Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)

2.

Emotions and Desires

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.

Vincent Van Gogh

Homo sentiens (Feeling/Emotional Man) sounds just as good as Homo sapiens (Thinking/Wise Man). Quite surprisingly, however, scientists disagree on the answer to a seemingly basic question: what are emotions? Because it’s easy to pose hard questions, let me throw in a few of my own. What is the difference between emotion and feeling? Can emotions be consciously awakened or redirected? Can emotions be described neurologically? What is the impact of culture on emotions, and are certain emotions found in given cultures while others are not? Can we say that animals have human-like emotions, or are humans alone in experiencing emotions? How many emotions can one experience simultaneously?

Let us build a table of emotions, acknowledging immediately that the following table (overleaf) is neither exhaustive, nor scientific, nor binding.

I’ve left a few boxes for you to fill in at will. Furthermore, although I created this table quite spontaneously and with no specific method in mind, I did try to avoid repetition. For example, mercy and compassion are two different emotions: mercy comes from above (God has mercy), but compassion exists at eye level.

Let’s conduct a little experiment. Think about your own repertoire of emotions: which are the most frequent and which are rare? If you enjoy working with numbers, rank them by percentage points that measure the relative duration of each emotion when it appears. The total doesn’t have to add up to 100 per cent, because we can have several emotions at the same time. I believe that if I collected my readers’ results, I’d discover substantial differences between people.

Now let’s repeat this experiment with a slightmodification. This time, list the emotions you would like to keep and those you would love to give up.

A serious analysis of every emotion that exists would probably require writing a few thick volumes, which is why for the purposes of this chapter I’ve decided to focus on only four emotions: Anger, Envy, Pride and Joy. We shall examine Anger first (so as not to upset anyone).

Have you ever noticed the looks on the faces of sports players who have just scored a goal or jump-shot a three-pointer? Many raise their fists in the air in a threatening motion and make a frightening face, or scream, or clench their teeth. You’d expect them to be very happy, but instead they look mad as hell. What is that? It seems to me, and some psychologists agree, that men are generally ‘allowed’ to express every emotion they have in just a single way: anger. They look angry when they are happy or sad, elated or desperate … and, of course, when they are angry. Recently I’ve noticed that, while fighting for equality, women too tend to express rage and anger more often than we’ve seen them do before. Perhaps displaying anger externally eliminates inwardturning anger and rage (that is, depression), which is a good thing. Or is it?

Are you an angry person? Do you tend to explode with anger? And if so, would you like to rid yourself of that emotion?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that different people boil at different temperatures. Some people cannot be shaken out of their calm, while others become furious even before they know why.

Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools.

Ecclesiastes 7:9

I must agree with King Solomon (who is traditionally viewed as the author of Ecclesiastes), because I’ve seen anger turn people into fools. I’m also aware of the clever advice of counting to ten (or even 77) before I react angrily. Clearly, anger is characteristic of fools who cannot and have no desire to get the other side of the story. Even when I’m sure I’m right, I know that being angry is punishing myself for the stupidity of others (remember the Taxi Driver story?).

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So I know. Is that knowledge helpful? Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

Though I know all there is to know about the direct and indirect, internal and external damage that anger causes, I still get mad. Giving ourselves sound advice is easy; following it is a different story. The truth is that emotions play a major part in our lives, often a much larger part than reason.

Of course, things are always more complicated than they seem at first or even second glance.

My wife, a chemical engineer by profession, has reached an important understanding. In nature, she told me, each substance has a typical, unique and fixed boiling point. We can artificially change it, however, by using other substances that act as inhibitors, thereby raising the boiling point. For example, anyone who cooks knows that salted water takes longer to boil than water alone. The same applies to people. Their boiling points can be raised. Wisdom can be salt for our water, since it’s supposed to improve the way we react in given situations and help us act consciously, from a more balanced, rational and adult place.

Yet we must remember that even salted, it is only slightly modified water. By the same token, people who gain wisdom remain quite the same, only a little wiser.

Perhaps anger is unavoidable? Maybe those who stop feeling angry or never get mad are no longer human? I tend to believe that people who cannot feel anger have fallen into the deadening realm of indifference, where caring doesn’t exist. After all, there are things in this world that must upset us, things we must resist or rage against, simply because we are human.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Bishop Desmond Tutu

Further, I believe that just as each of us has his or her own anger threshold, we experience other emotions in varying degrees too. Some people have hearts full of compassion, while others never feel sorry for anyone. Some people worry constantly, troubled even by the fact that the universe keeps expanding, while others only begin to worry a little when their parachute doesn’t open after a minute of free-falling. Some people follow their desires at the first whim, while others rarely desire anything.

Similarly, certain people are always sad. They are saddened when they hear the rain falling outside their window, when there’s not enough rain, or when a pimple appears on their nose. The musician Franz Schubert was so deeply melancholic that he prayed every night that he’d never see daylight again. On the other hand, certain people experience sadness only in the face of huge tragedies, while others are very rarely sad.

They say that the American poet Walt Whitman was never sad and loved everyone and everything. Was he inhuman? While King Solomon felt that ‘all is vanity’, Whitman believed there was ‘nothing else but miracles’ and wrote one of my ten favourite poems of all time:

Miracles

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water
Or stand under trees in the woods
Or talk by day with any one I love – or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest 
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car 
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon, 
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds – or the wonderfulness of insects in the air
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down – or of stars shining so quiet and bright
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring 
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best – mechanics, boatmen, farmers
Or among the savants – or to the soiree – or to the opera 
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery 
Or behold children at their sports 
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, 
or the perfect old woman
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass 
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles 
The whole referring – yet each distinct, and in its place.

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle 
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same
Every spear of grass – the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles. 
To me the sea is a continual miracle; the fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves – the shipswith men in them, What stranger miracles are there?

Walt Whitman

As much as I admire the quality of finding good in everything, I cannot understand how anyone can love all of humanity. I feel that many of those who declare that they do, actually hate people. Dostoevsky believed that it’s much easier to have an abstract love for mankind than to love a real person. Personally, I often identify with the wonderful Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (Nobel laureate), who wrote:

I prefer myself loving people to myself loving mankind.

