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Every Person: A Creature of Desire


Who at that time did not praise and extol my father because, beyond the resources of his own estate, he furnished his son with everything needed for this long sojourn to be made for purposes of study?… But meanwhile this same father took no pains as to how I was growing up before you, or as to how chaste I was, as long as I was cultivated in speech, even though I was left a desert, uncultivated for you, O God, who are the one true and good Lord of that field which is my heart.  


During the idleness of that sixteenth year, when, because of lack of money at home, I lived with my parents and did not attend school, the briars of unclean desires spread thick over my head, and there was no one to root them out. 


Saint Augustine (354-430 AD)


We, human persons, are creatures of desire. Every day we want, wish, crave, prefer, hanker for, fancy and yearn for a multitude of diverse things in a multitude of diverse ways. From Moses and Socrates to Darwin and Freud, to contemporary neuroscientists and modern marketing gurus, human desire has long been understood as a primary cause of human action. Any reflection on human behavior and its education must give rise to consideration of the nature and shaping of human desire. For parent and teacher, this is serious business. At the end of the day our children will, one way or another, live out their desires. This makes the cultivation of virtuous desires of paramount importance. In the year 400, thirty years after the fact, St. Augustine, thinking back on his experience as a sixteen-year-old, decried his father’s failure to root out “unclean desires,” a failure that would cause St. Augustine much brokenness and pain. Let us not fail our children in like manner. 


We take up this challenge in the midst of a very strange and conflicted cultural milieu. Swirling about us is the bizarre but broadly held notion that a person’s desires are self-authenticating, that a man or woman’s desires constitute his or her true self, that fullness of life depends upon the satisfying of any and all desire. We see this in the politics of human sexuality, in the mother who cannot say no to her three-year-old, and in corporate marketing slogans like Burger King’s “Be your way” and Nike’s “Just do it.” Such an ethos may be good for sales, but it is very bad for souls. We have forgotten that which was, in the not too distant past, common knowledge. We have forgotten that our desires may be virtuous or vicious, and that only virtuous desires lead to life. Vicious desires lead to death. 


Written for “young people of any age, from eight or nine upwards,” Charlotte Mason’s Ourselves is an allegory intended to serve as a handbook for virtuous character. Not surprisingly, several chapters are devoted to the desires and their concomitant vices. Following a tradition going back to the Golden Age of ancient Greece, she distinguishes between the appetites of “the House of Body” and the desires of “the House of Mind.” The appetites of the body are ordered to the maintenance of the human body and the human race. The appetites are hunger, thirst, rest, activity and chastity. That hunger, thirst and rest, rightly ordered, foster a life of flourishing is self-evident. We are perhaps less conscious of our body’s need to act. We may not long lay idle and still flourish. And the idea of chastity as the virtuous ordering of human sexuality rather than the suppression of human sexuality may be new to many (Freud is too much with us). All appetites when rightly ordered give life. But each appetite has its vicious form, a form that brings death, not life. If untended, the good of hunger may become gluttony; thirst, drunkenness; rest, sloth; activity, restlessness; and chastity, licentiousness.


Charlotte Mason enumerates the desires of the “House of Mind” as the desires: for approbation, of excelling, for wealth, for power, for society and for knowledge. While each of these has the potential to become a vicious tyrant, rightly ordered these desires do much to foster human flourishing. The desire for approbation or approval supports us in pursuit of the Good, assuming those whose approval we seek are themselves seeking the Good and assuming we are not enslaved to the vulgarity of display. The desire to excel energizes us to put forth our best effort in worthy endeavors, provided our effort is indeed directed to something worthy, and it is not corrupted by a preoccupation with besting others. The desire for wealth or ownership animates us to acquire and steward those things necessary for a well-lived life, provided we are not debased by avarice, the desire to acquire ever more merely for acquisition’s sake. The desire for power when rightly ordered is the desire to be a potent force for Good. The demonic perversion is the desire for power merely to lord over others. The desire for society is the desire for a life shared with others. We all are made for, need, must have, a community. Its perversion is the substitution of clique for community, the substitution of image, gossip and exclusivity for depth, commitment and fraternal love. As to the desire for knowledge, it is to the mind what hunger is to the body. As such, it is the chief motive for learning. Created in the image of God and made to delight in the Goodness, Truth and Beauty of God’s world, if there be no delight in knowing, then something has gone terribly wrong.  


