At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this which is above all sacred in every human being.
It is this which is sacred in us.
And it is this which makes us suffer.
It is also this which gives our lives meaning and value.
Those opening words are Simone Weil’s. I think they are among the truest ever written in philosophy. At the core of every human being is a desire - a hope, longing, expectation, need - for goodness. It is the centre around which our lives are woven. As Weil writes elsewhere: “All human beings are absolutely identical in so far as they can be thought of as consisting of a centre, which is an unquenchable desire for good, surrounded by an accretion of psychical and bodily matter.” I want to reflect on this definition of human nature as desire for the good. I want to consider how it is a source of both suffering and joy, of despair and meaning.
To speak of “the good” is to speak of good things, and of goodness. However before we even begin we encounter a problem. Plato expressed it when in essence he asked, do we desire something because it is good, or is it called good because we desire it? No doubt sometimes the first and sometimes the second is true, and usually it is a mixture of both. Today’s reflection emphasises the first possibility in Plato's question, but the question itself reminds us that we can desire something as good and be mistaken. indeed, as we age we become aquainted with the repeated experience of realising how blind we were about the meaning or value of certain things in life.
I write this reflection as a philosopher and therapist, an important part of whose profession is to help people contend with suffering. I began by suggesting that our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. How is that so? Weil answers that when desire is frustrated then we suffer. Thwarted desire is the essence of suffering. Frustration of desire and the suffering it elicits is often banal, such as when I am in a bad mood over a petty problem, or when a child (or childish adult) throws a tantrum, but suffering can also obviously be profound. When Weil points to the depth that desire has in us - that it is the centre of our being, and that much that we take as our essential self is merely an "accretion" surrounding this core, then she points to how it is that suffering can wound us in the very depths of our being. For this reason I suppose the word “frustrated” is inadequate because it possesses a hint of pettiness for many readers. Weil is using it in a technical manner, but poetically it points in the wrong direction.
Another way of putting things is to say that when the good we desire is lost or violated, then we suffer. This phenomenon shows itself in every distress brought to therapy. Consider grief, depression, and anxiety. Grief is pain over loss, and what is lost is a good thing which I desire - which I need or love - for example my child who has died. Depression is a special form of grief, where we grieve and yet cannot see what is lost (a "frustrated" grief indeed, where the griever recognises neither the nature nor the object of their affliction. Freud’s classic essay on depression gives this away in the title: Mourning and Melancholia). Anxiety is often anticipatory suffering over a future loss or violation. In all these cases suffering happens because there is desire for the good but the good is lost or violated, whether that loss is actual, perceived, or anticipated.
Sometimes the loss of the good is experienced as an absence, as when somebody is no longer there. Sometimes it is experienced as a presence, as when I am assaulted or tyrannised. It seems natural to speak of loss in the first case, in contrast with violation in the second, but violation is perhaps reducible to loss: the violation of a good is (in some way) the loss of that good. For example rape as violation is, among other things, for the victim an experience of loss (in the form of violent denial) of the meaning (or certain dimensions of meaning) of their sexuality, and thereby of themselves as individuals (a fact which is missed when rape is reduced to a 'denial of autonomy'). Speaking generally again, it is sometimes more true to call the loss an actual loss, to speak in more objective terms, and sometimes it to speak of an experience of loss, to emphasise the subjective. In the example of rape, the victim experiences a loss of meaning which, in itself, remains despite the rapist's denial of it and the victim's sense of its loss. The meaning gets lost to experience, but it is still there. Both actual loss and the sense of loss serve to create suffering.
Fundamentally what I have said is that to desire the good is to be vulnerable to suffering. Our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. Happily however, there is more to this picture: our desire for the good is also itself the presence of goodness in our lives. This idea is an old one in philosophy, so to understand it let us go back two and a half thousand years. Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical work written in the form of a dialogue, takes place at a feast in ancient Athens. The guests take turns making speeches in praise of love. When it comes to Socrates he begins by defining love. He says that it is, in essence, desire. He is speaking of the same desire we are speaking of. Socrates then defines desire: it is a form of poverty, for to desire is to lack the object of desire; we do not desire that which we possess, and so we desire the good because we do not possess it. Now I must admit that when I first read the Symposium I thought Socrates wrong on this point, for often people do possess what they desire. I desire my motorcycle, and I possess it. I desire my partner and, in a manner of speaking, I possess her. But on further reflection Socrates was right and I was wrong. Socrates was an ancient Athenian and he attended Athens' yearly festival of tragic theatre. He had, so to speak, read his Greek tragedy. More importantly he had his eyes open to life. Socrates knew that we mortals never fully possess anything. He knew what a difference a day can make, that we can lose anything and in everything, even as we appeared yesterday to possess it. Things are not as fixed as we like to imagine. There is, as Simone Weil put it, “a void” at our core, an emptiness underlying our being. Death is the final reality and proof of this. The human condition is one of want, of ontological, existential poverty. But as Socrates shows, another word for this absence, this void, this want, this desire...is love. Love, with all the depth and resonance which that word has for us.