Freud believed love is finite and we should think carefully before giving ours to others. If that’s the case, should we really give our love to lilac flowers or blades of grass? Whitman felt we should. The great American poet was kind and full of love. He even believed that all things are perfect – good or bad. Flowers, caterpillars, a thunderstorm, the genitals, every old or young man and woman, health, sickness, life and death – they are all divine and splendid, and all is wonderfully well in this world.

So, we started out discussing anger, and ended up speaking about love. That’s a good transition.

***

Now, let’s speak about Envy.

Envy was the cause of the first homicide in human history, at least according to the Bible. Envy, a pleasureless sin, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity (the other six being wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, and gluttony – as presented by Pope Gregory I, who decided to play the role of the Mendeleev of sins and formed their canonic table).

People really don’t need much to live – just food, clothing and a roof over their heads. Everything else they own is meant to match the tastes of others, and mainly to ‘out-rich’ them and inspire envy.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Anonymous

Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.

Quentin Crisp

Envy is one of the most fascinating psychological phenomena. People envy the status, abilities, wealth and experiences of others. We envy anything, even a splendid funeral. At the same time, almost all of us also want to be envied.

People are willing to do quite a lot to be loved, and everything to be envied.

François de La Rochefoucauld

King Solomon tried to ease the envious mind, saying:

I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.

Ecclesiastes 10:7

Life is fickle indeed, and what goes up must come down, as we know. If there’s one thing that’s permanent in this world, it’s change. As we’ve all had cause to realize, life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. I’m sure God laughs His head off whenever He listens to our plans.

Now, it’s a fact that envy lasts longer than the happiness we envied in the first place. This is one of the reasons why envy is not worth it. We don’t know what might happen and to whom, and there’s no pleasure in envy, as it clearly makes those experiencing it suffer.

Although we might know all that, my advice is scarcely worth the paper it’s written on. It’s easy to tell people not to envy, and to present solid evidence and ironclad logic against it, but it’s almost impossible to prevent envy in practice.

Do you know anyone who never envies? I don’t. We’re all slaves to the green-eyed monster, each at his own level. As an example, take the following story, for which I once put pen to paper:

The Lake and the Fountain

The silent lake spent years watching the magnificent fountain they placed on its shores, and greatly envied the pretty shapes it created and the sounds it produced daily. ‘So full of life it is. So lively. It never rests or tires. Never misses a moment of life. How I yearn to be a fountain,’ the lake thought. ‘I wish I could live its interesting life. How often have I heard people cheer and laugh at its water tricks? When they reach my shores, they just walk past me in silence. Sometimes there are couples that stand there holding hands, for reasons I cannot understand. Others just sit on the grass or a bench, looking bored at the static and uniform display I put on. I wish I were a fountain, but sadly I am a lake and even as a lake I am nothing special. I am neither deep, nor big or beautiful. I am so plain.’

The fountain spent years watching the clear and silent lake, and envied it immensely. ‘How calm it is. Look at it: it is not trying to impress anyone and its waters rush nowhere. They definitely need no acrobatics. As for me, I am addicted to people’s attention,’ the fountain thought. ‘I will do anything to make them marvel at my performance, but I am weary. Oh, how happy is the lake. People just stroll around it and it does not have to entertain them. They sit on its banks and enjoy the quiet splashing sounds of its tiny waves. That lake has it so very easy. If I stopped making these shapes, no one would visit me: nothing is more pathetic than a silent and static fountain. How I yearn to be a silent lake. I’d give anything to switch places, if only for a little while.’

Though it may be concealed, there’s a strong connection between envy and friendship. Here, The Little Prince can educate us. Near the end of Chapter 4, Saint-Exupéry wrote one of the book’s most famous lines:

To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend.

When I first read The Little Prince at the age of 12, that sentence surprised me. What did he mean by ‘Not everyone has had a friend’? I didn’t have many, but I knew for certain that most people have lots of friends. What’s the big deal about losing one? I couldn’t understand Saint-Exupéry at all.

Years later, when I was a mathematics student at Tel Aviv University, the local bookstore was one of my favourite spots. Since my apartment (not to mention my budget) was too small for all the books I wanted, I used to read entire sections of books right there, and only if I really loved a book would I buy it.

One day, I came across Pensées by Blaise Pascal. I opened a page and what did I find?

Men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence.

I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées 100 and 101

It’s amazing how pessimistic that is. (By the way, I can cite the numbers of individual Pensées without reference to the Internet, as I eventually bought that book.)

When I read these thoughts, they reminded me of The Little Prince. I had to wonder: perhaps the two Frenchmen are right and I am wrong? Or perhaps only Frenchmen think this way?

Well, as it happens other nationals share the belief that a true friend is a rarity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature,’ and he was an American. The Chinese philosopher Mencius believed that ‘A true friend is one soul in two people,’ and Aristotle agreed, and he was Greek. Still, the great Greek sage made the following exclamation too:

O friends, there are no friends at all!

At that point, I started suspecting that I was missing something, and that a friend is indeed a precious and rare thing to have. It took a few more years before I understood what was happening.

The problem starts with the definition of ‘friend’. People say, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’ Well, a proverb does not become true just because it rhymes. Many words rhyme with ‘need’ and ‘indeed’ – greed, agreed, misdeed, lead, bead, speed, reed, shahid and hasid* – but that doesn’t mean a thing.

I decided to consult another Frenchman, and after I read his cynical words, visiting a sick friend was never the same again:

How nice it is to visit a friend in hospital. You know at once that you are in a much better shape than he is.

Channelling François de La Rochefoucauld

This brought me to the following conclusion. When you feel bad, sick or sad … you’d better keep it to yourself. Knowing that was the case would make your enemies happy and your friends sad, and I want to do neither.

Of course, I’d never put down people who get me through bad times, but to me one of the most important qualities a friend should have is the inclination to stick around when times are good. The fact is that when we’re doing really well, we start losing friends. I do not count fake friends that stick around for the sake of kudos, or the possibility that they’ll benefit in some way.

In any event, it’s very hard to tame the green-eyed monster.

Spinoza noted the interesting fact that we only envy people comparable to us. No philosophy professor ever envies Spinoza, unless he lost his mind and hasn’t found it yet. It’s more likely for him to envy a colleague, another philosophy professor who is slightly more successful or even a little wiser. It’s no accident that the first recorded murder in human history was a fratricide. We don’t envy an oak tree for its height nor a lion for its might. Similarly, we don’t envy people who have slipped away from this world and moved on to greener pastures. They are no longer our peers (it’s very easy for me to praise a writer who is no longer with us).

