DESIRE is one of those important subjects that are seldom discussed under their own names, so that one hardly knows where to go for answers to questions about the nature of desire and its significance for the religious or spiritual life. The term desire is only rarely found in the index or tables of contents of books on religion, even when the term figures prominently in the author's description or interpretation of religion. In addition, there is no widely shared consensus about the meaning of the term, so it is put to a variety of uses. There is no standard inventory of experiences, realities, or relations to which the term refers.
In order to clarify the subject of desire and indicate some representative ways in which desire has been religiously and spiritually interpreted, its scope and boundaries will be discussed through a cross-cultural overview. In this context, the varieties of desire and of the experiences, realities, and terms closely associated with desire—and of other terms antithetical to it, terms of contrast through which some of the particular meanings of desire become fixed—will be examined. The dimensions of desire will thus be reflected upon by charting the regions of human experience to which the term desire refers.
In a discussion of the term desire, three kinds of questions need be considered. First, what is it that is being named? How is desire thought of, imagined, represented to oneself, and located in relation to other phenomena? Second, how does desire enter into human experience? In what circumstances does it become an issue for the religious or spiritual life? Third, how do people deal with desire in their religious or spiritual lives? What are the negative and positive strategies with which religious and spiritual individuals, communities, and traditions have dealt with desire? Where desire has been taken as a threat to the religious life or to spiritual integrity, what strategies have been developed to discipline, train, overcome, transcend, detach from, or eradicate desire? Where desire has been viewed more positively, what strategies have been developed to channel, direct, release, render articulate, or otherwise enlist and incorporate the energies and vitality of desire into the spiritual or religious life? In other words, how have individuals and communities sought to share and pass on what they have learned about desire and how to deal with it?
What is named when speaking of desire? How is it thought about, imagined, represented to oneself, and located in relation to other phenomena—particularly to matters of religious or spiritual importance?
Desire is commonly understood in volitional terms, in which case it is identified with such things as willing, wanting, and wishing, choice and appetite, inspiration and motivation, and even with intention. Desire is also understood in more emotional or affectional rather than volitional terms, in which case it is associated or identified with such things as emotion, feeling, passion, love, eros, (and eroticism), attachment, craving, yearning, greed, and lust. These volitional and affectional vocabularies for interpreting desire are, of course, not incompatible—especially if, as is often the case, the affections are understood as central to or constitutive of the self as willing and loving. Where reason is set over against and valued above either will or emotion, desire will usually be viewed as spiritually problematic.
In discussions of religious ethics, desire will figure more positively in teleological than in deontological ethics. Teleological ethics is likely to involve some consideration of the telos (goal or object) of desire—its satisfaction or fulfillment in happiness, well-being, pleasure, ecstacy, and/or union or communion or some other form of participation in the divine or sacred reality. In deontological ethics, on the other hand, desire will be seen in tension or conflict with the governing moral principles of obligation and duty. Yet here, too, reality goes beyond the terms of analysis, as when through the agency of religious rituals duty is sometimes converted into desire. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, sacred symbols have two semantic poles, one abstract and normative, the other physiological and "orectic"—that is, relating to desire or appetite, willing and feeling. The drama of ritual action, he suggests, may cause an exchange of properties between these semantic poles, condensing their many referents into a single cognitive and affective field, the biological referents ennobled and the normative referents charged with emotional significance. By such an exchange of qualities between semantic poles, what is socially necessary is rendered desirable, and duty becomes desire.
There is at least one striking contrast in the cultural and religious treatment of desire between Oriental and Occidental cultures. In Western cultures desire is generally given a more positive place in the vision of human being and well-being. But that affirmation tends to remain at a fairly abstract level, formulated by theologians. At the more pedestrian level of spiritual guidance and of daily life among ordinary people, desire is hedged about with all sorts of constraints. In both East and West, desire is treated in a highly differentiated fashion, but the pattern of differentiation varies significantly. In Asia desires are viewed in the context of the stages of life and are judged and constrained or released and licensed differently, according to the stage of life in question. In the West, desires are viewed more consistently in relation to their objects rather than to the stages of life, and desires are evaluated and graded according to higher and lower, finer and coarser objects of desire.
Desire figures in human experience in many ways and becomes religiously valid or problematic under a variety of circumstances. To illustrate the spiritual importance and power of desire and the complexity of the issues raised by desire, consider two of the greatest religious texts: the Dao de jing, the principal classic of Daoism, a collection of about the fourth century bce attributed to Laozi, and Augustine's Confessions, a Christian classic written near the end of the fourth century ce. The Dao de jing is divided into two books. Book 1 begins and ends on the subject of desire:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to
observe its [the way's] secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to
observe its [the way's] manifestations.
The way never acts yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.
(Dao de jing, trans. D. C. Lau, Baltimore, 1963, pp. 57, 96)
The ambiguity of desire is recognized, as well as the need to be acquainted with it. But real power and serenity lies in freedom from desire and in the active inactivity that is here identified with the "nameless uncarved block." Desire is presented as a problem rather than a resource for true spirituality.
In contrast, Augustine takes a very different view of desire. Addressing himself to God, he begins the Confessions by proclaiming the greatness of God and the desire to praise Him. "Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." But Augustine goes on to write of other desires that distract him from desire for God—desires for success and adulation, sexual desires, that great complex of desires that he came to identify as belonging to the City of Man in contrast with those of the City of God.
How do people deal with desire in their religious or spiritual lives? For some, desire itself, of whatever sort, is spiritually destructive. The primary—or at any rate initial—aim of their spiritual practice and discipline is to wean themselves from all desire, even the desire for enlightenment, self-transcendence, liberation, salvation, nirvāṇa, or mystical union with God. For others, desire is not itself intrinsically problematic but is seen as an essential and even a central mark of their humanity and of their spirituality. The issue for them is the right direction of desire, the right ordering of the various desires toward their appropriate objects, and a true perception of appropriate rank among possible objects of desire.
