Ambiguity is the cause of many philosophical errors. One clear example is Aristotle’s claim that all things desire the good. Apart from the obvious fact that inanimate objects cannot “desire” anything, the statement itself is equivocal.
Even if we grant to Aristotle that “happiness is the highest good,” men are far from agreeing what the nature of happiness actually is. Prior to Aristotle, Aristippus of Cyrene had declared that good meant pleasure, and a wise man will therefore make pleasure the aim and purpose of his life.
When lived out, this type of philosophy—which is supposed to be the love of wisdom—will inevitably lead to surfeit, disgust, and ultimately boredom. This truth is powerfully expressed in Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. The hero, a longtime guest of Venus, had tasted every possible satisfaction and yet decides to leave her. He justifies his decision by telling her, “Delight alone fades on the morrow; from joy I turn to ask for sorrow…. Through penance I shall be reborn.” Tannhauser has experienced the shallowness of endless satisfaction and craves the suffering that, he believes, will purify him. Man is born for greater things than bodily delights, which leave the soul sad and empty.
And yet hedonism will always be popular. In his last work, The Laws, Plato wrote that in the fourth century B.C., when Athens had become decadent, the younger generation assumed that pleasure was the goal of life. They considered that a life deprived of bodily satisfactions wasn’t worth living. Aristippus was followed by Epicurus, and later by Jeremiah Bentham. To the latter, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” He adds: “It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
It is surprising indeed that Bentham tells us in one and the same breath that pleasure and pain “determine” how we behave and simultaneously introduces the word “ought.” Ought implies an obligation that we can fulfill or refuse to meet, whereas determination excludes choice. Moreover, he tells us, our pursuit of pleasure should be dictated by quantity—the more pleasure the better—independently of the quality of pleasure enjoyed. If a game of bridge gave a person more satisfaction than a symphony of Mozart, it is to be preferred over the latter.
A logical consequence of this doctrine is that, for example, if a sadist enjoys torturing a child more than anything else, sadism is justifiable for him. Bentham tried to temper his shocking thesis by claiming that we should aim at the greatest good (i.e., pleasure) for the greatest number of people. But even this will inevitably conflict with the individual, unconditional pursuit of pleasure.
We need go no further into this leaky philosophy.
Because the concept of “good” is ambiguous, we must clarify its possible meanings. There are objects capable of motivating our will and our emotions; these objects are “important,” in contrast to those the content of which is “neutral.” The crucial question is what type of importance is motivating us?
The answer is that some objects are important to us because they give us subjective satisfaction. Using Dietrich von Hildebrand’s terminology, we shall call them “merely subjectively satisfying,” pointing to the fact that they attract us solely because of the pleasure they give us.
Very different is the beneficial good. Something is then deemed good not because of the subjective satisfaction it yields, but because it is objectively in the line of a person’s best interest. It is good to be healthy, to be talented, to have a roof over our heads, to have enough to sustain our life. It is good to have a healthy soul. This is why Socrates—just before drinking the deadly hemlock—urged his friends “to take care of their souls,” implying that he who truly loves himself caters to his soul. In Christian terms, he alone truly loves himself who directs his conduct according to the norms of moral goodness and the divine commandments.
There is a clear hierarchy among beneficial goods, and the wise person will respect this hierarchy, always giving preference to the higher one. A classical human temptation is to reject it for purely subjective reasons. This is illustrated in the biblical story of Esau, who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. One thing is to call Esau foolish; another is to humbly realize that there is an Esau dormant in all of us. Our society encourages us to follow a secular hierarchy of goods, placing professional achievements, success, power, and fame high on the list, and denigrating service, marriage, and family; placing the impersonal over the personal, and vanity over loving service.
Whereas the pagan feels himself the master of his life—after all, it is his body, and therefore his property—and would not be afflicted with a bad conscience if he failed to develop his talents or foolishly ruined his health, a saint is conscious of the fact that his health is God’s gift and that he must take care of it so that “Brother Ass,” as St. Francis called the body, may be God’s good servant. But the very same saint would not hesitate to sacrifice this gift for the sake of serving his neighbor. Rev. Damian de Veuster chose to expose himself to the dreadful disease of leprosy, from which he died, motivated by his love for the poor creatures totally abandoned to their misery. His love of neighbor had absolute priority over his own physical welfare. “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”
Besides the merely subjectively satisfying and the beneficial good, there are things which should be called “good” in an absolute sense, that is, by their very essence, and not because they happen to be beneficial. This is one of the great Platonic insights: Justice is intrinsically good, and it is because of this essential goodness that it benefits those who practice this virtue. The Platonic world of ideas was limited by the perimeter of paganism. Thanks to revelation and—very particularly—to the mystery of the Incarnation, this coelum empyreum is greatly enlarged to include supernatural virtues. Humility and charity are not only the most prominent, but also the most inaccessible without divine revelation. To this we add the virtue of purity—the sublime perfume which can only be perceived in contemplating Mary, the mother of God, the one who is not only tota pulchra, but also the incarnation of purity.
