Limits Must Be Imposed On Our Desires

Among the many problems that we are faced with today is the lack of restraint, the lack of moderation, that is actively supported and encouraged by our culture.  If you have something, you are told that you deserve more.  If you want something, you are told that you deserve to have it.  If something stands in the way of your getting something you think you deserve, you are told how to obtain that thing you desire.  Few people pause to think that what they crave may carry a heavy burden in the long run.

A sensible person has to resist getting swept up by this current.  It is not easy to do.  You are surrounded by choices, by temptations, and by voices prodding you ever forward in the quest for permanent satisfaction.  But knowing how to restrain oneself, and knowing when to stop:  this is the safer course in the long run.  Wise men have understood this, and have tried to put it into practice.  There is an anecdote told about Scipio Africanus the Younger that relates to this point; it is found in the historian Valerius Maximus (Memorable Doings and Sayings IV.10).

When Scipio was serving in the office of censor, he was responsible for handling the details of one of the public religious ceremonies.  As part of this ritual, an attendant was supposed to recite a formulaic prayer from the official register.  It was an invocation in which the gods were asked both to increase the size of the Roman empire and to keep the state safe.  Scipio did not like the tenor of this official prayer.  He felt that its tone was greedy and grasping, and that it sent the wrong message to the people.  He disapproved of an official prayer that asked the gods to increase the size of the empire.

He said, “Our holdings are good and great enough; I pray only that the gods keep them safe in perpetuity.”  Scipio also ordered that the official prayer in the books should be changed in accordance with his new formula. Valerius tells us that from that time forward, Scipio’s changes became permanent.  The people agreed with him that it would be greedy to ask for more when the empire that they had was already so large; so from that point, the prayer only asked for the gods to keep the state safe.

Another example of how moderation was imposed on a people is provided by King Theophrastus of Sparta in the 8th century B.C.  This anecdote is found in Valerius Maximus IV.15.   The historian says that Theophrastus created the ephors as a way to check the power of the monarchy.  When people told him that by creating this institution he was limiting the amount of power he could pass on to his own sons, he responded in the affirmative:  he said that even though he would be passing on less power, that power would be more permanent and stable.  He chose moderation, knowing that it would promote stability.  Valerius says,

This was very well done, for power is only safe when it places limits on the men who wield it.

In our own day, the political elites and politicians pay little attention to these things, if any at all.  They see no reason why any limit should be placed on their appetites; this is why we have military bases in nearly every country across the globe.  This is why conspicuous expenditure is hailed as a virtue, and moderation seen as the mark of timidity.  In due course, the price of all this will be paid.  We cannot know exactly when or how, but there will surely be some kind of reckoning.  Greed and avarice create their own momentum; it is not easy to stop the mad rush for physical or material pleasures once the sickness has taken hold of the mind.  To sustain the momentum of greed, one has to become more and more aggressive, and more and more violent.  It is a cycle of futility that leaves men and nations exhausted and broken; for as Petrarch said, in a letter to Paganino of Milan:

Nothing violent lasts a long time [Nihil violentum, diuturnum].  Modest boundaries of a kingdom are easy to protect; an immense empire is difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to hold on to.

The only way to retain one’s sanity is to impose some sense of moderation on ourselves.  Insisting on more is the surest and shortest way to a man’s ruin.


My new book, Sallust:  The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha, is now available on Amazon.  


7 thoughts on “Limits Must Be Imposed On Our Desires

  1. Possessions are nothing more than the bars of a gilded cage. Most people you know are nothing more than the jailers of the cage. A cage of the mind with the spirit chained to its floor.

    Why are monks so serene? They possess nothing while simultaneously all the riches of the universe dwell in their hearts and minds. Their spirit knows no bounds as it guides their minds on journeys to lands unfathomed by the bejeweled beguiled and the sycophants of the material.

    Throughout history monks have shined light upon the path of truth but few have seen it for they are blinded by the darkness of the shrouded cage. Just like the captive bird whose cage is shrouded at nightfall, the spirits of men are similarly cloistered by the master of the shrouding material. The bird and the man only see what his master allows, the never changing mural on the caged side.

    In the pursuit of everything one must gather nothing. The load becomes the carrot as the goal fades from memory, then only remembered as a dream within a dream as the breathes shallow, the light dims, and eyes blink no more.

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  2. Amen. It seems a common attitude among today’s “rights-oriented” faction is to impose no limits on one’s self, especially one’s appetites, then to demand that the State protect one’s over-indulgence. Several things leap to mind. First, even Epicureans sought an aurea mediocritas; at least it’s a defensible ethos, over and above the fathomless nihilism so prevalent among today’s leisure class. Second, your topic calls to mind G.K. Chesterton: “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self criticism.” Truly a philosopher for any epoch. And lastly, in the movie McLintock, the title character is explaining to his daughter that she is going to encounter a lot of suitors, because she’s attractive and also because she stands to inherit a substantial fortune and land claim. He explains to her that he’s only going to leave her a portion of that inheritance, and that many rumormongers will surmise it’s for this reason or that, but he is doing it so that she and her future husband can grow together while earning their way in the world, just as he and her mother had done. It’s a great scene, delivered in a way only John Wayne can manage, but it speaks to a point that you make in your article. Namely, that the age-old wisdom of gnothi seauton, the Delphic Oracle’s admonition to “know thyself”, is one of life’s chief battles, and therefore one of its chief goals. One’s treasure in life may only be obtained by defeating the dragon. When man and wife live as one flesh, they grow together by confronting life’s pains together, just as an individual grows by confronting his limits, accepting the responsibilities inherent in defeating them, and then by using that burdensome power to exceed his limits.

    Like you say, a price will exacted. There is no free lunch. Scipio didn’t want Rome’s hubris to outstrip its piety, like a tree that climbs ever higher without sinking its roots. I hope that a newfound humility will give us a taste for the wisdom of the Classics; but it may be that only a ruinous fall can cause us to see that wisdom.

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    • “Know thyself”, how very true and the wisest of admonitions. Men lead “lives of quiet desperation” and sometimes violent desperation to be that which they are taught to be, or yearn to be, by their masters or the objects of their envy. They know themselves in the morn and the twilight, but waste the day and cool of the evening in betrayal of the alpha they were and the omega they will become.

      A monk knows himself, is the master of himself, and the fallacy of envy stains not a fiber of his being. You may not know him, but he knows himself, and also you.

      The wisdom of the ancients is ignored by the blinded and green eyed. A blinded few may seek the light and learn to see. Cataracts of choice have clouded the soul of the green eyed and, yes, “a price will be exacted”.

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  3. Limits on Desires
    I do believe there needs to be a distinction: materialist desires and desires for accomplishments.
    It is without a doubt that materialist desires (money, goods, even fame) need these limits stated above.
    The question is how does one think about desires for accomplishments.
    If a person wants to be the best or highly accomplished in a field (e.g. chess, M. Carlsen), this person can not have any limits on his desires. In fact this person is obsessed by this desire, and only through this obsession can the person be successful.
    Which in turn means that having no limits on these types of desires is very positive for accomplished people, it is even a prerequisite. If I think about modern society and invetions made, I believe many of these invetors had strong desires to get things done.

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