• September 4, 2015

The Case Against Health

Against Health 1

Marc Yankus for The Chronicle Review

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Marc Yankus for The Chronicle Review

In the United States, health has become a commodity and an industry. We spend vastly more than any other country on health care, and increasingly our health is our wealth. Even in our down economy, health-care spending continues to grow. In 2006, Americans spent about $35-billion on diets and diet services, in large part under the illusion that they were improving their health. Yet we consistently fall behind Britain, not to mention France, in every measure of public health. Some place American public health just ahead of that of Slovenia.

We may be nearing a point where institutions of public health and the commercial interests that surround it, including the media, do more harm than good to the nation's health. The official version of health peddled by our current system is not only venal but potentially noxious. In some instances, public health has been transformed into a kind of iatric disease, a medically induced assault on the health of society. Our minders trumpet the obesity epidemic even as epidemiological evidence suggests that "yo-yo dieting" (repeatedly losing and regaining weight over a period of several years) actively damages the immune system. At any given time, it is estimated that 50 percent of all women are on diets, and 95 percent of all diets fail. The more we diet, the fatter we seem to become.

To be "against health" is to utter a paradox, a sort of oxymoron in the Greek sense, from oxus, meaning "sharp," and moros, meaning "stupid." To be against health is to utter a sharp stupidity because, almost by definition, we cannot be against health. The very concept of health implies a positive value that one cannot but choose, as when Socrates argues that one can choose only the good. What is bad may be chosen only when it is a better evil, as in cutting off your arm to save your life. Indeed, how can the value of health be demeaned when Aristotle makes it the entelechy, the very aim of all medicine? If to be against health is therefore stupid, or moros, it is also oxus, shrewd and terribly sharp. If we cannot logically be against it, we must be against certain uses and misuses of the word "health."

To be against health is to be critical of the myths and lies concerning our health that are circulated by the media and paid for by large industries. It is to demystify their hidden moralizing and their political agenda. It also means expanding the idea of iatric disease to include the moral and physical harm that is done to the public by particular nostrums of public health, especially those that impose constraints and privations "for your own good," as the saying goes.

To be against health also means putting forth a different idea of health. My alternative approach takes its cue from a long line of Epicurean philosophers, beginning with the fourth-century-BC philosopher who founded his "Garden" in Athens, close by the Platonic Academy. The Garden of Epicurus has inspired many adherents to its teachings, including the poet Horace in Roman times and later Pierre Gassendi, François Bernier, Ninon de l'Enclos, Denis Diderot, Jeremy Bentham, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Thomas Jefferson referred to himself as an Epicurean.

You may not have heard of Ninon de l'Enclos. One of the greatest courtesans in the court of Louis XIII, she slept with royals and the most desirable men in the realm, conducted the most brilliant salon, and wrote the wittiest philosophical letters ever to speak about the nature of love. She was a great reader of Epicurus and his disciple Montaigne. In the eighth of her Letters to the Marquis de Sévigné, de l'Enclos writes:

What would vigorous youth be without love? A long illness—it would not be existence; it would be vegetating. Love is to our hearts what winds are to the sea. They grow into tempests, true; they are sometimes even the cause of shipwrecks. But the winds render the sea navigable, their constant agitation of its surface is the cause of its preservation, and if they are often dangerous, it is for the pilot to know how to navigate in safety.

According to de l'Enclos, if a life in the best of vigorous health is without love, it is no life at all, only a long illness. Even health is illness without love; conversely, there is no illness that love cannot cure or make tolerable. At the same time, love is trouble. Like wind, it troubles the surface of the sea, but it also makes navigation possible. The agitation of love preserves the self, keeps it healthy even when—especially when—it is sick. The risk of love, which so often ends in shipwreck, is what keeps a person healthy.

But there are other classic paths to health. Socrates believed in dancing every morning. We could do more for public health if the government spent a fraction of what it spends curbing smoking on promoting dancing. An Epicurean approach asks not what temptations need to be avoided in the name of health. Instead it asks, "What is health, and how do you get it?" Imagine a world in which public policy declared that pleasure is the principal means to health.