Little Women (a short, non-existent play)

Jane, 60, is alone at home. Mary, her friend of the same age, comes calling. 
Mary knocks on the door. 
Jane: Who is it? 
Mary:It’s me. 
Mary: Open quickly. I’ve great news to tell you. 
Jane opens the door and Mary bursts in, breathing heavily. 
Mary: You won’t believe it when I tell you what happened. 
Jane: What happened? 
Mary: Don’t ask. (Actually meaning, ‘Please ask. I can’t wait to tell you.’) 
Jane: Won’t you sit down? 
Mary: I can’t. Listen, I just won $12 million in the lottery! 
Jane: Oh, that’s wonderful (mildly excited). 
Mary: Wait. That’s not all! As soon as I got the lottery call, my youngest called to tell me that he graduated in his PhD studies with honours!
Jane: Maz’l Tof! (barely pleased)
Mary: There’s more. Before I had time to congratulate my boy, my husband came in and told me he’s a Nobel Prize candidate. How about them apples, huh? 
Jane: Oh, I’m very happy for you (all traces of happiness are gone).

Mary: Oy, I forgot to tell you, I’m so excited. My daughter Laurie has been proposed to by the Prince of Transylvania. They’ll have a royal wedding in the summer!

Jane tries to say something, but chokes. There’s only so much she can take.

Curtain.

***

True friendship should meet at least two requirements:

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The ability to rejoice in your friend’s happiness

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The willingness to do things that may not benefit you, but will benefit your friend.

These are necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient in themselves. In any event, few friends meet even these two criteria.

Shared joys make a friend, not shared sufferings.

Friedrich Nietzsche

A true friend is the greatest of all blessings, and that which we take the least care of all to acquire.

François de la Rochefoucauld

Envy and anger are two of the greatest obstacles we need to overcome before we can experience joy. To discuss this joyous issue, I’d like to turn to one of the biggest experts in this field, St Francis of Assisi.

This Christian saint was born in the late 12th century as the son of a wealthy merchant. Upon having a revelation (or a few, depending on your source), he decided to renounce all earthly possessions (a biography that resembles that of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism), and embraced Joy and Jesus. St Francis was deeply influenced by Matthew 10:9–10, which reads: ‘Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves …’ (This always reminds me of the splendid scene in Fellini’s movie Roma where he mocks the Vatican clergy who put on a splendid ‘fashion show’ and display of riches, clearly having forgotten all about either Matthew or Francis.)

Two orders, one for men and one for women, were established in Francis’s spirit. St Francis of Assisi was named patron saint of animals and also, together with Catherine of Siena, patron saint of Italy. His followers lived a simple and austere life indeed, happily wandering around Umbria and singing songs of praise for almost anything.

Many legends are associated with St Francis, who reportedly used to talk to animals, flowers and trees as if they were his friends. According to one legend, he persuaded a wolf to forgo his evil ways and even convinced the creature to make a peace pact with the local villagers. Another legend has him thanking his donkey for its faithful services, which made the donkey burst into tears.

For it is in giving that we receive and it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

St Francis of Assisi

Scholars consider St Francis the first Italian poet known today. Many writers and thinkers were influenced by his lore. Here is one of my favourite tales, as told by Tolstoy:

Perfect Joy

One winter day, St Francis was returning to his monastery from Perugia with Brother Leo, and the bitter cold made them shiver. St Francis called to Brother Leo, who was walking a bit ahead of him, and said: ‘Brother Leo, even if the Friars Minor [Conventual Franciscans] in every country give a great example of holiness and integrity and good edification – nevertheless, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.’

And when he had walked on a bit, St Francis called him again, saying: ‘Brother Leo, even if one of the Friars Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what is still more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days – write that perfect joy is not in that.’

And going on a bit, St Francis cried out again in a strong voice: ‘Brother Leo, if a Friar Minor knew all languages and all sciences and Scripture, if he also knew how to prophesy and to reveal not only the future but also the secrets of the consciences and minds of others – write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.’

And as they walked on, after a while St Francis called again forcefully: ‘Brother Leo, Little Lamb of God, even if a Friar Minor could speak with the voice of an angel, and knew the courses of the stars and the powers of herbs, and knew all about the treasures in the earth, and if he knew the qualities of birds and fishes, animals, humans, roots, trees, rocks and waters – write down and note carefully that true joy is not in that.’ Now when he had been talking this way, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: ‘Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is.’

And St Francis replied:‘When we come to St Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of our own monastery, and the brother porter comes and says angrily: ‘Who are you?’ And we say: ‘We are two of your brothers.’ And he contradicts us, saying: ‘You are not telling the truth. Rather you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!’ And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls – then, if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that God makes him speak against us, oh, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there!

‘And if we continue to knock, and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying: ‘Get away from here, you dirty thieves! Go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won’t eat or sleep here.’ And if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, oh, Brother Leo, that is perfect joy!’

Things My Mother Told Me (or, the Polygraph Test)

My mother was a teacher of Russian literature for many years, and though she has been an Israeli for the past few decades she still enjoys and admires Russian culture. One day, while visiting me, she related the following story:

A week ago I was watching Russian TV and stumbled upon a show of the kind you don’t like, a game show. This one was called The Polygraph. Participants are hooked up to a lie detector and asked increasingly embarrassing questions. When the machine confirms they spoke the truth, they win money and the sum grows until they answer some 20 questions truthfully and they receive the accumulated sum, or – if the machine decides they lied – they lose it all.

A woman who competed on the show did very well and had a large sum of money to her credit when the hosts presented her with a relatively simple question that was not embarrassing at all:

‘Are you happy?’ The woman said she was, but the machine said she wasn’t. She lost everything, and the network sponsors kept their money.’

What happened there? Clearly, if the contestant was aware she wasn’t in seventh heaven and overflowing with bliss and joy, she could have admitted as much and walked away with the jackpot. There’s no shame in being unhappy. So why did she not admit that? It seems to me that she truly believed that, given the circumstances, she was happy, and she said so.

Though I’m fully aware of the limitations of a lie detector, I thought it might be very interesting to see how the machine would respond if we hooked up several people and asked them if they were happy. Particularly interesting would be cases in which people thought they were not happy, and the polygraph disagreed.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve decided I’ll subject myself to such a test, but only after I finish writing this book. I am too happy now and don’t want some silly machine to spoil it for me.

