People say that it’s fun to be young. People say a lot of things. Middle-aged parents and teachers have probably told you things like, “These are the best years of your life – make the most of them!” College calendars are stuffed with enough events to grind the hardiest party animal into a pile of motionless sawdust, and for once your parents aren’t around to set deadlines, dole out spending money, sniff your breath or clothes for “substances,” or otherwise babysit you. If you’re living away at school, this is the most independence you’ve ever had. You’ve got cash and a flexible schedule (all those books won’t read themselves, but the end of semester seems years away and you’ve always been good at cramming).
From watching your parents, you’re pretty sure that middle age is a snore: If there’s any time you’re going to really enjoy life, college seems to be it. This is your one window of opportunity to really cut loose, sow some oats, have wild romances with people you wouldn’t normally fool with, and in general live the way those maniacs do in college movies you’ve been watching since you turned 13. You might even feel a duty to get “out there” and see what happens. Indeed, if you aren’t having as good a time as you feel you’re expected to, you will actually feel guilty.
Is this vague sense one has at a certain age of the moral obligation to spit beer all over the wall the same thing as “hedonism”? Certainly, they’re connected. If your expectations of college life are similar to those we’ve just mentioned, you’re likely to engage in some pretty seriously hedonistic behavior – and no, it won’t turn out to be as much fun as it does in the movies. The director usually cuts away before the drunk “girl gone wild” gets sick and starts sobbing in the corner, or the stoner dude flunks out of school and ends up dunking fries at McDonald’s in between twelve-step meetings.
The Animal House mentality hardly rises to the level of a heresy. Such misbehavior – and the fantasies people have of the really awesome naughty fun other folks must somewhere be having, if only we could get invited to their parties – can largely be chalked up to people being immature and easily led. If someone’s ideas on how to spend four whole years of his life, and a huge chunk of his parents’ money, have actually been formed by repeated viewings of Old School, his problem isn’t really philosophical. He just needs to grow up – and let’s hope he does before he catches an incurable disease, wrecks his liver, marries a maniac on a whim, drunk-drives into a school bus, or fathers an “unwanted child” whose survival is uncertain. Not to be too much of a downer, here.
Many glamorous figures in the arts have seemed to live according to such a degraded ethic. We still remember “great lovers” like Casanova and Lord Byron, tough guys like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, romantic rebels against convention like James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence – and that’s not even getting into the world of popular music, where jazz players and rock singers blazed whole new trails in search of “extreme experiences.” There’s nothing that will boost an artist’s reputation like his willingness to “challenge stale, bourgeois conventions” of right and wrong – which is I guess what author William Burroughs was doing when he drunkenly played “William Tell” with an apple on top of his wife’s head. She died, but it happened down in Mexico, so feminist critics give him a pass.
The mindless pursuit of short-term pleasure at any cost is the best way to describe the phenomenon we now know as addiction. Cocaine offers anyone who snorts a little powder the same feeling he would have if he had won the world’s most attractive spouse, beaten his enemies to death with the Academy Award he won, then carried his bride up Mount Everest. All this, from a little snort of powder. No wonder such abuse wears out the “pleasure centers” in the brain, which soon require regular doses of drugs just to keep the addict out of clinical depression. Casual sex works much the same way, greedily grabbing the ecstasy our body offers as a reward for forming a lasting, loving relationship and procreating the species.
Hedonism: Suffering Is a Miscalculation
But there’s no point in making a philosophical argument against selfish and self-destructive behavior. There’s something more serious going on when we talk about hedonism, a world view that makes coherent claims about the nature of man and his bodily existence, the meaning of suffering, and the ethical standards that should guide our behavior all through our lives – not just in our leisure time or in college. There have been serious thinkers throughout history who have argued for what boils down to hedonism.
Epicurus is the most famous, and since his very name has come to be a synonym for “really good restaurant,” his arguments deserve our careful scrutiny. Epicurus rejected as unproveable Plato’s assertion that the transient objects we see before our eyes – such as rocks, trees, and, let’s be candid, each other – are actually imperfect earthly copies of timeless “forms” that exist (as we might put it today) in the mind of God. Instead, Epicurus held what we might recognize as an almost modern view: The world and everything in it is simply composed of tiny particles called “atoms,” which make up each one of us for the brief period of time that we actually exist. At some point, those atoms will fall apart, and we will dissolve into nothingness, and that’s the end of the story. Epicurus’s views were taken up again by the Roman writer Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) put the Epicurean theory of “atomism” into the form of an epic poem.
