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The Selfishness of Philosophy

Plato and Aristotle pointing where
what we most desire can be found.

Philosophy begins and sustains itself with selfishness.

When Aristotle says in that immortal opening line of The Metaphysics that "All men by nature desire to know" (I 980a) he qualifies what this desire is composed of. Immediately after that line, he says "An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight" (Ibid.).

This desire to know is likened to the delight of the senses. How do they relate to each other--desire and knowledge, and delight and sensation?

The relationship of the second pair is immediately obvious: we desire because we wish to be sensually delighted. It does not make very good sense to desire what is not delightful more so to desire what is painful. And even if there are those that desire pain (sadomasochism), that pain itself is an inverted pleasure. Desire desires what is delightful and it knows no other movement than to reach for its object of delight in the attempt to fulfill its desire of attaining that delight.

Desire in the form of this reaching for delight was called orexis by the Greeks. It means appetite. For Aristotle, the appetitive (oretikon) was the faculty in the soul which animates all pursuit (De anima 431a); it is also that which pulls the three functions or faces of pursuit together: epithymia or the desire for the pleasant, spirit and wish. All three senses are alive in orexis as the appetite for what is appetizing, for what is deemed pleasant and what is pursued because of the delight it promises.

When one says that he has an appetite for. . . , we immediately understand that he or she takes delight in this or has a craving for that. And not only this--as we all take delight in something or another--but more so it means that one has an excess desire for a particular object. One eats because one needs to nourish the body to survive; but the Epicurean no longer eats to have something in the belly but already to indulge in it and enjoy it. We also say that some have an "appetite for life" even if all wish to live and nobody wants to die; the difference being that the exceptional few indulge in living and its varied experiences in order to maximize possible pleasure. To have an appetite for something already surpasses the necessity of its attainment or consumption and thus desires to reach the intoxicating vicinity of excess, that is, excessive delight.

But in order to maintain itself as desire, desire has to suspend itself in its constant desire for what it sensually wishes to attain. In other words, it has to infinitely reach the infinitely unreachable object of desire. One can never have too much foie gras as one can never say that he has experienced everything. To remain as excessive desire, it has to constantly--and increasingly--desire what it cannot completely or absolutely have. Sheer excess enables this infinite desire possible--and even requires it.

How does this play out no longer in the man of the senses--the glutton or the "man of the world"--but already to the knower or man of reason, that is, the philosopher.

Immediately again, we can replace the object of desire with knowledge instead of what delights the senses. Then man desires to know because it delights him; though there are a few who do not wish to know and consider knowledge a burden, they can never escape the temptation of wanting to know (e.g., the Tree of Knowledge which led the first man and woman out of Paradise).

Aristotle stutters in describing that kind of delight which is attained by knowledge. After the first line and without further explanation, he immediately likens this delight of knowing to the delight of the senses which "
are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight." For Aristotle, the delight of seeing best describes what the delightful in knowing. Since to see feeds curiosity ("I want to see. . . "), settles a judgment ("To see is to believe") and distinguishes what is truth from falsity (evidence), then knowing is the feeding of our curiosity, the wish to judge for ourselves, and the solution to our fear of being deceived. That which finally shows and presents itself from its hiding (lethes) was called aletheia by the Greeks. It was their word for "truth."

The appetite for truth is the hidden but evident passion behind the desire to know. Yet this only makes everything more obscure. That man has an appetite for truth (because of curiosity, wanting to judge and fearing deception) still does not explain the why of the desire to know. It can be asked: Why is man curious? Why does he want to judge for himself? Why not stay in Plato's dark cave when all is well and safe? In other words, and with trembling heart, why desire knowledge?

Plato and Aristotle have similar yet different responses to the question.

Plato will explain that this appetite for truth is not merely an appetite like any other (for food, for experiences, etc.). Knowledge is an object of desire like no other because once it is attained, unlike food which turns to waste or experiences which can be forgotten, knowledge remains with man. In The Republic he tells Glaucon that "the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion [where man turns to the truth instead of untruth] is rendered useful and profitable" (VII 518). Knowledge is that immortal object that mortal man desires. Immortality is the "divine element" of knowledge; and man, as that being whose mind is divine, whose desire is spiritual and whose body is earthly, is in perpetual strife or discord as it wishes to attain that quasi-divinity. Pulled into the three corners of the triangulation of mind, spirit and body, the discord can only be made into harmony (dike) by letting reason--that mirror of the divine--rule over the incessant appetites and the tumultuous spirits. Plato's image of the charioteer perfectly describes this difficult task. But it is divine reason that reigns all things in so that man may rise to the Heaven of Ideas where it is then able to complete its desire to be divine.

Aristotle, as we all know, is less idealistic and more realistic. Happiness or eudaimonia is not merely to be achieved in some extraterrestrial elsewhere but can be attained in man's mortal and thus limited life. And, as we read from the Nicomachean Ethics, the highest possible happiness for man is through the no less difficult path of pure contemplation. Philosophy--loving and desiring wisdom and knowledge for no other reason than for that very love and desire themselves--promised the philosopher the highest possible happiness. True, for Aristotle this love could also be taken to mean man's dream to also be nearer to the divine through knowledge; but he parts way with his master by saying that this upward desire for the divine not only makes man closer to the gods but more importantly makes man more and more human. He called this malista antropos or really or true human, that is, a virtuous and excellent--thus happy--man.

Do these--the wish to be divine and the wish to be human--finally answer the question "Why know rather than not know?" To be sure, it sheds some light on the question and gives possible answers or interpretations of this "desire to know."

But such interpretations always fall short--and necessarily so--when it comes to the undeniable problem and enigma of desire and desiring. Why so? Because precisely desire as desire cannot be explained through reasons and explanations because desire is not reason.

Desire shall always be indifferent to reason which, in turn, absurdly desires to know the logic of desire by imposing itself and its reasons on desire; but in desiring to know desire, reason shall always fall short--and again necessarily so--of attaining full understanding of desire. It tries to reach the status of desire but its handicap is that reason can only and always be reason, and can never be desire no matter how much it so desired.

Is what Pascal calls the "logic of the heart" then the solution? Evidently, no. It only doubles the problem by attributing to one unknown another unknown. Desire will never have a logic because it will never be concerned with reasons lest it wish to disqualify itself as desire and thereby commit suicide. The wish to know this very desire which wishes to know: not only impossible but unnecessary.

Kant, much later, will merely call this desire to know as a "fact of reason" (factum rationis). In other words, like Plato the divine and the Master of those who know, the astounding Kant also did not know the answer. He might as well have called it a "fact of desire" as it would not have made any difference.

Like the nature of selfishness, desire only desires what it desires for its self with or without a reason. Philosophers, like all men, will always and necessarily be selfish.


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