On Pride and Prejudice

Once, the Little Prince encountered the conceited man.

‘Ah! Ah! I am about to receive a visit from an admirer!’ he exclaimed from afar, when he first saw the Little Prince coming. For to conceited men, all other men are admirers.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

‘A proud look’ is ‘the first of seven abominations’ listed in Proverbs 6, and Christians traditionally place pride among the seven deadly sins. So, what is pride?

Spinoza maintained that a person is proud when, out of self-love, he thinks he is more than he really is. If Spinoza asked me, I would say that pride is an over-motivated error of judgement. In any event, Spinoza remarked that the opposite doesn’t exist, that no man thinks of himself to be less than he is out of self-hate.

He who despises himself, esteems himself as a self-despiser.

Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche
(if they ever decided to coin phrases together)

Judging from my experience, I would add that when a person says bad things about himself, he is actually fishing for compliments, praise and encouragement. On certain occasions I perform in front of an audience, playing the piano. Before I started my recitals, I used to tell my would-be listeners that piano playing is not my main line of work, that actually I’m a mathematician and a writer. Having made that statement, I used to feel most encouraged, knowing that it wouldn’t be terrible if I slipped up here and there. I stopped doing that recently. If you can’t play well, don’t play in front of an audience. It’s perfectly all right, of course, to play in the privacy of your own home where only you and your non-judgemental neighbours can hear.

The title of this subsection is no accident. Jane Austen was indeed an expert on pride. (When I was younger I used to ridicule her writing, but that was because I was arrogant and stupid. Today I very much enjoy reading the works of this wonderful writer.) Just look at the distinctions she makes between the various types of pride:

Vanity and pride are different things.[…] A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity to what we would have others think of us.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What lovely insight! Though superbia (the Latin name of that sin) is translated into ‘vanity’ and ‘pride’ interchangeably, these are two different things.

Inspired by wise Austen, I should like to add that I believe that modesty and humility are also two different things. A person who is truly humble demonstrates perhaps the rarest and most beautiful of human qualities. Modesty, however, is often a kind of pride in disguise. For example, I once read an interview with a chess world champion (whom I shall not name) in which he was asked how he manages to see so many moves in advance. ‘I am an ordinary man,’ the champ said. ‘There is nothing special about me.’ And I wondered: why this answer? If he is an ordinary man, than the rest of us are plain morons. I don’t believe he did not know that he’d been blessed with a special gift. An honest answer would have been: ‘I am a chess mastermind, and therefore I can see the next few moves before they take place.’ What’s the point of the fake modesty in his actual answer?

When tennis champion Roger Federer was in his prime, he used to offer enlightening explanations when he lost games, which was very rare at the time. He would say: ‘I lost today because I did not concentrate enough. Clearly, I am the world’s best tennis player, and when I am in the zone, no one can beat me.’ I’d take this honest and proud answer over any kind of fake modesty any time.

Considering the psychology of modesty, we can detect an interesting dynamic here. Why would people pretend to be modest? Possibly because they think that if they told us what they really think of themselves, we’d be so amazed that we’d lose control of how we might respond. I’d say to him: ‘Don’t worry. We’re cool.’

Don’t be so modest; you’re not that great.

Golda Meir

Three Is Cacophony

Two important rabbis were praying in the woods together when one rabbi fell to the ground and yelled: ‘I am nothing. I am a big zero. My body is a walking wound with nine holes. I have a sinner’s soul. I am not worthy!’

The other rabbi hurled himself down, mumbling a very similar sentiment: ‘I am no more than a bug. My life is worth nothing at all.’

While the two rabbis were squirming on the ground, they suddenly saw a young yeshiva student hitting the ground next to them, yelling: ‘I am nothing! God, I am less than nothing. A little bug is huge next to me!’

The two rabbis stood up, grabbed the youngster by the collar, looked down upon him, and said: ‘Listen, you arrogant boy! Who are you to say you are nothing?’

A conceited man, even if he spends a long time close to a wise man, shall not know the taste of wisdom more than a spoon knows the taste of food it conveys.

Leo Tolstoy

A Very Short Treatise on Desire

Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.

Michelangelo

We all have passions and desires, and they vary. To love, to see, to hear and to talk are but a drop in the ocean of human desires. Spinoza believed that passion (cupiditas) is the core of man’s essence, but he also said:

Man’s inability to control his passions is what I call enslavement, because a person who is subject to them no longer holds his own ground, and against his will is attracted to evil, though he can clearly see good before him.

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics

Spinoza truly believed not only that the thinking mind is unable to overcome passions, but that the two are not even of equal power. Passions can be defeated only by stronger passions. While Oscar Wilde thought that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it, Spinoza tells us that the only way to get rid of temptation is to find a stronger one.

Before we start dwelling on the subject, let us first make an important disefotinction between desire, demand and need – and discuss their interactions. In his La Signification du Phallus, Jacques Lacan, the prominent and highly influential French psychoanalyst and philosopher of psychiatry, made the following important distinction, which he presented in mathematical form:

Desire = Demand – Need

That is, if we subtract what we need from what we demand, what’s left is desire. In most cases, a need is a biological urge or instinct, and we express it by demanding things. What we have left after the original need was satisfied is the result of desire. Lacan added that desire is also active along margins where demand is not directly related to need.

Here are a few small examples. If a person needs four pairs of shoes for his everyday life, but has 707 pairs in his closet, the remaining 703 pairs represent his desire for shoes. When at a dinner party or family gathering we keep eating, even though we have satisfied our physical hunger, this is gluttony or a desire for food.

In my private library I have more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. Here, there was no biological need. This is the result of my desire for the written word. When there’s no biological need, demand and desire are fused together. I refer to such cases as ‘pure desire’.

A need appears in the face of an object that can satisfy it (a warm coat on a winter day); while desire is directed at the object that provoked it (in my case: a beautiful woman, a piece of music by Bach, a good book). The thing is, while a need can be satisfied, satisfying a desire is quite a rarity. Personally, I believe I’ll never be able to say I’ve seen enough beautiful women, heard enough fine music, or read enough good books. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek remarked that the raison d’être of desire is not to be satisfied, but to expand – desires don’t want to be closed, but always want to want more.