Ourselves concludes with several chapters on the human soul; its capacities, desires and nurture. Only in God is the deepest of human desires met and answered. 


‘I want, am made for, and must have a God.’ We have within us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty, and service; but we are deterred, checked on every hand, by limitations in the objects of our love and service. It is only to our God that we can give the whole, and only from Him can we get the love we exact; a love which is like the air, an element to live in, out of which we gasp and perish. Where, but in our God, the Maker of heaven and earth, shall we find the key to all knowledge? Where, but in Him, whose is the power, the secret of dominion? And our search and demand for goodness and beauty baffled here, disappointed there — it is only in our God we find the whole. The Soul is for God, and God is for the Soul, as light is for the eye, and the eye is for light. And, seeing that the Soul of the poorest and most ignorant has capacity for God, and can find no way of content without Him, is it wholly true to say that man is a finite being? But words are baffling; we cannot tell what we mean by finite and infinite.


The catalogue of desires provided in Ourselves is neither definitive nor exhaustive, but it is challenging. It provides a framework for a rigorous self-examination and casts a vision for repentance from vicious desire and pursuit of virtuous desire. But how is such a pursuit to be conducted? Not by will power. The will is weak, and it is impossible to will one’s self into a new desire. Neurologically, the will is downstream from the desires. As far as the brain is concerned, the desires shape the will, not the will the desires. This does not mean that we are without hope or responsibility. A few things to consider: 


1. The modern myth of the autonomous self is just that, a myth. We are profoundly social beings. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, nothing matters so much to us as belonging to a community of persons who know us and are glad to be with us in life-giving ways. To thrive, we must be part of such a people. Absent that which our hearts need most, desires will warp, twist and distort in a futile attempt to compensate. The cultivation of virtuous desires requires life-giving belonging, be it at home, school or church.


2. Assuming no immediate threat of trauma, related to and second only to belonging is our need for joy, the sense that it is good to be me here with you. Just as we are made for belonging, so we are made for joy. If we do not know the way from sadness, anger, fear or shame back to joy, our desires will warp, twist and distort in a futile attempt to compensate. If we do not know the way back to joy, we must learn, and we learn by sharing belonging with someone who does know the way. Our homes, schools and churches must be places where we belong and go to learn the way back to joy. 


3. We catch our desires like we catch the flu. Having a people to whom we belong and who help us get back to joy, we inevitably desire what our people desire and abhor what our people abhor. This is the fundamental premise of all advertising. If our people treasure Gucci and Chanel, we will treasure Gucci and Chanel. If our people abhor Gucci and Chanel, we will abhor Gucci and Chanel. If our people desire and delight in being generous, we will delight in generosity. If our people anxiously hoard, we will anxiously hoard. If our people have the habits of sweet thoughts and appreciation, we will naturally grow in the habits of sweet thoughts and appreciation. If our people are cynical and deprecating, we will be cynical and deprecating. If our people delight in literature, mathematics, science, music and painting, so will we. Our children will not form virtuous desires unless we invite them into communities of virtuous desire. There is a reason God calls us to be a part of a people growing in Christlikeness. We cannot become whom we are meant to be unless we are a part of such a people. 


4. While the will is weak, over the long term the power to direct one’s attention is potent, particularly if supported by the people to whom one joyfully belongs. Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul’s words:  


Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


Note that this admonition was not given to the Philippians as autonomous individuals, but to them as a community. 


5. Finally, it is to our Father in heaven that we belong most completely and most definitively, even if we have little experience of it. Our homes, schools and churches must be places where we learn to enter more fully into joyful belonging with the Father. As we abide with Him, our desires are changed into the likeness of His desires. Such is the testimony of countless saints. 


As we increasingly experience ourselves as joyfully belonging to the Father and as we increasingly experience our self as joyfully belonging to a people of virtuous desire, so we will find our own desires and the desires of our children transformed.