Moderation and the Art of Earthly Pleasure

Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.

On Food & Love

To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.

My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.

For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.

In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.

Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.

So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.

The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.

So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.