Spiritual exercise: On giving pleasures their due

Perhaps you’d care to join me as I read a few a lines from Montaigne?

I who am always down-to-earth in my handling of anything loathe that inhuman wisdom which seeks to render us disdainful and hostile towards the care of our bodies. I reckon it is as injudicious to set our minds against natural pleasures as to allow them to dwell on them. Xerxes was an idiot to offer a reward to anyone who could invent some new pleasure for him when he was already surrounded by every pleasure known to Man: but hardly less idiotic is the man who lops back such pleasures as Nature has found for him. We should neither hunt them nor run from them: we should accept them. I do so with a little more zest and gratitude than that, and more readily follow the slope of Nature’s own inclining.

I was reading this yesterday as boys were playing baseball in the park. The boys didn’t know much about the game and didn’t seem to care. A few of them split off and played tag, Cops and Robbers, and You’re It. Others jumped around in place. The child swinging the bat had no idea what he was doing and, to his credit, had no idea that he had no idea what he was doing.

The boys, dressed in blue shirts and black pants, were Hasidim, and with this thought came an uneasy allusion to sadness. I’d seen the older boys almost always in a hurry; I’d seen the older men with their sterns hats and heads down; I’d been asked, despite my long hair and blue eyes, whether I was a Jew and felt the man pass on after I’d said no. I’d sensed the stiffness in their movements and the lack of grace that came with following their Jewish God, and I’d preferred, as I sat watching the boys in spring, Montaigne’s far gentler god of nature.

Much preferred Montaigne’s nature as well to that of unchastened college students bungling their way through Hookup Culture. They don’t explore the passions so much as fill them up with the Coca-Cola of sex: beer nights, tacit consent, and a few hapless turns before all dissolves in idiocy. The reductio ad absurdum of Hookup Culture is neon pleasure, cheaply dispatched, easily had, soon forgotten: pleasure turned into tedium.

There is a sense of sadness in our culture, a soft, low grieving for pleasure repressed by Law or made vulgar through ease. I’d love to sit and dwell for a while in that quiet space in a child’s life when pleasure is ripe for cultivation into art and philosophy; when virtue can still be coaxed into love; and when, on a spring afternoon, one is still able to “follow the slope of Nature’s own inclining.”

2 thoughts on “Spiritual exercise: On giving pleasures their due

  1. I’ve been dipping into your blog the past couple of days, catching up on posts I didn’t have the chance to read in the rush of the past few months. Each one makes me think of something else to recommend to you. (Perhaps I’m under one of those Greek curses, destined to walk the earth, burdening everyone I meet with reading lists…) Anyway, the sense of sadness you write about, the “soft, low grieving for pleasure repressed by Law or made vulgar through ease”, reminds me of Rowan Williams’ “reflections on cultural bereavement”, the subtitle of his book, ‘Lost Icons’.

  2. There’s an art to recommending books, isn’t there?–recommending the right books to the right kindred spirits at just the right time. In this case, I’m honored not least because you and I are lovers of books just as we’re lovers of friendships. In other cases and with other people, I’m generally left with the impression that so-and-so just ‘doesn’t get me.’

Comments are closed.