Self-Cultivation Philosophies

Much of my current work focuses on the concept of self-cultivation philosophy as interpretive framework for understanding some prominent philosophies in ancient Greece, China and India. For an introduction to this work, see the paper below presented to The Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy on February 24th, 2017. 



Self-Cultivation Philosophy as an Interpretive Framework: The Critiques of Desire

Christopher W. Gowans (Fordham University)

Self-cultivation philosophies propound a program of development for improving the lives of human beings. On the basis of an account of human nature and the place of human beings in the world, they maintain that our lives can and should be substantially transformed from what is judged to be the problematic, untutored condition of human beings into what is put forward as an ideal state of being. As such, self-cultivation philosophies are preeminently practical in their orientation: their primary purpose is to change our lives in fundamental ways. In this respect, they emphasize practical wisdom more than theoretical wisdom, in contemporary terms “knowing how” over “knowing that.” Yet, in promoting their practical ends, these philosophies typically make substantial theoretical claims about human nature and the world in which we live.

In this presentation, I will argue that the concept of self-cultivation philosophy is a valuable interpretive framework for understanding, comparing, learning from and assessing many important ancient philosophies in Greece, China and India. These include Epicureanism and Stoicism in Greece, Confucianism and Daoism in China, and Sāṁkhya/Yoga and Buddhism in India. I will begin by explaining and defending the concept of self-cultivation philosophy, relying, for part of my account of philosophy, on the perspectives of contemporary virtue epistemology. I will then give a fuller account of the main features of self-cultivation philosophy and will briefly show, as an illustration of one prominent theme, how each of the six aforementioned philosophies provide a philosophical basis for a significant transformation of desires (elimination, reduction, modification, control, etc.) as a crucial part of a self-cultivation program for developing a good life.

What is a Self-Cultivation Philosophy?

The phrase “self-cultivation philosophy” requires some explanation. In thinking about this, it will help to distinguish between the concept of an idea and particular conceptions of it.[1] The concept is the basic idea of self-cultivation philosophy, an account of the characteristic features typically shared by different forms of self-cultivation philosophy in virtue of which they are classified in this way. Conceptions are specific ways of developing, explaining and applying the concept by particular self-cultivation philosophies. Hence, various conceptions of self-cultivation philosophies may differ radically from, and may be quite critical of, one another. Each may express a distinctive and controversial understanding of what self-cultivation philosophy should be. But these conceptions are nonetheless all instances of the concept of self-cultivation philosophy. What follows is an account of the concept of self-cultivation philosophy that allows for diverse conceptions of it.

The term “self-cultivation philosophy” is not a common expression in philosophy, though ancient Chinese philosophies have often been related to self-cultivation programs.[2] The term ‘cultivation’, originating from the Latin verb cólere (to take care of, inhabit or revere), has two primary uses. It refers to the activity of growing living things, usually plants by farmers and gardeners, and it pertains to the acquisition of human culture by persons, often with rather elitist connotations of gaining knowledge and appreciation of “refined” arts and literature. In both cases, cultivation concerns a kind of training, based on purported knowledge, that human beings undertake to guide living things in what is thought to be a valuable direction. It is with this in mind that the term is appropriate for what are presented here as self-cultivation philosophies. On the basis of what is typically portrayed as some form of wisdom, these philosophies put forward training programs to develop human beings towards a good end.

One drawback of the term ‘cultivation’ is that it is sometimes used to distinguish one conception of these philosophies from another. For example, it is quite suited to Mengzi’s philosophy, with his emphasis on cultivating our “moral sprouts,” but for the same reason poorly suited to Xunzi’s philosophy, since he denies that we have such sprouts. However, any alternative term, such as development or transformation, is likely to have similar difficulties (being more suited to some of these philosophies than others). Since the phrase ‘self-cultivation’, broadly understood, already has considerable currency in discussions of Chinese philosophy, it is best to stay with this term.

What is trained is specifically “the self.” However, this term is somewhat problematic partly because it is understood in so many different ways, often with attendant controversies, and partly because many of the self-cultivation philosophies in the ancient traditions maintain that ordinary understandings of the self are deeply mistaken. In fact, Buddhists deny that there is a self at all. Nonetheless, it may be argued that all of these philosophies are plausibly and fruitfully interpreted as explicitly or implicitly promoting a cultivation of the self, where the cultivation often takes the form of challenging or contesting, sometimes in radical ways, everyday conceptions of the self. The everyday conception marks out, in a rough and ready way, the scene where cultivation first gets underway. The understanding that cultivation produces may involve a very different interpretation of the scene than that accepted at the beginning. For this reason, these philosophies often distinguish different senses of the self, and even Buddhists find ways to speak about the self (for example, by admitting it to the realm of conventional rather than ultimate truth). Other terms might be suitable in some respects—terms such as person, human being, individual or soul—but these are often awkward vehicles for expressing the central contentions of these philosophies. Moreover, there is a host of expressions involving self that naturally lend themselves to the programs of these philosophies—for example, self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-control, self-discipline, self-fulfillment, self-realization and the like. Hence, the term self, though not without limitations, is the most suitable way to designate that which is to be cultivated in these self-cultivation philosophies.[3]

It is important to observe that self-cultivation means training of the self, not necessarily training by the self alone. Though there could be a solitary self-cultivation project, what is more commonly proposed in these traditions is training in a social context under the guidance of some master (though, of course, the self being trained needs to participate in this). Moreover, self-cultivation is not necessarily a self-centered pursuit in which one’s own cultivation matters more than having concern for other people. Though it could take this form, it might also be quite opposed to this, as for example in the bodhisattva vow to seek enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Hence, the concept of a self-cultivation philosophy as such is not defined as being either a solitary or a selfish undertaking.

