How to be a pleasure-seeker

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote several works under the guise of an aesthete, a pleasure seeker.  He wanted to explore the psychology of this side of life to see where a philosophy of pure pleasure ultimately leads.   Here are some of his injunctions if someone wants to be a pure aesthete, a pure pleasure-seeker.

  1. Learn to remember and forget.  This will allow you to remember the good and beautiful things and forget anything painful or dismal.  Even painful experiences can be reimagined in clever ways to make them lead only to enjoyment.  For example, imagine someone you know has died.  During, the funeral, the speaker for the funeral gets up to speak but he is deadly dull.  His speech, meant to be a solemn reflection, is actually quite funny to you because his voice keeps cracking.  You can think back to that moment and consider the endless variations of his voice cracking.  With this method, you can try to breeze through the difficulties of life still only finding amusement.
  2. Avoid friendships as much as possible.  Friendships sneak up on one unawares.  Then, once we are in a friendship, we have less freedom and control over our lives, less freedom for enjoyment.
  3. Avoid marriage for the same reason as point 2 above.
  4. Avoid any gainful employment as much as possible.  Big boy and girl jobs are usually lame, boring, and constricting.
  5. Understand that boredom is the ultimate sin.  Yet it propels us into actions that will ultimately be more enjoyable if we learn how to use boredom properly.  Kierkegaard gives an example of a man who often likes to talk philosophy but is tremendously boring.  You notice that when he talks, he perspires profusely.  Sweat drips down his forehead in little rivulets until it gathers under one intense drop on the end of his nose before plummeting to the floor.  This process can become so enjoyable to watch that you even ask the man to discuss philosophy in the future.
  6. Learn to control your own moods.  A perfect example of this is in number five.

If you really live this way, you will discover what the life of the pleasure seeker has to offer.  When we distill the life of pleasure down to its basic parts, it is hard not to see this it for what it really is: utterly meaningless.  Kierkegaard’s method of exploration reveals the man behind the curtain of the pleasure palace for whom he really is.  This life leads to inhumanity, not to mention an ironic boredom.  There’s narcissism in it, a lack of concern for neighbor-love.  The way of the aesthete puts the master-idea of pleasure as the supreme talisman of life;  like every idol, the idol of pleasure ultimately demands sacrifice of other important things, such as friends, family, responsibility and so on.

Where am I going with all this   We often lack the nerve to think unabashedly about the emptiness of the life of diversion, of pleasure alone; we quickly try to convince ourselves that pleasure alone is enough.  If we want to see whether pleasure really works, we should take a keen look at it without use of our rose-colored spectacles.   But alas, most of us are too afraid of the answers we might find.  Even now we might be furiously searching for the remote control to numb the painful loneliness of existence with more instant pleasure.  But we should be a bit more like Kierkegaard, that psychological detective, and search the matter out to its very core.  If there is rot in our foundation, we better know about it before we purchase the whole house.

Am I suggesting that pleasure is somehow bad?  Far from it.  Our experience of joy here points to the existence of a transcendent joy, a beauty and a pleasure that is above all earthly experiences, one that brings meaning to earthly joys and gives us a reason to seek the joy of others.  That is what Jesus Christ offers.  “I have spoken these things to you that my joy shall be in you and your joy shall be full,” he says.  Was Jesus lying or deluded?  Or is he the answer to the deepest question, the fulfillment of the greatest story every told?  Most of us, even religious people, are too busy seeking short-term joys to ever really discover the answer to those questions.   We are trying dig our own wells of joy right next to a thunderous waterfall.  What C.S. Lewis once noticed is still true, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”


A Romantic Age

We live in a romantic age.  We tend to live for experience, beauty, happiness, fulfillment and so on.  That appears to be the controlling motive of many people’s lives.  This philosophy yields itself well to a bit of skepticism, relativism, or pragmatism about truth.  If we can’t know truth or if it doesn’t exist, we can make truth into a wax-nose, bending it every which-way we desire.

The romantic thinkers of the past came to similar conclusions as many today.  The 18th century Romanticists developed a philosophy about individual experience, beauty, art, heroism and so on.  They were an extension of the skeptical philosophers like Kant and Hume who doubted that anything non-physical (moral norms, beauty, ethics, God and so on) could be known with any reasonable confidence.  Romantic philosophy focused more on human experience and the pursuit of human fulfillment.

Yet the old Romanticists had something we do not have today.  They believed in truth, though they were skeptical about how clearly one could know it.  They pursued truth which they believed they could experience in beauty.  Thus the poet Keats said “truth is beauty and beauty truth.”  Today, many are a bit double-minded about whether there is real truth or beauty.  In our best moments, we seem to believe truth and beauty are real.  But then we relegate them into our private lives.  It would seem to be intolerant to proclaim our truths in public.

But where does our obsession with pleasure and beauty to the exclusion of truth lead?  Our forebears were often concerned with the stability of society and the family, while we are more concerned with our own self-expression.  Life is like art to be painted and continually experienced.  History, on this view, is just the endless repetition of people seeking meaningful experience.  The sociologist Robert Bellah called this philosophy of life “expressive individualism.”  And one wonders where this obsession with self is going.  As Bellah himself asked, can a society continue to flourish if everybody’s end is ultimately himself?