The experience of desire is often powerful and demanding. One may experience a single powerful desire as all-consuming and overriding all others. Or one may experience conflicting desires and find ourselves wrestling with their competing claims. Even if one has resolved the issues raised by a particular desire or set of desires, one may well find that resolution challenged and upset by the appearance of yet new desires, and at some point in this process one's response may well be to seek a path away from all desire—a way of apathy, disinterestedness.
Desire invokes, if it does not actually generate, tension and contrast—between the present and the future, the actual and the possible, the real and the ideal—and tends to nourish or express restless dissatisfaction with the former in each of these pairs and to assign higher value to the latter. And yet the disquieting role of desire can be seen as undermining complacency, mobilizing creative energies, and generating new achievements.
A representative range of religious movements and texts will be selectively analyzed to illuminate the issues raised by the religious significance of desire. This examination will be a topical study rather than a chronological survey of historical records. For this reason some of the early religious movements are passed over entirely, and modern movements, texts, and developments have generally not been considered.
In India various sentiments have been recorded to define desire. At both the intellectual-scholarly and the popular levels, the element of desire has been discussed and analyzed.
Among the ancient sacred texts that deal with desire, the Bhagavadgītā (the most revered of Hindu texts, composed between the fifth and second centuries bce) has been generally considered the most important one. In this tradition kāma (Skt., "desire") is one of the four basic aims or drives (puruṣārtha s) that need to be either satisfied, redirected, or transcended in life. The four basic aims are dharma (in its narrower meaning of social duty), artha (enjoyment of material things), kāma (pleasurable experiences generally, but often, as in the context of the Gītā, the satisfaction of sensual desire), and mokṣa (release, liberation). They are to be realized, transformed, or transcended in such a way as to realize one's personal obligation (svadharma ) in accordance with one's social station and stage of life. Thus the exact nature of one's response to desire depends upon one's place in the class system (varna ) and one's advancement along the path marked by the four basic stages (āśrama s) of life—student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciant.
The appropriate measure for the enjoyment or the control of desire and its objects and related passions is also seen in Hinduism in terms of the three guṇa s (energy fields, or strands), which differently combine to form all things in nature (prakṛti ). In ascending order of spiritual health, these three guṇa s are tamas, rajas, and sattva. A life in which ignorance, insensibility, and lethargy predominate is tamas (dullness), one in which emotion and subjectivity predominate is rajas (turbulence), and one in which intelligence and objectivity predominate is sattva (dynamic equilibrium).
Fulfillment of one's own dharma (svadharma ), again, involves some combination of three types of discipline (yoga ), each of them requiring the sublimation and transcendence of desires, passions, and emotions together with an intensification of (1) action without attachment in karmayoga, the yoga of work and action, (2) loving devotion to a personal deity in bhaktiyoga, and (3) knowledge and wisdom in the most demanding path of jñānayoga. The aim is to rise above both tamas and rajas toward the equilibrium and detachment of sattva, knowing neither attraction nor repulsion, neither pleasure nor pain, having passed from both the absence and the turbulence of desire to the renunciation of all desires and aversions into a condition of equilibrium or serenity beyond desire.
In the Gītā, desire, anger, and greed are described as "the threefold gate of Hell that leads to the ruin of the soul" (16.21). Arjuna, the protagonist, learns that he must move among the objects of sense "with the senses under control and … free from desire and aversion" (2.62) if he would attain "serenity of mind" and that the same is required if he would attain intelligence, concentration, peace, or happiness. "He attains peace into whom all desires flow as waters into the sea, which, though even being filled, is ever motionless" (2.70). Yet it is only particular desires that are to be abandoned, for action without attachment involves "desiring [only] to maintain the order of the world" through one's action (2.71), and Kṛṣṇa, the god, declares: "I am the strength of the strong, which is free from desire and passion," but also "I am the desire in all beings, which is not incompatible with dharma" (7.11).
The Gītā is the most important sacred text in a tradition in which desires are ultimately to be overcome in detachment. In the Vedas and the Upaniṣads, desire is given a prominent place in the description of human nature, but then precisely for that reason it is ultimately desire that must be uprooted in order to achieve liberation from bondage to the wheel of existence. Nonetheless, in that same tradition, desires appropriate to the stages of life on the way to liberation are affirmed and even celebrated with imaginative exuberance. Kāma (desire, most especially erotic and sensual desire, delight, and pleasure) is often assigned a very positive role in the spiritual life and in the religious vision of reality. At one level of this tradition is the Kāma Sūtra, a manual for the enrichment of erotic and sexual pleasure appropriate to the householder stage of life.
At a deeper and broader level of this tradition there is the rich and complex Hindu mythology in which the place of desire in the life of the gods is portrayed. Wendy O'Flaherty, in Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva (London, 1973), has shown, for example, how in the mythology of Śiva, desire and asceticism, chastity and sexuality, quiescence and energy, are variously related and yet in a fashion that affirms even where it does not clarify a profound inner connection between asceticism and eroticism and the power inherent in the transformation of one into the other. The tension is exhibited in part through the conflict between Śiva and Kāma—Śiva, the eternal brahmacārin (student), the god whose essence is chastity, and Kāma, the god of desire. But the conflict is also evident within Śiva himself, for he sometimes appears in the ambiguous figure of an erotic ascetic, both yogin and lover, (even a yogin because he is a lover) and is sometimes represented in images with an erect phallus, the ithyphallic yogin. While in Hindu mythology asceticism and eroticism revolve about each other in cycles of alternating ascendancy, chastity building into desire and the fulfillment of desire leading to chastity, the balance of these energies is found ideally through the control and transformation of desire.
Tantrism, a complex of teachings and practices that takes both Hindu and Buddhist forms, develops some of these last themes in a radical direction. Tantric teaching envisages the world as a field of energy generated through the sexual union of masculine and feminine aspects of sacred energy, śakti. The mobilization of kāma, desire, plays an important part in Tantric practice designed to participate in the restoration of the universe to its original unity with its sacred source. That practice involves the sublimation rather than the conquest or destruction of desire. It includes the ritually controlled performance of sexual union, but without consummation, redirecting the energy spiritually upward rather than physically outward. In emulation of the sacred activity of world-generation, erotic desire and play is thus ritually elevated into a vehicle of meditative discipline and devotion (bhakti )—and a means of sharing in the plenitude of sacred power by which the world is sustained.
