I have a love–hate relationship with Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
On those mornings, I walk into a small classroom at 8:00 AM for my upper-level Latin courses. But while engaging Pliny, Livy, Ovid, and Virgil so early in the morning has been challenging, being able to read them in their original languages has also proven insightful and exciting.
So I was intrigued when my colleague Brian Miller wrote about the Aeneid a couple of weeks ago. In his article, he discusses the difference between the ancients’ understanding of the virtues and the values of our contemporary society, and the propensity to learn from the past to which we should all aspire.
“If you must choose between your duty and your desire,” Brian writes, “there really isn’t a choice at all; there is only duty.” My addition to his thought is more of a nuanced observation than anything else, but it bears important practical implications. I would argue that if you must choose between duty and desire, then rather than forsake your desire, you must calibrate your desire to match the duty.
The tension between duty and desire reminds me of a similar tension that exists between two important conservative thinkers: Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer. I read Kirk’s Roots of the American Order over a year ago, and Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom just this past December. Both writers acknowledge that there must be a balance between our innate desires and a duty to curb them for the greater good of all. Kirk reconciles the two by arguing that freedom extends only so far as the individual’s duties begin. Meyer, on the other hand, is a bit more nuanced, arguing that freedom is the best condition for the individual and that duty should be the result of a conscious decision made by the individual, not coerced by the state.
While these two authors are discussing politics, both their positions have some implications here. Namely, duty can only be truly fulfilled when the individual has a desire for that duty. This is nothing new to Western thought. Plato argued that the rational part of the soul should set the course for the spirit and the appetites, while C.S. Lewis believed that our desires were fully realized when placed in line with what our duties ought to be.
Not only is this idea common to Western thought, it has everyday implications. You can change your eating habits for the better when you recognize the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. You can alter your reading preferences when you recognize the value of cultivating your mind. You can even choose to desire certain moral actions when you believe that morality demands it.
Classical literature like the Aeneid reminds me that these issues are nothing new to the human conditions. Brian put it well when he pointed out that you should humbly learn from Aeneas’ sense of duty. I would take his idea a step further and encourage you to change, rather than deny, your desires so that they are more in line with your duties as a responsible human being.