We need next to consider how self-cultivation and philosophy come together. It is evident that there are self-cultivation programs that do not involve philosophy in any significant sense, and there are philosophies that have nothing to do with self-cultivation. A self-cultivation program is a self-cultivation philosophy insofar as it involves philosophy in some important way—for example, by urging people to attain wisdom through learning a philosophy or engaging in philosophical activity. Likewise, a philosophy is a self-cultivation philosophy insofar as it has a specific practical orientation: it teaches its followers how to live a good life. In short, self-cultivation philosophies advocate a program of development of the self that involves philosophy and is directed towards living well.

Of course, philosophy is a contested concept, and some of the controversies concerning it raise questions about the extent to which self-cultivation philosophies, especially in their Chinese and Indian renditions, involve philosophy. After all, their training programs partly consist of an array of “therapeutic” or “spiritual” exercises that may include the development of moral virtue, the transformation of desire and emotion, different bodily exercises, various kinds of meditation, and other forms of self-discipline. We might wonder what all this has to do with philosophy. An important part of the answer is that these techniques are often elements of an interconnected set of practices that are directed to attaining wisdom that is existentially meaningful by effecting a deep transformation in a person’s life. A central premise of self-cultivation philosophies is that the key to achieving a truly good life is gaining some kind of wisdom. These philosophies typically suppose that becoming wise also requires, in addition to these other practices, a particular discipline involving some form of philosophical understanding, both for its direct insight and in order for the whole ensemble of practices to be effective. But of course this raises the question: philosophy in what sense?

There are two common objections that may be raised here. The first is that philosophy is a theoretical, not a practical discipline, that its aim is knowledge for its own sake and not for any benefits it may bring. The second is that the proper method of philosophy is reason or argument, and by this measure the self-cultivation philosophies are suspect. I will now propose an account of the concept of philosophy and show how it allows us to respond to these objections.

The root meaning of philosophy—the ancient Greek term philosophia—is the love of wisdom. As it developed in ancient Greece and beyond in the Western world, philosophy became a distinctive kind of inquiry directed towards wisdom. There are three important characteristics of human beings that give rise to philosophy: first, we care about and value many aspects of the world and our lives; second, we have the capacity to imagine that the world might be different than what we think it is and that we might live differently than the way we do live; third, we have the ability to reflect on our beliefs and values, to think about whether they are correct or whether they should be modified.

In ordinary life, we engage in a variety of practices rooted in fundamental assumptions about the world and our lives. To a considerable extent, the success of these practices requires that we not give much attention to these assumptions. They usually remain in the background. But because we are beings who value, who imagine and who reflect, as just noted, it is sometimes important for us to wonder about these assumptions. Philosophy arises on these occasions. The ancient Greeks were correct in supposing that philosophy begins in wonder.[4] For example, we might wonder: Are we valuing the right things? Are we living in the right way? Do we have good grounds for our ways of life? Philosophy, on this account, is a reflective practice that seeks understanding of fundamental questions such as these.

For the Greek philosophers, as well as for those in China and India, the central topics of philosophical reflection were the nature of human beings and the world we live in, the extent to which and ways in which we can have knowledge, and how we ought to live. The self-cultivation philosophies addressed all of these concerns to some extent. However, as philosophies that were practical in their orientation, their central concern was the last topic. The focal point of their interest was what Bernard Williams called Socrates’ question: “how should one live?”[5] The interest in human nature, metaphysics, and epistemology on the part of the self-cultivation philosophers was, at least at the outset, largely guided by this concern. The Socratic question is, as Williams noted, a very general one, and there may be some temptation immediately to make it more specific. For example, it might be taken to be a question about what will promote our self-interest, or what morality requires of us, or what a member or leader of a political community should do. These are important distinctions and they are useful in thinking about particular conceptions of self-cultivation philosophy. But at the outset, in providing a concept of self-cultivation philosophy, it is best to characterize it as responding to Socrates’ broad question by teaching us something similarly broad: how ideally one—someone, perhaps anyone—should live (or, as it might put, what a good life, broadly speaking, would be for a person).[6] This question is meaningful on its own without disambiguation we might find natural.

We can now address the first objection, that philosophy aims only at theoretical understanding without concern for any practical benefit. This may well be a valid way of thinking about some subjects or forms of philosophical inquiry, but we have ample reason to resist it as a characterization of the concept of philosophy itself. In particular, it would be extraordinarily odd to insist that an inquiry into the question “how should one live?” would, in some sense, cease to be philosophical as soon as we supposed that our answer has some some practical bearing on how one should live. Moreover, to a very large extent the ancient Greek philosophers thought that philosophy had, or could have, a practical aim. Williams attributes this view to Socrates and Plato,[7] and Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that “the present undertaking is not for the sake of theory, as our others are (for we are not inquiring into what excellence (aretē) is for the sake of knowing it, but for the sake of becoming good, since otherwise there would be no benefit in it at all).”[8] In addition, virtually all the Hellenistic philosophers would have agreed with this statement attributed to Epicurus:

Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering (pathos). For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.[9]

Not only is it obvious that a philosophical inquiry into Socrates’ question is likely to be animated by practical concerns, the idea that philosophy has a practical aim was a commonplace among many ancient Greek philosophers. In this respect, they had much in common with the ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers. Hence, there is no merit to the first objection.

