In the fifteenth century Marsilio Ficino met with his fellow artists, architects, and
philosophers in the enchanted villa of Careggi, just outside Florence, in an upper room where
the walls were decorated with inspiring words. "Laetus in praesens" was one of the favored
sayings, "Happiness now." These honored words expressed one piece in the humanist
philosophy shared by those present, a Renaissance version of Epicureanism, which is the belief
that pleasure is not only valid, but a necessary and inspiring goal in everyday life.
Today the very word "pleasure" can have hedonistic, and therefore negative,
associations, and for many it is hardly a worthy motive in daily living. We use the word
"epicurean" to refer to the glutton, the gourmet, and the dandy, the person who makes good
food and pleasant living their primary values, and we usually infer that this person goes to
extremes and lives a superficial life.
The philosophy of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who taught his students, men and
women, in his garden school in Athens, bears almost no relation to this modern notion of
Epicureanism. Epicurus described pleasure as ataraxia, sometimes translated as tranquillity or
peace of mind. You accomplish this state by living simply and avoiding pain when possible.
According to an Epicurean epigram: "It is better for you to lie on a bed of straw and be free
of fear, than to have a golden couch and an opulent table, yet be troubled in mind." Epicurus
recommended a simple diet of bread and vegetables and advocated the cultivation of
friendship as being among the most important activities in life.
It is with this ancient notion of Epicureanism in mind that I set out to explore the role
of earthly pleasures for the soul and try to give sexual pleasure a place of esteem in a
philosophy of life. In our efforts to make our lives spiritually vibrant, responsive to the needs
of people who are close to us, and personally rich and full, we can take pleasure, if it is
grounded and genuine, as a measure of the soul's presence. Epicurean pleasures include deep
satisfactions like friendship, family, and community, and also the sensuous delights that may
not appear at first glance to be so meaningful.
With Epicurus we could distinguish between the pleasures that make us feel driven
and those that make us feel deeply satisfied. The former are not real pleasures but may
instead be gratifications that are not deep enough to stir the soul. They may be symptomatic
pleasures -- not the real thing but only a sign that we are lacking real pleasure in life. Sexual
pleasure can either move the soul or offer gratifications that in the end feel empty. Its
pleasures are not necessarily the passing kind disparaged by Epicurus, for they can be deep
and lasting and have a profound effect on the whole of life.
Ficino was a vegetarian, but he also loved and kept fine wines. Edgar Wind, an
insightful Renaissance scholar, says of Ficino that "he tried to infuse into Christian morals a
kind of neo-pagan joy" and believed that "pleasure (voluptas) should be reclassified as a noble
passion. " Following a long-standing custom among the ancients, Ficino kept a painting of two
philosophers in his study -- the laughing Democritus and the weeping Heraclitus. He wrote a
great deal about depression and confessed to being a melancholy man, but he also advocated
joyful living and dedicated a major essay to the theme of pleasure.
If we keep in one frame these two images that represent such different yet
compatible emotional states, we need not lose sight of the one as we become absorbed in the
other. Both melancholy and pleasure play important roles in the emotional complexity of the
heart. When we divide them we end up with stern puritanism on one side and thoughtless
hedonism on the other. The true Epicurean brings these two positions close to each other, so
that pleasure has a degree of restraint and depth, while virtue doesn't aim at destroying the
joy of life.
There is a difference between sexual hedonism and sexual pleasure. Most of us are
familiar with the compulsion for sex and perhaps as well the fantasy that an unlimited sex life
would be bliss. But we have probably also tasted the pleasure to be found in making love with
a person we know well, for whom we feel deep affection, and for whom we wish equal
pleasure and happiness. With this kind of partner sexual pleasure is not separate from the joys
and challenges of daily life or diminished by the struggles involved in living together or the
restriction of having only one lover.
Epicurean sex consists of sheer sensual delight in the touches, smells, sights, and
sounds of bodies pleasuring each other, accompanied by feelings of love, emotional peace,
and deep friendship. One rarely hears about the connection between friendship and sex, but
for Epicurus friendship is a central need of the soul, and it gives sex a comfortable base. If sex
is narcissistically self-absorbed or if it represents an anxious escape from loneliness, its
pleasures will be diminished. They won't reflect the central Epicurean doctrine of
ataraxia, "without disturbance."
--Thomas Moore, The Soul of Sex