How can I Overcome Powerful Desires?



It’s obvious, isn’t it? Pray more, read the Bible more, share your faith more, participate in pilgrimages to holy sites, sing more (especially spiritual songs) . . . in short, treat the Faith like one of those sales meetings where they engage a specialist to whip everybody up into a frenzy of self-confidence! Then, surely, there will be no room for wayward desires. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.


Since you’re reading this question, I have to assume that you’ve already tried all of that and found, to your dismay, that it doesn’t work. Some people have this idea that religion allows them to shortcut the normal human processes of agony, desire, decay, and death. But that’s not how it works. When God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man. There is no way to shortcut normal human processes through some secret powers built into religion. Anyone suggesting that is selling something, something that will severely damage your humanity.

But that little mention of our humanity provides the solution to our problem. We cannot overcome desire by merely using the will. We must instead use the whole of ourselves, something that Socrates explained two millennia ago. He understood that human goodness is a property not just of the will, but of the whole human person. As a result, if you try to be good solely with will-power or correct thinking, you will repeatedly find yourself overwhelmed by your desires. Let’s take a look at the experience of moral conflict to understand why this is always the case.


There is no way to shortcut normal human processes through some secret powers built into religion.

If you introspect, you’ll notice that your intellectual awareness of what is good is attended by very little force of emotion. In fact, most intellectual operations function this way. Guilt differs, of course, as does the “eureka” moment when you finally realize something you’ve been trying to figure out, elation attending the awareness of solution. But by and large, your awareness of what you are supposed to do comes to you as simply that, a very quiet understanding of what is required. Your desires, by contrast, are imbued with astonishing depths of feeling, profound emotions that we use words like hunger, yearning, craving, and passion to describe. So, if you are trying to overcome your desires with force of will alone, i.e., just the knowledge of what is good and the choice to pursue it, then you’re engaged in a losing battle, because the intellect supplies very little counterpunch to the incredible force of the desires.


But why did we ever suppose that the moral battle is simply the conflict between desire and choice? Socrates argued that the human soul has different parts or different functions, a reasoning/choosing part that understands the requirements of what is good, as well as a desiring part that always wants what it wants. The part of you that wants chocolate cake would love to have a larger or even a second slice! Nothing about the chocolate cake desire includes any limits. Those limits and the considerations of economy and health are provided by the reasoning part of the soul. Thus far, we have the duality of reason vs. desire, the very experience that we’ve all seen lead to continuous moral failure.


To transform that failure to success, Socrates asks us to imagine that the human soul is like a city. The rulers of the city (these are good rulers) seek what is good for the city as a whole, while the many different craftsmen, artisans, and merchants are really concerned with just their own specific crafts. If a conflict were to emerge between the rulers and the producers, the producers far outnumber the rulers. Comparing this model to the soul, Socrates likens the reasoning part of the soul to the rulers, for Reason quietly thinks about what is best for the whole human person. Similarly, Socrates likens the desiring part of the soul to the producing classes, who focus solely on their own object (think: chocolate cake) and who exhibit enormous force in number and power. In both the city and the soul, the rulers who think wisely of what is best for the whole will easily be overthrown by any imbalance of the producers/desires. What, Socrates asks, keeps the producing classes in line, in obedience to those who think of the whole city’s good? The answer: a third class of people, a class of guardians whose job it is to protect the city both without and within from threats. Today we would think of these people as a merger of our military and police forces. If those guardians work for the ruling class, then they provide a hedge against unwieldy and even riotous producers. If you were furious at your rulers for some perceived injustice and decided to just ignore the courts and take matters into your own hands, you’d probably get a dose of reality if you turned the street corner and encountered a Spartan phalanx, their gleaming, deadly spear points all facing your direction!