The very idea of pleasure, if one can speak of it in the singular and not the plural (is there something all pleasures have in common?), comprises the most diverse and even contradictory notions. Of these, the most clearly contradictory is the paradox of what Burke or Kant or Freud calls "negative pleasure," which is understood to underlie forms of masochism and the experience of the sublime. In Kant's Critique of Judgment, the sublime always entails a negative moment of shock or fearful awe as one component of its greater good feeling, its aesthetic pleasure. Leaving aside these antinomies, can we agree to call pleasure both the slow, economic accumulation of delicious tension and its abrupt and self-vacating explosion of release? This is the distinction the French make between plaisir and jouissance, between two different types of pleasure.

Bartolomeo Platina, the great 15th-century scholar, papal librarian, and Epicurean, wrote De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health") while imprisoned in the castle San Angelo in Rome, where a vengeful Pope Paul II had thrown him. Platina starts from the classical Epicurean premise that pleasure is not only a positive value but the highest value, and that health is its necessary supplement. A person cannot be sick and still feel good. She cannot be depressed, or physically debauched from alcohol and drugs, say, and still have pleasurable feelings. Following Platina and his master Epicurus, however, the corollary is also true. Not only is health the sine qua non of pleasure (that without which there is none), but pleasure improves your health. Put another way, if you inhibit the body's pleasure, you provoke disease.

Over the gates to his garden (it was not a school), Epicurus inscribed the hedonist creed: "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure." With an eye to what was fitting and measured and moderate, Epicurus indulged his senses. After all, he believed that excessive pleasure, like stoic privation, ruins one's health and weakens the will. Thomas Jefferson, himself a hedonist, agreed. In 1819 he wrote to William Short, saying that "the doctrine of Epicurus ... is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects."

In our time, it has become un-American to be Epicurean, to consider pleasure, even moderately indulged, to be the highest good. An old strain of American Puritanism to which Jefferson was immune, if not allergic, has become the new morality. Dressing itself up in the language of public health, this new morality views the least indulgence in adult pleasure as the sign of a nascent habit on the way to becoming a dangerous compulsion. In a sense, of course, that is precisely what distinguishes adult pleasures from childish ones: Adult pleasures can quickly become habitual. But without risk, there is no adult pleasure, and risk is what keeps us alive, not just living on. Perhaps that is why every single person I know has been addicted—habituated to something—at some time in life and has had a problem dealing with it. It is an all but inevitable consequence of the pleasures we seek, particularly in America, where we are publicly spurred on to consume by advertisements and stresses that excite desire. It is not all bad. Nietzsche says that nothing in life is better than our habits, as long as they don't perdure. "I love brief habits," he writes, "and consider them an inestimable means for getting to know many things and states, down to the bottom of their sweetness and bitternesses."

Each of us would like to know how to draw the fine line between the moderation Epicurus practiced and the intemperance he deplored. In "On Honest Pleasure and Good Health," Platina writes, "Not all foods suit all people. ... To my mind, no one eats what fills him with distaste, or harms, or pains, or kills." Platina is referring specifically to eating, but his suggestion can be taken more generally: We each consume what our body or spirit craves. You may require only one drink a day to ease your arteries, whereas I may need two or three. But when I start to need three or four a day, I'm probably getting into trouble. And if it isn't martinis at lunch that get me in trouble, it could be the cigarettes I sneak in the garage, or the poker game I lose twice a week, or the attractive babysitter, altar boys, or the alluring Congressional page. (What makes babysitters so irresistibly attractive, I have often thought, is their being simultaneously nubile children and caring mothers; the same may be true of Congressional pages—and altar boys.) It belongs to the very nature of adult pleasure that it has the potential for getting out of hand. If it did not entail the risk of being immoderate, the pleasure it procures would lose its intensity.