The Dhammapada, an early Theravāda Buddhist collection of teachings about the moral life and the path to spiritual perfection, includes much on the subject of desire. Desire is a principal manifestation of the selfish craving, grasping, or blind demandingness (Pali, taṇhā ) that, according to the four noble truths of Buddhism, is the cause of unhappiness, pain, and sorrow (duḥkha ), and that can only be destroyed by following the eightfold path toward the freedom and joy of nirvāṇa. The 423 aphorisms of the Dhammapada offer guidance for those who would follow that eightfold path. Humanity is portrayed as besieged by dangerous and destructive desires on every side. "When the thirty-six streams of desire that run towards pleasures are strong, their powerful waves carry away that man without vision whose imaginings are lustful desires" (339). "The creeper of craving grows everywhere," and one must "cut off its roots by the power of wisdom" (340). Only if you "cut down the forest of desires" and its undergrowth, and not only a particular tree of desire, will you "be free on the path of freedom" (283). Beyond that, if the very "roots of craving are not wholly uprooted" (338) the tree and forest of desires will flourish again. Desire is specifically associated with pleasure, passion, lust, sensuousness, and craving (212–216), and all of these are portrayed as generating sorrow, fear, hatred, bondage, and disharmony. On the other hand, the surrender of all desires leads to the joy, wisdom, and freedom of nirvāṇa. "The loss of desires conquers all sorrows" (354). "When desires go, joy comes: The follower of Buddha finds this truth" (187). The true brahman, "leaving behind the desires of the world" (415), "has nothing and desires nothing" (421). "He who has no craving desires, either for this world or for another world, who free from desires is in infinite freedom—him I call a brahman" (410).
In Zen Buddhism, a Japanese religious movement of Chinese origin that emphasizes the direct experience of enlightenment, desire is treated in a somewhat different fashion. A Mahāyāna Buddhist text, popular in the Zen school, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, extresses compactly the aim of dhyāna (Jpn., zen, "meditation, trance"): "The goal of tranquilization is to be reached not by suppressing all mind activity but by getting rid of discriminations and attachments." As discrimination dissolves and distinctions—between self and other, between this and that, even between saṃsāra and nirvana —are experienced as illusory, desire and attachment fall away as well, and delusion is displaced by enlightenment (Jpn., satori ).
Zen Buddhism in Japan is most powerfully represented by the Rinzai and Sōtō sects, whose principal discipline is zazen, sitting meditation. The Rinzai practice is to concentrate meditation on a kōan, a riddle designed to break the grip of the discriminating rational mind, opening the way for kenshō, the experience of seeing into one's essential Buddha nature and realizing one's unity with all that is. In Sōtō practice the adherent moves through the unity of body and mind in sitting, to concentrate on the sitting itself, shikantaza, "just sitting"—not sitting in order to accomplish some objective but just sitting, letting the activity of the "monkey mind" come and go as it will, letting come what may and letting it go, accepting what comes but not desiring and not holding on, simply letting the mind be emptied of all discriminations and attachments, and in that simplicity of presence actualizing one's undefiled Buddha nature and opening the way to satori, enlightenment. In all of this there is no place for desire—except of course, paradoxically, for the desire to break through one's own illusory view of reality and experience the true reality of Buddha nature. That desire, too, is dissolved rather than conquered in the sustained discipline of Zen—a way of just being in accord with the Way, letting go of any desire that the "thatness" (tathatā, "suchness") of things be otherwise. The practice of meditation then becomes a model for activity in everyday life, with everything to be done just for what it is, just doing, just being, and not aiming at some desired end.
Daoism is an important Chinese movement whose influence extended beyond the sectarian confines of the Daoist church to the arts, literature, and Chinese philosophy in general. Its influence can also be discerned in the formation of the Chinese Chan school (known in Japan as Zen) of Mahāyāna Buddhism. As is evident from the passages from the Dao de jing already cited, Daoism recommends freedom from desire as essential to the Way (the Dao) and its power or virtue (de ). But it proposes to achieve that freedom, not by disciplined control of desire or even of the mind, nor quite by rising above desire, but rather by going beneath it, by following the wisdom of the valley, of water, in which is to be found the power of the Way. "The highest virtue is like the valley" (41). "Highest good is like water. Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the Way" (8). Nature rather than empire provides the models. "The river and the sea" are powerful, and their power endures, because "they excel in taking the lower position" (66). Even the empire will be at peace if the ruler will but say with the sage, "I am free from desire, and the people of themselves become simple like the uncarved block" (57). Abandon desires, simply let them drop. Seek not to control them or the world, but find spiritual health—and, not incidentally, survival—in a life of simplicity, humility, and harmony with nature, the flow of which is only disturbed by desires. In wuwei, the action that is no action, lies the power of the Way. "The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone" (37). Do not try to establish harmony, as though it depended upon you, but let go and let harmony reign, as it will do of its own accord. Such is the perspective of Daoism on desire.
Turning now from religions of Eastern origin to religions of Middle Eastern and Western origin, it is necessary to again be very selective, because there is no hope of even surveying the relevant literature on desire or of describing the many strategies for addressing desires. The principal sources that provide the themes upon which variations have been played are to be found in ancient Israel and in ancient Greece, in the Bible and in Hellenistic cultures. The variations are themselves substantial, although for the most part they share a generally more positive assessment of desire as an ingredient in human nature and as contributing to spiritual fulfillment than is characteristics of the religious movements already examined.