How do Socrates’s guardians apply to the structure of the soul? Well, if there is a third necessary part of the city, then maybe there is likewise a third necessary part within the soul! What part? Have you ever noticed from your own athletic experience that when you are at your lowest in the marathon or the third quarter of the basketball game that sometimes you find a force within you that functions completely differently from desire? Desire says, “Sit down, stop running, this hurts, who cares about a stupid game!” Your body adds to the cacophony of desire, “Yeah, listen up! The legs hurt, the feet hurt, the hips have had it, we can’t get enough air, the head hurts!” With that much opposition to continuing, you’d think that athletes would just collapse. But then the coach grabs you during a timeout in that third quarter. He reminds you who you are, what it means to be a team, what he knows you can do if you work together and crush your enemies, what you’ve worked and sweat for these many grueling months of practice. What happens within your soul during these speeches? You well up with pride, with team spirit, sometimes even with something close to war fury, a power within that, like that Spartan phalanx, lowers its spears and hurls the desires back into their place. Even the lonely marathon runner hears this voice, a voice that is none other than this third element of the soul coming to the aid of the ruling classes urging him onward, not to give up, remembering that crossing that finish line will be done at all costs, that pain is just weakness leaving the body, that victory belongs to him who overcomes himself.


What is this third element within the soul that operates like Socratic guardians? Socrates calls it the spirited part. Don’t confuse this with religious spirituality. He means spirited like spirit week back in high school—team spirit or school spirit. The spirited part is capable of employing power, even rage, against the desires in order to bring them to heel, and that is why Socrates compares them to military force. Maybe you’ve already had something like this experience within your moral life where you suddenly well up with anger at the continuation of the temptation, an anger that extinguishes the frustrating desires.


The ruling part of the soul, Reason, is never alone in a well-ordered soul, because were she alone, she would prove no match for the power of the desires. But when she is affixed to a powerful spirited phalanx, an internal power capable of overcoming desire, then the balance of power moves back to Reason.

The rulers of a well-ordered city are never alone when guiding the city toward its good. They always have a force that functions like Socrates’s guardians. Similarly, the ruling part of the soul, Reason, is never alone in a well-ordered soul, because were she alone, she would prove no match for the power of the desires. But when she is affixed to a powerful spirited phalanx, an internal power capable of overcoming desire, then the balance of power moves back to Reason. What is this spirited part that Socrates is describing, that functions so potently in athletics and in our military men and women? I do not think that we have a single term for it in English, but the closest we might be able to come is the Imagination. For when things are going dark, when we feel low and unable to go on, it’s at that point that we can look to hope, to something grander and better and to possibilities that exceed what we are feeling at the moment. When the imagination-spirited part is properly trained, as athletes and soldiers train, then it is capable of the astonishing feats overcoming fear and anxiety and weakness that we so often see in those fields of action. Without that training, the imagination has very little capability to effect much moral change. So, let’s take a look at the training regimen.


When the imagination-spirited part is properly trained, as athletes and soldiers train, then it is capable of the astonishing feats overcoming fear and anxiety and weakness that we so often see in those fields of action. Without that training, the imagination has very little capability to effect much moral change.

Socrates says that the guardians of the city should study and practice two key arts: music and gymnastic. In both cases there is an intellectual, an imagistic, and a physical habituation that takes place in the athlete or soldier. Think of how music impacts your inner life. Most of us let our music choose us, which unfortunately means that it augments desire in ruining our moral lives. Imagine the situation where the young couple has already moved to the back seat of the car. Their desires are saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” while their minds are saying, “Not so fast, this isn’t right yet, we need to cool this down.” Very often there is a rock station playing a potent beat and a love tune that fits right into the sexual drama, music aiding desire. But imagine if the music suddenly switched to “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Unless the man is a Marine, that song will snap them out of the romantic situation, blasting the enchantment and giving their moral powers time to recuperate.


Most of us let our music choose us, which unfortunately means that it augments desire in ruining our moral lives.

Music is a power capable of bypassing Reason, but it is also a power capable of being used by Reason for good. Just think of the weightlifting room with all that heavy metal music surging through the imaginations of the lifters. If you instead played Celine Dion . . . it’s just not going to work, is it? The point? Choose the music that for you is most likely to inspire you toward the kinds of activities that you believe you should be engaged in and not toward the kinds of activities that you believe you should not be engaged in. Be honest with yourself here. Sometimes we like influences that aren’t best for us right now. Notice, too, that musical lyrics are poetry, and poetry is another metered force within the soul, since great lines stick with us and can inspire us toward heroism in moments of trouble or weakness. So, when Socrates speaks of music, we should understand him to mean the whole drama of literature, poetry, song, plays, this potent imaginative mixture of word and meter that we can use to shape the spirited/imaginative part of our souls in the direction of the good.


