Sunday, August 29, 2004

War on pleasure

I’ve been reading a little Montaigne lately – a French layman philosopher whose ideas are espoused in a handful of very interesting essays.

A theme running through some of his writings – all the more curious for his being such a religious man – is the morality of pursuing and enjoying pleasurable things:

“All the opinions of the world agree in this, that pleasure is our end, though we make use of divers[e] means to attain it: they would, otherwise, be rejected at the first motion; for who would give ear to him that should propose affliction and misery for his end?” – Montaigne

…most of the Christian world in following the terribly influential doctrines of St Augustine, actually.

Montaigne understood the thought that had come before and knew that he was disagreeing with some influential thinkers, nevertheless he understood what was at the core of all human action:

“Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure.” - Montaigne

It inspired me to think about how far we’ve come since his writing in the late 1500’s and was struck with the fact that we haven’t embraced the pursuit of pleasure at all. Although we are often accused by other societies to be pleasure-seeking materialists, we are constantly hampered either by guilt or by legislation in this most natural of pursuits.

We are, in effect, embroiled in a longstanding war on pleasure, exacerbated by the fact that we have given over so much of our decision making power to the state.

So, of course, when I realised I was mulling over it for days - I wrote about it:


I still remember being impatient to grow up. Everything past the arbitrary demarcation point of ‘formal education’ seemed to be a frontier promising freedom, exploration, self-determination and experience beyond even my wild imagination.

Gradually, though, I began to realise that not everyone held the same wide-eyed curiosity about the world as I did. For many, the world was full of dangers that leapt out of dark corners and potholes that derailed the otherwise sedate journey of life. Where I saw opportunity and railed at every state-imposed shackle, many saw potential peril and looked to the state to impose some arbitrary order to ease the fear. The potentiality for crime became as evil a thing as crime itself.

This attempt at making the world a ‘safer’, more homogenous place therefore went beyond simply protecting citizens against the use of force or occurrences of fraud. It was deemed necessary to ‘protect’ the populace against the vices or peculiarities of others – even where that behavior had no direct impact on any non-consenting human – because it was those vices and peculiarities that could, in theory, at any moment erupt into crime.

Since the move toward homogenization had no basis in rationality in the first place, it wasn’t too much of a leap to look to the Judeo-Christian model of virtue and vice on which to base the legal system to carry it out – and if there’s one thing the church despises, it is pleasure.

I saw that pleasure of all sorts was something to be ashamed of. The root of human pleasure was some vague ‘evil’ (or, as St Augustine would have you believe, ‘carnal will’) and battling these pleasures was a twisted pleasure in and of itself by the self-appointed guardians of public morality. Inevitably, they would seek to legislate that which they found abhorrent.

Everywhere I turned, I found that the very things we innately enjoy as humans were insanely regulated and relegated to the guilt pile.

First it was sex. The world’s oldest profession must be the most reviled by law in history. Prostitutes are looked down upon and ushered away from our view of the everyday, as if not seeing them walking along a street will erase the reality that some people do pay for sex. Certain countries allow the selling but not the buying of sex, some allow the trade but decree that managers or madams are somehow breaking the law.

Why a legal, consensual, pleasurable act between two human beings can suddenly become illegal with the introduction of currency is beyond me – as it is beyond innumerable others that have written about it.

When technology allowed sex to be captured visually and distributed, the government was there too. Certain magazines were judged to lack taste and were banned from certain jurisdictions. To this day, if the nanny state happens to be vacuuming in your room and finds your stash under the bed, you can find yourself grounded for a long time for hoarding non-sanctioned erotica.

What was once the realm of magazines has recently moved to the Internet, a most efficient pornography delivery vehicle. The Internet is viewed suspiciously by maladroit parents and overeager social workers as a veritable digital Satan, simply waiting to unload filth into the unsuspecting and untrained minds of the world’s youth.

The idea that bringing children up is a damned difficult and responsible task for individual parents, families and carers seems to escape these people. Foisting their progeny on society, they demand that an adult world conform to the needs of as-yet-undeveloped humans. A world created by and for adults has therefore been dumbed-down into a sanitized, childproof playpen rather than the exciting, diverse and sometimes dangerous place that it should be. The idea is that I shouldn’t (read: at some point it will be legislated so that I can’t) have access to pornography for my own pleasure because there is some chance that a child will also have access to it.

So paid pleasure with others and paying to watch others gain pleasure is out. Surely then, pleasure on one’s own could be left alone? No, the government had to step in here too.

Drugs are naturally an enemy of this profligate state – recreational drugs’ sole reason for existence being to mimic, heighten or prolong various forms of pleasure naturally generated by our own brain chemistry. The fact that the act of using a drug harms no-one bar the user is swept aside as the do-gooders bleat about drug use being a precursor to crime.