Now, Epicurus didn’t preach a gospel of party-hardy, live-for-the-moment sensualism. No educated Greek would have favored something like that – and if he had, his views would be easy to dismiss. Indeed, Epicurus argued that pleasure was the only real good and pain the only evil, but he knew enough about life to see that the animalistic pursuit of instant gratification was pragmatically counterproductive: You can’t very well go around stealing food off other’s people’s plates just because you’re hungry, or forcing unwilling partners into bed. If you do, you will quickly end up suffering a great deal more pain than any pleasure you might have enjoyed. (Looters might have fun smashing windows and stealing appliances, but their chances for gratification will be radically curtailed once they’re locked in prison.) So Epicurus advised that people practice self-control and delayed gratification, prudently calculating how to gain the greatest pleasure over the long run. This is the principle behind all those “safe sex” seminars you were offered during freshman orientation – the trick is to get the highest possible ratio of orgasms to unwanted pregnancies or STDs. The one who dies with the most joys “wins.”
Put this way, Epicurus’s views appear less eccentric – in fact, they sound eerily like the way most modern secular Westerners plan and live their lives. Here’s an easy way to spot a modern Epicurean: It’s anyone who uses the phrase “consenting adult” in any context whatsoever. The most famous American Epicurean thinker was founding father Thomas Jefferson, who followed the Enlightenment impulse to reject revealed Christianity and reach back behind it to more “rational” Classical models. (As president, Jefferson tipped his hand: He rewrote the New Testament by editing out all the miracles and prophecies – leaving behind a curious collection of dubious advice given by a wandering Jewish carpenter with no particular competence or authority. This Bible was printed and distributed at U.S. government expense.)
Stoicism: Suffering Is Radio Static
The Epicureans weren’t teaching in a vacuum. They faced serious philosophical competitors. Beside the Platonists (who would educate St. Augustine before his conversion) were the Stoics, who believed in a distant, inscrutable God who ruled the world through the irresistible force that they called Fate. It was God’s realm of spirit that was really real, while the “lower” world of bodies, rocks, and broccoli was an illusion – even a snare.
The Stoics held that whatever suffering we endure in life is part of that illusion. Even the emotions of suffering or enjoyment are fundamentally fantasies; the lasting core or essence of each person is his reason – and so long as you have that faculty, you are free to focus your mind on the “higher” things, like philosophy and mathematics. Whether you’re locked in a dark, dank prison, starving in a camp, or undergoing torture shouldn’t matter to you one whit – any more than you should let your head be turned by pleasure or success. The greatest Stoic writer was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations displayed his cool detachment from the absolute power and infinite perks that came with his office. Instead of indulging himself like some of his more decadent predecessors (Nero and Caligula come to mind), Marcus Aurelius sternly focused his mind on his civic duties, urging his readers (and subjects) to do the same.
Gnosticism: Suffering Comes from the Evil God
The other important contenders for the minds of ancient Romans and Greeks were the groups who called themselves Gnostics (which roughly translates as either “the smart guys” or “the know-it-alls”). Like the Stoics and the Platonists, the Gnostics held that the world of the body is fundamentally meaningless. They went further, and declared that it is, in fact, evil.
It’s easier to understand how people might come to such a conclusion in an age before modern hygiene, painkillers, or any effective medicine. Looking at spiders, maggots, vultures, and even “noble” predators like the lion, and considering the pain of childbirth and the transitory nature of earthly life, the Gnostics concluded that whatever was behind the material world, it wasn’t our friend. In fact, the Gnostics taught, the earth was the creation of lesser demonic spirits… essentially fallen angels.
According to the Gnostics, the One God was not directly accessible, but had to be approached through an elaborate hierarchy of intercessory spirits – the nature of which was secret, and could only be transmitted to a tiny elite of “knowers” through mystic rituals. In other words, Gnosticism was a whole lot like Greco-Roman voodoo. It was a Gnostic sect called Manichaeism that Augustine fell into in his youth. Gnostic notions would re-emerge in the Middle Ages in southern France with the Albigensian movement and were only finally wiped out by a brutal crusade.