For many people, a life without the oil of drink becomes too much to bear. A little wine eases the vague and subcutaneous unease that stress puts on our muscles; a martini induces a moment of forgetfulness when the anxieties and fears of the day recede. In pursuit of happiness, Americans are insistently encouraged to consume vast quantities of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but booze is never publicly celebrated. Rarely do we hear about the charms and benefits of alcohol, or the sociability it has promoted from the dawn of time, or the pleasure and consolation it has infused into the lives of billions over the course of human history.

Even when epidemiology is not manipulated to serve special interests, it tells the truth of an aggregate. By definition, epidemiology says nothing about a particular person's mortal destiny or the health that accompanies it. An Epicurean view of health focuses not on what makes us identical to the scientists' cohort, but what makes each of us irreducible singularities. Each one of us is a throw of the genetic and historical dice, born into this world with peculiar strengths and weaknesses, and with the singular obligation to take responsibility for our individual health. In short, health for the Epicurean is more a matter of art than of science, more an aesthetic than a biological question. Each of us has to find his or her own road to health. This takes cunning and, these days, some scientific curiosity.

For an Epicurean, the first curiosity is about our body—how it works, how it responds to pleasure and pain. In The Physiology of Taste, the 19th-century Epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes: "When we eat, we receive a certain indefinable and peculiar impression of happiness originating in instinctive consciousness. When we eat, too, we repair our losses and prolong our lives." Pleasure may thus be a form of intelligence, an intuitive science as well as an art. Some nations have more of this intelligence than others. As M.F.K. Fisher writes in The Art of Eating, "France eats more consciously, more intelligently than any other nation." There are serious scientists who believe in the French paradox, that the gourmand's steady diet of foie gras and good red wine protects him from risk of heart disease. Michel Montignac, the French Dr. Atkins, believes in the healthful, slimming virtues of protein and fat but also recommends the purifying and invigorating powers of wine.

Whenever anyone asked Julia Child to name her guilty pleasures, she responded, "I don't have any guilt." Epicureanism not only absolves us of guilt but says that our guilty pleasures might actually be keeping us healthy—mentally, physically, or both. Like Proust, the doctor's son, we might even consider it perversely healthy to sacrifice our health in order to write the greatest novel of the century. Julia Child was vigorous into her 90s not despite slathering chickens with butter, but because of it. Only you can judge, however, what your body needs and what gives you pleasure. It may be vital to know that cigarettes are bad for your health, but you might at the same time feel, like Sartre, that life without cigarettes is not worth living.

In America, we have become strangely divorced from our bodies, counting calories on every product in the supermarket, watching blood pressure, measuring cholesterol, and sacrificing pleasure out of an excess of caution. These days we eat not for pleasure, but to lower our numbers. Yet we are one of the fattest nations in the world and growing every day more obese. But what do we stand to lose if we lose the enjoyment and pleasure that we derive from good eating and drinking? We may stand to lose everything. The epidemiologist cannot tell us what the Epicurean wants to know: What should I choose to love without guilt? What is good for me? What keeps me happy? What, in the best sense, keeps me healthy?

In certain European philosophical circles, there has been a recent spike of interest in Epicurus, and not only among Marxists. (Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus.) Like every Greek, Epicurus was obliged to believe in the pantheon of Greek gods who lived on Mount Olympus; but he did so without having to suppose that these gods were even remotely interested in human affairs. As a result, Epicurus needed to find principles for living that were based not on theological but on materialist (or, we might say, scientific) conceptions of the world—those which explained all nature, including mind and spirit, with reference not to the supernatural but to harmonies and atomic processes.

Marx studied Epicurus because the Greek philosopher was the great ancient popularizer of the earlier materialist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, who, in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, were the first to propound an atomistic doctrine. Epicurus in turn directly influenced the Roman Lucretius, whose De rerum natura became the authority for Renaissance materialism and the basis of the whole philosophical tradition that runs from Bacon to Locke to Hume and Hobbes and all the way to Feuerbach, who thought that "you are what you eat."

