“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate, I do.” Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans 7:15
Admittedly, when I was a pastor, that verse always gave me pause. Like a good philosopher, and maybe precursor to modern psychiatrists, Paul nailed a great challenge at the center of humanity’s existence — desire.
That bishop of Carthage, Augustine, after reading Paul, saw desire as both good and bad. The problem with humanity is distorted desire, said Augustine.
The Dr. Martin Luther, of Reformation fame, an Augustinian monk who centered his theology on Paul’s letters also honed in on desire and believed that human will was bound to either the good or the bad.
Centuries after Luther, the famous German philosopher of classical pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer, believed that the root of all suffering lay in the desire for more.
Hannah Arendt, German philosopher-political theorist of the post WWII era, who coined the phrase “banality of evil” when covering the trial of former Nazi Adolf Eichman, believed that humanity was on a drive toward political totalitarianism with its rush toward power.
Even Alan Greenspan, the economist and former Federal Reserve bank chairperson, admitted to the U.S. Congress that he did not foresee the financial crisis of 2008 because he believed that a hands-off approach to the market would lead to self-regulation. Apparently Greenspan didn’t take into account what Augustine had said about distorted desire, or even considered desire out of control — commonly known as greed.
In the late 20th Century, the French literary critic, René Girard, after reading classic works of Cervantes, Proust, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and more, discovered that desire is the foundation of all human violence. Even going so far as to say that the desires individuals exhibit are not their own, but are taken from others — desire, and even violence itself are, for Girard imitated.
How can so many great thinkers throughout history have come to the same foundational conclusion that acquisitive desire leads to arguably the most important existential problem of all time?
Just listen to conversations and political rhetoric today and you’ll see that desire has gotten out of control.
Excess of desire and inability to attain everything we want has led to anger and resentment among us all. And that resentment has to come out somewhere — too often in violence.
Remember January 6, 2021? What was that if not a display of desire? Or how about the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the site of Bloody Sunday? Two different desires met head to head — one bent toward violence and one toward change — ending in bloodshed and violence.
When it’s all said and done, violence makes us feel good.
It gives us someone to blame for society’s problems and it creates a victimology that makes everyone a victim of everyone else. Why should I be blamed if someone else is the problem, after all?
Perhaps Paul was right, we really don’t understand what we are doing because we are all on auto-pilot destroying ourselves at the price of selfishness, greed, desire.
It gets so tiring nowadays hearing speeches and sound bytes that don’t address the real issues that could help change our society.
Instead, all we hear are ad hominem attacks and diatribes about the greatness of one group over another.
I was taught that “actions speak louder than words”.
But we all know that those “words” can rally mobs to violence or lead people to great acts of compassion and kindness.
How shall we move forward as a society?