Tag Archives: philosophy

Dante and Desire

By Joe Brownsberger, SM ’21. Joe is majoring in Physics & Philosophy.

We live in an age of unprecedented liberty. The sheer number of choices available to us is staggering; we desire things that people in former ages never thought of. Along with these desires comes the power to satisfy many of them. Although this represents progress in many senses, the liberty that we have inherited has also been in large part squandered. We who have been given the ability to do anything have chosen instead to indulge in the pointless, “insipid pleasures” and extravagances that even luxury-loving Hume recognizes as worthless.[1] The Enlightenment, promising “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage,” has instead culminated in a new and more degrading serfdom, a bondage to the god of Entertainment.[2] Like the decadent imperial Rome and the corrupt medieval nobility before us, we have been given the liberty to desire anything and fulfill those desires—and we have desired wrongly.

I argue that for liberty to be justifiable, on the societal level but perhaps to a greater degree in the individual, it must be ordered towards an end, and this end must be the Good (which of course for religious people is synonymous with God). In place of our many conflicting and pointless desires that point every which way, we must strive to wrestle our often-errant will into conformity with the Good so that our desires all point in a unified, positive direction. In this way, the fulfillment of those desires also brings us closer to our goal. Desire simply as an inclination to do something is a fundamentally good thing; it is in fact the way we draw closer to God and become better people. It is only when our desires are bent and misdirected that we find ourselves dissipated and unsatisfied.


No one speaks of this “wrestling of the will” more beautifully or with more insight than Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. In the beginning of the poem, Dante (appearing as a character in his own work) finds himself in a dark wood, having lost the “diritta via,” the straight and right path. And as a result of his faulty inclinations towards pride, lust, and greed (symbolized by three beasts), he is unable to climb the mountain that would bring him to virtue and happiness. Instead, then, Dante turns towards the poet Virgil, who guides him through the realms of the afterlife. Circling down through the rings of Hell and circling up around the mountain of Purgatory, Dante untwists his warped will and gradually rids himself of his vices. At long last, in Canto 27 of Purgatorio, Virgil addresses Dante with the last words he will speak in the Comedy. As Dante is more eloquent than I will ever be, I encourage the reader to meditate on his words and to pay more attention to them than to the rest of this essay.

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,

e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.


Do not any longer expect my words or advice; free, right, and healthy is your will, and you would be foolish not to do as it commands: over yourself I crown and mitre you.

Purg 27.139-142

In touching and beautiful verse, Dante makes clear the true essence of liberty: to be lord over oneself and to will the right. As described above, his desires no longer pull him in unproductive directions, but his desire is simply to do that which will bring him closer to God. Therefore, he is not only good but also happy, walking once again on the diritta via.

Over the next thirty-nine cantos of the Comedy, Dante grows stronger in his new, sanctified identity, gradually gaining the ability to realize the good intentions that he has been given. At last, he is able to gaze straight into the supreme Light, the Good from which all good things derive not only their goodness, but their very being. The final words of the Comedy run thus:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here I lack the force to describe the high fantasy, but already my will and my desire was turned, like a wheel which is evenly moved, by the Love that moves the sun and other stars

Par 33.142-145

Dante here ends his magnum opus with a simile of a rotating wheel: the edges of the wheel move exactly in accordance with every other part of the whole, around the central point that itself does not move at all. In the same way Dante’s desires conform to the greater scheme of the universe, which like the wheel moves around its Unmoved Mover in perfect harmony. Dante takes his place in the order of the cosmos and is truly free.

My humble suggestion is that for us too, true liberty is achieved when our desires conform to the Divine Will, when we take our place in the order of the cosmos. Our obsequious servitude of Entertainment and other vain pursuits puts us at risk—to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine—of finding ourselves “scattered out over multiplicity” instead of self-possessed, ordered by and ordered towards “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

[1] Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2] Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?

To Want to Want: Desiring Differently

By Jason Lee, TD ’22. Jason is majoring in Global Affairs.

Sometimes I’ll look up from lunch and wish I liked math. This is different from wishing I was good at math. As it is, I’m perfectly fine being remarkably average. What I mean is that sometimes I wish math was as beautiful to me as it to the people who love it. Somewhere past the point where numbers become Greek lies the internal, ticking logic of the universe that I imagine is what pushes them to slog through things called combinatorics or “Boolean” whatever.

But while I know I’m missing some sort of splendor behind the polynomial veil, I’m stopped by the unfortunate fact that math bores me. So I kind of want it, but not really. There’s a distance between me, a person who wants to see lovely and evocative things, and a desire for this particular lovely and evocative thing.I almost have the desire, but not quite.

This is odd, but not uncommon. Exercise is another example of this in which we all know that running — or jogging, hopping, or picking things up and putting them down again — in the long run will make us healthy, which we want. But for various reasons we don’t do any of these activities. Eating poorly and staying up late are related examples in that, right now, we want to do both — fast fried food tastes good, and there’s a curious sense of pride and/or solidarity in working until predawn — but we wish we didn’t. Next to all our wantings and not-wantings, there appears to be a second category of desire in which we want to want or, alternatively, we want to not want.

Academics sometimes call this “wanting-to-want” a second-order desire or metadesire. I do not want to do math, but I know there’s an arithmetic wonder for those who count it all out, so in recognition of that, I want to want to do math. Once recognized, metadesires pop up everywhere (see: procrastination — we want to punt the p-set that’s really just the same problem repeated seven times, but we wish we didn’t).