Neo-Epicureans argue that the entire philosophical tradition since Plato—perhaps philosophy itself—has always rejected materialism and has forever been in love with idealism. Even the so-called materialist philosophies exhibit forms of Platonic idealism; this idealism may be turned on its head, as it were, but its articulations are still in place. The new, radical Epicureanism, on the other hand, is nonphilosophical. It is a new way of articulating the relation between theory and practice; it is a praxis of thinking about pleasure and its value, in and of itself, as well as from the standpoint of health. Like Nietzsche, the Epicurean does not aspire to negate philosophy, for that would be only another way of affirming it. Philosophy is nothing but the history of its successive negations. Rather, Epicurus teaches us how to look away from the tradition. "Looking up and away shall be my only negation," Nietzsche asserts in The Gay Science. Like Nietzsche, neo-Epicureans start their thinking not with ideas but with what Epicurus insists is the origin of thought, the body.

Broadly put, neo-Epicureans suppose not only that you are what you eat, but that you think what you eat. Take German idealism, says Nietzsche. It has the leaden consistency and gaseous redolence of a diet thick with potatoes. Italian thought, one might add, is marked by the slippery texture and doughy blandness of pasta. Jewish metaphysics has the astringency and smoky intensity of briny pickles and cured fish. The indistinctness of Buddhist thought resembles white rice. Neo-Epicureans aim to discover not just a philosophy of being but a hygiene for living; not a universal system but a way of thinking about good health in terms of the peculiar proclivities of the individual body.

In the historical debate between mind and matter, mind won and silenced the voice of the body; it interpreted the body in terms of mind and considered it a mute machine that only reason could discover. It is time to recover that corporeal voice, to recast the Epicurean thinking that puts pleasure in the place of thought, that imagines bodily pleasure to be a kind of thinking. Good health will then be understood as a consequence of good pleasure, and adult pleasure will be prized, not tabooed; moderated, not censored; indulged, not feared.

Richard Klein is a professor of French literature at Cornell University. This essay is adapted from his chapter in the collection of essays Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, edited by Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland, published this month by New York University Press.


1. beinghuman - November 22, 2010 at 03:45 am

A truly wonderful piece. A standing ovation for Richard Klein. He simply puts in words so many of the ideas that I have been also pondering during the last few years, that is its simply hard to believe.
Btw. if you got interested in Epicurean thinking, there is a Facebook-page for Epicurus with a very keen group of Epicureans discussing all things Epicurean at; http://www.facebook.com/pages/Epicurus/79493658728

2. jffoster - November 22, 2010 at 06:23 am

A "piece"?

3. mishelleshepard - November 22, 2010 at 10:34 am

Fantastic! I will read it 3 more times and then delve deeply into more research of my own on this topic. Thank you for the spark!

4. jonsax - November 22, 2010 at 11:33 am

Wonderful piece. I believe a toast is in order!

5. paradiddle - November 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Dr. Klein, you are a magnificent skeev!

-a babysitter

6. tekton - November 22, 2010 at 01:20 pm

What a crock. First, the author wraps self-indulgence in a cloak of nobility - but there's nothing new, or noble, about that. I mean, the case that good food is pleasant to eat doesn't need to be made; the larger context and ultimate end of this 'piece' (of what?) is "if it feels good, do it...as long as you don't hurt anybody." But human history, among other things, provides ample documentation of how bad we humans are at judging what hurts people. Second, in case the author hasn't noticed, American society is pretty well along the hedonistic road already. Maybe he's looking for a governmental stamp of approval?

7. anon1972 - November 22, 2010 at 01:20 pm

Um, not everyone considers babysitters "irresistibly attractive."

8. kublakhan - November 22, 2010 at 05:05 pm

I kept waiting for it to get to the point, I guess the fact that it's adapted from a book explains that. But Mr. Klein should take a page from one of the dozen philosophers he quotes and clearly argue for whatever it is he wants to argue for. Many of them argue against pleasure as being the same as the good, why not address their arguments? I suppose it wouldn't be pleasurable.

But besides the rambling and excessive quotations, the article is makes to many sweeping generalizations to end up having a real point.

