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October 18, 2006

Pleasure v. Religion

Don't want to leave that noxious statement by Hitler at the top of the blogpile too long, so I'll elevate a discussion of the anacreontic attitude -- "sha, la, la, la, la, la live for today" -- from the comments. It is my thesis that in this attitude, which can be traced back to an Egyptian song more than 4,000 years ago, is a piece of the positive idea of atheism for which I am searching. For it puts the emphasis on earthly (and earthy) life and its wonders not on some putative, presumably perfect post-life.

JM reminds that we "post-ancients" are still sha-la-la-la-la-ing today. I certainly agree that this impulse to Have Pleasure Now ("and don't worry 'bout tomorrow") survives -- as obstacle, nightmare, tug or goal. Probably louder in (certain parts of) the culture now than it has been since the days of the Carvaka, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and Anacreon himself (all of whom will get to sing their "alluring" songs in my book).

There is much that is alluring in this attitude, though I guess it is hard to build a life upon (even for members of the Allman Brothers Band). Efforts certainly are made to channel, contain, repress the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but that doesn't mean this attitude would otherwise be so wild and free that it might avoid being encrusted with contradictions -- some having to do with the likely arrival of "tomorrow," some having to do with the fact that other people, with their own wants and desires, are required for the achievement of certain much-prized pleasures. Schisms have developed among anacreontics on the relative merits of physical pleasures, mental pleasures and the mere absence of distress.

Still, having a bit of fun -- now -- does seem an important component in a life strategy. And it does seem a mostly irreligious component.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 18, 2006 6:59 PM


Thanks for letting us move from the Hitler discussions... [and apologies, for the record, in alluded-to comment re: use of the word 'ridiculous' there, which was a flip comment on the song lyric ('sha-la-la...'), not the important concept behind it (i.e., a 'positive view of atheism')]

Willing to stick by rest of the previous comment, though, and make, perhaps, an even bolder claim here: that the establishment of Christianity alone is responsible for the gradual concealment/transformation (in the west, at least) of this ancient attitude toward the importance of living a pleasurable earthly life today, not tomorrow. Still believe (with Foucault) that this attitude did not actually disappear but concealed itself in the folds of various discourses (literature, for one, including some of those heretical texts?), waiting for shifts in the status of various truth-discourses to come back into visibility ...

Surely the Enlightenment played a tremendous role in this attitude's gradual return, in spite of Enlightenment appropriation of the metaphysical constructs of Roman imperialism, as well as Christian teleology, which continued to conceal it, however differently. The adherence to the 'worldly' as the basis of 'secularism'--a term I just learned only came into use in the middle ages (1250-1300)--means that it has not 'reason' as its foundation, but some sense of duration, of temporality--of mortal being, of living in the midst of the world here and now ... which would play a rather immense role in shifting from a medieval worldview in which god formed the alpha & omega for all action to an atheism that, by default, let go of that teleological, metaphysical ground as the basis for existence (thus, safe again to speak of pleasure in the now, in the earth[l]y?

Posted by: JM at October 18, 2006 10:48 PM

I have to disagree with JM about the role of Christianity, to a point. There were quite strong ascetic strains in Greek and Roman philosophy long before the emergence of Christianity--including in the works of the platonists/neoplatonists, pythagoreans/neopythagoreans, and the stoics. Of course, the Christians' almost exclusive embrace of asceticism and the merger of state power with that of the church did make asceticism "the law of the land" so to speak.

Both religious and secular philosophies have aspects of asceticism and hedonism. (Of course, dealing with the ancient world, it is far more difficult to determine the line between religion and irreligion.) Either, taken to its most absurd conclusion, brings us to tremendous contradictions. What if one person's idea of pleasure is to rape another? What if you deny yourself so much that you destroy yourself and cannot fulfill whatever "purpose" you have?

Are we to consider only pleasure-seeking to its extreme here OR a focus on enjoying life bound by moral prescriptions against harming others OR a focus on enjoying life with a spiritual component OR making this world the primary or sole consideration in decisions about behavior? If we're avoiding the first, which would be a violation of most moral philosophies--secular and religious--the others fit quite well into many non-ascetic and anti-ascetic traditions in the religious world.

Judaism and Islam both have very strong anti-ascetic strains. Modern Judaism, specifically, considers this world the primary focus of any good Jew. After all, there is no official afterlife in Judaism and many interpretations of the "World to Come" place it here on earth. Considerations of the afterlife often end up being rather academic or philosophical rather than a central or guiding tenet of the faith.

I think both religious/secular philsophies offer a variety of viewpoints as to how we're supposed to enjoy ourselves, the relative merits of physical vs. mental/spiritual pleasures, and why such enjoyment constitutes a moral good.

Why does it seem otherwise? Is it that we've all absorbed Christianity as a Western paradigm, ignoring the fact that it is one amongst many religions and is very much non-representative of religion as a whole?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at October 19, 2006 11:48 AM

I wonder why I get so much pleasure out of versing religion?

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 19, 2006 7:26 PM

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