The Desires of Man

At the beginning of each academic year, we talk of a desire to learn. We think we have developed institutions that facilitate this learning. True, we question the cost of a university education. Many students end with significant debts; jobs are often scarce. Many do not actually learn much in college, especially about the important things. We ask if these years are “worth it.” To find the answer, we need to look closely at what we are. We cannot help but notice that something is different about us as human beings. The very fact that we wonder about what we are makes us different. We are beings who are not content with our own being. We are selves oriented beyond ourselves.

Plato noticed that our desires seem to be unlimited. Uncontrolled they upset everything. The very task of virtue was to limit them, order them. In principle they were limited primarily by our reason insofar as it understood the source and nature of each of our given powers. Nothing more disruptive could be found in the universe than man’s desires. Yet, without them, nothing much would really happen except to repeat what went before. Our will is a power that “desires” what is good. Yet, something about every finite real good, even when we possess it, still leaves us unsettled. We wonder why.

As Samuel Johnson pointed out, the more we know, the more we want. If we see something we did not know about, part of us wants it. We have to keep alive, of course. Nothing is wrong or unnatural about the fact that we need and want food, even delightful and luxurious food, as Plato also intimated. Or if we do not need or desire “luxuries,” we are at least curious about them. We notice how many people get used to them. If we can imagine something that we do not have, we possess the innovative capacity to produce it, bring it into existence. Our very economy is designed to enable us to bring forth what we might not have or need. The result is that the world is not just filled with things that we need but also things we are curious about. We find ourselves almost more surrounded by our inventions than by nature. Indeed, we are subjecting nature, including our very bodies, to our curiosity; we modify natural things to our own liking.

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The phrase “the desires of man” is striking. It does not directly emphasize the “mind” of man, but rather what follows on it. In addition to everything else, we desire what we do not yet possess. Indeed, we desire what we do possess. Our wills follow our knowledge but are not determined by what we know, even when we will something that is disordered or evil. Strictly speaking, nothing is wrong with knowing what is evil.

Chesterton said that he committed fifty-two murders in his short stories. The knowledge of murder is not itself wrong. Any good policeman or detective should have a pretty good idea of what goes on in the mind of a murderer. We can be sure that actual murderers (or any other kind of sinner) will be able to give a reason for their action. The reason given will be true, but disordered. We are reasonable beings even in our sins. If we were not, we could not sin in the first place.

It turns out that man is given not only the power to make things he thinks up, but also the power to rule himself. He is the most curious being in our cosmos. What is unusual about him is that whatever concocted him, whatever put him together in the first place seems to have made him to provoke man’s curiosity about himself. It turns out, for instance, that we can learn how to repair ourselves by carefully examining what makes us tick and what causes our malfunctioning.

Some ask whether we would want to be a different kind of being. Aristotle remarks that no one would really want to be someone else. We want happiness for others, no doubt, but we first want it for ourselves. We want to be what we are. We are curious about what we are. We find it unsettling that what is best for us is already part of our very being if only we could identify it and live accordingly. In this sense, we find it humbling to recognize that our being is already better than anything we might make of ourselves.

The desires of man include the desire to be what he is. If by chance he is discontented with himself, he has an option. He can reject the source of his actual being by constructing a new self that is dependent only on his own ideas. The only alternative is to seek to live according to what he is. It is a good thing that we are not wholly content with our lives. We have something to accomplish, something is to be found that will complete us. This is why our unsettlement is a good thing. We will not be settled with what we desire solely by ourselves.

We are beings whose highest act is not of our own making but of our own accepting. This accepting is why we can be what we ought to be. It is when we are supplied with every thing, as Johnson tells us, that we contrive artificial appetites. But our desires, our wills, are made for something, some good, in fact, the Good. Our desires teach us the lesson that each person and each generation must learn for itself.

We will find nothing that does satisfy us unless it be the final good for which and in which we are created. We are tempted to rebel against our own being when we discover that our desires never seem to be satisfied by our possessions. But we also catch glimmers of the truth that what man desires is not anything he could make. It is only what already is, and is fully, that can do so, something that can come to us not by way of our own making but by way of our own receiving.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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