Desire’s Death-Trap

Desire’s Death-Spiral: Antiquity’s Repentance

“Je n’ai pas pris la voie qi’il fallait, je n’aboutis a rien. Ma liberte n’est pas la bonne.”
— Caligula, Albert Camus

There’s something darkly amusing when moderns feign shock at the evil of Rome’s Colosseum. Put bluntly, we have turned the world into its arena. Anguish, waste and caprice form the mass of Bataille’s “accursed share.” Indeed, these tussling extremes all climax in what might be called an esthetique de l’agonie. At least it can be said that at the Colosseum, however, these forces culminated in the erotically-charged figure of the gladiator. Conversely, today they accumulate and dissipate with such volatility that the outcome is chaotic something more akin to Baudrillard’s “hyperreality.”

On the humdrum plane of everyday existence ‘work and play’ tether Man to a bovine ‘reality’ that eschews both despair (negative) and the deeper peace (positive) that comes from union with God. Work requires little psychological analysis. Play, on the other hand, is riven by the physics of desire “the true source of cruelty,” as Novalis famously noted. Publilius Syrus was probably hitting on the same truth when he observed that Pro medicina est dolor dolorem qui necat, “the pain [cruelty] that kills pain [desire] acts as a medicine.”

While moderns suppose they have risen above the debased impulses Romans put on show, what they’ve really done is refined and mislabelled them. At least the ancients knew the passions could imprison. Inversely, society now markets desire as a liberating force something that promises to reveal one’s enigma even in items as bland as an ice-cream. Yet despite the ugly harvests repeatedly reaped from such a position, like Augustine’s Alypius moderns cannot help but linger, refusing to acknowledge desire forms the strongest fetters.

Virgil wouldn’t have made the same mistake. He knew desire like the winds of Aeolus could carry off the sea, land and deepest heaven. Petronius preferred to emphasise its confining aspect when he wrote that “Just as dumb creatures are ensnared by food, so humans would not be caught unless they had a nibble of desire/hope.” Cicero quoted the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum: “No more fatal curse ruins Man than… the passions [avidae libidines] which are driven recklessly on to their gratification. From [this drive] flows treason.”

Moderns often frame prudery as a child of Christianity. A typical scholar might trace the genealogy of desire’s death-spiral to a church father. Yet Virgil, Seneca, Petronius and Sallust all believed gratification led one inexorably on to transgression or, worse, an inability to recognise limits. The slope was self-destructive and infinite. Perhaps Trimalchio summed it up most concisely when he claimed “Nobody gets enough, never.” Not even kings like Ovid’s Erysichthon (who sold his daughter into slavery to feed his hunger before being reduced to autocannibalism).

Amusingly, once caught up within the whirlwind of desire, what the Romans most feared was not so much the momentum of its wild horses as the taedium vitae, the end of wanting. Folk were unsettled by the fact that when the world was reduced to a canvas upon which they impressed their collage of desires (in a horror vacui) it stared back in a blank, absent and vacant manner, a miserable reflection of the subject. 

To avoid this unnerving feeling satiety is remoulded from a goal into a terror. Desire becomes a virtue for its own sake and so life (from novel dishes to voluptuous women) might be used to stimulate rather than satisfy the appetite. Yet no matter how accomplished the athlete of desire, eventually weariness enters. The decadent Roman becomes vexed by the flux and fickleness of his mind, not to mention the repetition and boredom of its designs. Taboos lose their lustre, transgressions become bloodless rubicons. 

And so the mind digs in and takes refuge in its darker visions. Like Nero the subject becomes “Incredibilium cupitor” (a lover of the impossible). But, just as the insomniac’s mind cannot work harder to go to sleep (it must relax, fade away), thanks to fantasy-inflation the desirer’s effort-to-reward ratio is eventually broken and the result is almost always self-loathing. Seneca dug the knife in further, adding the grimacing detail that:

“Because they can neither rule nor obey their desires, then comes the hesitancy of a life unable to clear a path for itself; the dull wasting away of a soul lying torpid amidst forsaken hopes.”

Like living on wine without water, what initially flavours life eventually poisons it. The French have a word for the residue of the person left after desire has dumped them on the wayside: aboulie (from the Greek boulesthai, to want). That is being without desire a feeling worse than despair because that term at least connotes a failed hope. This acedia attacks the largest and most formidable of adamantine blocks built into our DNA: the survival mechanism. 

In this melee, the ogre of egotism emerges as the latter’s champion. Petronius put it best when he chimed that “The gods of hell profess their hopes of heaven.” Like a toddler who must destroy what he cannot have, the frustrated Roman demands Si cadendum est, cadam orbe concusso, “If I must fall, the world must also shatter.” Entire societies become yoked to the dynamic Camus attributed to Caligula:

Le pouvoir jusqu’au bout, l’abandon jusqu’au bout. Non, on ne revient pas en arriere et il faut aller jusqu’a la consommation!”

