On Desire: Why We Want What We Want

William B. Irvine, Author . Oxford Univ. $23 (322p) ISBN 978-0-19-518862-2

While most contemporary philosophers mull over theoretical matters and shy away from giving advice on how to live, Irvine plumbs the age-old question: how do we master our desires? When it comes to desire, he says, "we are like a vacation home owner who, regardless of who shows up at the door... welcomes the visitor and convinces himself that he must have invited the visitor." Our evolutionary past, Irvine claims, has wired us for endless dissatisfaction since, from an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't matter if we're miserable as long as we survive and reproduce. Early humans who basked in contentment, he argues, were less likely to survive than ones with a nagging itch to better their lot. Given this treadmill, how can we lead happy, meaningful lives? Irvine shares the advice of those who claim that "undesirable desires arise because we care what other people think of us." Examining teachings of Zen Buddhists, the Amish, the Hutterites, Hellenistic philosophers (the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) and others, he concludes, "the best way to gain... lasting satisfaction... is to change not the world and our position in it but ourselves... we should work at wanting what we already have." This is no easy task, and Irvine admits that readers seeking further instruction had best look elsewhere. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 08/29/2005
Release date: 11/01/2005
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