Among the traditions in the West, Stoicism provides a unique perspective. The Enchiridion of Epictetus, a Hellenistic philosopher who taught in Rome in the late first century and early second century ce, is the most influential formulation of basic Stoic teachings. Epictetus begins by distinguishing things within one's power from things beyond one's power. Desire is among the former things, and in a world where there is much that is beyond one's power, one can achieve spiritual serenity and freedom only to the extent that one disregards things beyond one's control and focuses on those things one can control. The basis of such a life is the perception that there is a universal logos (reason) and nomos (law) at work in all that happens and that if one keeps one's mind in harmony with that universal nature, responding to events according to reason and not emotion, then one's external circumstances will be of little consequence. One can live in simplicity, with moderate desires and expectations, not demanding that events happen as one wishes, but wishing them to happen as they do happen. Stoicism is a religious philosophy of lowered expectations and reflective responsibility in the station to which one is assigned by God.
The Old Testament contains many observations about various desires, ranging from the use of erotic love and desire and pleasure as metaphors for God's relationship to Israel to expressions of God's frustrated desire and longing for a covenant faithfulness on the part of the people of Israel and expressions of comparable desire on their part for intimacy with God, as well as injunctions to detach from or to discipline various desires in accordance with God's commandments and laws. What the Bible has to say directly about desire may fairly be summed up in three passages: the Lord's declaration through the prophet Hosea, "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings" (Hos. 6:60); the exclamation, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (Ps. 42:2); and the saying of Jesus, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt. 6:21).
Augustine (354–430 ce) gives the most powerful classical formulation of the convergence of Hellenistic and biblical traditions. It is from Augustine that has come the most influential expression of Western religious thought about desire and also the most important expression of what has proved for many to be most problematic about the orientation toward desire. There is in Augustine something of the whole range of Christian attitudes toward desire.
Augustine affirms the basic biblical conviction that everything that is has its origin in God and is essentially good and that by the grace of God the world is being restored from a fallen condition to its proper destiny in God. The appropriate human role in that process is to conform the will to God in a covenant of faith and obedience to God's laws, or, to put the same matter differently, to conform the heart to God in love to God and neighbor. In either case the critical human response is a matter of will or of love more than it is of reason or of knowledge, and desire is central to Augustine's understanding of both will and love—or, more precisely, of willing and loving as different terms for the same activity. So, in the City of God, Augustine says: "The right will is … well-directed love, and the wrong will is ill-directed love. Love, then, yearning to have what is loved, is desire; and having and enjoying it, is joy; feeling what is opposed to it, is fear; and feeling what is opposed to it, when it has befallen it, is sadness" (14.7). In the Confessions, Augustine had said that "the mind can experience four kinds of emotion—desire, joy, fear, and sorrow" (10.14). It is these same four emotions that he here presents as forms of love, with the critical and spiritually constructive role assigned to the affirmative affections of desire and joy.
The way in which Augustine appropriates Hellenistic and especially Platonic ideas into his formulation of Christian thought is illustrated by his also presenting the four classical Greek virtues as forms of love:
Temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it. (Morals of the Catholic Church, chap. 15)
The passage is worth quoting at length in this context, for the second formulation shows clearly that the first formulation is also about four forms of that true virtue that for Augustine is not just any love or all love but specifically the love of God. It is also clear that these forms of love are all manifestations of desire, that is, of that phase in the life of the virtuous lover marked more by yearning for what is loved than by the joy of actually or fully having and enjoying it.
Indeed, for Augustine all of human life is moved by desires. He takes it for granted that "we all certainly desire to live happily" and that without desire people do nothing. The problem is not to uproot or transcend desire, which is an essential mark of humanity and of belonging to God. It is right rather to direct desires toward their appropriate objects and to order all objects of desire in accordance with their true relation to God, the summum bonum, the source and center of all value and beauty, in whom alone restless human hearts will find the satisfaction of all their deepest desires. It is for Augustine the dynamic of desires that draws the heart toward God, though only an infusion of divine grace is sufficient to turn desire from all lesser goods toward God. Augustine makes a major distinction between desires directed upward, which he calls caritas, or love, and those directed downward, which he calls cupiditas, or lust. The one tends toward God, the other toward worldly goods. An even sharper contrast is invoked as he distinguishes between the City of God and the City of Man, the heavenly and earthly cities into which all humanity is divided, the one formed by the desire or "love of God, even to the contempt of self," the other by the "love of self, to the contempt of God" (City of God, 14.28). An otherwise Platonic contrast between lower and higher desires and their corresponding hierarchy of objects cumulating in God is thus transformed into a more historical contrast culminating in heaven and hell—a contrast and contest between those moved to seek God and respond to God's grace and those moved to seek self and the world.
Three kinds of objections have been raised against Augustine's views related to desire. Mention of them can serve as a shorthand way of indicating some alternatives to Augustine among Christians that cannot be surveyed here. One objection is that even if Augustine is right that all of human life is moved by desires, he is wrong in identifying the love of God with desire, and that he is led into that error by adopting the Platonic idea of love as eros, an aspiring love moved by the beauty of its object and the desire to possess and enjoy that object. Anders Nygren, a Lutheran theologian, has been most forceful in claiming that "agape, Christian love … has nothing to do with desire and longing" (Agape and Eros, London, 1932–1939), because it is a love which bestows value rather than being attracted by it. M. C. D'Arcy in The Mind and Heart of Love (New York, 1947) and Daniel D. Williams in The Spirit and the Forms of Love (New York, 1968) are among those who have challenged Nygren's diametrical opposition between eros and agape.
A second objection has been that Augustine, and with him Thomas Aquinas and much of Christian orthodoxy, has been led by Greek ideas about the impassibility of God—the idea, for example, that God's perfection includes his being unchanging and self-sufficient—into either denying or distorting the biblical view that God, too, is moved by desire, because desire is the mark of some need, some lack, which would be remedied or satisfied by what is desired. The issue is whether a God who is understood to love and act with a purpose in the world can without contradiction be construed as unchanging, impassible, unmoved by desires such as those that are often attributed to God in the Bible and in the piety of both Jews and Christians.
A third objection has been against Augustine's repudiation of sexual desire and his influence on the long history of the Roman Catholic Church's requirement of celibacy for the priesthood and its teaching that sexual pleasure and even the expression of love are at best only secondary ends of sexual intercourse, the primary end of which is said to be conception.
