It is natural to desire and civilized to repress desire, at least some of the time. The question is, and it is a central question of morality and ethics, which desires to express or repress and how much so? A culture provides a provisional answer to this question in the form of laws. We may desire to do bodily harm or take possessions from another, but the law may dictate serious consequence for any who give in to these desires.
Religions and quasi-religious systems have proposed moral codes that are often quite different from the law, generally more restrictive concerning which desires we are encouraged to give into and which we are encouraged to repress. At the most extreme, we find a religious philosophy like Buddhism that sets as its ideal the cessation of all desire.
Religions, often but not always, posit consequences of our actions here on earth in some form of afterlife or reincarnation. Their moral codes, the system of “oughts” and “ought-nots,” generally do not make complete sense without reference to that specific notion of an afterlife. Thus the moral clarity that a religion can provide requires faith, and many of us can see no clear reason for such faith. For a person who does not believe in an afterlife, there really is no clear or authoritative directive as to which desires ought and out-not be pursued. For such a person, how our desires affect the quality of our life in this life or the life of those we care about, is much more central.
There is a general idea, derived from the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot go from an “is” to and “ought.” This is not really correct. Within a goal directed context, it makes perfect sense to go from “is” to “ought.” Thus, if your goal is X and Y is necessary to achieve X, then it follows that you ought to do Y. But to the question, “What ought to be the ultimate goal of my life?” there are no facts that lead to a clear answer.
Most people probably give little thought to the question of the ultimate goal of their life. A society provides a set of standard aims and ambitions, and most people simply grow into one of those normal roles. Wealth, status, love and friendship, raising a family, pleasure and security are among the accepted aims of most secular societies, and most people aim to maximize some or all of these. Each of these aims defines a certain set of oughts and ought-nots. For instance, the pursuit of wealth requires a certain kind of prudence: the repression of the desire to have and enjoy now for the expectation of having more and being able to enjoy more in the future. Even the exclusive pursuit of pleasure requires some consideration about the consequences of giving in too completely, such as the negative consequences of having too much to drink.
While the normal goods, and the societal forms through which we channel our desires to attain these goods, are enough for most people in most societies, we may raise the question whether any of these goals, individually or in combination, provide the best or highest quality of life? There is no clear answer to this question, but there is the testimony of various thinkers, artists, mystics through the ages that suggest that they are not.
The philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, suggests that eudaimonia is the goal of most people. (Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but I would suggest that the term is closer to well-being.) He also states that intellectual contemplation is the highest form of happiness. This idea is rather alien to modern Western society, but it was a highly respected ideal in the West for nearly 2,000 years. A contemplative ideal has had an even greater standing and longevity in India and other parts of the Orient.
Contemplation is a focusing of one’s awareness and attention on some object, idea or experience. Such a focusing requires the quieting of natural desires (deepening contemplation requires the virtual cessation of such desires). Desire makes us aware of something we lack and points us toward objects that we believe at some level will fill that lack. In a state of desire, we are not content with where we are and we are impelled to move (mentally, physically or both) elsewhere. In contemplation we can feel deeply content with where we are and what we are doing. We are content – not in the sense that someone who has just satisfied a desire (say eating a bowl of ice cream), but content with the very nature of our being. During contemplation the contemplative needs nothing but contemplation to be perfectly content. The seated Buddha is the image of such contentment.
It is not my intention to conclude that Aristotle or Buddha is correct about what leads to happiness or contentment. If I have anything to conclude it is that each person has to figure out his or her own goals and ways to achieve those goals. Further, I would not wish to conclude that because some way is good, more and more of that way is better and better. Life is a dynamic affair; why not have multiple goals? I do wish to suggest, though, that though the contemplative life is no longer one of the standard norms of our society, those old masters where not incorrect about it. Its rewards are wonderful, and you really do not have to pay a penny for them – contemplation provides joy for free.
Back in the sixties, people would speak of “an alternative lifestyle,” which meant an alternative to the market based lifestyle. Now the term is used by marketers to sell an array of products that help define one of the many so-called lifestyles. The market needs consumers, people who desire. Contemplation offers an alternative to being a consumer. A person who has learned to find deep inner happiness without having to pay a penny for it is the marketer’s worst nightmare.
To be a marketers worst nightmare seems an honorable goal!
To be a marketers worst nightmare seems an honorable goal!