influence around the circle with which the individual is connected. The desire of power may exist in many, but its gratification is limited to a few:—he who fails may become a discontented misanthrope; and he who succeeds may be a scourge to his species. The desire of superiority or of praise may be misdirected in the same manner, leading to insolent triumph on the one hand, and envy on the other. Even the thirst for knowledge may be abused, and many are placed in circumstances in which it cannot be gratified. But the desire of moral improvement commends itself to every class of society, and its object is attainable by all. In proportion to its intensity and its steadiness, it tends to make the possessor both a happier and a better man, and to render him the instrument of diffusing happiness and usefulness to all who come within the reach of his influence. If he be in a superior station, these results will be felt more extensively; if he be in a humble sphere, they may be more limited; but their nature is the same, and their tendency is equally to elevate the character of man. This mental condition consists, as we shall afterwards have occasion to shew more particularly, in a habitual recognition of the supreme authority of conscience over the whole intellectual and moral system, and in a habitual effort to have every desire and every affection regulated by the moral principle, and by a sense of the divine will. It leads to a uniformity of character which can never flow from any lower source, and to a conduct distinguished by the anxious discharge of every duty, and the practice of the most active benevolence.
The Emotions which have been now briefly mentioned seem to include the more important of those which pertain to the class of Desires. There is, however, another principle which ought to be mentioned as a leading peculiarity of human nature, though it may be somewhat difficult to determine the class to which it belongs. This is the Desire of Action,—the restless activity of mind, which leads it to require some object on which its powers must be exercised, and without which it preys upon itself and becomes miserable. On this principle we are to explain several facts which are of frequent observation. A person accustomed to a life of activity longs for ease and retirement, and, when he has accomplished his purpose, finds himself wretched. The frivolous engagements of the unoccupied are referable to the same principle. They arise, not from any interest which such occupations really possess, but simply from the desire of mental excitement,—the felicity of having something to do. The pleasure of relaxation, indeed, is known to those only who have regular and interesting employment. Continued relaxation soon becomes a weariness; and, on this ground, we may safely assert, that the greatest degree of real enjoyment belongs, not to the luxurious man of wealth, or the listless votary of fashion, but to the middle classes of society, who, along with the comforts of life, have constant and important occupation. Apart, indeed, from actual suffering, I believe there is nothing in the external circumstances of individuals, of greater or more habitual importance for promoting personal happiness, than stated, rational, and interesting employment.
The mental condition which we call Desire appears to lie in a great measure at the foundation of character;—and, for a sound moral condition, it is required that the desires be directed to worthy objects,—and that the degree or strength of them be accommodated to the true and relative value of each of these objects. If the desires are thus directed, worthy conduct will be likely to follow in a steady and uniform manner. If they are allowed to break from the restraints of reason, and the moral principle, the man is left at the mercy of unhallowed passion, and is liable to those irregularities which naturally result from such a derangement of the moral feelings. If, indeed, we would see the evils produced by desire, when not thus controlled, we have only to look at the whole history of human kind. What accumulated miseries arise from the want of due regulation of the animal propensities, in the various forms in which it degrades the character of rational and moral beings.—What evils spring from the love of money, and from the desire of power;—from the contests of rivals, and the tumults of party,—what envy, hatred, malignity, and revenge.—What complicated wretchedness follows the train of ambition,—contempt of human suffering, countries depopulated, and fields deluged with blood. Such are the results of desire, when not directed to objects worthy of a moral being, and not kept under the rigid control of conscience, and the immutable laws of moral rectitude. When, in any of these forms, a sensual or selfish propensity is allowed to pass the due boundary which is fixed for it by reason and the moral principle, the mental harmony is destroyed, and even the judgment itself comes to be impaired and distorted in that highest of all inquiries, the search after moral truth.
The desires, indeed, may exist in an ill-regulated state, while the conduct is yet restrained by various principles, such as submission to human laws, a regard to character, or even a certain feeling of what is morally right, contending with the vitiated principle within. But this cannot be considered as the healthy condition of a moral being. It is only when the desire itself is sound, that we can say the man is in moral health. "He who grieves at his abstinence," says Aristotle, "is a voluptuary;"—and this also is the great principle so often and so strikingly enforced in the sacred writings; "Keep thy heart with all diligence, because out of it are the issues of life." "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Thus, there are desires which are folly, and there are desires which are vice, even though they should not be followed by indulgence; and there are desires which tend to purify and elevate the moral nature, though their objects should be beyond the reach of our full attainment in the present state of being. Perfect moral purity is not the lot of man in this transient state, and is not to be attained by his own unaided efforts. But, subservient to it is that warfare within, that earnest and habitual desire after the perfection of a moral being, which is felt to be the great object of life, when it is viewed in relation to the life which is to come. For this attainment, however, man must feel his total inadequacy,—and the utmost efforts of human reason have failed in unfolding the requisite aid. The conviction is thus forced upon us, that a higher influence is necessary, and this influence is fully disclosed by the light of revealed truth. We are there taught to look for a power from on high, capable of effecting what human efforts cannot accomplish,—the purification of the heart.
(Excerpts from Project Gutenberg's The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings,Part 1 by John Abercrombie)