Medieval and Renaissance Christianity
The pivotal role of Augustine is illustrated by the fact that the other three most important theologians of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Martin Luther (1483–1546), and John Calvin (1509–1564), are all essentially Augustinian and in most respects do not depart from Augustine's views on desire. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, assigns more importance to the intellect and reason in directing the will than does Augustine and gives a more Aristotelian turn to the ranking and the formation of intellectual and moral virtues in the governance of appetites, passions, and desires by reason. The classical Greek virtues are not presented by him as forms of love but are rather supplemented by the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, through which God's grace makes possible and completes the natural desire of all intelligent creatures for the "vision of God."
On the subject of desire, Luther departs from Augustine principally in connection with his insistence upon the universal priesthood of all believers, the dignity of all callings and not only of the priesthood, and hence the abandonment of celibacy as essential to the priesthood. He also exhibits a certain lustiness of character and a more affirmative attitude toward the expression of sexual desire within the context of married love.
John Calvin departs from Augustine primarily by developing a distinctively political strategy in both church and state for the encouragement and the enforcement of sober, righteous, and godly lives turned from ungodliness and worldly lust. He was at war against what he called "irregular desires" or "inordinate desires of the flesh" (The Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.3.2). Such desires are considered sinful "not as they are natural, but because they are inordinate" and are contrasted with "those desires which God implanted so deeply" in human nature "that they cannot be eradicated from it without destroying humanity itself." Desires are to be drawn away from the world and toward God. "Whatever is abstracted from the corrupt love of this life should be added to the desire for a better" one in full communion with God (3.2.4). But Calvin rejected too great an austerity as well as a stoic divestment of all affections, arguing that God's gifts are given for human pleasure and delight as well as for human necessity—though people are to use them as though they used them not, according to the requirements of their calling.
Barukh Spinoza (1632–1677), a freethinking but "God-intoxicated" philosopher (as some have called him), developed a religious philosophy akin to Stoicism in its determination to see things from a universal and rational perspective. But he assigns to desire a much more crucial and positive role in human experience than does Epictetus. In his Ethics he examines the conditions under which desire can spring from reason, from the knowledge and love of God. In his view, there are but three primary emotions—joy, sorrow, and desire. Of these three, to which all other emotions are related, it is the two affirmative affections of desire and joy that are most important, and of these "desire is the very nature or essence of a person" (3.57). It is the intellectual love of God that gives the mind power over its emotions, and the Ethics is an elaborate analysis of how this process culminates in and flows from a condition of blessedness.
Monasticism has been an important strategy for spiritual discipline and the control of desires in most religious traditions. For Buddhism it is the saṃgha, the community of monks. For Christians there have been a variety of monastic orders, many of them following variations on the rule drawn up by Benedict of Nursia (480–543), with many desires renounced by the three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The Benedictine rule requires manual labor in part to control desires by diverting energy and employs the image of the "ladder of humility" for the disciplinary steps by which "desires of the flesh" are cut away and displaced by the love of God and a "second nature" that delights in virtue. The Little Flowers of Francis of Assisi (thirteenth century), a collection of legends and traditions about the saint, reflects a different pattern of monastic discipline, more severe in its insistence upon poverty and freedom from all compromise with the world, but it also offers a more joyful asceticism, sending monks out of the cloister to delight in the created world and its beauty and to celebrate the realized desire for ecstatic union with Christ.
For the mystics, desire is generally equated with search for the transcendent. The testimony of Francis of Assisi has much in common with religious mysticism around the world, in which the experience as well as the language of desire and joy, of ecstasy and delight, play an important role. For the mystic, the spiritual desires cultivated and realized are of far greater significance than all the abandoned worldly desires. In his Sayings of Light and Love, John of the Cross (1542–1591) advises: "If you desire that devotion be born in your spirit and that the love of God and the desire for divine things increase, cleanse your soul of every desire and attachment and ambition in suchwise that you have no concern about anything." In The Spiritual Canticle he notes that "the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates," and that "God does not place His grace and love in the soul except according to its desire and love." And in The Living Flame of Love he declares to God:
What you desire me to ask for, I ask for; and what you do not desire, I do not desire, nor can I, nor does it even enter my mind to desire it.… Tear then the thin veil of this life and do not let old age cut it naturally, that from now on I may love you with the plenitude and fullness my soul desires forever and ever.
Similiarly, the Ṣūfīs considered spiritual union with the transcendent beloved as the pivotal aspect of all their desires and endeavors. All else in existence was generally regarded as superfluous. The urgent quest for the almightly is thus reflected in the prayers of Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801):
O God, my whole occupation and all my desire in this world, of all worldly things, is to remember Thee, and in the world to come, is to meet Thee. This is on my side, as I have stated; now do Thou whatsoever Thou wilt. O God, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for thy own sake, grudge me not Thy everlasting beauty. (quoted in Arberry, p. 51)
As the prayer indicates, for Rābiʿah all aspects in life were subservient to her intense desire for spiritual elevation and union with God.
Arberry, A. J. Muslim Saints and Mystics. London, 1964.
Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros. 2 vols. London, 1932–1939.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Ascetism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva. London, 1973.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1967.
Roland A. Delattre (1987)
The term craving is generally delined as a state of desire, longing, or urge for a drug that is responsible for ongoing drug-use behavior in drug-dependent individuals. Craving is also viewed by many drug-abuse researchers and clinicians as the main cause of relapse among drug users attempting to remain abstinent. During periods of abstinence, drug-dependent individuals often complain of intense craving for their drug. Several systems for diagnosing drug abuse include persistent desire or craving for a drug as a major symptom of drug-dependence disorders.
The belief that an addict's inability to control drug use is caused by craving and irresistible desire was a prominent feature of descriptions of addictive disorders provided by many nineteenth-century writers. Craving continued to be important in many models of addiction developed in the twentieth century. The use of craving as a key mechanism in theories of addiction peaked in the 1950s, supported largely by E. M. Jellinek's writings on the causes of alcoholism.
