I hoped growing older might dry-up the appetites that beset me, that age might turn me into a wizened old gentleman for whom asceticism is natural—like breathing—and that air, and maybe some water and crackers, might become the only essentials to my continued existence. In short, I wanted to slowly and imperceptibly (and painlessly, please) grow happy as a monk. After decades of daily struggle with blind, ignorant yearning, can’t my brain finally win?
This summer, I’ve been counting calories. I was reasonably healthy before, not medically overweight or (chronically) immoderate in my eating. Being attractive isn’t even essential to men of my age and circumstance. Yet I see young, muscular males walking about and note their ubiquitous presence on television and the internet, in magazines and advertisements looming over the city. This imagery is enough to remind me of my inadequacy. Sure, my brain knows those expectations are artificial. Very few men look that way naturally, without rigorous physical training—or photoshop—and I might not desire weight loss without such clear messages about the importance of thin.
The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BCE) made a distinction between xing and wei. The immediate aspects of existence fall under xing, which describes human nature at its most basic, including all the desires—he says bodily satisfaction, comfort, and prominence are chief—linking us to other animals. Though not exclusively evil, our xing needs training and channeling by our wei. Wei is artifice, the deliberate and conscious acknowledgement that our spontaneous whims must be controlled if we hope to cultivate proper habits. Wei is the first step toward virtue, as trying to be our best selves won’t happen naturally.
Something Spartan lurks in his philosophy that appeals to me. To get what you truly desire you must overcome your desires. If thin is good, make peace with eating the number of daily calories dictated by your current weight, your age, your activity level, and your goals.
Though it’d be easy to call Xunzi a Hobbesian cynic, his belief in our capacities over our proclivities is idealistic. For example, we may desire skill in painting, writing, and music because it brings us prominence, but we train as artists because of wei. We exercise those skills conscientiously and diligently knowing that, if anything of universal value is to come of them, we must find willpower and self-discipline. Anything requiring effort ultimately separates us from our xing. Desire created our goals, but artifice expressed their best form. Unlike Mencius, another prominent Confucian, Xunzi doesn’t believe we can do much with our basic appetites—xing isn’t good and is never good—but it can be overcome. Wei will supplant xing.
Yet, I suspect any distinction neatly dividing overlapping human impulses. I have questions: If we all have the capacity for wei, does that make it natural or artificial? What about wanting to have the best wei on the block, where do you put that impulse? Xunzi’s appreciation of the war between nature and artifice as the key struggle of existence seems right, and I’d love to believe wei will win. But can the brain and body ever make peace?
Xunzi’s answer was his faith in “approval,” by which he meant the heart’s decision to do what’s best, even if it opposes our appetites. According to Xunzi, we inevitably settle on what we should do and not what we want. Because health is the greater good, I sacrifice to achieve it… putting aside, of course, that vanity isn’t healthy.
The creation of “approval” helps assure Xunzi that proper behavior can exist without squelching natural desires. When “approval” takes over, reason—or, in my case, calorie counting—won’t dominate for long. We don’t develop habitual denial without training, but, to Xunzi, it becomes a part of us. Eventually, doing right requires neither thought nor effort. I WILL embrace 1500 calories before adding in extra for time on the elliptical.
Really? So far, my experiment suggests Xunzi is delusional. Granted, ours is not an age of self-denial, but it seems the gap between what you want and what you get will always be obvious. How can you act against your nature without knowing it? How long does it take to forget you’re acting against your nature?
I’d like to reach that stage tomorrow.
I battle my xing mightily, I do, and right now I’m bravely conserving the planet’s food resources for others. I cast aside spontaneous needs in favor of conscientious retraining, even though I’m probably old enough not to give a shit. But where do I find “approval” and how will I know my heart, and not Calvin Klein, is behind it?
Maybe I shouldn’t ask these questions, but I’m not thinking straight. Truth is, I’m very hungry.