Just last night I watched part of a programme about a family who were trying to eat well for less money. The mother in the family had this obsession with bulging cupboards, baking every day and buying expensive brands. The reason: her children would not accept anything less. And this morning, I woke up and read Stephen Hawking’s essay that he wrote about peoples changing attitudes towards money. “People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?” writes Hawking.
In his essay, Hawking’s does acknowledge the importance of money. He recognises that his career wouldn’t have happened without the financial support he’d received. More importantly, nor would he be alive today. But with that, due to not being able to enjoy many of the luxuries in life, it has meant that he treats money as a means to an end. Not an end in itself. In other words, he uses money as a tool. He makes it work for him, not the other way around.
Sometimes, I think we live in such a back to front society.
This leads me onto philosophy and something which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: desire. It’s our desires that motivate us to act and these desires, unfortunately for some, are never ending. In particular, this post will focus on Epicurus’s philosophy and his three distinctions of desire. I think they’re useful, for anybody who desires a little too much, to be aware of. (You know who you are.)
Natural and necessary desires are those which are pertinent to our own happiness and well being. Epicurus talks about happiness not in terms or a transient state or complete bliss, but a type of absence from pain. This means cultivating virtue of practical wisdom or prudence. An example of desires which are both natural and necessary are clothes. Clothes can be seen as a social need. However, clothes are also practical in terms of keeping us warm and protection from the rain. These kinds of desires are necessary for life itself, otherwise we will die. Perhaps an even better example is water. If you don’t consume enough water, then you’ll die.
Natural but non-necessary desires are when you want a velvet jacket, or five pairs of trainers. Clothes are natural, but velvet jackets and five pairs of trainers are not necessary. A velvet jacket is not necessary for warmth and will only make you wetter if it rains. However, there is a stylistic reason why you may like the velvet jacket. Another example is that of sexual pleasure, whilst this is totally natural, it is also something which isn’t necessary (if we exclude the need to procreate, that is). The whole point with these desires is that they lead to no pain when they are unsatisfied. So, not wearing the velvet jacket or having sex does not lead to any physical pain. If it does, then it is our thinking that makes it so. Here is where the media comes in and bombards us with visuals and messages to create, shape and push desires upon us that did not exist in the first instance; they are…
…non-natural and non-necessary desires. This third category is what much of advertising seeks to push upon us. Non-natural and non-necessary desires are based upon groundless opinion like that you should where a tie. Ties are the de rigeur (necessity) of some professions. The tie can be seen as the uniform of the bourgeoisie. But, is it natural or necessary to wear a tie? No. A tie is neither natural nor necessary. Not wearing a tie will do you no harm, but the harm being done is in the groundless opinion that you should wear a tie. It is our habits which make things necessary. So, that leads to the question, how have we come to form desires for things which are neither natural nor necessary?
Desire for wealth would also sit in this category. It’s easy to understand how it is important to people as we exist in a market based economy whereby people buy food and other necessities with money. However, having a tonne of money is non-natural and non-necessary. It is only when people develop groundless opinions like that they need two luxury holidays per year, only the finest things or that third yacht (think Philip Green), that an affectivity towards these objects is strengthened. After all, desire is affect.
The solution: If you satisfy what it natural and necessary, then you will begin to realise that you need relatively little. The point being made here is that there is a vicious cycle involved in desire. And the best way out of it, or at least the best way to abate it, is to realise its futility. No amount of new trainers, food and alcohol will ever cease your search for completeness. There will always be a new horizon, another advert, a different holiday destination and a new trend circulating.
For Epicurus, focusing instead on what is natural and necessary is the key to a happy and tranquil life.