The second objection raises several issues and requires more discussion. It states that the correct method of philosophy is reason, meaning arguments, and that the self-cultivation philosophies, especially those in China and India, are inadequate by this standard. A common response to this objection is to point out that, as a matter of fact, these philosophies do employ arguments. This response is certainly correct in its central contention, but more needs to be said about the main premise of the objection, that the method of philosophy is reason in the form of argument.[10] In my view, this is a partial truth and we need a fuller account to properly understand the method—it would be better to say methods—of philosophy, Western as well as non-Western. We should begin by thinking about the nature of the enterprise. If philosophy seeks to understand fundamental questions, then presumably its methods should make use of whatever cognitive capacities human beings possess for achieving this understanding. Reason is obviously a prime candidate for such a capacity and it was much emphasized in Greek philosophy. However, it is not the only candidate, and even within Western philosophy there are diverse views about the nature and value of reason. There are several points to be made here.

First, even the most canonical philosophers in the Western tradition have sometimes acknowledged that rational thought can take different forms. Two well-known examples come from prominent authors of works in logic. Aristotle said that “it is a mark of an educated person to look for precision in each kind of inquiry just to the extent that the nature of the subject allows it,” noting that in ethical matters we need to be content “to show what is true about them roughly and in outline.”[11] And John Stuart Mill wrote that, with respect to justifying utilitarianism, though there “cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term,” this does not mean that accepting or rejecting it “must depend on blind impulse or arbitrary choice.” Rather, “considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine.”[12]

Second, more generally, the nature of rationality is one of the topics that philosophers consider, and there are disagreements, within Western philosophy, about how to understand rationality. A survey of texts that are ordinarily included in the history of Western philosophy reveals a wide range of understandings of kinds of rational reflection. In the modern period alone, examples from Montaigne and Pascal to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche tell us that there are many forms that rational philosophical discourse can take besides those of such “mainstream” figures as Descartes, Hume and Kant.

Third, there are significant traditions within Western philosophy that challenge rationality in a variety of ways, with suggestions that it has significant limits, generates paradoxes, undermines itself, has little value, etc. These skeptical voices are, as it were, rational expressions of concern about rationality, and they have been heard recurrently since the time of the ancient Pyrrhonian and Academic skeptics. Taken as a whole, then, the Western philosophical tradition has had a complex and sometimes ambiguous relationship with its commitment to rational inquiry. The same can be said of the Indian and Chinese traditions.

Finally, in philosophy, rational reflection is sometimes understood specifically as employing arguments, either deduction or forms of induction such as abductive or analogical inferences. But if rational reflection is understood in this way, then nearly everyone agrees that philosophical reflection involves something more than argument (dissent might come from some forms of “rationalism”). This is largely because there are frequent appeals to what is accepted without inference. For example, in the Meditations, Descartes says that nature teaches him that he has a body that has various sensations and needs.[13] He puts this forward as a datum that he supposes anyone would recognize and hence that must be accounted for in his philosophical theory. In general, it is widely supposed that philosophy, even when relying on argument, also requires something that may be referred to broadly as experience (or perhaps awareness). Experience may include commonly recognized capabilities such as sense-experience or memory, but it might also include such things as the deliverances of common sense, intuition, instinct, introspection, innate ideas, conscience, testimony, revelation or meditation. In each case, it may be claimed that there is some cognitive capacity—some basis for knowledge—in addition to reason taken as the capacity to make logical inferences. These other capacities might provide support for the premises of arguments. But they might also be put forward as sources of understanding quite different from—and perhaps in opposition to or incomprehensible by—rational analysis.[14] Of course, there might also be skeptical challenges to the validity of these capacities and we need not suppose that they are accepted uncritically. Even within Western philosophy, there is considerable diversity in the attitudes taken towards these different forms of experience just as there is diversity in attitudes taken towards reason. This suggests that we should define the concept of philosophy as an attempt to understand fundamental questions on the basis of whatever cognitive capacities we possess, where it is recognized that which cognitive capacities are legitimate sources of understanding is itself a philosophical issue.

One way of articulating this concept of philosophy draws on contemporary work in virtue epistemology. This approach to epistemology is customarily divided into virtue reliabilism and virtue responsibilism. Both of these are relevant to the concept of philosophy, but virtue reliabilism is initially most helpful.[15] Virtue reliabilists emphasize the importance of epistemic virtues understood as cognitive faculties that are truth-conducive. That is, these virtues are capacities that stably and reliably generate truth rather than falsehood. Virtue reliabilists typically maintain that there are several cognitive faculties. Common examples are reason, perception, introspection, intuition and memory.[16] The feature of virtue reliabilism that is important here is the fact that reason is only one of the cognitive faculties and that the other faculties involve some source of knowledge in addition to reason. In various ways, these other faculties are usually thought to refer to some input from the world.