Being as fond of lists and tables as I am, I couldn’t help myself: I prepared a table of desires. Before we go there, I’d like to remind my readers of that fundamental insight I expressed (on page 47) regarding trivial and profound truths. This is particularly appropriate when it comes to the field of desires: we may have conflicting desires, and this often applies to the strongest desires we have.

Feel free to add some of your own, if you so desire.

to love

to be loved

knowledge

to see

to hear

to speak

sexual desire

food

happiness

fame

meaning

money

power

eternal life

authenticity

appreciation

boredom

ignorance

the desire to forego desires

   

Ten Little Remarks about Big Desires

Remark 1

Clearly, Love is desire. We all desire more love. We’ll never say we loved or were loved enough.

In The Banquet, Plato (with Phaedrus as his mouthpiece) argued that in every couple, one loves more and the other is loved more. Most of us desire both: to love and to be loved. French writer George Sand said that the greatest happiness possible is to love and be loved in return (her words were slightly modified by Eden Ahbez for Nat King Cole’s song ‘Nature Boy’).

But things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Polish painter and journalist Janina Ipohorska once wrote: ‘I love and am loved; I’m only sorry it is not the same man.’

Remark 2

Some of you may be surprised to see that I included Boredom in the list of desires, but boredom is our desire to have a desire. I’d love to think that I came up with this idea, but I’m not so sure – I may have read something like it in Tolstoy’s works.

Remark 3

Do we desire Knowledge? Do we really want to know? Well, some things we do and some things we don’t. Lacan maintained that, contrary to the view whereby curiosity (Wissenstrieb) is innate, ‘I don’t want to know’ is actually the basic and spontaneous position of human beings.

Let me give you an example. I don’t believe there are many among us who want to know when they will die. Not knowing our expiration date makes us all slightly immortal. By the same token, animals are not even aware that they will die, and thus they live outside the dimension of time: theirs is the kingdom of eternity.

One of the Greek myths I find most horrid speaks of a punishment meted out to the Cyclops who was informed of the day of his death. I believe that for quite a few humans whose life is already hard, knowing when it will all end would make life intolerable.

For me, one of the most moving stories about life with a deadline appears in a scene from Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner (based on a Philip K Dick story), in which replicant (android) Roy, who loves life, begs his maker to revoke his expiry date and give him some more time. Just like most of us, Roy wants more life. Though this doesn’t happen, Roy spends his last moments saving the man who was sent to kill him. Roy doesn’t only love his own life: he loves Life.

I know I’ve chosen quite an extreme example, but there are many other things, except the time of our death, that we would not like to know, including things that happened, things that are about to happen, things about ourselves, and things about others whom we love or hate.

Emmanuel Kant was bothered by the question ‘What can be known?’ and Friedrich Nietzsche asked, ‘What is worth knowing?’ The wise medieval Jewish physician and thinker Maimonides had an interesting view of the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis, believing that Adam and Eve did the right thing when they ate fruit from the Tree, even though they risked the death penalty by doing so. Maimonides felt that living as an aware and knowing human being is better than being stuck forever in a Fool’s Paradise, having no mind or wisdom. According to him, curiosity is not a sin, and the omniscient God who created us in His image knew that we would forever seek knowledge.

Aware of these two conflicting desires, Socrates believed that the desire for knowledge is the utmost good, while the desire to be ignorant is absolute evil. He felt that a life unquestioned is not worth living, and demanded: ‘Know thyself!’

Others, however, thought that knowing yourself is a blessing in disguise, at best. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, disagreed with Socrates: ‘If I knew myself, I’d try to run away; but how can I run from myself, and where would I go when I carry myself with me always?’

Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem took man’s encounter with ‘himself’ a step further. In Solaris, he describes how people who face things hidden deep inside their minds actually go mad and even commit suicide. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Personally, I have no problem with both views on knowledge, because we’ve all realized at some point or other that profound truths are usually countered by other profound truths. As humans, we have a desire to know, but also a desire to be ignorant, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, ‘Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness’ (Ecclesiastes 2:13), while on the other, ‘For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow’ (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

The 1,000 Masks Experiment (inspired by Nietzsche)

If you set out to closely know thyself, and if you think you have the courage to do so by removing all the masks you are wearing, try the following experiment. Choose a quiet room. Go in. Turn off the lights, close all windows and curtains, eliminate all possible sources of noise or any other form of disturbance, and sit quietly. Rest a while, focus, and ask yourself the following questions: Who am I really? What do I really want to do with myself? What would I do if anything were possible? Who do I love? Who do I hate? Why do I hate them? Do I envy others? Who are they? Why do I envy them? Ignoring all social conventions, how do I truly feel about my parents, partner and siblings? What was my worst thought ever? Can I be trusted at the moment of truth? Am I courageous? Do I fear death? Am I being honest with myself right now as I answer these questions?

Nietzsche remarked that it’s no accident that the source of the English word ‘person’ is the Latin term persona – namely, ‘mask’ or ‘role’. I find this etymology profound. Indeed, we’re all wearing masks and playing roles all the time. We are pretenders.

On that note, I strongly recommend that you take the time and, the first chance you get, catch Ingmar Bergman’s insightful film Persona. One of the movie’s characters completely stops talking, realizing that everything she says is a lie.

We are so used to pretending in the presence of others, that we fail to notice that we pretend even when we are alone.

When we try to fool others, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But when we attempt to fool ourselves, our success rates are phenomenal, with one success following another.

One of the most interesting things about the mask experiment is the fact that once we remove a mask, we’re surprised to find another mask right underneath it. That mask is harder to remove, but if we succeed … we discover another mask. It seems endless. We have multiple layers of masks that prevent us from truly getting to know ourselves (I suspect this is for mental health reasons).

The farthest I’ve ever got to was my third mask. After that, it became too scary. People who are not scared by this experiment are either doing it wrong or living in endless denial.

Remark 4

Sexual desire looms large. Well, you know what I mean. Henry Miller once said: ‘Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation … The other eight are unimportant.’ Enough said.