Jellinek contended that sober alcoholics who consumed a small amount of alcohol would experience overwhelming craving that would compel them to continue drinking. The proposal that craving and loss of control over drinking were equivalent concepts was adopted by many clinicians and addiction researchers. Equally popular was the position, also supported by Jellinek, that craving was a direct sign of drug withdrawal. Withdrawal-based craving was often described as physical craving, distinguishing it from craving that led to relapse during long periods of abstinence after withdrawal had subsided. Craving that occurred after an addict no longer was experiencing withdrawal was typically viewed as the result of psychological factors. The craving concept was sufficiently controversial that a committee of alcoholism experts brought together by the World Health Organization in 1954 (WHO Expert Committees on Mental Health and on Alcohol, 1955) recommended that the term craving not be used to describe various aspects of drinking behavior seen in alcoholics.
The use of craving as a key process in theories of addiction decreased during the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of several factors. During this period, many studies showed that alcoholics did not necessarily engage in loss of control drinking when they drank small doses of alcohol. The failure to confirm Jellinek's conceptualization of alcoholic drinking cast doubt on the idea that craving was synonymous with loss of control over drug intake. Furthermore, withdrawal models of craving could not account for the common observation that many addicts experienced craving and relapsed long after their withdrawal had disappeared. Finally, addiction research was increasingly dominated by behavioral approaches that focused on the influence of environmental variables in the control of drug taking and avoided the use of subjective concepts, such as craving, to explain addictive behavior.
Even though many researchers questioned the value of using craving to explain addictive behavior, it persisted as an important clinical issue, as many addicts complained that craving was a major barrier to their attempts to stop using drugs. Craving continued to be cited as a major symptom of drug dependence in formal diagnostic systems of behavioral disorders, and the notion that craving was responsible for compulsive drug use remained at the core of several popular conceptualizations of drug addiction. Scientific interest on the role of craving in addictive disorders reemerged in the middle 1970s as a result of two developments. First, behavioral theories of addiction were increasingly influenced by social-cognitive models of behavior that were more sympathetic to the possibility that hypothetical entities such as craving might be useful in explaining addictive processes. Second, animal research on the contribution of learning processes to drug tolerance and drug withdrawal provided support for the hypothesis that learned withdrawal effects might produce craving and relapse in abstinent addicts.
THEORIES OF CRAVING
Although there is considerable disagreement across current theories regarding the processes that supposedly control craving, nearly all models describe craving as, fundamentally, a subjective state and agree on the impact of craving on drug use. With few exceptions, modern theories of craving assume that craving is a necessary, but probably not sufficient, condition for drug taking among addicts. These theories suppose that addicts are driven to use drugs because of their craving, and craving is generally described as the principal cause of relapse in addicts trying to remain abstinent. Moreover, all the comprehensive models of craving invoke some sort of learning or cognitive process in their descriptions of the mechanisms controlling craving, and these models make little distinction between physical and psychological forms of drug craving. It is important to note that, at the present time, research on craving is not sufficiently advanced to fully evaluate the validity of any of the major models of craving.
Many modern theories associate craving with drug withdrawal and suggest that craving may be merely a part of drug withdrawal. For example, the diagnostic system published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987 listed craving as one of the symptoms of withdrawal for nicotine and opiates. Other approaches assume that cravings are distinct from withdrawal, but represent an addict's anticipation of, and desire for, relief from withdrawal. To explain the presence of craving following long periods of abstinence, it has been posited that learning processes are responsible for the maintenance of withdrawal effects. For example, Wikler's conditioning model of drug withdrawal (see Wikler' Spharmacologic The-Ory) hypothesizes that situations reliably paired with episodes of drug withdrawal become conditioned stimuli that can produce conditioned withdrawal responses. An addict who has been abstinent for an extended period may reexperience withdrawal if faced with these conditioned stimuli. This learned-withdrawal reaction will trigger drug craving, that, in turn, may lead to relapse. A similar theory is based on the suggestion that drug-tolerance processes can become conditioned to environmental stimuli. Some have hypothesized that conditioned drug-tolerance effects will produce withdrawal-like reactions that, as in Wikler's theory, should promote craving and relapse to drug use (Poulos, Hinson, & Siegel, 1981).
Another perspective on craving is that it is strongly associated with the positively reinforcing, or stimulating, effects of drugs. For example, Marlatt (1985) has suggested that craving is a subjective state produced by the expectation that use of a drug will produce euphoria, excitation, or stimulation. Similarly, Wise (1988) proposed that craving represents memories for the pleasurable or positively reinforcing effects of drugs. There are also multiprocess models, in which expectancies of positive reinforcement and anticipation of withdrawal relief, as well as other factors, including mood states and access to drugs, generate craving (Baker, Morse, & Sherman, 1987; Gawin, 1990).
In contrast to models that contend that craving is responsible for all addictive drug use, a recent cognitive theory suggests that drug use may operate independently of craving (Tiffany, 1990). According to this theory, as a result of a long history of repeated practice, most of an addict's drug-use behavior becomes automatic. That is, drug use may be easily triggered by certain cues, difficult to stop once triggered, and carried out effortlessly with little awareness. Addicts attempting to withdraw from drug use will experience craving as they try to stop these automatized actions from going through to completion.
MEASURES OF CRAVING
Craving is generally measured through three types of behaviors—self-reports of craving, drug-use behavior, and physiological responding. In the most frequently used measure, self-report, addicts are simply asked to rate or describe their level of craving for a drug. Recently, questionnaires have been developed that ask addicts to rate a variety of questions related to craving. These questionnaires produce results that are considerably more reliable than a single rating of craving and tend to show that an addict's description of craving may have multiple dimensions. Measures of drug-use behavior have also been used to assess drug craving. This is entirely consistent with the common assumption that craving is responsible for drug use in addicts. Finally, as several theories posit that craving should be represented by particular patterns of physiological changes, physiological measures, primarily those controlled by the autonomic nervous system, have been included in several studies as an index of craving. These measures have included changes in heart rate, sweat gland activity, and salivation. In general, withdrawal-based theories predict that the physiology of craving should look like the physiology of drug withdrawal. In contrast, models that emphasize positive reinforcement in the production of craving would associate drug desire with physiology characteristic of the excitatory effects of drugs.