From this perspective, it is natural think of philosophy as an inquiry that seeks understanding of fundamental questions on the basis of whatever cognitive faculties we have, where it is supposed that we may well have more than one. These faculties typically include reason, but they might also include forms of experience such as perception, intuition, conscience and perhaps meditation. The last is especially important in the Indian and (to some extent) the Chinese philosophical traditions. Of course, there are numerous disagreements among philosophers about the kinds and comparative importance of both reason and experience in philosophy. One way to represent these disagreements is to suppose that there is a spectrum of possible views among philosophers from those at one end who stress the importance of reason over experience to those at the opposite end who emphasize the importance of experience over reason (in both cases, where there may be diverse understandings of reason and experience). At each extreme, we may find philosophers with deep skepticism about the value of the opposite extreme (radical rationalists and radical anti-rationalists respectively). In between these extremes, there are a variety of positions that, in diverse ways, endorse the value of both reason and experience. It is a philosophical question which epistemic approach is appropriate for philosophical inquiry, or for a particular kind of philosophical inquiry, and hence this question is one about which proponents of different conceptions of philosophy have often disagreed. For example, could non-conceptual awareness attained in some form of meditation be a source of understanding? And how might this relate to the understanding of rational analysis? According to the concept of philosophy I am proposing, these questions are both philosophical questions, and if non-conceptual awareness were a genuine source of understanding fundamental issues, then this awareness would have a place within philosophy. In fact, these topics have been widely discussed in Buddhist thought and they are one form philosophy can take.[17]

Finally, it is worth noting briefly the relevance of the other form of virtue epistemology, virtue responsibilism, to understanding self-cultivation philosophy. Virtue responsibilists emphasize the importance of valuable intellectual character traits such as attentiveness, conscientiousness, open-mindedness, courage, etc.[18] Though reliabilism and responsibilism are sometimes regarded as competing versions of virtue epistemology, they may be thought of as complementary approaches, each of which has an important contribution to make.[19] From this second perspective, if we think of philosophy as an inquiry that seeks understanding of fundamental questions, then it is natural to suppose that philosophers will require good intellectual character traits such as the responsibilists discuss.

Moreover, we can regard some of the practices advocated by self-cultivation philosophers as exercises for the development of such character traits, for example, by purifying one’s mind of disruptive desires or emotions so as to be able to reason or experience in a calm, attentive and impartial way. For instance, to anticipate some of the discussion of desire below, part of the Stoic critique of the passions may be understood in this fashion. Epictetus says that passions “make it impossible for us even to listen to reason.”[20] The Confucian Xunzi makes a similar point: since “the desires of the eyes and ears” can ruin thinking and frustrate concentration, the sage in training needs to transform desires so that this no longer happens.[21] Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna says that desire is the “eternal enemy” and “evil demon” that “destroys knowledge and discrimination.”[22] In general, many exercises of the self-cultivation philosophies may be understood in terms of the cultivation of intellectual virtues, the development of epistemic habits that are conducive to understanding, in a manner that may be illuminated by virtue responsibilism.

In sum, in the self-cultivation philosophies, philosophy is an attempt to understand Socrates’ question “how should one live?” and related topics on the basis of some purported cognitive capacities typically involving reason and experience broadly construed. Hence, the second objection is answered. All of the traditions discussed here from Greece, China and India are properly considered philosophies.

The Structure of Self-Cultivation Philosophies

The styles in which the self-cultivation philosophies of Greece, China and India are expressed vary widely. There is no common format of presentation in the texts available to us. In fact, the genres of writing are often radically different from one another. Nonetheless, there is an underlying structure of thought that they all share to a large extent. One important indication of the nature of this structure is the fact that they commonly saw their enterprise as similar to medicine. We have already seen this for the Hellenistic philosophers in the medical analogy from Epicurus cited earlier. But something similar may be found in other traditions as well. For example, the Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa depicted the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in comparable terms: “the truth of suffering is like a disease, the truth of origin is like the cause of the disease, the truth of cessation is like the cure of the disease, and the truth of the path is like the medicine.”[23] In fact, in these ancient traditions there were often close connections between philosophy and medicine. This was especially true in China where there were sometimes significant relationships between medicine and both the Daoist and Confucian philosophical traditions. For example, in both there were self-cultivation programs involving such things as qi (vital energy) and the complementary forces of yin and yang.[24] The comparison with medicine emphasizes the practical nature of self-cultivation philosophies and suggests that, explicitly or implicitly, any self-cultivation philosophy will have four key elements: an underlying account of human nature (and our place in the world), a depiction of our existential starting point, a portrayal of the ideal state to be attained, and a program of transformation by which persons may move from the starting point to the ideal (roughly analogous to biology, illness, good health and medical treatment).[25]

First, the self-cultivation philosophies all assume some understanding of human nature. Sometimes this is directly explained in considerable detail and other times it is more in the background. This is hardly surprising. There could not be a self-cultivation philosophy that did not in some way imply at least a minimal account of human nature. Related to this, the self-cultivation philosophies often also accept a broader understanding the world in which we live. They adhere to a metaphysics or cosmology or some general picture about the overall context of human life. The remaining three elements of self-cultivation philosophies (starting point, ideal and transformation) all presuppose this: an understanding of human nature explains why human life is unsatisfactory and how we might live differently so as to improve our lives.[26] Various models may be proposed to distinguish these accounts. For example, some of them suppose we have the potential to attain the ideal and need to develop this, others assume this potential is lacking and so we need to radically transform ourselves, and still others maintain the ideal is already within us and needs only to be recovered.[27] Insofar as these philosophies make such claims about human nature, any assertion of their value for people today would need to take into account relevant work in contemporary psychology.[28]

Second, the self-cultivation philosophies maintain that the ordinary default condition of human beings is in some important and often pervasive respect problematic. That is, they propose that in the absence of pursuing their favored program of transformation, our lives would be flawed in some significant way. They claim that, though we might be more or less happy or decent in our everyday activities, at bottom our lives are prone to anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, greed, lust, envy, alienation, conflict and the like. This is our existential starting point. There is no single analysis of why our lives are unsatisfactory, but there are recurrent themes. It often has to do with disruptive desires, emotions, passions, etc. and these are usually said to depend on some fundamental ignorance we have concerning human nature and the world.

