Modernity and desire

There is a remarkably connection between the works of both Alaisdair MacIntyre and Rene Girard in relation to the approach to, and rejection of, modernity’s conception of desire and emotions. To understand this major rift, and its implications, one only has to look at modernity’s conception first, and quite frankly modernity is Liberalism.

Modernity’s conception of desire is that it is pre-societal. Desire and emotions are something which emanate from the individual, and society becomes therefore a market place in which negotiation of differing and competing desires is resolved. You can see the predominance of such concepts through the very justifications provided for the state – does not the constitution of America, that beacon of modernity not guarantee the pursuit of happiness? This presumes that what makes the person happy is internally and individually generated does it not? Once you see it, you see it everywhere.

This conception of desire as being internally emanating without influence is seen in the fact-value distinction that riddles modernity, and it is the basis of pretty much all economic theory, despite evidence undermining it quite completely. I have mentioned it before, but it is worth repeating – if desire is internal and sovereign why do we need advertising which provides role models? If the market is just a mechanism for resolving wants and needs, well and good, but if it creates these wants and needs then economic theory is immediately undermined. The simplicity of the error is quite shocking really.

Macintyre dates this conflict between the concept of desire and wants being pre-societal, or post societal, back to the disputes between Plato and the Sophists, writing the following:



So the questions is, are desires, want and emotions pre-societal, or post-societal? If pre-societal, then Liberalism makes some sense. We are all sovereign individuals, the question of why we form into political societies becomes a logical one, and there is a fact-value distinctions in which an objective bedrock of non-societal informed motives and desires (the fact) are discernible, and on which theory can be built which is irrespective of the values of a society (value), these values which then become pretty much empty concepts akin to unscientific bigotry. The reader can surely see how the fact-value distinction is central to Liberalism now.

Rene Girard follows a similar pattern of attack on Liberal Modernity’s conception of the origin of desires and emotions with his mimetic anthropology. In Girard’s understanding following his biblical exegesis, desires are mimetic. We desire what others desire, which makes desires categorically not sovereign and not originating from within. This is totally subversive in relation to modernity.

According to Girard in the very first chapter of ‘I See Satan Fall Like Lightning’ (highlights mine):

In the bible, and especially in the Gospels, there is an original conception of desire and its conflicts that has gone largely unrecognized. In order to grasp how old it is we must go back to the Fall in Genesis or to the second half of the Ten Commandments, which is entirely devoted to prohibiting violence against one’s neighbor.

Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:

You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.

You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him. (Exod. 20:17)

Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb “covet” suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as “covet” means just simply “desire.” This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin. The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings — in other words, simply desire as such.

If the Decalogue forbids the most widespread desire, doesn’t it then deserve the modern world’s reproach to religious prohibitions? Doesn’t the tenth commandment succumb to that gratuitous itch to prohibit, to that irrational hatred of freedom for which modern thinkers blame religion in general and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular?

Before condemning prohibitions as needlessly repressive, before espousing the formula rendered famous by the events of May 1968 in France — “Il est interdit d’interdire” [It is forbidden to forbid] — we must pose some questions about the implications of desire as it is defined in the tenth commandment, the desire for the neighbor’s goods. If this desire is the most common of all, what would happen if it were permitted rather than forbidden? There would be perpetual war in the midst of all human groups, subgroups, and families. The door would be wide open to the famous nightmare of Thomas Hobbes, the war of all against all.

If we think that cultural prohibitions are needless, we must adhere to the most excessive individualism, one that presupposes the total autonomy of individuals, that is, the autonomy of their desires. In other words, we must think that humans are naturally inclined not to desire the goods of their neighbors. To understand that this premise is false, all we have to do is to watch two children or two adults who quarrel over some trifle. It is the opposite premise, the only realistic one, that underlies the tenth commandment of the Decalogue: we tend to desire what our neighbor has or what our neighbor desires.

If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations. This rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger the harmony and even the survival of all human communities. Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist. This indifference to the threat of runaway conflict is a luxury that small ancient societies could not afford.

The commandment that prohibits desiring the goods of one’s neighbor attempts to resolve the number one problem of every human community: internal violence.
In reading the tenth commandment one has the impression of being present at the intellectual process of its elaboration. To prevent people from fighting, the lawgiver seeks at first to forbid all the objects about which they ceaselessly fight, and he decides to make a list of these. However, he quickly perceives that the objects are too numerous: he cannot enumerate all of them. So he interrupts himself in the process, gives up focusing on the objects that keep changing anyway, and he turns to what never changes. Or rather, he turns to that one who is always present, the neighbor. One always desires whatever belongs to that one, the neighbor.

Since the objects we should not desire and nevertheless do desire always belong to the neighbor, it is clearly the neighbor who renders them desirable. In the formulation of the prohibition, the neighbor must take the place of the objects, and indeed he does take their place in the last phrase of the sentence that prohibits no longer objects enumerated one by one but “anything that belongs to him [the neighbor].” What the tenth commandment sketches, without defining it explicitly, is a fundamental revolution in the understanding of desire. We assume that desire is objective or subjective, but in reality it rests on a third party who gives value to the objects. This third party is usually the one who is closest, the neighbor. To maintain peace between human beings, it is essential to define prohibitions in light of this extremely significant fact: our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire. (1)


The ramifications if Girard are correct, are profound. What is the holiness spiral of modernity but a process of mimetic desire? Humans operate on a basis of small groups (maybe 150 as per Dunbar) and it is only the near, the neighbour as pointed out by the bible and by Girard that we seek to mimic. Advertising and media make the role models we seek to emulate neighbours through media exposure and in direct contrast to modernity regulate our desires. Politically, as I have mentioned before, Liberalism is premised on providing role models to spread a conception of sovereign desire and emotion which directly contradicts the very basis of the message.

It seems to me, that a fundamental message contained within both MacIntyre and Girard is that desires are not pre-societal, and that subsequently modernity is built on false assumptions. Further to this, modernity’s rejection of a regulation of desires in direct contradiction to all major religions renders it open to what Girard labels runaway mimetic conflict. The only way to stop it is to regulate society with firewalls of reason and understanding that desire needs to be controlled.

What we have instead is the perverse spectacle of a political system which simultaneously promotes the concept of desires being sovereign, and provides the entire edifice to “release” these natural desires from bigotry, whilst simultaneously managing desires through “education.” The revolutionary evil of such a contraption is surely clear to see.

For such a thing to come to pass, there must first have been the falsity of sovereignty of desire, followed by the erection of systems to keep this falsity going, which is what we see with the creation of modernity and it’s development into what is termed the Cathedral. Returning back to falsity in this light is beyond stupid, it is negligent.

If desire is not internal, and not sovereign, then society and governance has a direct and pressing role in generating an ethical state that cultivates and directs those desires towards virtue. It needs to be state which actively engages in cultivating virtue.