"In pursuit of happiness, Americans are insistently encouraged to consume vast quantities of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but booze is never publicly celebrated. Rarely do we hear about the charms and benefits of alcohol, or the sociability it has promoted from the dawn of time, or the pleasure and consolation it has infused into the lives of billions over the course of human history."

What???? What country do you live in!

9. alchemistoflife - November 23, 2010 at 06:07 am

Basta philosophare! Action is needed: We Americans consume far too much (and not just food - it's interesting to hear a President ask for "renewed consumption... to jump-start the economy" in the face of environmental "action needed"), we binge-drink, rather than savor the elixir of Life, eat quickly (time is money) and we take no time to think about either our health or our happiness (Wall-E). But a lengthy philosophical discourse is unlikely to be read by the masses who need to read it. Action anyone? SFO just banned Mc D's "Happy Meals", but does that give anyone more time to think - much less to cook...?

PS: having used the Slovenian health care system (lived there 01-07), though the offices don't boast the shiny fancy paraphernalia (behind which many of our doctors here hide utter incompetence) they are equally knowledgeable in terms of health care.

10. marketnow - November 23, 2010 at 09:52 am

The article embodies exactly what is hamstringing the humanities today. Here we have a writer who lives in a nation overrun with radical individualism. And his response: what's lacking in our nation is radical individualism. What makes this "philosophy" any more noble than that of the Tea Party?

11. mbelvadi - November 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

This article relies on philosophers etc. who predate pretty much all medical knowledge about lung cancer, diabetes, alcoholic liver disease and other diseases that can be tied to lifestyle and can make one suffer deeply for a great many years. The take-away message I get from it, when put in the context of watching loved ones suffer from their excesses, is the less-old saying, "live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse" because your choices won't be giving you a whole lot of "pleasure" later. The author seems in complete denial about such consequences.

12. frankschmidt - November 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I will point to this essay when showing why universities need the humanities. Well done.

13. miriam5grana - November 23, 2010 at 02:55 pm

Wonderful. A toast without guilt.

14. gigno - November 24, 2010 at 04:39 am

Outstanding! This is an exceptionally lovely piece that has sparked a new found curiousity in myself for Epicurean philosophy.

15. busyslinky - November 24, 2010 at 07:20 am

If this is an example of humanities writing, I can see why it is having difficulties.

It is Epicurean. A long winded, lazy piece of schlock that is self-indulgent.

My eyes glazed over and I jumped around and read the same way no matter where I began or where I ended.

Let's all get fat and lazy. Sounds like a great philosophy. As with others I agree that we are already there. Let's embrace it all and then we don't have to worry about its costs to society. Who me worry?

16. 12035470 - November 24, 2010 at 08:59 am

What nonsense. Our culture constantly adjures us to follow our pleasures. Mr. Klein must be struggling to overcome his own repressions. As for obesity, it is a largely socio-economic problem. The well-off and well-educated to whom Klein is railing have long ago absorbed the happy lessons of measured Epicureanism and hardly need his tedious outburst.

17. dank48 - November 24, 2010 at 09:42 am

Marvelous essay, Mr. Klein. The complaints and objections, as usual, say a lot for you. And by the way, I think your book Cigarettes Are Sublime is one of the most serious and at the same time one of the most readable books I've read in the past few years. I'm just sorry you're so reluctant to provoke controversy. . . .

For what it's worth, I've always thought Ambrose Bierce, of all people, had a nice insight (historical accuracy perhaps somewhat aside) into the matter in The Devil's Dictionary definition of "Epicurean":

An opponent of the philosophy of Epicurus, who, believing that pleasure should be our chief aim in life, wasted no time on gratification of the senses.

And about those adult pleasures, all too often we confound love and desire, which James Thurber, again of all people, distinguished nicely:

Love is blind, but desire just doesn't give a good goddam.

18. takazee - November 24, 2010 at 11:05 am

I love to eat and drink -- with little guilt -- but some lines have to be drawn. A defense of smoking? Because it gives us pleasure? Does the pleasure of those around us not matter? To argue that smoking is acceptable because it gives one pleasure, no matter the consequences for those around the smoker, is simply indefensible. It is incredibly self-interested and arrogant.