Third, these philosophies declare that there is an ideal state, often depicted as the opposite of our default problematic condition, that we are capable of attaining or at least approaching. Sometimes this ideal state is described in explicit terms, but depictions of it are often brief and elusive, sometimes paradoxical or mysterious, and not infrequently suggestive of a condition beyond humanity as we ordinarily understand it. In some cases, the ideal is available only after death, in a post-mortem realm, but ordinarily some form of the ideal is available in this life, before death as conventionally understood. In this respect, these self-cultivation philosophies are quite worldly in their orientation. The ideal is presented as being a good life in some sense, commonly involving a form of wisdom, contentment (with aspects of tranquility and joy) and—at least usually—moral virtue. On account of the moral dimension, the ideal figure is often thought to be of great benefit to others, but the ideal is typically considered valuable in itself.

Finally, the self-cultivation philosophies maintain that we can and should undergo a transformation program by which we move from our problematic existential starting point to the ideal state by engaging in a set of “therapeutic” or “spiritual” exercises. These exercises vary considerably in their nature, but they often involve the development of philosophical understanding, moral training, various forms of meditation, bodily practices, and other kinds of self-discipline. It is usually supposed that it would take considerable time and effort to achieve the ideal, perhaps an entire lifetime (or more than a lifetime), though sometimes an “effortless” approach is preferred. On occasion it may be suggested that the exercises might be undertaken on one’s own, but it is much more common to insist that they should be performed in a communal setting under the guidance of a master. In teaching these exercises, the proponents of the self-cultivation philosophies were promoting a “way of life” and advocating an “art of living.” These philosophies were primarily directed towards a life of practical wisdom, towards—as Aristotle said—“becoming good.”

Though they were expressed in a wide variety of linguistic forms, the ancient self-cultivation philosophies all had this basic underlying structure. They differed considerably in their specific understanding of these four features, but they were all self-cultivation philosophies precisely because they had this structure.

The Critiques of Desire

A full demonstration of the value of the concept of self-cultivation philosophy as an interpretive framework would require an extensive analysis of each of the ancient traditions that, I propose, instantiate it. In lieu of this, for this presentation, I will offer a sample, a promissory note, by briefly showing that one of the most common themes in self-cultivation philosophies, the critique of desire, is a prominent feature of six traditions: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism, Sāṁkhya/Yoga, and Buddhism.[29] These philosophies differ considerably in their cultural context, metaphysical outlook and specific conception of a good life. Nonetheless, each of them proposes a philosophical basis for a significant transformation of desire (understood to encompass both desires and aversions) as a crucial part of a self-cultivation program for attaining this life. Though they do not always mean exactly the same thing by desire, and though they are certainly not proposing the same transformation of desire, there is enough overlap in their programs to see them as addressing closely related issues. I will be making some interpretive assumptions that would require further defense, but I hope that the central contentions of the argument will be evident to any student of these philosophies.[30]

To begin, Epicurus accepted the common orientation of ancient Greek ethical philosophers by giving an account of the highest good in human life, that which is valuable in itself, and explaining how we are to attain this. His official account was hedonism: pleasure alone is good and pain alone is bad. However, Epicurus had an unusual understanding of pleasure. “When we say that pleasure is the goal,” he wrote, we mean “the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul.”[31] Hence, it might be more informative to depict Epicurus as a “tranquilist” than as a hedonist.[32] The key feature of the ideal was mental tranquility (ataraxia).

Epicurus thought there were three primary obstacles to this: fear of death, fear of the gods, and unsatisfied desires. The first two are basically forms of aversion: we hope to avoid death and punishment by the gods. Hence, his entire account centers on overcoming desires and aversions in order to attain tranquility. Epicurus distinguished three forms of desires.[33] Natural and necessary desires are those we have by nature, without the influence of society, such as the desire for food. He thought, rather optimistically, that these desires are typically easy to fulfill. Natural and non-necessary desires are rooted in nature, but have been corrupted by the false beliefs of society—for example, the desire to eat in a famous restaurant. Non-natural and non-necessary desires have no basis in nature and are entirely the product of false beliefs of corrupt society—for instance, the desire for wealth, fame or power. Epicurus argued that the last two categories of desire were very difficult to fulfill and were perpetual sources of dissatisfaction. Realizing this, he argued, we should strive to eliminate these desires. At the heart of the Epicurean self-cultivation program was a moderate asceticism: we should try to restrict ourselves to desires that are natural and necessary so as to achieve tranquility.

The Stoic belief that virtue alone is good and vice alone is bad is fundamentally opposed to Epicurean hedonism. But the Stoics agreed with the Epicureans both that ordinary life is problematic on account of the mental turmoil caused by frustrated desires and aversions, and that the ideal life would be free of this turmoil. For the Stoics all ordinary passions (pathe) such as anger, envy and grief are false judgments about what is good and bad, generating excessive impulses. They believed there were four kinds of these passions: delight and distress are judgments about what is presently good and bad, and desire and aversion (fear) are judgments about what might be good and bad in the future. These judgments are false because they presuppose that external events such as the death of a friend are bad when in fact the only thing that is bad for a person is vice and the absence of virtue. The Stoic sage would be free of all such passions.[34]

One of the most important later Stoics, Epictetus, said that a person striving to be “good and excellent” must train in “three fields of study,” the first and most important of which concerns desires and aversions. This study enables the sage in training to overcome the source of all the stronger passions, namely failing “to get what he desires” and falling “into what he avoids.”[35] It is at the center of Epictetus’ self-cultivation program.[36] The sage, as perfectly rational and virtuous, would act in accord with our “proper functions,” for example by pursuing self-preservation, but would recognize that for him continued life is strictly speaking neither good nor bad, but indifferent, and only to be preferred because our rational nature prescribes this. So acting is entirely under the control of the sage, and she accepts whatever happens in regard to continued life as for the best from the rational standpoint of nature—the perspective of the whole of which we are a part.[37]

In the Confucian (Ruist) tradition the ideal is a life of ethical virtues such as benevolence, righteousness and ritual propriety. That desire plays an important role in the cultivation of these virtues is evident from the final line in Kongzi’s autobiographical statement: “at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the bounds of propriety.”[38] This implies both that for the ideal figure desires are present but perfectly aligned with the dictates of virtue and that this is a difficult state to achieve.