Remark 5

There’s often a strong desire for things that are Real. The 20th and 21st centuries are filled with forgery and falsehood. Here’s a partial list: we have decaffeinated coffee; alcohol-free beer; soft drinks with fewer calories and less taste (how did they ever manage to convince us they were even drinkable?); sugar- and cholesterol-free cakes; virtual sex; books without words; wars fought with no enemy in sight; reality shows instead of real life; bourgeois weekend spirituality instead of real inner work; people without personalities; meaningless words; Facebook ‘friends’ instead of real friendships; polite idioms instead of manners or caring; never-ending soap operas that replace our real lives; couch sports; people who spend their time and money on changing their appearance; trivial pursuits instead of seeking knowledge and understanding – and I’m only warming up here, so don’t get me started!

Is there anything real left? I believe that pain is always real, and true love must be. It’s no wonder that young people turn up blind alleys seeking the Real.

To be absolutely true and honest is to live with your heart on your sleeve. It means losing control. Most people are so scared that others might know what they really think and fear, who they truly love and who they hate – that they keep everything bottled up inside. This is why Nietzsche believed that lying is fundamental for human existence, and why Chekhov said that most people’s real lives take place inside the secret compartments of their hearts that only they can access.

Remark 6

The desire to be happy is shared by all humans. There are countless variations of happiness and the word itself could mean whatever you want it to mean – but it’s a basic human desire. However, it might be a doubleedged sword.

Einstein remarked that he would rather solve complicated equations than be happy, but I believe – with all due respect – that he too wanted to be happy and that solving equations was his way to get there.

Certain psychologists maintain that ‘happiness is the betrayal of desires’, while others argue that ‘desire betrays happiness’; and some psychoanalysts view the denial of all desires as bliss.

In Buddhist tradition, tanha (desire or thirst) is the source of almost all human trouble, strife and suffering. When you entertain a passion for happiness, the Buddha said, you’re actually betraying your happiness, because you cannot be happy when you desire to be happy.

A word of caution, though, before we decide to renounce our desires: even Buddhist monks might succumb to the desire to forsake all desires.

Desire in the mind is the real impurity and a very great evil.

Swami Sivananda

I do not totally agree with the psychoanalysts or with the Buddhist monks. I guess it all depends on where you want to go. As for me, I have certain desires that I greatly enjoy, and I would love to be their slave (though I’d gladly renounce others).

Remark 7

The desires to See, Hear and Speak are deep-rooted. Just observe people around you and see how these three-in-one desires play out. We could travel the world far and wide, and still not be satisfied with the vistas we saw. A friend once asked me why I travelled to Switzerland (apparently, he felt it was a boring country). If I died without ever seeing Switzerland, I replied, and went to the Afterlife for a discussion of my next abode, I’d run the risk of upsetting God. After all, He worked hard to create the Jungfrau and the Creux du Van and the Trümmelbach Falls, so the least I can do is make the effort to see them.

The book you’re reading now was born out my desire to talk about things that interest me. I hope that you too, my dear reader, view this book as a conversation between friends. Yes, I can hear you.

I write because I cannot help it. I write comments in the margins of books I read. I have notebooks in which I write down ideas when they come to mind or songs that I enjoyed. I type words and sentences on my keyboard and place them in my hard drive. I wrote even when I didn’t believe that my writings would ever turn into real books, get published and find readers.

Remark 8

Diotima, a wise Greek woman, was the one who told Socrates that we only desire that which we ‘do not own’. She further educated him that the harder it is to gain something, the more we desire it. Gaining immortality is absolutely impossible, which is why it has always been one of the greatest human desires. Yet, speaking of ancient Greeks, let me remind you that when Odysseus was offered immortality (the nymph Calypso desired to make him her immortal husband), he declined and said, ‘I want to go home.’ Yes, things are always more complicated than they seem.

Remark 9

Most of us strongly desire a Meaningful Life. We don’t want to remain as actors on the stage of life after the director has stopped giving instructions or quit the production altogether. We need to know what role we’ll play, and many of us want more lines.

Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.

Henry Miller

Remark 10

The desire for Appreciation is formidable. I once heard that shortly after William James completed The Principles of Psychology, his monumental, 1,200-page double volume, he said it should be destroyed, because in the process of writing it he failed to consider the deepest human desire: the desire for appreciation.

Naturally, all of us want to feel appreciated. We want our parents, friends and even enemies to think kindly if not highly of us. We even want the appreciation of people we don’t care about at all (‘What will the neighbours say?’) – or even complete strangers.

Deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.

Mark Twain

We all want to be envied. We want to be famous. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, as I’ve mentioned above, shared the insight that people who despise themselves esteem themselves as self-despisers. Rabindranath Tagore remarked that even very wise and old people try to make a good impression, and that we all enjoy compliments even if we know they aren’t genuine. Furthermore, people who tend to reject our compliments are actually fishing for more and asking us to repeat them.

In all of us there is, to some degree, a little of the conceited man who meets the Little Prince. Still, as we’ve found out by now, nothing is simple. Delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex often cohabit in the psyche of the same person.

French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal used to wear a belt with sharp metal spikes on the inner side. Whenever he noticed he was bragging and trying to impress others, or even just himself, he would pull hard on that belt. I find this attitude a bit too severe. For me, the desire to win people’s appreciation is human, provided it’s proportionate. And even if it’s wrong, there are much worse things in our psychological make-up to worry about.

The Desire to Rule and to Judge (the Prince meets a king)

In the first asteroid he visits on his voyage, the Little Prince meets an old and strange king who has an uncontrollable urge to dominate the world and command everyone. But he is also a wise leader and issues only sensible orders (which is quite rare, I must add). Tired from his long journey, the prince yawns while facing the king.

‘It is contrary to etiquette to yawn in the presence of a king,’ the monarch said to him. ‘I forbid you to do so.’

‘I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself,’ replied the Little Prince, thoroughly embarrassed. ‘I have come on a long journey, and I have had no sleep …’

‘Ah, then,’ the king said. ‘I order you to yawn. It is years since I have seen anyone yawning. Yawns, to me, are objects of curiosity. Come, now! Yawn again! It is an order.’

You see how moderate and reasonable that king is being? He soon adds:

‘If I ordered a general … to change himself into a seabird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault.’

Not all rulers are like that king. Many leaders order their subordinates to do really absurd things, and often they are heeded. History is full of such examples, mostly tragic ones.

Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.

David Hume

The king, who very much wants such a charming subject, decides to tempt the Prince to stay and even offers to make him a minister, and not just any minister, but Minister of Justice. When the Little Prince remarks that ‘there is nobody here to judge’, the king says:

‘Then you shall judge yourself. That is the most difficult thing of all. It is much more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.’