RESEARCH ON CRAVING
Two kinds of studies have been used to investigate drug craving. The first, naturalistic studies, examine changes in addicts' descriptions of craving as they are attempting to stop using drugs. These studies generally have shown that cravings are especially strong in the first several weeks of abstinence, but decline over time as addicts stay off drugs. They also reveal that craving rarely remains at a constant level throughout the day, but grows stronger or weaker depending on the situations the addict encounters. These situations tend to be strongly associated with previous use of drugs, such as meeting drug-using friends or going to locations where the addict used drugs in the past.
Laboratory studies attempt to manipulate craving by presenting addicts with stimuli or cues that have been associated with their previous drug use. For example, a heroin addict may watch a videotape of someone injecting heroin or smokers may be asked to imagine a situation in which they would want to smoke. These cue-reactivity studies allow the measurement of self-reports of craving, drug-use behavior, and physiological reactions under controlled conditions. Results from these studies indicate that abstinence from drugs, drug-related stimuli, and negative moods can influence craving measures.
Many of the results of naturalistic and laboratory studies have presented a challenge to the dominant assumption that craving is directly responsible for drug use in addicts (Kassel & Shiffman, 1902; Tiffany, 1990). For example, across many cue-reactivity studies, there is not a very strong correlation between addict's reported levels of craving and their level of drug consumption in the laboratory. Correlations between self-reported craving and physiological reactions also tend to be weak. Other studies reveal that, although addicts frequently complain that cravings are a major difficulty they face as they try to stay off their drugs, few addicts who relapse say that they experienced craving just before their relapse episode. These findings show that the exact function of craving in drug dependence remains a controversial issue.
Despite these negative indications, millions of dollars are spent each year to develop pharmacological agents that might be capable of blocking, preventing, or reducing craving for various drugs.
(See also: Addiction: Concepts and Definitions ; Causes Drug Abuse: Learning ; Research: Conditioned Drug Effects ; Research, Animal Model: Conditioned Drug Effects )
American Psychiatric Association. (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-3rd ed.-rev. Washington, DC: Author.
Baker, T. B., Morse, E., & Sherman, J. E. (1987). The motivation to use drugs: A psychobiological analysis of urges. In P. C. Rivers (Ed.), The Nebraska symposium on motivation: Alcohol use and abuse (pp. 257-323). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Jellinek, E. M. (1955). The "craving" for alcohol. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 16, 35-38.
Kassel, J.D., & Shiffman, S. (1992). What can hunger teach us about drug craving? A comparative analysis of the two constructs. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 14, 141-167.
Marlatt, G. A. (1985). Cognitive factors in the relapse process. In G. A. Marlatt & J. R. Gordon (Eds.). Relapse prevention (pp. 128-200). New York: Guilford Press.
Poulous, C. W., Hinson, R., & Siegel., S. (1981). The role of Pavlovian processes in drug tolerance and dependence: Implications for treatment. Addictive Behaviors, 6, 205-211.
Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: Role of automatic and nonautomatic behavior. Psychological Review, 97, 147-168.
Wikler, A. (1948). Recent progress on neurophysiological basis of morphine addiction. American Journal of Psychiatry, 105, 329-338.
Wise, R. A. (1988). The neurobiology of craving: Implications for understanding and treatment of addiction. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97, 118-132.
World Health Organization Expert Committees On Mental Health And Alcohol. (1955). Craving for alcohol: Formulation of the Joint Expert Committees on Mental Health and Alcohol. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 16, 63-64.
Stephen T. Tiffany
In contemporary Western discourse, the complex and culture-bound term desire is sometimes used as an approximate equivalent for Buddhist concepts that denote different aspects of appetition, in preference to older, and more common, renderings of Asian concepts such as the passions, lust, sensual pleasure, and craving. Terms in the latter family of words have been preferred perhaps because of their association with Western notions of asceticism and abstinence.
In religious traditions with ascetic leanings the disappointments of love are seen as signs that attachment is inherently painful. But even the trite aphorism that "love always brings pain" may be seen as only a vague reference to the set of complex problems one faces when considering the psychological and philosophical relationship between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, longing and disappointment, attachment and love soured or lost.
Attempts to understand and control the longing that leads to disappointment and pain form an important dimension of ascetic and philosophical ideals in the West among the Stoics and their Christian heirs, and in several strands of Indian religious thought. Among these strands, the principle of the primacy of desire takes a particularly important place among Buddhist traditions, where it assumes the position of a canonical creed: Desire is the root of rebirth and suffering. In its strongest form the doctrine may state that "the world is lead by thirst (tanhā), the world is dragged around by thirst; everything is under the power of this single factor, thirst" (Suttanipāta 1. 7. 3 Tanṇhāsutta, vol. 1, p. 39).
The "burden" of the skandhas (aggregates) is defined as craving, an unquenchable "thirst that leads to repeated birth, is tied to delight and passion, desires now this now that. This is the thirst of sense desire, the thirst for existence, the thirst for cessation" (Suttanipāta, 3. 1. 3 Bhārasutta, vol. 1, p. 26).
The juxtaposition of formulas of this kind suggests that the central concept is not "desire" in its normal, restricted sense, but "desire" in the broad sense of the drive or impulse that makes us want to achieve or possess, including the drive to live on and the wish to stop the pain of living. Although the dominant theme in Buddhist traditions has been desire as sense desire, it is often presented in complementary contraposition to displeasure (hatred, animosity, disgust), and indifferent ignorance (cognitive stupor or blindness). These three modes of thinking, feeling, and acting may be summarized in the three terms: desire, disgust, and unawareness—a triad known as the "three poisons" or the fundamental klesśas (defiling afflictions). These three summarize or epitomize the factors that lead to suffering and rebirth.