The relationship of virtue and desire is developed in the Mengzi. He says: “Life is something I desire; righteousness is also something I desire. If I cannot have both, I will forsake life and select righteousness.”[39] We all have desires for life and physical desires conveyed by the phrase “the desire of eyes and ears.” These can pull us in various directions. However, on account of the moral sprouts, we also have a desire for virtues such righteousness. These moral desires may be cultivated so as to transform our other desires under the direction of the heart-mind (xin) through its activity of thinking or concentration (si).[40]

In the Xunzi, the ideal is substantially the same: the sage has desires and follows them because they are regulated by the heart-mind.[41] However, it is denied that we have moral sprouts. What we have by nature are desires that, left to themselves, lead to struggle, chaos and poverty.[42] We need the order provided by rituals and righteousness, as discovered by the early sage-kings, to transform our desires from the desires of nature to the desires of virtue. But this requires deliberate effort and learning under the guidance of teachers and models. Our “crooked wood” must be steamed and straightened on a frame, a very different metaphor for training than Mengzi’s careful nurture of our moral sprouts.[43]

In many respects, the Daoist texts are a critique of the Confucian ideal of the sage. Instead of cultivating the Confucian virtues, depicted by Daoists as artificial and counter-productive constructs, the sage is to live in accord with Dao, meaning a natural, simple, selfless and spontaneous life. Nonetheless, in the Daodejing, the transformation of desires is central to becoming a sage and to the society governed by the sage.[44] Its importance is indicated in the very first chapter. Regarding Dao, we are told, in typical, paradoxical Daodejing fashion: “always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries; always have desires in order to observe is manifestations.”[45]

The dominant theme, however, is the elimination, or at least reduction, of desires. This matters because, negatively, “the worst calamity is the desire to acquire” and, positively, “without desire and still, the world will settle itself.”[46] Hence, the sage-ruler is portrayed as having few or perhaps no desires, and as bringing it about through “non-action” (wu-wei) that the people are similarly free of desire.[47] There are interpretive questions about the meaning of these passages and the reason transformation of desire is so important. They are sometimes interpreted literally, at least in the case of the sage, as meaning that the ideal is complete freedom of desire.[48] However, many people agree with Xunzi, who said life without desire is impossible,[49] and perhaps for this reason it is more common to take these passages to mean something short of freedom from all desires such as freedom from artificial desires, but not natural ones (tacitly employing a distinction similar to Epicurus).[50] However understood, it is clear that the Daodejing promotes a radical transformation of desires. Various rationales are suggested for the importance of this: that it brings contentment, enables us to grasp the mystery of Dao, is needed to be selfless, and allows society to function well on its own accord.[51]

In the ancient Indian philosophies, desire is regularly featured as an obstacle to liberation from the cycle of rebirth, the highest good we can achieve and the focal point of most self-cultivation philosophies. In Sāṁkhya, one of the six orthodox darśanas, this is conceptualized by supposing that we are to overcome suffering (duḥkha) through knowledge that our true nature is puruṣa (consciousness or spirit) and not at all prakṛti (matter or nature), as we mistakenly suppose. The aim of Sāṁkhya philosophy is freedom from suffering.[52] Prakṛti consists of three strands, the guṇas, and one of these, ragas, includes desire. In works influenced by Sāṁkhya metaphysics, such as the Yoga Sūtra and the Bhagavad Gītā, the transformation of desires is a key element in attaining liberation.

In Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, we are told that there are five impediments to liberation. Two of these are desire and aversion (the others are ignorance, ego and clinging to life).[53] These are to be overcome by the practices outlined in the “eight limbs” of yoga (involving ethical disciplines, bodily postures, breath control and forms of meditation).[54] This training might appear to require a life of renunciation. But in the Gītā, Krishna instructs Arjuna to perform his duty, namely to go to war, but to do so without desire, suggesting that liberation is possible while being fully engaged in the world. Desireless action is at the heart of the Gītā’s message. “The man who abandons all desires acts free from longing. Indifferent to possessions, free from egotism, he attains peace.”[55] Though this may be interpreted literally, as recommending action without any desire, it is more commonly interpreted as advocating action without desire in a qualified sense such as selfish desire or desire for the karmic fruits of one’s actions.[56] However it is interpreted, desire so understood is the source of delusion and suffering in life, and freedom from desire is the key to knowledge and liberation.