For Gnostics, bodily pleasures such as sex were fundamentally evil and should be renounced – but if you couldn’t manage that, at the very least you should avoid marriage and children. Adultery and abortion were preferable, the former since at least it avoided the pretense of sanctity, and the latter because it spared fresh souls from being trapped in the prison of the flesh.
These were the philosophical systems that the early Church had to contend with, and it’s not surprising that converts to the Church sometimes carried baggage with them from the schools they had left behind. What is more, Christian apologists – those who offered rationales for the Faith to outsiders – had to use philosophical language that was familiar to the people whom they addressed. So they’d draw on Platonic or Stoic ideas of self-restraint and rationality when addressing thoughtful pagans. While neither of these philosophical systems was fully compatible with what the Church taught about suffering, the material world, or the fact that God had become incarnate in the flesh of Jesus Christ, at least they directed men to lives of discipline and spiritual inquiry. Of course, Christians had to reject Gnosticism altogether, since the whole point of God becoming man was that the Creator of the universe had come to reclaim and sanctify the world He had (in Genesis) called “good.”
Christianity: Suffering Can Be Redemptive
The other worldview that Christians had to attack head-on was Epicureanism. Why? Because of an argument about suffering. The central existential claim that Christianity makes is that suffering, while intrinsically an evil thing, can be turned to spiritual good. Christ came not to reign as an earthly king and lead armies against His enemies. (He would leave that to Mohammed.) Instead, He came to lay down His life as reparation to His Father for the sin of Adam and the subsequent sins of every single man to walk the earth. His anguish on the cross and the blood He spilled were the single perfect sin-offering – which He told us to re-present in the form of the Eucharist, at which the priest stands in for Christ, offering the perfect sacrifice to the Father for our benefit. The cross – the first-century equivalent of the electric chair – became an emblem Christians would venerate. What is more, Jesus told us that if we would follow Him, we’d have to pick up our own crosses and carry them. In other words, our daily frustrations and pains – even the agonies suffered by Christian martyrs – were a means of uniting ourselves to Him. St. Paul said that we must “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” by spiritually uniting our own sufferings to His.
This is heady stuff, and it can sound pretty off-putting. Some early Christians misinterpreted it, and thought they had the duty of seeking out martyrdom. They would turn themselves in to the Romans who persecuted the Church – more out of puzzlement than anything else – in order to get to Heaven faster. The Church condemned this mistake, and over time it made clear that suffering is a tool that we sometimes use to get closer to God. We shouldn’t seek it out – we weren’t made that way – but when it comes, as it comes to all of us, if only in the form of frustration, we should put it to use. We should, essentially, recycle it.
Now, many times when you’re suffering, it does mean what the hedonists say it means: You’re doing something wrong. Perhaps you’re in an abusive relationship, or you’re trapped in a job you aren’t called to be doing. Pain was intended by God as a warning light that something is going wrong. But much of the time, thanks to the Fall, we suffer even when we’re doing something right. Think of what happens to women when they give birth, or soldiers when they fight for their country. Whatever anguish, confusion, even simple boredom comes our way in the course of living out a virtue… that’s what we need to recycle. And the Church tells us how: by thinking of Christ on the cross and uniting our sufferings to His. That simple act of psychological empathy with the Passion can turn otherwise futile misery into a powerful spiritual tool. It is also liberating, since it transforms whatever abuse we are suffering and can’t avoid into a means of getting to Heaven faster – or helping others get there by praying for them.
It is this method of harnessing suffering and turning it on its head that has made life bearable and meaningful for poor and oppressed people all through history – and that kept the inmates of political prisons, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to St. Maximilian Kolbe, from simply committing suicide. In our own, much nicer lives, we can keep this method in mind whenever we’re tempted to take the easy way out, and shrug off doing the right thing in favor of the cozy thing. Instead of feeling degraded by whatever we’re going through, by drawing closer to the suffering Christ, we’re in fact being elevated. That’s what the great St. Lawrence understood when the Romans were roasting him alive over a grill. So he told them, “I am done on this side, you may turn me over.” And the Church made him the patron saint of chefs.
This is an excerpt from Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, edited by John Zmirak.