Desires and Satisfactions

Epigraph to Book I

Though but an atom midst immensity,
  Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand

I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth --
  On the last verge of mortal being stand

Close to the realms where angels have their birth
  Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!

The chain of being is complete in me --
  In me is matter's last gradation lost,

And the next step is spirit -- Diety!
  I can command the lightning, and am dust!

-- Bowring's translation of Dershavin

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy

Chapter XI
Of Desires and Satisfactions

Showing the Width and Importance of the Field of Political Economy

Action springs from desire and seeks satisfaction -- Order of desires -- Wants or needs -- Subjective and objective desires -- Material and immaterial desires -- The hierarchy of life and of desires. 01

All human actions -- at least all conscious and voluntary actions -- are prompted by desire, and have for their aim its satisfaction. It may be a desire to gain something or a desire to escape something, as to obtain food or to enjoy a pleasing odor, or to escape cold or pain or a noisome smell; a desire to benefit or give pleasure to others, or a desire to do them harm or give them pain. But whether positive or negative, physical or mental, beneficent or injurious, so invariably is desire the antecedent of action that when our attention is called to any human action we feel perplexed if we do not recognize the antecedent desire or motive, and at once begin to look for it, confident that it has to the action the relation of cause to effect.


So confident, indeed, are we of this necessary causal relation between action and desire, that when we cannot find, or at least with some plausibility surmise, an antecedent desire of which the action is an expression, we will not believe that the action took place, or at the least, will not believe that it was a voluntary, conscious action, but will assume, as the older phraseology put it, that the man was possessed by some other human or extra -- human will; or, as the more modern phrase puts it, that be was insane. For so unthinkable is conscious, voluntary action without antecedent desire, that we will reject the testimony of others or even the testimony of our own senses rather than believe that a conscious act can take place without motive.


And as desire is the prompter, and the satisfaction of desire is the end and aim, of all human action, all that men seek to do, to obtain or to avoid may be embraced in one term, as satisfactions, or satisfactions of desire.


But of these desires and their corresponding satisfactions, some are more primary or fundamental than others; and it is only as these desires obtain satisfaction that other desires arise and are felt. Thus the desire for air is perhaps the most fundamental of all human desires. Yet its satisfaction is under normal conditions so easily had that we usually are not conscious of it -- it is in fact rather a latent than an actual desire. But let one be shut off from air, and the desire to get it becomes at once the strongest of desires, casting out for the moment all others. So it is with other desires, such as those for food and drink, the satisfaction of which is necessary to the maintenance of life and health and the avoidance of injury and pain, and which we share in common with the brute. These primary desires lie as it were beneath, or are fundamental to, the manifold desires which arise in man when they are satisfied. For, while the desires of other animals seem comparatively speaking few and fixed, the desires of man are seemingly illimitable. He is indeed the never -- satisfied animal; his desires under normal conditions growing with his power of satisfying them, without assignable limit.


In the same way as we distinguish between necessities and luxuries, so do we often distinguish between what we call "wants" or "needs" and what we speak of simply as desires. The desires whose satisfaction is necessary to the maintenance of life and health and the avoidance of injury and pain -- those desires, in short, which come closest to the merely animal plane -- we are accustomed to call "wants" or "needs." At least this is the primary idea, though as a matter of fact we often speak of needs or wants in accordance with that usual standard of comfort which we call reasonable, and which is in a large degree a matter of habit. And thus while the satisfaction of desire of some kind is the end and aim of all human action, we recognize, though vaguely, a difference in relative importance when we say that the end and aim of human effort is the satisfaction of needs and the gratification of desires.


Without desire man could not exist, even in his animal frame. And those Eastern philosophies, of which that of Schopenhauer is a Western version, that teach that the wise man should seek the extinction of all desire, also teach that such attainment would be the cessation of individual existence, which they hold to be in itself an evil. But in fact, as man develops, rising to a higher plane, his desires infallibly increase, if not in number at least in quality, becoming higher and broader in their end and aim.


Now, of human desires and their corresponding satisfactions, some may be subjective, that is, relating to the individual mind or thinking subject; and some objective, that is, relating to the external world, the object of its thought. And by another distinction, some may be said to be immaterial, that is, relating to things not cognizable by the senses, i.e., thought and feeling: and some to be material, that is, relating to things cognizable by the senses, i.e., matter and energy.


There is a difference between these two distinctions, but practically it is not a large one. A subjective desire -- as when I desire greater love or greater knowledge or happiness for and in my own mind -- is always an immaterial desire. But it does not follow that an objective desire is always a material desire, since I may desire greater love or knowledge or happiness for and in the mind of another. Yet we have to remember: 1. That much that we are prone to consider as immaterial seems to be so only because the words we use involve a purely ideal abstraction of qualities from things they qualify, and without which they cannot exist as things really conceived. Love, knowledge or happiness presupposes something which loves, knows or feels, as whiteness presupposes a thing which is white. 2. That while such qualities as love, knowledge or happiness may be predicated of objective though immaterial things, yet, normally at least, we can have no cognizance of such an immaterial thing, or of its states or conditions, except through the material. Deprived of the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, the gates through which the ego becomes conscious of the material world, how, in any normal way, could I or you know of the love, knowledge, happiness or existence of any other such being? Except, indeed, there be some direct way in which spirit may have knowledge of spirit -- a way it may be that is opened when that through the material by the gates of the senses is closed -- the exclusion of the material is therefore a practical exclusion of the objective.


I speak of this for the purpose of showing how nearly the field of material desires and satisfactions, within which the sphere of political economy lies, comes to including all human desires and satisfactions. And when we consider how in man the subjective is bound in with the objective, the spiritual with the material, the importance of material desires and satisfactions to human life as a whole is even clearer. For though we may be forced to realize, as the innermost essential of man, a something that is not material; yet this spirit or soul, as in this life we know it, is incased and imprisoned in matter. Even if subjective existence be possible without the body, the ego as we know it, deprived of touch with matter through the senses, would be condemned to what may be likened to solitary imprisonment.


As vegetable life is built, so to speak, upon inorganic existence, and the animal may be considered as a self-moving plant, plus perhaps an animal soul; so man is an animal plus a human soul, or reasoning power. And while, for reasons I have touched on, we are driven when we think of ultimate origins to consider the highest element of which we know as the originating element, yet we are irresistibly compelled to think of it as having first laid the foundation before raising the superstructure. This is the profound truth of that idea of evolution which all theories of creation have recognized and must recognize, but which is not to be confounded with the materialistic notion of evolution which has of late years been popularized among superficial thinkers. The wildest imagination never dreamed that first of all man came into being; then the animals; afterwards the plants; then the earth; and finally the elementary forces. In the hierarchy of life, as we know it, the higher is built upon the lower, order on order, and is as summit to base. And so in the order of human desires, what we call needs come first, and are of the widest importance. Desires that transcend the desires of the animal can arise and seek gratification only when the desires we share with other animals are satisfied. And those who are inclined to deem that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the gratification of material needs, and especially with the way in which men are fed, clothed and sheltered, as a secondary and ignoble science, are like a general so absorbed in the ordering and moving of his forces as utterly to forget a commissariat; or an architect who should deem the ornamentation of a fašade more important than the laying of a foundation.