19. dank48 - November 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Takazee, the same arguments could be applied to something or other you like to do but someone else doesn't, but only by that someone else. For example, expressing opinions I disagree with is offensive to me, therefore (ahem) it's simply indefensible.

I never smoke where it could affect others who don't smoke. That of course isn't good enough for the new puritans, who are offended, not because they have to breathe my smoke, but because I'm doing something they don't like.

Kurt Vonnegut was right. This country is full of people who are tormented by the thought that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.

20. duchess_of_malfi - November 24, 2010 at 01:10 pm

There is no "us" that is both over-concerned with health, and increasingly unhealthy. There are sets of "us," some who have more money, opportunity, knowledge, and choices, others who have less money, time, and knowledge; fewer choices; more stress, more dangerous, mind-deadening, soul-crushing jobs; and a higher rate of physical and mental disability and mental illness--all of which may influence someone's needs, habits, and definitions of pleasure. Any discussion of pleasure, health, and morality that does not acknowledge these patterns papers over them just as much as dominant health discourses do.

21. tgroleau - November 24, 2010 at 01:19 pm

An enjoyable read but how would it extend from physical pleasure -vs- health to intellectual pleasure -vs- health? What if our students find pleasure in studying finance but we believe it's healthier to make them study business ethics? If they find pleasure in reading James Patterson, should we try to force them to read Shakespeare instead?

It seems that the whole idea of general education requirements is to force students to "consume" subjects and content that we believe is "healthy" regardless of what pleases the students.

I have no answer. As one who leans libertarian in most areas, I'm pondering what intellectual Epicureanism might look like in higher ed.

For those of you who celebrate it, have a pleasurable Thanksgiving.

22. marshallmeetings - November 24, 2010 at 01:59 pm


This is what I call thanksgiving pleasure!

23. tekton - November 24, 2010 at 07:13 pm

The comment of dank48 (comment 19), by which people who prevent his/her cigarette smoke from adversely impacting others are portrayed as self-righteous meddlers who just don't want others to enjoy things they don't, is as much nonsense as the original article. I wonder if he/she has spent a lot of time fuming about the injustice of it all while puffing away outside in the cold winter wind somewhere.

The reason for my, and I suspect others', opposition to the worship of self-indulgent pleasure represented by the article is that people can be remarkably bad judges of what hurts people, or that people can be remarkably uncaring about the pain they do inflict in the pursuit of their pleasure. Life in a society is a tension between pursuit of individual pleasure (however that might be defined) and responsibility to the whole. The fact is, if we live in a society, everything we do impacts others - often in ways that may not be obvious to the casual observer but are nonetheless potent. Everything we do should be evaluated in that light; not that we surrender self to the group, but that we weigh our intended actions with others in mind, and proceed accordingly.

Such responsible conduct commonly runs counter to the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake; the sad fact is that at least some of what people pursue for their pleasure harms others, whether they know it (or whether they care) or not. This is why there are laws; the good of others trumps the individual's self-gratification. But the good of others isn't just codified by laws, which prescribe the minimum standard of behavior. There's a higher moral standard by which people operate (or should operate, at any rate) - it's called caring. As society becomes increasingly immoral, and behaviors that harm people become more and more the norm, one can expect to see a reaction from those who see the harm and want to stop it. Not because they're prudes who don't want others to have fun, but because they care about people and see the interconnection between us all.

24. hildavcarpenter - November 25, 2010 at 11:07 pm

I loved this piece. And to the naysayers in the response, all I can say is they surely are not philosophers and should not pretend to venture into that beautiful habitat of thinking.

I am inspired. Thank you.