If a crime is committed to obtain funds for drug purchase, then that crime stands on its own. Its motivator does not matter – the force or fraud was committed, whether it be for Aunt Gertrude’s hip replacement or a better high this Saturday night. If drug use leads to the neglect of contracted (or natural, ie: child raising) duties, then it is this reneging of contract that is the evil – not its precursor.

Conveniently tying the availability of drugs to crime, however, gives the state all the excuses it needs to regularly wage ‘war’, trampling citizen’s rights in the process.

The fact that prohibition of anything increases it’s market value astronomically and leads to only organized criminal gangs peddling it is a concept and a historical lesson that is regularly forgotten. Reading history is, after all, the occupation of bespectacled, wooly-jumpered old codgers and women who need to discover hair product. No sleekly styled politico-type would be caught dead dusting off something obscure and insightful to learn and reflect from the long-ago-committed mistakes of his own kind.

Soft drugs aren’t left alone either. When health care is funded by the government, it is in the government’s interest to ensure that bodies stay healthy and cost less to maintain. To this effect, cigarettes and alcohol (both consumed – you guessed it – purely for pleasure) are the new enemies to be battled with a blizzard of useless and patronizing advertising. Alcohol consumption is tightly reigned in by age, geographical area and time served. In the case of cigarettes, legislation has been used to curb private property rights and ‘protect’ employees, patrons and the unsuspecting from the as-yet-unproven effects of second hand smoke. Manufacturers are forced to print warnings against consumption of their own product on their product label. Both products are taxed at exorbitant rates – a case of the consumer paying for the privilege of being told he is an idiot to do what he does.

The state therefore has a long history of doing battle with anything that humans enjoy.

It comes as no surprise to me, then, that the latest attack is on the pleasure of eating food. Running out of the traditional Big Bad Things to attack, they’ve started on the little ones.

Food is such an elementary pleasure, an enjoyment so very easily seen to be advantageous to a human that it is amazing to me that it can be attacked with so little public outcry. Unlike the other pleasures mentioned, it is actually a basic physiological need for survival.

Never satisfied with the way nature hands things to us, we humans have modified natural crops and processed their output into foods that are not just nutritious, but enjoyable to eat. Sometimes, the foods we consume have no nutritional value at all – they exist only for the pleasure that they give in their consumption.

Some people, however, value the pleasure that food gives them above its nutritional content. Above, even, their long term health. They consume a disproportionate amount of poor-value food and become unwell or obese because of their actions. All well and good, really – actions have consequences and these are the consequences of eating incorrectly.

Unfortunately, where the state pays for the maintenance of citizen’s bodies, the state will try to minimize the expense by controlling what those bodies get up to. The state isn’t acting irrationally – it’s doing a damn logical thing, given that we have told it to safeguard our health and empowered it to do what it must to complete the task.

So it will look at root causes. It will legislate against fats, sugars and salts first by forcing producers to lower those ingredients in their products then (inevitably) by turning legislation on consumers for daring to sully their state-owned bodies with a super sized Big Mac meal. This isn’t some runaway fantasy of mine, it’s beginning to happen as we speak.

The point is that, yet again, the self-directed follies of some will lead to legislation impinging on the rights of others.

So who is to blame for this ever-escalating war on pleasure?

Well…we are. We’ve asked for the state to step in where our parents left off. We’ve asked for things far beyond the scope of legitimate state function. We’ve given the state the power to tax us, harass us, berate us and jail us to achieve those goals… in doing so, the freedom of some has been sacrificed for the comfort of others…and now we wonder why we are so constricted.

The only way to win this war is to rethink the legitimate scope of a state – should it be involved in, for example, health and welfare? As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, the resounding answer I would give is ‘No!’. When it is no longer responsible for our quality of life, it no longer has the right to dictate our every action that contributes to that quality of life.

Something else that needs to be done is on an individual and philosophical level – we need to reclaim pleasure as a legitimate and desirable goal of a human being. We need to purge religion – or any other kind of mystical twaddle – from the way we think about the world. The right philosophy, incidentally, will look at what a human is and support his rights to gain maximum benefit from the use of his body and mind.

Surely if even a religious man like Montaigne could see it:

“Philosophy does not do battle against such pleasures as are natural; provided that temperance accompanies them . . . she teaches moderation in such things not avoidance.” - Montaigne.

We can too.


Let me just add the fact that not everyone is silently complicit to the new war on food - David Carr did a splendid job on BBC4 a while back stating that the state's grubby paws should most definitely be kept off our waistlines.

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