But while the ancients at least had the Titanomachy to warn them of the dangers of trying to storm heaven, in the twenty-first century the traditional Christian equivalent (that Lucifer was kicked out of heaven for pride or ambition) is amusing to most. In short, this means the modern debauchee knocks on an open door. And when another offers no resistance, the ‘Other’ (for all of academia’s prattling, really the cloisters seek, crave and cleave to micro-distinctions in the name of an Other than has long since fled) ceases to have a reality. Like Sade’s “sovereign man” the modern inhabits a solipsistic universe, a world of mirrors and echoes. 

Yet this doesn’t produce Man the Demiurge. Instead a profound insensibility and irritability infects his mental landscape. Macbeth’s play on liminality comes to the fore: little distinction can be made between fantasy and reality. Death becomes play and injury pure theatre: Homo, sacra res homini, iam per lusum ac iocum occiditur (“Man, a sacred thing to man, is now killed as a sport and a joke.”) Always perverse, the decadent Roman seeks resistance; it is the latter that provides real satisfaction, a relish. 

It is a supreme irony which God has clearly installed in Man as a glass ceiling to his Faustian genius that those who harness emperor-or-god like power in pursuing their desires (and manage to execute the supreme manoeuvre: the acte gratuit, the gratuitous act) do not become God-like but more barbaric. Instead of using their influence to do anonymous works of good, the sub-god almost always ends up like Juvenal’s domina playfully stabbing her slave with a hairpin, or Cassius Dio’s Caligula absent-mindedly throwing spectators to the wild animals. In short, people playing gods do not bring supernal harmony down to earth but intensify the tedium of worldly existence to a celestial ferocity that mortals cannot endure. 

It is this realisation, namely that to constantly desire is hell (an especially confusing one considering that by suffering desire and inflicting pain the desirer is both victim and victimiser and thus, in a sense, neither victim nor victimiser), or more accurately that the only way to upend desire is to destroy those it infects. And so desire leads wryly to a lust for death. The absence of catharsis, which was once entertaining, becomes a drumbeat for one’s demise. Just as the ill polity descends into civil war, so the man shipwrecked by desire seeks suicide. A fact Martial appears to have revelled in when the poet recalled how the glutton Apicius ended himself on a final menu of poison.

What is particularly grim about this condition is that there are so few routes back from the precipice reminding the reader of Kierkagaard’s dictum that “despair is… impotent self-consumption”. The psychological rhythm becomes so overwhelming that to become engaged in resistance or correction would result only in going mad. 

Amongst the dissolution lurks a dour vision in which there is no rock of truth or reality to which one can cling. When, in the Philosophy of History, Hegel called the comic frame of mind “a condition of the soul which can suffer the dissolution of its aims and realisations,” he may as well have been referring to the person who has taken desire to its (un)natural conclusion. In essence, Nietzsche is fine in theory. In reality, there is no plane of freedom where traditional conventions and values have been levelled; there is no existence beyond good and evil. Desire is nihilistic by nature and nihilism breeds despair, which leads to suicide.

In acknowledging this, the decadent (but now desperate) spirit proceeds to create imaginary difficulties and invent artificial obstacles in order to restore a sense of order. Lacking real problems, it takes refuge in charades, enigmas and rebuses. Pomponius put it best when he claimed Quidam adeo in latebras refugerunt ut putent in turbido esse, quicquid in luce est, “There are those who have fled so far into the shadows that they believe to be in obscurity whatever is light.”

In this topsy-turvy world, living luxuriously might inure one to luxury and stifling desires could result in madness. Into this chaos steps violence which can at least be cast as a pure action that is impervious to manipulation by the individual psyche as well as the culture in toto. So while the ‘inferior’ violence of a Nero or Caligula might collude with desire, its elder twin: austere violence the violence of war and sport, not play and pleasure aims at restoring the proper proportions to Man. But even this redemptive violence can fall short. When the camp-prefect Aufidienus Rufus tried to restore ‘the old severe discipline’ to the idle camp in Pannonia under Tiberius, for instance, the result was mutiny.

Perhaps the greatest example in antiquity of this chaotic life was the last king of Assyria, Sardanapalus. The ruler spent his entire reign indulging in depraved cravings for instant gratification before perishing in a great fire at his palace in Nineveh (when the Babylonians conquered the city in 612 BC). It was tales like this that prompted Aristotle to conclude that the fundaments of Eudaimonia were found in respect for the eternal and not the material world.

The psyche, therefore, needed reorienting in this lofty direction. But it could not be forced: evil cannot drive out evil, darkness is unable to repel darkness and violence begets itself. Even goodness can sometimes be strangled by its cousins (the desire for virtue and knowledge often contains a strain of vanity) and so trapped in this mire, it dawned on a civilisation (in late antiquity) that only faith had the muscle to reconfigure Man. 

Instead of moaning about moral decline with the great historians such as Livy, Sallust and Tacitus, as if an accurate diagnosis by it itself reversed its symptoms, an outside order needed to be welcomed. The Romans turned to the Jewish God YHWH (Eloah, Elohim, Shaddai) for succour. By the fourth century, your typical Roman had set aside the moral exhortations of Seneca, Epictetus, or Aurelius and turned to Jewish scripture for release. An immensely personal passage like Isaiah (LV) no doubt passed his or her lips:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found… Let the wicked forsake his way… Let him turn to the LORD for mercy for freely he shall pardon: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”

Cover: “The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix (1827)

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at

Scroll to top