Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend’s post. When I use the terms “will” and “desire” in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both “will” and “desire” point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term “will” calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power and William James’s essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, “will” connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
“Desire”, on the other hand, is the term that appears most often in Buddhist texts, including the great Four Noble Truths:
1. Life is full of suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire.
3. To end suffering, let go of desire.
4. Follow the eight-fold path.
Unlike “will”, the word “desire” seems to carry a sense of aesthetic, sensual or even sinful indulgence, as well as an element of passive Dionysian beauty that is completely absent in “will”. But even though “desire” and “will” feel so different, I do not think there is an actual difference in the psychological impulses they describe. Or is there? The etymologies shed a small amount of light:
O.E. *willan, wyllan “to wish, desire, want” (past tense wolde), from P.Gmc. *welljan (cf. O.S. willian, O.N. vilja, O.Fris. willa, Du. willen, O.H.G. wellan, Ger. wollen, Goth. wiljan”to will, wish, desire,” Goth. waljan “to choose”), from PIE *wel-/*wol- “be pleasing” (cf. Skt. vrnoti “chooses, prefers,” varyah “to be chosen, eligible, excellent,” varanam”choosing;” Avestan verenav- “to wish, will, choose;” Gk. elpis “hope;” L. volo, velle “to wish, will, desire;” O.C.S. voljo, voliti “to will,” veljo, veleti “to command;” Lith. velyti “to wish, favor,” pa-vel-mi “I will,” viliuos “I hope;” Welsh gwell “better”). Cf. also O.E. wel “well,” lit. “according to one’s wish;” wela “well-being, riches.” The use as a future auxiliary was already developing in O.E. The implication of intention or volition distinguishes it from shall, which expresses or implies obligation or necessity. Contracted forms, especially after pronouns, began to appear 16c., as in sheele for “she will.” The form with an apostrophe is from 17c.
early 13c., from O.Fr. desirrer (12c.) “wish, desire, long for,” from L. desiderare “long for, wish for; demand, expect,” original sense perhaps “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,” from sidus (gen. sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation” (but see consider). Related: Desired; desiring. The noun is attested from c.1300, from O.Fr. desir, from desirer; sense of “lust” is first recorded mid-14c.
As a writer, I like to mix both words freely for maximum effect, but I do tend to favor “desire” over “will”. I’m sure there are many reasons for this even beyond the connotations mentioned above. “Will” calls to mind the tiresome and never-ending (I wish it would end) argument over whether or not human beings have free will. (Strangely, nobody ever asks whether or not we have free desire).
“Desire”, meanwhile, calls to mind the moving American advice poem Desiderata (“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars”), not to mention one of Bob Dylan’s richest and most musically satisfying albums. I listened to this record a lot as a kid, and it seems to be lodged deeply in my brain; if I had to pick a sound to match the meaning of the word “desire”, maybe I’d pick the gorgeous swirling violin and harmonica jam (Scarlet Rivera on violin, Dylan on harmonica) that opens the song “Black Diamond Bay”. The musical equivalent of “will”, meanwhile, might be the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I’ll take the Dylan, thanks.
There are endless differences between the effect of the word “will” and the word “desire”, even though they seem to refer to the same thing, and a good writer will always choose carefully based on the connotations he or she wishes to express. If a writer wishes to emphasize neither the European/American tradition nor the Buddhist tradition, “intention” is also available for use, and this word is favored by the likes of Daniel Dennett. And still, the thing these words point to remains mysterious and essentially unknown to us all.