Therapy of Desire: Hellenistic Philosophical Ethics and James, 4 Macc, Test. XII, and Philo

The Hellenistic Philosophical approach to ethics has been described by Nussbaum (1994) as Therapy of Desire in her influential monograph by the same name. This approach to ethics—the approach of the popular Hellenistic schools of the Epicureans and the Stoics—conceives of philosophy/reason as a cure for desires or passions. There are a number of aspects of the theory, but a central task of ethics qua ‘therapy of desire’ is to control or extirpate desires and passions. Although Nussbaum’s theory described Hellenistic philosophical texts, a number of texts from Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity exhibit a heightened concern with control of desires and passions as essential to the ethical task. This paper will compare 4 Macc Test. XII, Philo, and the NT letter of James within the framework of Therapy of Desire. More specifically, I will look at the heightened significance of desires/passions in these texts, and trace how they are conceived of as significant to ethical practice. The paper argues that these texts exhibit a conception of ethics that is in the same discursive arena as the ancient ethical approach of therapy of desire—a discourse that can re-frame how we understand ethics in these texts. At the same time, these texts also conceive of ethics in relation to Jewish (and Christian) tradition; for example, we find a heightened concern with the 10th commandment—itself adjusted to the more generalized ‘do not desire’. Through this selection of texts, and focusing only on the control and extirpation of desire, we will trace out the various ways that desires/passions are dealt with in the texts and how they function as part of ethical practice.