So the desire at our core is the source of both our suffering and our joy. We love the good, which is to say that we love good things, such as other people, and we love goodness. Love constitutes our ability to make contact with these things, placing us in a relationship with them and enabling us to be nourished by them. So our desire, as love, is itself the presence of goodness in our lives, for it is the presence of such relationships. Furthermore, love in itself is the greatest good we know. It gives meaning and happiness to our own lives and to the lives of those around us, both through the love in us and the love within others for us. Love is itself goodness, and so our desire for the good is, to the degree that the object is genuinely good and the love purified thereby, itself the presence of goodness in us.
Our desire for goodness is the greatest good in our lives. We need to be careful of course not lose ourselves, like those guests at the symposium, to intoxicated paeans to love, which forget its quotidian, difficult nature. It is after all poverty, and poverty is in its reality is not romantic. Love is the source not only of joy but also of suffering. It is the source of depth and meaning, but also of superficiality and despair. Let us not forget Plato’s question at the beginning of this reflection: if we may often consider something good simply because we desire it, and if we can be terribly mistaken about that, then we must take care and learn how to direct our love, if it is not to poison or shipwreck our lives. The question is not how to cultivate love, for love, which is desire, is always in us, imperious as hunger. The question is how to direct love so that our desire for good may be turned toward real goodness, which means also that our love itself becomes good, rather than our love and its object being a source of ill. An example? The mythic hero Narcissus fell in love with his own image and this led to cruelty and death. And so it is with us. Love makes us vulnerable not only because to love deeply is potentially to suffer deeply, but because we can love badly. We can love in bad ways, and we can love bad things - the wrong things. It is a question of the object of love, but this is also of the quality of that love.
Our love may be directed in many ways toward many objects. Love is shaped by its object. When it is directed to a genuine good then it is shaped by that, the love being transformed into a corresponding form of goodness. As poetry, myth, and spiritual traditions have done for years, and as Psychoanalysis now reminds us, we do not always realise what exactly it is that we love when we love something. The work of love is ongoing, it has depth, it has dangers, it requires a critical language which shines a light on how it goes wrong, and it demands a constant effort of attention. In this connection a key form of love as goodness is love when it takes the form of compassion.
Compassion is love expanded by means of analogy: it is the recognition of my own misery in others, that they too are at core a desire for the good. The reality of this urgent need for the good is felt first in myself, but I am able, if I truly look, to recognise it in another. This love that recognises the desire and need for good in another is compassion. This is what we usually mean by love when we assume it is good rather than neutral, as per Plato's question: love as compassion is not good because we desire it, rather we desire it because it is good.
This reflection could go on, exploring different dimensions and avenues of this insight that at our core we are desire for the good, and that this is the source of both suffering and goodness in our lives. I want to finish however with a further remark about compassion, one which is particularly relevant to my therapeutic work. Most people readily accept the importance of compassion and strive to embody it, but there is a problem. Lacan said that the Christian injunction to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” must be ironic, for people hate themselves. And this is true, even if they also love themselves (narcissism, which is simply an extreme version of th egotism in all of us, is often an inflated self-love as a defense against deep self-hate. Emotions, like much in our lives, exist in contrasting pairs and polarities). Genuine love is a healing power of goodness in our lives not only for others but also for ourselves, but only when it is properly directed toward the self. When it is badly directed it is poisonous, as it was for the mythic hero Narcissus, whose name is the source of our word 'narcissism'. There is a difference between somebody who loves themselves justly and compassionately, who loves themselves with the same love that is considered true compassion when directed outwards, compared to the narcissist who loves themselves as special and different (read superior) to others, and who lacks compassion for others or whose compassion is not really compassion but the appearance of it for a self-serving end such as being well-regarded. Narcissistic love for the self creates a divide between self and other, and so it is a bad love even for the self. Truly good love for the self places oneself into the community of others, all of whom have value, in a community of lives that are all sacred as distinct centres of desire for the good. When our desire for the good is purified by deepened attention to genuine objects and forms of goodness, that love becomes purified by its object, and this is a profoundly nourishing form of love that we can turn on others, as much as on ourselves, as compassion. It is what Simone Weil calls "a just and loving gaze." This is wise love, which takes account of our poverty-stricken human condition with all its weakness, foolishness, and corruption, and as wisdom is able to love rather than hate ourselves and others, sometimes despite, and sometimes because of this condition. It is the source of the power of that simple little question which I so often find it important to ask when people show hints of that hate for self which is universal: if your friend were in your situation, and responding as you are, what would you say of them?
Author: Matthew Bishop