In Chapter 1 on Happiness, we already discussed the question of why people so easily believe everything bad they hear about others, but doubt the good things they hear about them. Remember La Rochefoucauld’s reply? ‘If we had no faults of our own, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.’

It appears that our desire to judge others may spring from guilt. Yet Dostoevsky believed that our impulse to judge and to punish is linked with the strong urge for vengeance that people have. After the French Revolution, the infamous Marquis de Sade was made a judge, but was fired soon after because he failed to employ the guillotine enough. The marquis, whose name is the origin of the word ‘sadism’, was found to be not cruel enough! He felt that when occupying the judge’s bench you should not harm people. It seemed perfectly logical for him to kill a man in a fit of rage, but separating a person from his head in cold blood – that was too much even for him.

A Chinese saying recommends that we judge no one before we walk a thousand miles in their shoes. The New Testament calls on us to look at the whole picture: ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye’ (Matthew 7:3–5). And Jewish sage Hillel suggested: ‘Judge not thy friend until thou standest in his place’ (Ethics of the Fathers).

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Plato

The way I read Hillel’s remarks is: ‘Never judge thy friend’, because you’ll never stand in exactly the same place as him. And if, by some miracle, I do find myself standing in his place, then I’m exactly like him, and there’s no justification for me to judge him.

How can anyone judge another? Who can tell whose blood is redder? The beggar in the street corner may be dearer to God than the scholar or the VIP. The beggar could have done deeds that God holds dearer than anything a monarch has done.

Certain people treat others as if they were invisible, particularly when they consider themselves to be important. Is the guard at the university gate less important than the professors he welcomes every day? To whom? Why?

Before God, we are all equally wise – and equally foolish.

Albert Einstein

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by the Dalai Lama when he spoke of the connection between our tendency to judge others, our anger and our wisdom. He remarked that anger always contains a misplaced desire to judge. For example, when we stand at a traffic light and someone behind us honks the minute the light turns green, our hearts are filled with anger and we judge that person severely. If we do that, we’re making a mistake, the Dalai Lama said. Who knows why that person honked? Perhaps he’s rushing to the hospital. It could be a soccer mom, late, speeding to pick up her stranded daughter. Perhaps it’s a man who was just told he was seriously ill and is now a nervous wreck. The truth is that we know nothing about the source of that honk, and so a wise person shouldn’t get angry or judge.

When the Little Prince eventually decides to go back on the road and judge himself elsewhere, the king can’t just let him go.

‘I make you my Ambassador,’ the king called out, hastily.
He had a magnificent air of authority.
‘The grown-ups are very strange,’ the Little Prince said to himself, as he continued on his journey.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

How Much Is Enough?

So what’s the story with money? Well, some people understand that they need money and so it’s quite possible that they will satisfy that need at some point. If, however, they start desiring money, no amount of gold will quench their thirst.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry shed plenty of light on the issue. In the fourth planet that the Little Prince visits, he finds a businessman who is busy counting stars, believing they belong to him, and hoping to purchase more and more stars by selling those he owns.

When the Prince inquires about the benefit the businessman derives from ‘owning’ so many stars, he answers:

‘I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.’

The entire chapter is a deep parody about money. After all, a $100 bill by itself is worth nothing at all. It’s worth whatever we decide … or rather, whatever we decide to pretend it’s worth.

Furthermore, why should we care about what our bank balance says? If that balance reads 100 million, does this make us happier than, say, 88 million? Most of us do have such a total written or printed on a sheet of paper (or computer software) and locked away in some drawer or file, and the larger that number, the more content and satisfied we are, just like that businessman.

This is all very strange indeed. Looks like we have no choice but to ask Baruch Spinoza for some input. After he explained vanity so nicely, I wonder how he feels about greed.

Well, he has plenty to say, so let me summarize his view: greed, he believes, is an unrestrained passion and uncontrollable desire for an excess of assets.

How Much Land Does a Man Need? (based very freely on a Tolstoy story)

Boris Landovsky had a strange hobby. He loved to collect land. He already had plenty of territory, but remember: a desire cannot be satisfied. Boris even used to joke about his passion: ‘I don’t need all the land in the world. I just want the plots that border on mine,’ he would tell his friends. And he would smile, pleased with himself.

One day he rose earlier than usual and set out to find a place where he could buy plenty of land for the lowest price possible. Yet, even though he started out early and was in the mood for shopping, it was not a good day. The land he found was either not good enough, or too expensive, or not for sale. At noon, having bought nothing, he decided to go for a drink in a village pub.

As he sat there, gloomy and sad, three bearded Chechens approached him. They wanted to sell their plot and heard he was buying. ‘We have a lot of land, and the soil is good too, and our price is quite low,’ the bearded Chechens said.

‘Where is your land?’ Boris asked, and a spark of excitement appeared in his eye.

‘A 15-minute walk from here,’ the Chechens estimated.

‘Shall we?’ Boris suggested.

After a 15-minute walk, the three Chechens and Mr Landovsky arrived at a magnificent field, spreading green and wide as far as the eye could see.

‘What do you want for this land?’ the merchant inquired.

‘Well, the deal is quite simple,’ the Chechens said. ‘You give us 100 roubles, and then you have till sunset to choose the size of the plot you want. You do that by simply walking around it. Whatever land you encircle by foot … is yours. There is, however, just one very strict rule: you must make a full circle while the sun is in the sky. If you fail to return to your starting point by sunset, you lose your money.’

‘You can’t be serious?’ Boris said, sceptically.

‘Chechens are always serious,’ they said very seriously.

‘So why am I wasting time? Here’s your 100 roubles. May I start walking now?’

‘Go right ahead,’ they said.

Mr Landovsky set off. ‘I’ve never made such a wonderful deal,’ he thought. ‘I’d better make the best of it.’ After walking for a minute or two, he started running. This was a rare opportunity, since all he had to do was make a circle around the plot he desired in order to make the most of it. The serious, bearded Chechens watched him as he ran farther and farther away from them, and Mr Landovsky looked up to make sure the sun was in the right place. It was well above him.

He kept running. He ran and ran, and there was only one thought in his head: ‘I must run just a little more, I must not waste a piece of land here. I’m sure I’ll make it to the starting point on time. What would be a good time to start running back? Not now. Not yet. I need more land.’