When Socrates speaks of music, we should understand him to mean the whole drama of literature, poetry, song, plays, this potent imaginative mixture of word and meter that we can use to shape the spirited/imaginative part of our souls in the direction of the good.

While music impacts the imagination, the intellect, and the body through rhythm and dance, inspiring us toward beauty and hope, so the art of gymnastic—which we nowadays would call athletics—moves body, imagination, and intellect together. The physical training of the athlete constantly pushes him past what he falsely assumes were his limits. It trains him to endure hardship, to adapt to shifting situations, to calculate new tactics to confront his opponent. It emboldens him with confidence truly grounded in new capability, not just in himself but in his team mates, for athletics just like basic training for new soldiers shows us that we are never alone, that unit victory is personal victory. And athletics provides a new spiritedness to a person, that “hooah” spirit in the armed forces, the feeling that together the mission must and will be done, that whatever presents itself to inhibit the mission can be worked through and solved. Instead of a mind giving way to fatigue, pain, and fear, it permits the mind to focus on devising successful solutions in the heat of battle. Athletic training also imbues both the athlete and the soldier with a new standard of honor that exceeds what non-athletes and civilians are used to. Being a team member of this or that team means something, gives you something to live up to, provides a long lineage of past athletes and their successes that you’d better not let down with your failure. In the United States Marine Corps this training is emphasized from beginning to end with the history, personnel, and successes of the Marines constantly repeated to the new recruits to instill within them a pride in what it means to be a Marine, a pride both just and necessary to compel them toward acts of courage in the face of lethal hostility.


Coupling these two arts—drama/music and athletic/military training—provides the imagination with the heroic imagery and physical capability to endure and then overcome anything that the outside world throws at the person.

Coupling these two arts—drama/music and athletic/military training—provides the imagination with the heroic imagery and physical capability to endure and then overcome anything that the outside world throws at the person. It follows that those same arts can be employed to overcome what our own desires throw at us. We see this time and again when exhausted soldiers and drained athletes walk back into the fray and renew the charge. If they can do this and overcome the weaknesses within, then we can develop those same capacities morally to direct our souls toward the right kind of conduct in spite of what our desires tell us. If you train every day for a marathon, you form a habit of saying no to your desires.


If you train every day for a marathon, you form a habit of saying no to your desires.

Intriguingly, this very principle of modifying what we do in the body in order to modify what we do within the soul lies at the heart of a common Christian practice: the fast. Fasting is supposed to be understood as something akin to military training, to withdrawing ourselves from food and wine, in order to manifest what lies beneath the veneer of civility and teach us how to overcome it. The ancient Christian practice included a withdrawal not just from choice food and wine, but also from marital sex (only when consented to by both married parties as per St. Paul’s first letter to Corinth). Imagine if you are a married person and you suddenly find yourself—even voluntarily—for the forty days of Lent without meat, wine, or sex. You are going to be irritable. You are going to be irritating. This is serious moral training for spouses, again, allowable only when it is chosen by both of you together. When we add prayer and the giving of ourselves and our wealth to others, the result of restraint and redirection toward charity functions like military training to prepare us for the many times in life when things go wrong in terms of our satisfying our own desire or comfort.


You cannot possibly choose the good for who you are as a whole human person—both body and mind—only with your mind, as though you are just an angel trapped in a body.

Fasting is a powerful tool of moral preparation, a tool that like athletic and military training confronts both the body and the mind at once, as one. Why? Because you are both body and mind. You cannot possibly choose the good for who you are as a whole human person—both body and mind—only with your mind, as though you are just an angel trapped in a body. That’s a Gnostic religious concept that runs counter to everything Christianity teaches in its promise to fulfill the totality of human nature in the love of God. So, if you want to start winning the moral battle in your life, it’s time to get up off your butt and implement a rigorous physical exercise course. On top of that, evaluate what you are watching and listening to, and ask yourself how those musical and dramatic images could be improved to focus your attention better on how you ought to live. Finally, start practicing the Christian fasts—Advent and Lent and the Friday fasts—and merge the training of your will and your intellect with the training of the body and the imagination that are supposed to together enable them to defeat wayward desire. Perform all of these elements for three months consistently, and you will be shocked at how much greater your internal moral power over your desires becomes.

14 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All