The Limits of Our Desires

“For the desires are incapable of satisfaction….”—Cicero

In the opening dialogue of De Finibus (On the Ends of Good and Evil), the great Roman senator and thinker touches on one of the most baffling facets of human nature. At least, it is a riddle to those who will take the time to ponder the subject of individual desire. Cicero refers to Epicurus’ helpful categorization of human cravings—there are those that are natural and necessary, those that are natural but not necessary, and finally those that are neither natural nor necessary. But this view, though undoubtedly true, reveals an obvious paradox. If our souls have no dimension beyond the material, why do we have desires that the world cannot satisfy? This makes us quite unlike other creatures if we are really just products of evolutionary development.

In theory we should be content in satisfying our basic needs. As it turns out, we are plagued with “imaginary desires [for which] no bound or limit can be discovered.” Here we run up against an existential mystery. When we do not control our desires, we are burdened with new forms of dissatisfaction in the guise of guilt and remorse. Our undisciplined actions are called “evil” because they are out of proportion to our real needs. In his rhetorical question aimed at the Epicureans, Cicero asks: “How can a man at once be a sensualist and keep his desires within bounds?” It is a doubtful endeavor. By contrast, temperance “bestows peace of mind.”

Even if there were no laws or moral precepts to punish our transgressions, we would be condemned by our own conscience. “Fools,” says Cicero, “are tormented by the memory” of their misdeeds. Cicero does not discuss the role of divinity and his own views were inclined to agnosticism or the idea of a remote deity. Nevertheless, his opinions point to the recurring failure of subjective, man-made attempts to either limit or satisfy our desires.

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