As I understand it the good life (a life worth living) is one in which the desires of the person living it are satisfied. Which requires of course that the person’s desires not be in direct conflict with each other, and not be self-defeating. Thus in one sense it is irrational to seek freedom from desire; having desires that are satisfied is what makes life worth living, so someone who ignored all their desires would be living the good life. But not all desires are equally worth satisfying or trying to satisfy. Of course something that is desired less strongly should have less resources devoted to its satisfaction. But desires that are fleeting are also not worth satisfying, in most cases.
We might be tempted to call such fleeting desires passions, but I think to label them as such would be to draw a misleading distinction. It is not the case that we have a clear-cut division between fleeting desires and stable ones. Instead we have a continuous spectrum of desires that persist for different amounts of time, from those that persist for an entire lifetime to those that persist only for moments. I advocate trying to be free from (be unmotivated by) passions when it is properly understood, as an attempt to ignore those desires that are short-lived and to favor more stable desires over less stable ones in most cases. However I will not describe it in those terms, because they imply that there is some simple way to categorize our desires so that we can keep one set as worth following and discard the other, which is not the case.
Of course I haven’t yet said why we should try to ignore these unstable desires. Consider then what it means to live a life in which your desires are satisfied. This doesn’t mean that at some special point, such as the end, that you feel your desires to have been satisfied. Rather it means that for all, or most, of your life, you feel that your desires have been, or are being, satisfied. I claim that trying to satisfy all of your feeling desires would frustrate this goal, leading to a life that does not, overall, have its desires satisfied. The reasoning behind this is best illustrated with an example. Consider a hypothetical person, me, with two desires. One is a stable desire to do some interesting philosophy every day*. And another is a fleeting desire to take a nap and then watch TV for the rest of the day. Let us further suppose that I desire the second more strongly, at least for today. Now if I didn’t resist my fleeting desire then I would in fact take a nap, and not get any work done. But that desire would be gone the next day. And the next day, and for some days after that, I would feel that my desire to do some interesting philosophy each day has not been satisfied, because of the day that I took off. So for the day in which I gave in to my fleeting desire I would be more satisfied, but in total, over the next days I would be unsatisfied. In contrast if I ignored my fleeting desire I might be partially unsatisfied for that one day, but I would be satisfied in the days to come.
Of course the example I have given is so clear partly because it involves incompatible desires. And incompatible desires can never work, no matter how permanent or fleeting they are. The conclusion does still hold for compatible desires, it just isn’t as easy to illustrate. It holds because devoting some resources to a fleeting desire reduces the resources you can devote to a more stable desire. Thus that stable desire will be less satisfied that day and in the days to come, giving you less total satisfaction, since ignoring the fleeting desire only reduces your satisfaction for that particular day.
Naturally looking at the situation in more realistic terms reveals that there may be times in which it is worthwhile to satisfy a fleeting desire, if that desire is strong enough, will persist long enough, or doesn’t significantly take away from satisfying more persistent desires. This is why I opposed simply splitting desires into passions and desires, as mentioned above, because the boundaries between which desires are worth satisfying and which should be resisted are ill-defined. But, even so, there are many cases in which it is best to ignore a fleeting desire, and the briefer the desire the more likely that it should be ignored. It is these desires we should want to be free from (to be able to ignore).
Now even though it may occasionally make sense to satisfy a fleeting desire I think that it is a good rule of thumb to try to ignore as many of them as possible. This is because almost everyone is bad at making a rational evaluation of what they should do when they are in the grip of some fleeting desire. If you are open to the idea that fleeting desires can be justified then every fleeting desire will motivate you to generate some justification. But often this justification will be a poor one, and bad choices will be made which will lead to short-term satisfaction at the expense of long-term satisfaction. So instead it is better to deny every fleeting desire until all your stable desires have been satisfied, and only then give into your fleeting desires, when they can no longer frustrate your stable desires.
And now I’m off to catch a nap and then some TV.
* But what about the first of the month? I write something then too, I just don’t publish it. It goes into a queue of posts I have, and I just select the one I like best each day.