It is true, indeed, that to possess these virtues is the most important beneficial good for man. Haec est voluntas Dei, sanctificatio vestra—this is the will of God, your sanctification—writes Paul, but they are good for man because they are good in themselves; they are not “means” for our happiness, but happiness (or peace) is the reward granted to those of us who live them.
Here’s where the “ought” foolishly mentioned by Bentham gains its full value. It does not make sense to say that we ought to enjoy Coca-Cola or a Havana cigar. But we ought to be just, merciful, generous, and pure. And this is true of all virtues. In the intellectual domain, we are entitled to select our particular field of expertise: one person majors in economics, another in history, another in mathematics. As Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote in his Ethics, in the ethical domain we are required to strive for all virtues. One cannot say, “I majored in justice, I leave purity to my colleagues.” “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is not a counsel; it is a divine command. Humanly speaking, this is impossible, and no one is obliged to fulfill an impossible order. This is why the Christian is given grace and—in the Catholic and Orthodox Church—seven sacraments that provide weak and unfaithful men the holy tools indispensable for success. “Without Me, you can do nothing,” and “I can do all things in Him that strengthens me,” are two sides of the same coin.
When we speak of the merely subjectively satisfying, we must make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate pleasures. After all, the enjoyment of good food, a glass of wine, the comfort of a soft bed, is legitimate. But man can also be tempted by masochism, sadism, cruelty, and bestiality. We only need recall the scandalous speech of Lysias in Plato’s Phaedrus in which this famous orator advises his hearers to give preference to a non-lover over a lover, because the former, being dispassionate, will give him a better deal. The whole speech has a base stench.
The powerful Roman Empire was defeated by barbarians because its citizens were so morally corrupt that their military strength was of no avail. They were doomed. Alas, one of the great lessons that history teaches us is that we never learn from history. Our own powerful and rich society might—in a not-too-distant future—face similar defeat. Whether pagan or Christian, any sound ethics condemn such base and degrading pleasure. To praise someone because he is lecherous and sadistic is a clear sign of insanity. Evil pleasures should be fought against with every possible means. The maxim principiis obsta (resist the first advances) should be applied immediately, for to let these poisonous weeds grow will inevitably lead to their overpowering the human will and destroying what St. Augustine calls moral freedom. Men become slaves who have forged their own chains. Against severe temptations, strong medicine is called for.
But the question remains: Is the Catholic approach to legitimate pleasures the same as the good pagan’s? Being conscious of the fact that man is both God’s child and God’s servant, every single Catholic activity should be related to God. This is stated clearly by Paul: “Whether we eat or drink, we should glorify the Lord.” True, good pagans did make reference to god (or the gods), but their conception of god was vague and imperfect. This reference was far removed from the Christian view, in which, to quote St. Augustine, man faces a Deus videns et vivens—a seeing and living God.
Granted that wise pagans did abstain from excess in food and drink, their motivation was dictated either by reason or by the stoic ideal of being “in control.” The latter, motivated by pride, developed a technique that led to the illusion that nothing could overpower him or dominate him. The Christian, aware of his weakness, knows that if he conquers his lower nature the credit should be given to the One who helped him. Peter, when swearing that he was ready to die with and for Christ, was sincere, but he lacked humility—the humility expressed by John Henry Cardinal Newman, who prayed daily: “Beware of me today, O Lord, lest I should betray Thee and do Thee all the mischief in the world.”
The Catholic relationship to pleasure is particularly important today because of the sexual scandals that have rocked the Church. Conscious of the fact that human nature has been gravely wounded (though not corrupted) by original sin, the Church, in her wisdom, used preventative medicines and ordered those especially dedicated to her service to practice asceticism—a powerful protection in time of temptation. Tragically, this practice—proven to be highly efficacious in Catholic spiritual life—has fallen by the wayside since Vatican II. We need only read spiritual writers to realize that members of religious orders and the clergy used to be trained to be abstemious in food and drink, limit their sleep to a minimum, wear hair shirts, and use the discipline. St. Francis de Sales even recommended this practice to high-society ladies.
Why have all these practices been cast aside? Why is the word “sacrifice” so seldom mentioned in homilies? Why are we never reminded that we should hate what is hateful? Psalm 138:22 reads, Perfecto odio oderam illos—I have hated them with a perfect hatred. Sin is hateful, and to hate sin is a moral requirement for all of us, religious or laity. The Church in her wisdom knows that men are weak and constantly need to be reminded of their weakness and frailty. This is why some asceticism is crucial to any authentic religious life. Its purpose is to strengthen us against temptations when the weather is fair. Athletes freely submit themselves to strenuous physical discipline in order to win an earthly crown—why should Christians shun the efforts required to gain the precious pearl?
Both Peter and Paul warn of the dangers threatening us. The devil, Peter said, is like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. Paul tells us that we also have to fight against powers and principalities. There are many today who deny the devil’s existence at a time when his dominance over the world is obvious. This is why most dioceses have eliminated the exorcists: In an age of pop-psychology, they’re no longer deemed necessary.
