Objects of Desire

STOIC_WEEK_socrates.jpgIN THE LAST decades we have witnessed an unprecedented increase of opportunities for human development. A roman emperor could not even dream of having access to the kind of healthcare, technology and information that the average modern citizen enjoys in a developed country. We live longer lives, can travel faster, safer and more comfortably. We can eat exotic food and consume more entertainment than ever before.

Nevertheless, this overwhelming technological and material progress has not come hand in hand with human flourishing. Rapid urbanization, consumerism, loneliness, virtual sex, disconnection from Nature, alienating jobs, the contradictions and meaningless of post-modern life, are making us more anxious and dissatisfied that our ancestors. They may have lived shorter and more brutish lives, but it seems that all our security, comforts, and new opportunities, are not making us wiser, let alone happier, than they were

According to The World Health Organization depression and suicide are increasing in the world at an astonishing rate, and it is not just happening in developed countries. Reports show that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and claim that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.

If we have more opportunities for fulfillment than ever before but we are more disquiet and unhappy, could it be our problem is not of lack of choices but a lack of values? A wrong understanding of what a good life means?

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Modern lifestyle has achieved to drastically reduce the number of people dying from infectious disease and hunger, an unprecedented colossal achievement in the history of humanity. But now diabetes and coronary disease are the principal cause of death in the world. Our consumerism making us is unhealthier and weaker, destroying the environment, compromising the life of future generations, and on top of that, is not making us happier…

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When our actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, comfort and consumerism, our inner life becomes empty and it transfers its energy toward the external objects of desire. We quickly becoming  mass-men, a technology dependent being, ever distracted, and a product in himself. The ubiquitous advertising images and the pantomime of “celebrity culture” is shaping the new hedonic, utilitarian human being, a perfect consumer/product, ever empty and more anxious to fill up its void with the newest gadget, eager for instant gratification and fast food experiences in exchange for his time and soul.

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The historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon (8 May 1737 – 16 January 1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, according to him the decadence of the Roman empire and its decaying culture had five marks:

  • Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
  • Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
  • Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
  • Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
  • Increased demand to live off the state.

It is difficult not to see the similarities of the postmodern western culture.

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We are constantly bombarded with messages cleverly engineered to keep us in need for more external things. We are encouraged to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.  We are directly or indirectly told that our happiness depends on external objects of desire, that our image and reputation is more important than our well-being, and that the measure of human flourishing is quantified in its purchasing power. Corporations invest billions in advertising in order to exploit our weaknesses, cognitive bias, social perceptions, basic drives and lack of self-esteem. For the corporate world the goal of our life should be the pursuit of pleasure; instant gratification, the maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may have (Radical Hedonism). For such a system to work, we ought to be continually distracted, ever dissatisfied, self-centered, hierarchically oriented and anxious.

If in medieval times, religion and superstition were the driving forces of civilization Global Capitalism is fueled by  dissatisfaction and greed.

The paradoxes of Radical Hedonism are that by trying to achieve happiness through consumerism we are in a permanent status of dissatisfaction and anxiety. Yet, we know that most of the best things in life are free, and have no price. We know it but we forget about that every day, and keep consuming our time and energy in the acquisition of new stuff. It is just our lack of temperance and practical wisdom what keeps feeding the monster. A monster that is leading us directly into an ecological and economical disaster. Our anti- ecological global system is self-destruction. 

HEDONIC ADAPTATION

Consumerism is an addictive attitude, and hedonic adaptation shows that  we adapt very quickly to the pleasure of acquiring new things, just to be again in need for more. Hedonic adaptation is the psychological process by which people become accustomed to a positive stimulus, such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time (Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999 ; see also Helson, 1964 ; Parducci, 1995).

 

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“Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)

SHADOWS IN THE CAVE

Like in the Plato’s cave, we are distracted and amused by shadows of reality.


[Socrates is speaking with Glaucon]

[Socrates:]  And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Imagine human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

[Glaucon:]  I see.

 

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, — will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he ‘s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

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