Thirst is therefore a superordinate term that includes and signifies primarily passionate desire, but that also includes the drive to hate or repel, and the wish not to know (the drive to remain unaware). It is willful desire and passionate desire and delight, but it is also the mental act of holding on to that which is wanted (upayūpādānā cetaso) and the complex process of claiming possession, dwelling on something, and being inclined or predisposed to something (adhiṢṢhānābhinivesānusayā; Suttanipāta, 3.1. 3.1 Bhārasutta, vol. 1, p. 26).
As the tradition shifts emphasis to either one of the fundamental kleśas, its understanding of desire changes in important ways. Desire as concupiscence is associated with the ascetic leanings of the monastic tradition; an emphasis on the noxious effects of disgust and displeasure is associated with the bodhisattva's compassion and toleration for the vicissitudes of saṂsĀra; and, more consciously in the development of the tradition, an understanding of desire as unawareness is associated with the idea that insight liberates from craving and suffering. Thus, the famous lines from the MahĀvastu, "desire I know your root, you arise from conceptual representation," is quoted by the Madhyamaka school as proof that the royal road to vanquishing suffering and craving is seeing through the emptiness of the constructions that underlie the objects of desire.
This particular turn in the Buddhist understanding of desire is characteristic of MahĀyĀna and is also expressed in more radical and paradoxical statements, such as the idea that awakening is nothing but the kleśas themselves. Such notions may be seen as leading naturally into the doctrinal rethinking of the body and desire in the tantric tradition, where earlier ascetic concerns with the body and the passions are transformed into new ways of turning the profane human being into the sacred body of a buddha.
Luis O. GÓMEZ
Any internal movement of body or spirit toward the possession and enjoyment of some object seen as good. Though it is commonly identified with love (becoming what in fact is a special kind of love: love of eros, or erotic love), actually it is a tendency consequent upon love. First there is the love—a kind of perceived harmony between the one loving and the person or object loved. Then there is the reaching out, or desire, for the object. Finally there is rest, and so joy or delight, in the object possessed.
Desire may be purely physical, mere appetite for that which sustains the individual or the race: food and drink, warmth, coolness, exercise, sleep, sex. As such it is blunt and undiscriminating, as when a man starving simply wants food with little or no consideration as to kind or quality. On the other hand, it may be "psychical," as when thought and imagination discover or create various shades of object for the one physical appetite (e.g., the connoisseur of fine wines wants at a given moment this particular vintage and no other). Finally, it may be purely spiritual, as when the object loved is of the spiritual or intellectual order—e.g., wisdom or science, art or justice or the kingdom of God—such that while the body is calm and at rest, the spirit yearns for its beloved.
However in man desire is rarely, if ever, merely physical or merely spiritual, for man himself is neither one nor the other, but both, in substantial and vital union. Even the man who is starving finds his desire altered or alterable by his thought and imagination; and the man who deeply and seriously loves justice finds his very body involved in his desire, finds himself wanting justice with a passion.
The worth of desire depends upon the worth of its object. If the object desired is morally good, the desire itself is good; if the object is bad, then the desire is evil. The question here is one of moral goodness and evil. Desire, as defined above, is always toward some perceived good, but not necessarily toward what is perceived as morally good. A man, for instance, may see a woman as good from many different points of view—personality, beauty, wealth, charm—and so feel his desire stirred: he wants her for his very own. However, if he or she happens already to be married, then the desire becomes a morally evil one, since the object, namely, this-womanas-my-wife, is morally evil.
Yet in a larger sense, desire can be spoken of as having a kind of moral value independent of its "visual" objects; for in reality desire moves not so much toward such objects as through them to the infinite, unseen goal of the human heart. A woman loves and wants her children; but more deeply still, in and through that very desire she is loving and wanting God. St. Augustine and his famed description of all human restlessness in terms of ultimate rest is another illustration; still another is the beautiful temptress in Claudel's play whose "special grace" was to stir men's desire and, in their inevitable disappointment with her, leave them with God.
This is not, of course, to condone any and every desire, whether good or evil. Indeed, a desire that continually feeds off evil dies precisely for that reason, but it is to point up the positive value of desire in man's life vis-àvis with his God. Control, direction, purification—not the suppression—of desire is the ideal of Christian spirituality. In addition, the pseudospirituality of quietism and Oriental indifferentism, which suggest that all desire is evil, have always been as foreign to orthodox Christianity as the death of desire—the despair, ennui, and boredom—of the extremes of present-day existentialist thinking and living. Desire in its deepest heart is man's movement toward God. The proper grace is to recognize it as such and to help it reach its goal.
[s. f. parmisano]
Although we experience pleasure and pain through our bodies, arguably much of this is in fact a result of the psychological aspects of fantasy and desire. Psychoanalytic theory has explored these issues in particular, and in recent years the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan challenged Sigmund Freud's theory of biological ‘drives’, arguing instead that sexuality and desire are primarily sites for the production—and transgression—of meaning, and that desire is a result of cultural meanings and representations as much as any physiological expression. In particular, he sees desire as a metonym; that is, a word used in a transferred sense—‘metonymy’ being a figure of speech, and an important concept in semiology, in which the name of one thing is substituted for another to which it is related, for example an effect for a cause, or as in the substitution of ‘the bottle’ for ‘drink’. See also NEED.
de·sire / dəˈzī(ə)r/ • n. a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen: a desire to work in the dirt with your bare hands. ∎ strong sexual feeling or appetite: they were clinging together in fierce mutual desire.• v. [tr.] strongly wish for or want (something): he never achieved the status he so desired | [as adj.] (desired) it failed to create the desired effect. ∎ want (someone) sexually: there had been a time, years ago, when he had desired her. ∎ archaic express a wish to (someone); request or entreat.
So desire sb. XIV. — (O)F. désir, f. the vb. desirous XIV. — AN. desirous, OF. -eus (mod. désireux).
crav·ing / ˈkrāving/ • n. a powerful desire for something: a craving for chocolate.