Buddhist metaphysics sharply contrasts with the metaphysics of the texts associated with Sāṁkhya. Instead of supposing that our true self is puruṣa (understood either as a distinct individual or as an aspect of the divine), Buddhism supposes that in ultimate truth there is no self at all (anattā). The final aim is still liberation from the cycle of rebirth, but in Buddhism this is attained through the realization of selflessness. Nonetheless, desire is also at the heart of the Buddhist self-cultivation program.[57]

This is most evident in the Four Noble Truths. The basic problem in human life, suffering (dukkha), is said to have its origin in various forms of craving (taṇhā), and the resolution of this problem, overcoming suffering, is said to be constituted by the elimination of craving: Nibbāna is “the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.”[58] In the larger teaching, it is clear that the source of suffering is the delusion that we are selves. It is this that generates the possessive orientation that is at the core of craving. Hence, we are frequently told in Buddhist texts that the three unwholesome roots that prevent enlightenment are greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha).[59] Forms of desire and aversion, propelled by attachment to self, result in mental turbulence and social disorder. As before, there are interpretive questions about whether an enlightened person is entirely free of all desire and aversion, or is free of these only insofar as they are selfish or self-centered, but there is no question that a fundamental transformation of desire is crucial to attaining Buddhist enlightenment.

In conclusion, let me note briefly two respects in which the critiques of desire in the ancient self-cultivation philosophies could contribute to contemporary discussions. On the one hand, they may anticipate and be allied with several claims in psychology to the effect that our lives are problematic on account of desires—for example, that people are often caught on a “hedonic treadmill” (constantly desiring something new because adaptation leaves us perpetually dissatisfied with the fulfillment of our desires) or that we are unhappy because of “miswanting” (our common tendency to mistakenly judge what will actually make us happy).[60] These are areas in which there could be a productive dialogue between these philosophies and current work in psychology. On the other hand, in philosophy one of the most prominent theories of well being states that well being consists solely of the fulfillment of our desires.[61] In support of this theory, it is claimed that desires are a key indicator of what is valuable for each particular person. Against this, the ancient self-cultivation philosophies often maintained that desires obscure what is truly valuable for us. Hence, they may be a source of critique of the desire fulfillment theory. Once again, this is a topic in which there could be a valuable conversation between these ancient philosophies and current philosophical work.


[1] For the concept/conception distinction, see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 5-6; see also Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 113-117 and Brian W. Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 16-21.

[2] For example, see Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation, Second Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), Michael LaFargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), and Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism.

[3] Though a variety of terms are employed, in all the relevant languages there are terms that are commonly translated as self such as attā in Pali, ātman in Sanskrit, ji () and zi (自) in Chinese, auto in Greek, and sui and ego in Latin.

[4] See Plato’s Theaetetus 155d and Aristotle’s Metaphysics 982b.

[5] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 4. See the whole of Williams’ first chapter for an account of the importance of this question.

[6] Williams himself resists understanding the question in terms of a good life (see pp. 4 and 20), but for my purpose this is acceptable as long as ‘good’ is not taken to mean something specific such as morally good. There is an important issue about whether or not the self-cultivation philosophies were intended to be relevant and applicable to all human beings or only some. In some cases it appears that they were addressed to all human beings, at least in principle or in some way, but this was not always the case. In the discussion here I leave this issue aside.

[7] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 1.

[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Christopher Rowe, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), II.2 at beginning (emphasis added).

[9] A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) p. 155 (25C). In the Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), Martha Nussbaum has shown that a similar medical analogy was accepted by virtually all the Hellenistic schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism and Pyrrhonian Skepticism). See also John Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, Michael Chase, tr., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[10] Williams, Cooper and Nussbaum largely agree that the method of philosophy is reason, though Nussbaum embraces some of the points I make below.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.3.

[12] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), Ch. 1, par. 5.

[13] See Descartes, Meditations VI, 80.

[14] To take two rather different but well-known examples, consider Blaise Pascal’s claim that the heart has reasons about which reason knows nothing (see Blaise Pascal, Pensées, A.J. Krailsheimer, tr. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), section 423) and Jonathan Haidt’s report of people condemning a case of sex between siblings with having a clear reason why (see Jonathan Haidt, Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), pp. 44-8).

[15] Prominent proponents include Ernest Sosa and John Greco.

[16] Virtue reliabilism has antecedents in ancient philosophical traditions, especially in Greece and India, and it is arguably a common sense perspective.

[17] For discussion of this, see Matthew T. Kapstein, “’Spiritual Exercise’ and Buddhist Epistemologists in India and Tibet,” and Tom J. F. Tillemans, “Yogic Perception, Meditation, and Enlightenment: The Epistemological Issues in a Key Debate,” in Steven M. Emmanuel, ed.,  A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 270-89 and 290-306 respectively).

[18] Well-known proponents include James Montmarquet and Linda Zagzebski.

[19] For example, see Heather Battaly, “Virtue Epistemology,” (Philosophy Compass vol. 3/4: 2008), 651.

[20] Epictetus, Discourses, W.A. Oldfather, tr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 3.2.

[21] Xunzi: The Complete Text, Eric L. Hutton, tr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014),  21.288-314.

[22] The Bhagavad Gītā, Winthrop Sargeant, tr. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009), 3.39-41.

[23] Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, tr., (Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatta Editions, 1999),  XVI 87. For discussion of the medical analogy in Buddhist and Greek philosophy, see my “Medical Analogies in Buddhist and Hellenistic Thought” in Clare Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 11-33.

[24] For example, see Lisa Raphals, “Chinese Philosophy and Chinese Medicine” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and “Embodied Virtue” (in Chris Fraser et. al, eds., Ethics in Early China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), pp. 143-57), and Robin R. Wang, Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and “Virtuous Body at Work The Ethical Life as Qi in Motion” (Dao vol. 9, 2010, 339-51).

[25] The medical analogies do not imply that there is no difference between self-cultivation philosophy and medicine. The value of the analogies is that they encourage reflection on differences as well as similarities (as I discuss in the paper on medical analogies cited in note 23).

