Desire and the Good Life

What should we want to really really want? We want to live a good life both on the large scale and on the small, to live well, to be happy. Happiness, said Aristotle, is essentially a matter of activity. To live well is to act well, to actualize our potentialities. A good life is one of action and engagement. Even on the smaller scale the things we really enjoy are activities that fully engage us and draw upon our abilities. That’s the point of that most Aristotelian of bumper stickers “Are we having fun yet?”. If that question can be asked then a negative answer is necessary. If the activity is really engaging so little of your attention that you can ask whether or not you’re enjoying it, you aren’t.

What sorts of desires are likely to lead us to this sort of excellence-in-activity, not just in episodes but in our lives? As Aristotle says, “One swallow does not make a Spring, nor does one sunny day; one day or a short time does not make a man truly happy and fortunate.” (1098a17-19)

Really happy people are those actively engaged in the pursuit of something they really want. Very extensive wantlessness is completely incompatible with happiness.

But Homo economicus may well be happy for a while, accumulating wealth and power, clawing his way up the ladder of success. This game, like many others, may be highly enjoyable. But without genuine commitment to other people or to communities of any sort the rewards turn to ashes in the end.

A much more promising candidate for happiness is she in the grip of a single desire, tyrannical but genuine. It may be that the happiest, the most blessed lives, are led by happy warriors wholly and single-mindedly devoted to a cause or to a love.

Maybe so, and maybe it’s just because I am myself incapable of such totally dominating commitment that it seems to me a sadly closed and less than fully human life.

The challenge is to combine love and freedom, to join, somehow, deep motivation and real openness to change, genuine membership in community and true autonomy. A worthwhile life, it seems to me, must be sufficiently open and reflective that elements and episodes of wantlessness are inevitable. They may, or they may not, enrich the satisfactions of commitment. I am sure that the most desirable life is not one in which one always knows, much less always gets, what one desires.

Copyright 1998, Harlan B. Miller

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