Friday, December 30, 2011


It seems a simple, innocuous, almost obvious statement: The point of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It was a goal enunciated by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) and reiterated in On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (in the first century B.C.E).

What could be more obvious?

Yet it wasn't obvious in the Christian West. The philosophy of Epicurus was libeled as a license for debauchery and dissolution, a sure-fire road to eternal punishment. To be an "Epicurean" was to surrender to the most base of human desires, to wallow in wanton depravity.

Of course, Epicurus (and Lucretius) proposed no such thing. Happiness is to be found in peace and moderation. Yes, the pleasures of life are to be enjoyed -- food, drink, sex, the beautiful gifts of the Earth -- but as a temperate balm. Self-indulgence is a recipe for discontent.

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. It was the antithesis of the teaching of the Roman Church (and post-Reformation Christian churches). We are called to mortify the body, a body made corrupt by the sin of Adam. We expect pain as the price of eternal life. Whatever pleasure is ours will be found beyond the grave.

This description may sound extreme, perhaps even unfair, but as Greenblatt makes clear, it was the order of the day at the time Lucretius' book was recovered in the 15th century, and it was still the order of the day as I was growing up a young Catholic in the 1940s and 50s.

Even the most harmless and readily available pleasures, such as masturbation, might deserve eternal damnation. Self-denial was a virtue, fasting and penance the rule. The epitome of goodness was to give up one's dearest pleasures during Lent, in sympathy with the suffering Christ. We were taught to admire as models of sanctity men and women who wore hairshirts and lashed themselves with nettles. Martyrs who died the most agonizing deaths were at God's right hand. Whatever discomforts or pains we lesser mortals felt were to be offered up for the poor souls in purgatory. God was pleased by our suffering. Thus we showed Him our love.

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. A subversive philosophy, distracting our attention from the only thing that mattered -- eternal life with the Beatific Vision. How much of this rubbed off on a kid is hard to say, but it was adequate preparation for the university student's intellectual encounter with the darker undercurrents of European Catholicism in the late 1950s.

(More on Monday.)