Philosophy Proper

Humans as Lovers II: The Formation of Desire

In Part One of our exploration of humans-as-lovers, we established that viewing personhood from an essentially cognitive standpoint is incomplete and faulty. While worldviews and presuppositions are important guiding factors in determining a person’s ontological make-up, it is in desire — or love — that we find at the core of our decision-making and, consequently, the ultimate trajectory of the lives we lead. We are desiring creatures before we are anything else.

“Well then,” you say. “I’ll accept the notion. How does this work, though? If humans are lovers, then how are we to understand desire, and what are we to make of the various parts that make up personhood and daily experience?”

I’m glad you asked. Smith talks of four “components” that constitute this identity of persons-as-lovers: intentionality, telos, habit, and practice. By intentionality, Smith means the “aim” of love; he argues that human nature is basically, constantly oriented towards someone/something. There is always a bent in our thoughts, a connotation in our contemplations. This intentionality, found in Augustine and carried on in Heidegger, is the starting place for Smith’s “liturgical” anthropology.

Because all humans intend towards persons, ideas, and objects, we naturally have a telos in sight — an end goal, an ultimate, a metaphysical principle that constitutes, for us, the good life. The telos is the completion of our desires, the life’s purpose for which we long. Smith says that our telos is often tied to a “picture,” a vision of the good life that we can hold before us like an icon. This is because we are primarily imaginative creatures; images captivate us more than written propositions.

In our intentional strivings for this telos, we as lovers naturally create habits that are often reflexive and subconscious, automatic courses of action we don’t even have to think about adopting. Smith argues that this is the natural way that we make our way through the world; we don’t stop to think of every decision we make, because to do so would result in a life paralyzed by constant analysis. We act, more often than not, out of habit, and these habits are tied to our desires and our telos.

But how are these habits formed? Practices. Sustained practices, says Smith, which then end up becoming habits. These practices are usually tied to institutions, that is, gathered bodies which are deliberately centered around a particular telos. The practices of that institution teach its members to form habits that will cause them to become persons who love in a particular way. It is not that they learn to have desire, but that their desires are formulated, and eventually become instinctive as habits and as “invisible” as deeply buried intentions.

While we can agree with Smith’s overall analysis, there are a few issues with the model he presents. The first is the notion that all habits and practices are tied to a telos. While it may be true, for the vast majority of cases, that most practices have an ultimate goal or end in sight, there are a handful of teloi in today’s society that consist of the practices attached to them. In other words, there is no ultimate goal for particular modern practices, because the practices themselves are the goal — they form a sort of closed system that prohibits a vision of the good life from ever emerging. We have in mind modern methods of entertainment, especially those tied to technology, which more often than not — due to our fallen natures — forms a self-referential, and thus closed, system of practice and thought.

A second objection we have to Smith’s analysis is his idea of a telos having to be visionary, imaginary, or image-based. There is no doubt that one’s telos should be concrete and embodiable — that is, that specific practices can be imagined which show that telos in action in one’s life. However, a vision-based telos seems to be part of what lured Eve to partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. (Genesis 3.6.)

Yes, God became man, and in doing so revealed Himself in a concrete, visual fashion. Yet faith is the assurance of things hoped for — and we, as Christians, are called to walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore, it follows that our telos cannot be too visually based, or else we may fall into the same trap as Eve.

Aside from these caveats, we assert that Smith’s anthropology is accurate and insightful in understanding what drives and motivates humans in both the mundaneness of their everyday existences and the ultimate, overarching goals of their lives. Put another way, all humans are fundamentally religious in that they worship someone or something — they devote themselves, often viscerally, to particular ideologies, causes, or ways of being that govern their thoughts, their goals, their actions and interactions.

Of particular importance to note is the notion of how one’s telos is reached and even, in some cases, transformed. Through concrete, consistent practices, routines eventually become habits. Desires are inevitably effected by repetition; one simply has to consider Jesus’ statement to His disciples, “if you obey My commandments, you will abide in My love,” to see that this is so. The more an action or series of actions are performed, the more that an individual’s desire is shaped after those actions and their results. Of course there are exceptions. But we are speaking here of what drives people, of what their ultimate goals are and how they reach them. The answer, in the end, is not presuppositions or systems of thought — beyond these notions lies the bedrock of desire, of love, and it is here we find what pushes humans forward in all of their behavior and points of focus as they make their way through the world.

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