Friday, June 10, 2016

The Irascible Appetite of Victory

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'm reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wallace describes, rather plausibly (more so than, say, Camus' account of Don Juan in The Myth of Sisyphus), the motivations for anonymous sex. The description comes in the midst of one of the character Orin Incandenza's many sexual encounters, which are always with women he names only as "the Subject", who are mostly young mothers:

"It is not about consolation...It is not about conquest or forced capture. It is not about glands or instincts or the split-second shiver of leaving yourself; not about love or about whose love you deep-down desire, by whom you feel betrayed. Not and never about love, which kills what needs it. It feels...rather to be about hope, an immense, wide-as-the-sky hope of finding a something in each Subject's fluttering face, a something the same that will propitiate hope, somehow, pay its tribute, the need to be assured that for a moment he has her, now has won her as if from someone or something else, something other than he, but that he has her as is what she sees and all she sees, that it is not conquest but surrender...not his but her love, that he has it, this love...That he is the One. This is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough...For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would not be he or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I into We." (p. 566-567)

One longs for victory in so many areas, but so often one wants a victory that comes only through the surrender of the one one triumphs over, through the other being under the delusion that he or she wants to surrender. (There are, of course, other times at which one wants to crush or subjugate the other, and for the other to know that he has been crushed or subjugated.) One longs, the passage says, even to delude oneself into thinking that the other has surrendered to one under this delusion. Strange and complex are the desires of the human heart.

Aquinas (following Aristotle, who is probably following Plato) divides the human appetites into two categories--that is, the feelings that we can feel The concupiscible appetites have to do with good and evil considered in themselves: for good, we feel love, desire, and joy (as we regard the good, move toward it, and attain union with it); for evil, we feel hatred, aversion, and sorrow (as we regard the evil, move away from it, and succumb to it.) The irascible appetites have to do with good and evil considered as difficult. If we consider as good a good that would be difficult to attain , we feel hope for it. But if we just consider its difficulty, and are overwhelmed by this difficulty such that we cease to strive for it, we feel despair. If we consider an evil that would be difficult to avoid, and which we are not yet actually confronted with, as evil, we feel fear. But if we consider it as something worth striving to avoid, we feel daring (there is surely also a kind of daring that regards the hoped-for difficult good as something worth striving for.) If a difficult-to-overcome evil is present to us, we feel anger (unless we are overcome by that evil, when we feel the concupiscible feeling of sadness).

Aquinas contends there are no further irascible appetites; if we overcome the difficult evil or attain the difficult good, then we just feel the concupiscible appetite of joy: we take pleasure in the good attained or the evil avoided, but it is no longer present or looked-forward-to as difficult.

St. Francis de Sales, in his Treatise on the Love of God, disagrees. On de Sales' view, there is a sixth irascible appetite, victory or triumph. (Where does he get this view? Is it his, originally? I can't find antecedents for it e.g. in the Jesuits or the Franciscans.) Once the difficult good is attained or the difficult evil overcome, we feel victory; we feel the satisfaction that is not just the joy of union with the good we wanted, the calm of peace, but the glory of having overcome a difficulty, the added luster that a past struggle lends to the outcome of that struggle.

But Aquinas contends that the irascible appetites all are ordered to the concupiscible--specifically to the feelings of joy or sadness. We strive so that we might feel joy, while fear can ultimately lead to sadness.

One of Orin Incandenza's many problems (his serious moral problems aside) is that he longs for the feeling of victory without allowing the ensuing feeling of joy in union, the feeling of possessing the difficult-to-attain good of a woman's love without allowing him (and her, and them together) to feel the joy of that love. Another of his many problems is the desire to feel that victory without any daring on his own part; he wants no feeling of conquest (again, set aside any moral consideration of the inappropriateness or appropriateness of the theme of conquest in this situation). But one should feel victory only after winning a battle, and one should feel that victory (and fight that battle) only for the sake of the ensuing peace, the calm and joy of life together.

At the same time, a difficult peace should not be longed for in a purely concupiscible way. It is not pure eros and pure desire that bears us to our heavenly homeland (or, on earth, to the happy polis.) An error of a certain sort of pacifist and of most universalists (whatever they may say about the purgatorial powers of a long but temporary hell) is the refusal of the irascible, a refusal to recognize that some goods are difficult--they require striving, for their achievement is not guaranteed, and so cannot be simply, concupiscibly desired. It is good, even necessary for total human fulfillment, to feel victory--both the victory of the achieved good and the victory of vanquishing (and not being reconciled with) evil, for anything less is contrary to, not building on, the clear evidence of human nature. To vanquish evil, to be reconciled with it but to utterly subdue it, is not a tacit defeat; it is, the realist must say, a real victory, which (unlike Orin Incandneza and Hans Urs von Balthasar) does not need the other always to surrender and think himself willing to do so. But the error of the triumphalist and a certain sort of radical (so well depicted in Orwell's 1984) is to long only for victory, to not also long for the resulting peace, when there is no more striving and no more enemies to defeat, and one can festively enjoy oneself.

Where Gregory of Nyssa's view of heaven, where striving and joy always simultaneously increase and are fulfilled, where the irascible seems to coincide with the concupsicible, fits here is not clear to me. There's something attractive about it to me, the "further up and further in" feeling, extended for all eternity. But I worry that it is a refusal to at last be at peace, to be calm once and forever, where having triumphed one can at last purely enjoy. To enjoy, without anxiety--that is among the most difficult goods of all.

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