Mr Landovsky glanced at the sun again and was surprised to see it was not that high any more. He decided it was time to go back (though he was not pleased with this decision) and started running faster to beat the deadline. To his amazement, two sad facts became immediately apparent to him. First, it is rather difficult to run fast after you have been running for several hours, particularly if you are over 40. Second, when you are in a hurry to beat the sunset, the sun starts descending twice as fast as it does on ordinary days.

Our Boris (let us drop the formality) ran as fast as he could, but the pain in his left side was growing intolerable, blood pumped hard in his veins and his lungs could not get enough air.

Seeing the Chechens standing on the horizon, he gave it a final push. The sun disappeared from view, leaving a red glimmer on the horizon. He reached the starting point.

‘It’s mine! The land is all mine!’ he thought in a daze.

Sadly, that was his last thought. Boris collapsed and passed away.

‘Well, the amount of land a man truly needs is two by six feet under,’ the Chechens seriously said to each other as they covered the fresh grave with rich soil.

Incidentally, Tolstoy loved purchasing land when he was young. It’s quite possible that he dedicated that story to himself. (The great Irish novelist James Joycewrote to his daughter that ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ is ‘the greatest story that the literature of the world knows’.) It appears that Tolstoy the writer was much wiser than Tolstoy the man.

So, we’ve learned that greed is not a good thing. So what? Why, then, do so many people admire figures – from Tutankhamun to the modern world’s oligarchs – who were acquisitive and had almost everything they coveted? These days no one is really ashamed of their wealth.

It’s no shame to be poor ... but it’s no great honour either.

Tevye the Dairyman, in Fiddler on the Roof

In fact, Tolstoy believed that a good man cannot be rich and a rich man cannot be good. Late in his life, he actually loathed property and riches.

However, we must not rush to conclusions.

In the USSR tens of millions of people were murdered by two sworn money-haters, Lenin and Stalin. Extremism is never a good idea.

All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions.

William Butler Yeats

Nevertheless, while it’s wrong to hate money, we shouldn’t crave it too much either. Aristotle said that the right approach to almost anything is somewhere in between the extremes, though usually not quite at the very middle.

Greed is a desire that can’t be satisfied, because people not only want to be rich, they want to be richer. That is, richer than everybody else – and that’s a real problem.

The following dialogue is taken from the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Jacob is a young and ambitious trader who tries to pick the brain of Bretton, the head of an investment bank and the film’s villain.

Jacob: What’s your number?

Bretton: Excuse me?

Jacob: The amount of money you would need to be able to walk away from it all and just live happily ever after. See, I find that everyone has a number and it’s usually an exact number, so what’s yours?
Bretton: More.

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Matthew 16:27

Benjamin Franklin argued that money never made a single person happy. Furthermore, as one of the founding fathers of the land of the free and the brave, Franklin believed that it’s in the nature of money to prevent all chances of happiness. The great American maintained that money activates a mental apparatus in people that makes them desire money in direct proportion to the amount of money they already own. That is, the more money a person has, the more bills and coins they feel they need. At a certain point, many of those money-grabbers even forget what money is for, and simply keep collecting more of it.

A money lover will never be satisfied, because passions are hard to gratify.

I resent hypocrisy, however, which is why I cannot say that money is not important. It is. I am, therefore, always surprised when I come across some weird academic study that refutes the correlation between happiness and wealth. Clearly, the authors of those studies have never really starved, nor was money ever missing from their pockets. Of course happiness and wealth are connected! It’s much nicer to write a book while sitting in a splendid room in a large house overlooking an enchanted lake than to do the same in a single-bedroom apartment in a poor and violent neighbourhood. Disdaining money is much nicer when one sits at the top of society’s heap of power and glory than feeling the same way on the margins of society. I do not dismiss money. All I’m saying is that we should heed Schopenhauer and not believe that money is all we need, and we should avoid turning money into a passion that overrides every other passion we have.

At the door of the miserable rich man sleeps the contented beggar.

Tibetan saying

Geography Lesson

On the sixth planet, the Little Prince meets a geographer who spends his days drawing maps, but never leaves his desk. As the conversation between the two unfolds, the prince begins to question the geographer’s desire, the impulse that motivates ‘the old gentleman who wrote voluminous books’. Was it the desire to gain knowledge or the desire for appreciation?

‘The geographer is much too important to go loafing about. He does not leave his desk, but he receives the explorers in his study.’

(Notice how the geographer speaks of himself in the third person.)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once remarked that no philosopher would be interested in anything if it didn’t provide him with an opportunity to impress others. What can we learn about this French moralist from that remark?

I’ve met quite a few academics who cared about prestige much more than they concerned themselves with their field of study. They wrote the same article repeatedly, slightly modifying it to create new versions, and sent their work to scientific journals, seeking fame and wishing to feel important. Of course, most scientists aren’t like that, and are nothing like the geographer either. Most of them are driven by a real desire to gain knowledge.

Let us go back, then, to our old and tedious geographer. Look at what he busies himself with! What a waste of life! Like Rabbit from the Hundred Acre Wood, the geographer knows so much that he understands nothing at all. When the Little Prince tells him that there are three volcanoes, a baobab tree and a rose on his planet, the geographer says that he doesn’t care about such things.

‘We do not record flowers,’ said the geographer.

‘Why is that? The flower is the most beautiful thing on my planet!’

‘We do not record them,’ said the geographer, ‘because they are ephemeral.’

‘What does that mean – “ephemeral”?’

‘It means, that which is in danger of speedy disappearance.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

All beauty must die.

Traditional wisdom, expressed by Nick Cave and others

Here now is a short postscript on desire. I once heard a lecture by an educated person who attempted to teach us, his listeners, how to manage desires instead of letting them manage us. The lecture was perfectly delivered, but still, I could not relate to it. I don’t believe we can eliminate our desires, or even guide them in certain directions. I share Baruch Spinoza’s view that the only way to overcome a desire is by having a stronger desire. That philosophical luminary advised that we try to connect with the greatest desire of all – loving God (if you can cultivate a certain mental flexibility, you could interpret this ‘loving God’ approach by the ‘philosopher of philosophers’ as endless love for the world we live in). According to wise Baruch, loving God shall bestow the greatest joy upon us; but he also reminded us that the most beautiful things are necessarily rare.

* These last two are martyr (Arabic) and devotee (Hebrew/Yiddish) respectively.