Wise parents, too, must try firmly and lovingly to curb their child’s craving for pleasure. The task is so arduous that it seems to justify Bentham’s thesis. But, as Plato remarks, great things are never easy. Nowadays children resort to tantrums if their wishes are not satisfied, and they make life so unbearable that exhausted parents give in for the sake of sanity. Once the child has achieved victory, the same scenario will be repeated with ever greater success, so that the toddler becomes a tyrant. How wise Plato was when he wrote that he who constantly yields to his wishes is punished, for his soul is nailed to his body and loses its freedom. He wrote in Laws that one of the aims of education is to train a child to achieve victory over pleasure. The problem will become more acute at the time of puberty, when a host of new and powerful temptations will assail the adolescent. If, by then, he has always been allowed to yield to his wishes, he’ll be defeated by this onslaught of temptations, undoubtedly stronger than those he wrestled with as a toddler.
In his book School and Character, the great German educator Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster wrote that it is by curbing “legitimate” cravings (to drink when thirsty, eat when hungry, sleep when tired)—that is to say, not immediately yielding to them, but purposely delaying their fulfillment—that the adolescent will acquire a mastery over himself. It will be a strong protection when assaulted by illegitimate cravings. There’s a difference between gulping down one’s food or collapsing onto a sofa when tired and recollecting oneself for a moment to say a prayer of gratitude for the gift of food, drink, or rest. This teaching is prominent in St. Benedict’s Rule, when the monk is trained to keep a habitare secum (dwelling with oneself) and to radically oppose any “letting oneself go.” The way that a person sits or stands is very revealing. It can express both a humble dignity or a regrettable yielding to the law of spiritual gravity. As children of God, we have a dignity that should find expression in our body language and should live in conspectu Dei at all times.
When temptations become so powerful that defeat seems inevitable, saints have used radical means: St. Benedict threw himself into a thorny bush, and the sharpness of the pain made him victorious. St. Francis of Assisi applied the same radical medicine with the same success. Granted that it is always God’s grace that conquers, man is called to collaborate with it. In our affluent society, the problem is compounded by the fact that our very riches have created all sorts of artificial cravings on which very many of us are dependent.
That a Catholic—and not only a Catholic—should hate what is hateful is obvious enough. He should never allow his lower nature to dominate. The noble Socrates acknowledged that there was a monster dormant in him. At all times, his soul should remain master of his body. But the saint aims still higher. Not only will he see any pleasure as a gift from God, calling for gratitude, but the merely subjectively satisfying is a motivation no longer on the screen of his consciousness. When given to him, he’ll accept it gratefully, but his desire to follow Christ will kindle his love for sacrifice.
The example of St. Francis again comes to mind. The pampered young man—the soul of parties, the son of a rich man—once converted, chose Lady Poverty as his spouse, begged his alms, fed on leftovers, and put ashes on his food. At the end of his life, he even apologized to Brother Ass for having treated him so badly. But the very same Francis, when close to death, welcomed and ate with gratitude the Roman dainty that Brother Jacqueline had brought him. Brother Ass had been trained to be so obedient and docile that he could no longer “tempt” his master. With God’s grace he achieved victory. To the saint, the sweet taste of gratitude is sweeter than the good enjoyed.
We find a similar attitude in the Little Flower. Inhabiting the same monastery with three of her beloved sisters, she constantly had to fight against the temptation to seek a moment of purely natural consolation. But she wrote in her autobiography that constant renunciation and sacrifice had purified her heart to such an extent from all imperfect affection that her love—now truly baptized—was both purer and stronger because it was partaking in Christ’s love for her dear ones. Her heart had become like unto His.
The Catholic ethos is as far removed from a Jansenistic conception of life as from a shallow optimism that God loves us and therefore wants us to be naturally content and “fulfilled.” Legitimate pleasures, seen as God’s gift, can play a role in Christian life. Jacob refrained from driving his sheep too hard and let them rest for fear that they’d be exhausted. St. Augustine said that when ascending the steep mountain of sanctity, it’s wise—from time to time—to rest in an inn that divine goodness has placed on the path. Great Christians’ feasts are celebrated with special dishes even in strict monasteries.
The Catholic ethos is rich in holy paradoxes: It teaches asceticism and gratitude for God’s gifts. The liturgical calendar is a road map: There are times of joy; there are times of sorrow. There is Lent, and the Passion week; there is the joy of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost. Christ told His enemies that no one should fast “when the bridegroom is present.” But there are times when fasting is required. There is the Dies Irae and there is the Alleluia, so that in all things God should be glorified.
Most men were willing to follow Christ on Mount Tabor; very few remained with Him at Calvary. Mary sang the Magnificat—a triumphant hymn of joy—but she was also at the foot of the cross. This earth is a vale of tears, but it’s also the blessed place where, with the divine help of the sacraments, we’re invited to ascend the mountain of the Lord.