So then, what to do about this, not new, but maybe newly attended to set of wants? We may as well start where we do with our more immediate cravings, which is to say, rank them. We do this almost instinctively with our regular wants. Our desire for learning (or maybe just a diploma) outweighs our desires for things incompatible with the demands of college, such as free time, or a disposable income. Over learning, we value our identities and our self-worth.

In the same way, maybe our want to want to exercise lies above our want to want to listen to country music. That seems to make sense: fitness can be its own reward, whereas country — country can wait. But then, shouldn’t we value finding, or rather, learning beauty in all things above being able to lift unreasonably heavy objects? That’s not exactly a fair comparison, but what I’m trying to ask is, whether we do or don’t, why?

There appears to be a standard or purpose by which we have ordered our desires, even if we did not consciously subscribe to one. There are a thousand and one such standards, whether altruism, God, or I-just-want-to-be-happy, and all offer many ways to prioritize, but also filter, our desires. If this standard, or “The Point” is our own happiness, we pull our great tangle of wants into order based on what drives us to joy. Maybe eating terrific cuisine tops that list, or making gobs and gobs of money, or living by the coast while others are cast aside.

By ranking and pursuing these immediate desires we can take steps towards our Point. At the same time, we also put together a set of metadesires, which by nature are more oriented towards the future. Alongside desires fitted to who we are right now, there exists a class of metadesires that pertain to self-transformation, to who we want to become.

Maybe that sounds a little grandiose. And in a way it is grandiose, ambitious, and plain difficult to accept–not to mention achieve–the project of self-improvement. After all, there’s been more than enough research demonstrating sturdy links between CO2 ppm and meat production, refrigerators, and palm oil to provoke some lifestyle changes with the recognition of “caring about the planet” as a worthy desire in line with our Point. Yet for some reason, that recognition isn’t enough. Even if we only consider those who have the funds to enact such lifestyle changes, my favorite dish is short rib stew, yours is ice cream cake and we both use semi-cheap soaps. Sometimes, our resolve to pursue improvement is simply too weak. Within certain margins of nuance, we don’t want to protect the environment: we want to want to.

It is here that our metadesires of self-improvement become achingly relevant. On some level, our metadesires reveal a lack: of resolve, of foresight, of willpower, of vision, of stamina, or of tenacity in ourselves. There’s a sense in which we want to become ready, or maybe worthy of our Point before we take it on. If our Point is to protect and empower people, we must first want to fight by all means for the planet, to acknowledge the homeless, or even just be academically responsible and start papers prior to their due date. If we ignore the project of self-improvement fueled by these transformative metadesires, then the Point is not only out of our reach, but out of our pursuit. If we don’t value metadesires as part of our Point, if we are always waiting to be prepared for our desires rather than letting our metadesires prepare us, then there’s no reason to seek anything more than what we are already capable of, to desire anything more than what we already know, or to be more than we already are.

But if we do attend to them, our desires for transformation help us not to just pursue “feeling good,” but health, and not just health but wholeness. They guide us beyond I-just-want-to-be-happy to a timeless happiness that may be called satisfaction, or even peace. They push us not just to live well or be compassionate, but to be good, the best we can be. Wholeness, peace, goodness, which can be called righteousness: these are enduring, one might say eternal desires that prepare us for our Point as much as they push us to it.

At the same time, it makes sense to be wary of these types of metadesires. After all, we don’t know where they come from, and sorting the origins of desire like trying to unmix paint. Maybe these projects of self-improvement as I’ve defined them are just the result of social pressure, conditioning, and overactive community instincts. Maybe it is efficient or biologically sound to pursue certain desires, even if, for some reason, we don’t feel the desire itself. Maybe they’re a burrowing side effect of a consumerist culture that is constantly telling us to want things that we don’t currently want. The resulting wariness is paralyzing; if we can never parse the roots of our desires, how do we know we’re not wasting our time, or worse, being made fools of?

It is in this uneasiness that I and other believers turn to faith. As Christians, we believe that there’s a Big Guy™ up there who not only created the world, but has a particular way in which He’d like us to live in it. Not because He’s picky, but because He knows His Point for us will be larger and broader and more fulfilling for us, the people He loves, than any other.

This is not to say that such a life will not be difficult. God knows it will at times seem just as complicated and confusing as all the other Points. In fact, Paul, the author of several books of the Bible, explicitly acknowledges in his letter to the Romans the difficulty of metadesire, self-improvement, and general existence in this way:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-19, NIV).

In response, we’re promised that God will help us along the way. In combination with our own earnest efforts, He will grant us the resolve and the capacity we lack to deny our misleading (which for me means un-Godly but could also be called counterproductive) desires and help us become worthy of the Point that He has set before us.

If this is true, then resolve can be trained and morality practiced. We can try to do it on our own, or with those we trust. It could be that the desires of self-improvement promoted by the Bible are the only way to live a fulfilling life. The exact way we live and the goals we set for ourselves seem to be matters of faith. For those who say, “that’s good for you, but I don’t really need it,” I understand. In fact, I’ll be honest in saying that even if we believe them to be promoted by a holy text, we’re not always sure how our professed metadesires will get us where we need to be.

One simple response to this uncertainty is that if there is a person or method or series of poems that some believe to be inspired and effective in helping them get to where they want to be, it seems odd not to look there. But more importantly, the Christian message is that in our doubt, in our uncertainty, we’ve chosen to believe the word of an unwavering, divine, bigger-than-capitalism God. Rather than rely on what we know–which, as we’ve discussed, is often so, so little–we’ve chosen to humble ourselves in faith. To keep living in that humility is the Point.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.