This is a guest post by Luke Burgis. Luke is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, which is now available for pre-order and releases on June 1st!
“Mimetic desire” is a concept that originated with the French thinker René Girard. He believed that our desires are not entirely our own. Instead, they are generated and shaped through a social process by which people imitate (mimesis comes from the Greek word for “imitate”) the desires of others.
The degree to which our desires are mimetic is unclear. Some students of Girard believe that everything humans want is derivative of what someone else has already wanted. Others think that only some desires are borrowed from others to greater or lesser degrees.
It seems obvious that at least some desires are mimetic. When we were children, chances are that we wanted to do some things (like play a sport) because our friends did. Even as adults, we are very susceptible to mimetic behavior. It’s easy to catch the desire to vacation somewhere, for instance, after we see a beautiful vacation photo on Instagram.
Understanding our relationship to mimetic desire is an important step in becoming a person whose choices are not socially derived, but intentional. It’s about gaining freedom from trends and bubbles and fads—the ability to have more agency in shaping the life we want.
Here are three of the most important ways that Stoicism can help:
Epictetus wrote: “The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want…If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy…For desire, suspend it completely for now.” (Enchiridion, 2.1-2)
Notice that he ends with “for now”—it is not indefinite. Epictetus is recommending that we create some critical distance from our desires for a period of time so that we can discern which of them lead to a good life and which do not. He talked about saying to a desire, “Hold on a moment…let me put you to the test.”
We can’t suspend all desire indefinitely. Humans are desiring creatures. But we shouldn’t immediately believe in the truth of every desire stirred up in us. Marcus Aurelius had a good exercise that can help us with this: stripping away the legend that encrusts things…
Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood…Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time.
Stoicism teaches that we should discern our desires carefully. That starts with developing a sense of detachment from them so that we can evaluate them critically.
Girard’s theory of mimetic desire doesn’t give many practical solutions to the problems it presents. If our desires are truly mimetic, then we don’t have as much control over our desires as we like to think. So what should we do?
Marcus Aurelius gives the Stoic prescription for this. He wrote that “progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over.”
It is by taking deliberate action that we move forward—not by spending all of our time wrestling with, or becoming consumed with, our desires.
We have to act. And it is through action that we ultimately make sense of our true desires. “Learn to ask of all actions,” Marcus writes, “‘Why are they doing that?’ Starting with your own.”
Desires come and go, but some things never change. The wisdom of the Stoics is so relevant today because it is grounded in time-tested truths about human nature.
The four Stoic virtues articulated in this letter by Marcus Aurelius are justice, prudence, self-control, and courage. For thousands of years, people have pursued these virtues and found that they never disappoint. We can think of these virtues as the perennial desires of the wise.
These virtues also form the basis of a practical morality. The great writer Montesquieu, an admirer of the Stoics, wrote this in a letter to a friend in 1750:
About thirty years ago, I conceived the project of writing a book on duty. Cicero’s treatise On duties had delighted me, and I took it as my model. As you know, Cicero had, as it were, copied Panaetius, who was a Stoic, and the Stoics had treated this question most successfully. So I read the Stoics’ principal works, among them the Moral Reflections of Marcus Aurelius, which struck me as the masterpiece of Antiquity. I confess that I was impressed by its morality, and that I should have liked to make a saint of Marcus Aurelius […]. What impressed me most was to discover that this morality was practical…
Montesquieu could look to people that lived nearly 2,000 years before him because there are enduring desires that are common to people of all times and in all places. Pursuing them prevents us from pursuing ephemeral—and more mimetic—desires instead. We can stand on the accumulated wisdom of the great men and women that came before us. The four Stoic virtues are a good place to start.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about mimetic desire, please check out the book that I wrote about it: Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.