If it is a choice between moderation and indulgence, which one is the right choice of approach to satisfying one’s desires? I argue that the latter one is.
For the moderate, all pleasures are good—to an extent: there can be too much of a good thing. The moderate claims that desires are indeterminate and essentially without limit, and infers that they need to be limited by something external, namely moderation. For example, chocolate may taste good, but we need to stop ourselves from eating too much of it.
The indulgent would likely grant the existence of limitless, indiscriminate desires. Nevertheless, he would suggest that rather than to place some external constraint on them, the proper way to deal with such desires is to change them. He would argue that desires can, when properly cultivated, be highly specific: a desire for music would be a desire to hear a specific work, performed by a specific musician, in a concert hall with specific acoustic properties. The difference from just turning on the radio for random background music is obvious. If this understanding of the nature of desires is correct, one does not need to stop oneself from eating too much; instead, one would need to have a good idea of what one is about to do, and then proceed to do it as thoroughly well as possible.
Alcoholic beverages can be used as an example. Many people think that they should only be used in moderation. Some people think they should not be used at all, and these people would likely question what we assumed right from the start, that pleasures have value. Extremists are not important here, because we want to think that pleasures are valuable. Nevertheless, it seems that the problem that the moderates want to solve is troublesome drunkenness: it is not bad that people drink, but they should stop before they get really drunk and cause harm to themselves or others.
Again, the indulgent could admit that such drunkenness is not a good thing. Still, because he wants to maintain that it is a good idea to indulge in pleasures as fully as possible, he would have to come up with a solution other than moderation. He would point out that most people who get really drunk are not lacking in self-control. They might not know how to drink properly, or perhaps they just have a desire to get blind drunk. What should be as obvious is that most people with civilized drinking habits do not actually drink in moderation: instead they have a specific desire for a specific drink in a specific setting, and they drink until they have satisfied that desire.
If the people who do get really drunk from time to time are problematic, why is this so and how can the problem be solved? It does not necessarily matter if they do it because they really want to do it or if instead they have no clear idea what to do. In both cases it can be argued that education is key. Those who don’t know how to drink will learn by studying. Those who have developed actual desires to drink until they pass out will learn to do things properly after they get rid of these problematic desires; unless the bad habit has become an addiction, this too can be understood as education and not as therapy.
To return to the main topic, all this seems to be generalizable. Although pleasures are different in important ways, they have enough in common to justify a common approach to them all. It seems true that most pleasures require practice; “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”1 Although most of us have reasonably similar starting points in that we have the same senses that work more or less the same way, to make them work really well takes time and practice. But there is a reward. To use a metaphor, the senses work as a compass. Moderation can be understood as the unwillingness to travel too far so that one does not get lost, and without a compass this is a sensible approach. However, with a good compass one is able to travel confidently, always knowing where one is and where to go. In a similar fashion, with cultivated sensibilities one is able to enjoy everything life has to offer without fear.
The sort of education relevant here is not transfer of knowledge: one does not learn these things from reading books or listening to lecturers. It is more like cultivation of sensibilities: one learns by doing, and the process is akin to a calibration of an instrument. One’s senses are the channels of pleasure, and the better they work, the better the experience.
Originally posted: 19 September 2005.