Quotes & Commentary #24: Ovid

Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

I like to this of this passage as the mirror image of the Jane Eyre quote I wrote about a couple days ago. Eyre overcomes her desires in order to do what she thinks is right; but in this story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, the desire wins in the end.

The passage comes from one of the most memorable tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that of Myrrah. Myrrah is the daughter of Cinyras, king of Cyprus. Due to the malicious intervention of the Furies, Myrrah falls madly in love with her father. She spends months fighting this desire, struggling all through the night, until finally she attempts suicide. Her maid discovers the suicide attempt and stops her; then, to prevent any further suicide attempts, the maid agrees to help Myrrah satisfy her taboo desire. In the end, Myrrah succeeds in sleeping with her father; then she is discovered, flees, gets turned into a tree (a common occurrence in Ovid’s universe), and gives birth to Adonis.

This quote stuck in my mind for summing up, with such pith and force, the all too common experience of wanting something you think you shouldn’t want. The case of having lust for your own father is obviously extreme. Most often, I have a craving for unhealthy food and excessive drink; or my desire to laze about and do nothing does battle with my urge to be productive.

I tend to think of these situations, not as my desires fighting against my reason, but as my short-term desires (bacon pizza) fighting against my long-term desires (living to be eighty years old). Reason is simply not a motivation for action. In and of itself, no action is more logical than any other action; the logicalness of an action is a consequence of whether or not it achieves its desired goal; in other words, only in the context of a goal can an action be said to be sensible or not.

In and of itself, no desire is logical or illogical either. Our desires are simply givens. They are facts, and facts cannot be logical or illogical. We are born with our desires, or we develop them; but we certainly don’t choose to have them. Desires become logical or illogical only in the context of other desires; that is, if one desire contradicts another one—such as the desire for bacon pizza and the desire to be an octogenarian—then some logic is needed to negotiate the internal conflict.

Thus, reason has two functions in decision making: negotiating between conflicting desires, and figuring out how to satisfy desires. Take the case of Myrrah. She had two very strong desires: first, she wanted to abide by the laws of society and maintain her position in the world; second, she wanted to have sex with her father. Those desires contradict. She was paralyzed by indecision, not because her reason prevented her, but because both desires were almost equally matched. She was inflamed by love, but also terrified of the consequences. (Fear is a type of negative desire.)

Now, normally we use our reason to envisage and understand the long-term consequences of an action. By envisioning the long-term consequences, we desire things far in the future. “Reasonable” action, as it is commonly called, is usually the desire for something far in the future; and “unreasonable” action, so-called, is desire for immediate gratification. The function of the reason is not to generate desires, but to help discover them, so to speak, by taking the long view. Without some ability to think abstractly, for example, I wouldn’t be able to understand that eating bacon pizza is not good for my heart, or that my heart is needed for long-term living.

We would call Myrrah’s action unreasonable because the short-term desire won out in the end. No matter how vividly she pictured the negative consequences, she still desired her father more than she feared being banished or killed. Yet Myrrah did have to use her reason—and quite cleverly, too—in order to satisfy this “unreasonable” desire, because she had to create a plan that would allow her to deceive her father. In a similar vein, I have been amazed by the care, ingenuity, and dedication that some marijuana users have shown in procuring and consuming their herb.

The case of Myrrah is obviously a special one. But I think it is generally true that everyone ends up doing things that they feel they “shouldn’t” be doing, because their short-term desire was too strong to resist.

One reason for this, I think, is that we have collectively chosen to call actions “wise” that are oriented towards the distant pleasures, while actions oriented towards immediate pleasures are “unwise,” or at the very least less wise.

Thus when we do something hedonistic or impulsive, we feel that we “shouldn’t” be doing so. But it is a basic rule of psychology that we always want what we are told not to want. We’ve known this since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

The story of Myrrah is another example of this. The poor girl wants the thing most strongly forbidden by society. And of course any time you draw a line in the sand, all you’re doing is tempting fate.

Besides, it is instinctive that telling someone that they “should” want something only makes them resentful towards it. Nobody likes doing things if they feel obligated to do them; nor is it easy to enjoy doing something if it feels like a responsibility.

The trick, I think, is not to tell yourself that you “should” do something or “shouldn’t” do another thing. It is to remind yourself that you want something, something in the future that you’ll really enjoy, and thus you are really not sacrificing anything in the long-run by acting “wisely.” Indeed, you’re doing the opposite of sacrificing: you are being intelligently hedonistic.

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