Lecture 3

Lecture 3

The stand taken by understanding against desire

Plato assigns to the insight of understanding the leading role in guiding the practical actions of an individual. But a human being is open to the world not merely by way of understanding beings in their self-showing and having insight into this self-showing. The human psyche is also desirous of beings, for the individual lacks many things which it needs to live well. These things are 'goods' (ta\ a)gaqa/) in the broadest sense, toward which the human heart is directed. Human beings set their hearts on good things which they lack and which can contibute to them living well. This setting of the heart on something is what the Greeks call e)piqumi/a, from qumo/j which covers a broad semantic field encompassing 'heart', 'courage', 'vitality', 'will', 'decision', 'disposition' (cf. below regarding the virtue of a)ndrei/a). Desire for something, the will to acquire it and to direct the heart toward it, emerges out of an individual's disposition as a whole. In desiring, the human psyche, i.e. human being, is directed toward beings in the world which are good for living, i.e. useful, xrhsto/j (438a). Such things are not restricted to merely physical desires such as food and drink which Plato discusses in Book IV with regard to this aspect of human being, but explicitly includes all those good and useful things which can be acquired (xrhma/twn kth=sin 443e). Chremata are not just useful things which are good for something, but are goods also in the sense of assets and money. Chrematistics is the business of acquiring wealth and especially of making money as the universal equivalent for all goods. It is therefore mistaken to restrict the range of desire to things satisfying bodily, physical desires such as food and sex. Human desire is always already meta-physical in the sense that it exceeds from the outset the mere vegetative cravings of the body or the instinct to procreate. Rather, the sphere of human desire is practically limitless (a)/peiron), i.e. human practice directs itself toward myriad beings which could be good for living. Plato describes this endlessly desiring and acquisitive aspect of human being as making up "most of the psyche" (plei=ston th=j yuxh=j 442a) and as being most unsatisfiable (a)plhsto/taton 442a) and also as striving toward goods (filoxrh/maton 436a). Human being is a love for goods toward which it directs its desire for acquisition.

This insatiably desiring aspect of human being must be held in check by human understanding. The logos must set limits to the limitless desires to acquire what is good for living. This saving of understanding vis-à-vis the soul's endless desires preserves the leading role of understanding by means of tempering and moderating desire und subjugating it, for understanding sees that the limitless pursuit of the goods of life leads inevitably to worsening life rather than enhancing it. The bridling aspect of human being which sets limits to desire is swfrwsu/nh, the virtue of moderation. Aristotle draws attention to a supposed etymology of sophrosyne as the saving (s%/zein) of the understanding soul (frh/n). Sophrosyne is the bridling relationship of understanding to desire which sets limits to what the psyche sets its heart on. Just as understanding can see the defined looks which beings as such offer of themselves, it can also see the craving relationship of the heart towards beings and define this relationship by putting it into its own perspective. Whereas desire may be directed toward individual goods, each of which in itself is good for living, understanding has the superior role of defining desire within an overall view of what is good for the individual's life as a whole. Where understanding fails to keep desire under control, the result is unbridledness, a)kolasi/a, in which the individual loses composure in the limitlessness of its desire and understanding loses its stand as the instance controlling and moderating actions.

Thus it can be seen that with both understanding and temperance, a certain kind of standing, of bringing-to-stand and maintaining-a-stand is at work. The understanding is that faculty of human being which brings the world to stand within the defined outlines of beings as such and with respect to the categories within which each being has its stand. Such is the way the world presents itself to understanding and is present for understanding, no matter whether it be the immediate presence of beings or their presencing in fantasy (fantasi/a, Vergegenwärtigung) no matter whether it be in casting plans for the future or in recollecting the past.

To be continued...

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