[26] This is true even of Buddhism, which denies that there is a self and, in Mahāyāna forms, denies that anything has an intrinsic nature (what is called emptiness). Despite this, Buddhists have a good deal to say about human nature and they put forward extensive metaphysical and cosmological accounts of the world.

[27] These correspond to what Van Norden calls the development, re-formation and discovery models of ethical cultivation (Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism, pp. 43 ff.). Other classification schemes have been proposed, for example in Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation and Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in early China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[28] For example, the research on infants by Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn at Yale might be relevant to the debate between Mengzi and Xunzi on the moral sprouts.

[29] Though these philosophies have their origin within the time frame Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Period” (800 to 200 B.C.E.), I am not making any claim about the world historical significance of this period (as he does in The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953). In addition, some of these philosophies are instances of what Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy.” But I reject his view that the philosophers he discusses all believed in “the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifest world,” and thought this Reality could be directly and clearly apprehended only by those who were “loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit” (The Perennial Philosophy (New York: HarperPerennial, 1945), p. viii). In my view, the philosophers I discuss here share the self-cultivation philosophy framework, but are otherwise as important and interesting for their differences (which are considerable) as for their similarities.

[30] Usually one or two central terms for desire are featured in these discussions—for example, epithumia or orexis in Greek, yu (欲) in Chinese, and kāma in Sanskrit and Pali. But a wide variety of related, more specific desire terms are also sometimes employed, similar to what is available in English (for example, want, wish, appetite, lust, greed, etc.).

[31] Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus 131 (in Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, trs., Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, Second Edition (Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 30-31).

[32] This is suggested in Tim O’Keefe, Epicureanism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), pp. 107 and 120.

[33] See Epicurus, Principle Doctrines 29 (Inwood and Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 34)

[34] The Stoics allowed that the sage would have three kinds of “good passions” (eupatheiai), namely joy, wishing and watchfulness. These correspond to delight, desire and aversion (no good passion corresponds to distress). See Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers p. 412 (65F). This means the sage would have good forms of desire and aversion. It is a vexed interpretive question how to understand these good passions. One interpretation is that the sage would wish for his own virtue and be watchful about his own vice.

[35] Epictetus, Discourses, beginning of 3.2.

[36] For this interpretation, see A.A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), p. 113.

[37] See Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5 24-6.

[38] Confucius, Analects, Edward Slingerland, tr. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 2.4.

[39] Mengzi, Brian Van Norden, tr. (Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008),  A10.1.

[40] See Sin Yee Chan, “Evaluative Desire” (Philosophy East & West, vol. 66.4, 2016), 1183 ff. and Van Norden, “Mengzi and Xunzi” (in T.C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi), p. 114.

[41] See Xunzi 21.307-14.

[42] See Xunzi 19.1-6.

[43] For these metaphors, see Xunzi 23.19-20 and Mengzi 2A6.

[44] According to Hans-Georg Moeller, in the Daodejing, human desires “are at the core of the ‘human problem’” of living naturally between heaven and earth” (Philosophy of the Daodejing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 87). On the importance of desire in the Daodejing, see also Alan K.L. Chan, Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and Ho-shang Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991). The importance of desire is less evident in the Zhuangzi, at least in the “Inner Chapters,” and I do not discuss it in this brief survey here.

[45] The Daodejing of Laozi, Philip J. Ivanhoe, tr., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 1.

[46] Daodejing 46 and 37.

[47] See Daodejing 3, 19 and 57.

[48] See Moeller, Philosophy of Daodejing, p. 88.

[49] See Xunzi 22.270-2.

[50] See Alan Chan, “A Tale of Two Commentaries,” (in Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, eds., Lao-tzu and Tao-te-Ching (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998)), pp. 110 and 113, Ivanhoe, “Introduction,” to The Daodejing of Laozi, Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 69-70, and Xiaogan Liu “”Laozi’s Philosophy” (in Xiaogan Liu, ed., Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015)), p. 88.

[51] See Daodejing 46, 1, 19 and 37.

[52] According to Gerald James Larson, Sāṁkhya philosophy is “a quest for salvation from suffering” (Classical Sāṁkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1969), p. 156; see also p. 196).

[53] See The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Edwin F. Bryant, tr. (New York: North Point Press, 2009), 2.3-9.

[54] See Yoga Sūtras 2.28-3.8. For analysis, see Jayandra Soni, “Patañjali’s Yoga as Therapeia,” in Clare Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia, pp. 219-32.

[55] Bhagavad Gītā 2.71.

[56] For discussion, see Christopher G. Framarin, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2009).

[57] For an analysis, see David Webster, The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

[58] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 2 volumes, Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), V 421-2. This is a standard statement of the third noble truth. Nibbāna is the Pali version of Nirvana.

[59] See The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya), Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trs. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), I 47 and II 27, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012), III 68, The Dhammapada, S. Radhakrishnan, tr., (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 356-8, Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation: Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland, Jeffrey Hopkins, tr. (New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1998), 1.20-21, and Śāntideva: The Bodhicaryāvatāra, Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, trs. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995), 4.28.

[60] See Diener et. al., “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being, in Ed Diener, The Science of Well-Being (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), and Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, “Miswanting: Some Problems in the Forecasting of Future Affective States,” reprinted in Jennifer Wilson Mulnix and M.J. Mulnix, eds., Theories of Happiness: An Anthology (Broadview Press, 2015), 81-9.

[61] For a sympathetic overview, see Chris Heathwood, “Desire-fulfillment Theory,” in Guy Fletcher, ed.,  Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 135-47.