25. galen22198 - November 26, 2010 at 11:41 am

The critics who interpret this as an argument in favor of being overindulgent and getting fat, and who imply that epicureanism is trumped by modern medicine have not adequately addressed one of the author's points. Some people think and behave in a more indulgent way (the example given is the French), eat horribly unhealthy food by American health standards, and yet nonetheless remain more healthy than Americans. Perhaps all the effort and stress involved in reducing food to calories and potential illnesses is doing us more harm than good. Just relax and enjoy some fish and chips!

26. ralandbeck - November 27, 2010 at 07:12 am

The problem for Richard Klein is who is to decide what are the 'good pleasures'? Living in the almighty market ecomony, the 'pleasures' held up to be of value are those which are bought and sold. And anything bought and sold can only serve the most superficial, temporary and vane. The source of a sustainable and much deeper fulfillment called joy remains undiscovered. And the problem lies in a corrupted hierarchy of cultural values that now [and probably always] predominate, today with a corporate culture that imposes debt, limits creative time, compromises relationship and weasels its way into every aspect of our lives where it can exploit for profit. That is the problem. But the problem could not exist if human nature carried within itself a valid conception on the very nature of what is good. And here Richard Klein is as much a part of the problem. For the solution is a rearrangement of human values, including his own, and that remains ouside the potential of a humanity rooted in a materialist, evolutionary paradigm. http://www.energon.org.uk

27. horacenalle - November 27, 2010 at 07:41 am

Thanks to Richard Cohen for a literate defense of pleasure. But he doesn't help his case by decrying an imaginary "new morality [that] views the least indulgence in adult pleasure as the sign of a nascent habit on the way to becoming a dangerous compulsion." Really? Who's against sex? Who's against hot tubs? Good food? A breath later, Cohen himself says, "in America, ... we are publicly spurred on to consume by advertisements and stresses that excite desire." Indulgence is already winning the ground war. One may trace the distinguished intellectual pedigree of moderate indulgence without conjuring Puritans out of thin air.

28. jmonroe6400 - November 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I don't think Mr. Cohen exaggerates all that much. The way Americans pursue their pleasures is not indicative of their acceptance of pleasure but the moral discomfort they feel about pleasure. For any pleasure, Americans have to engage in some sort of neurotic or obsessive process of gearing up for it. Sometimes people even read books about a pleasure in search of some justification for it. Too bad time and space are limited. I'll have to leave it at that. Suffice to say

29. mrsdillie - November 27, 2010 at 01:03 pm

The US doesn't fall behind Britain in cancer survival rates. I understand that Cohen's not trying to make any scientific points, but he might have done some fact checking before launching into his polemic.


And Klein's only interested in those pleasures of which he approves. Deer hunting, stock-car racing, goat tying, etc. would probably not make his list.

30. mrsdillie - November 27, 2010 at 01:04 pm

Klein, I mean, not Cohen.

31. mattmccormick - November 27, 2010 at 02:36 pm

nteresting. But it's bizarre to put the blame so squarely on public health officials and epidemiologists, as if anyone listens to them. It seems to me that the squirrelly ideas Americans have about their health and their maladaptive schemes for being healthy and dealing with disease have more to do with their scientific illiteracy and their ignorance of the relevance of sound empirical methodology in analyzing and treating health issues. People yo yo diet because they don't know anything about the science behind weight loss, but sustain anecdotal and magical thinking about what will make the weight go away. Ask an American what the CDC says about weight loss and what Suzanne Sommers says about it, or what the CDC's view of childhood vaccines or what Jenny McCarthy says about them, and the chances are very good that they know the latter in great detail, but don't even know what "CDC" stands for.

32. t_paine - November 27, 2010 at 04:03 pm

"It seems to me that the squirrelly ideas Americans have about their health and their maladaptive schemes for being healthy and dealing with disease have more to do with their scientific illiteracy and their ignorance of the relevance of sound empirical methodology in analyzing and treating health issues."

Agreed. But the American Health Industry trades on this ignorance. None of the 'second-hand-smoke' science has survived scrutiny, but it doesn't matter. The FDA has taken final refuge in its recently published "no minimum safe level" standard, and no one of importance sees that for the end run around the science that it is.
We can't determine a minimum safe level of Jello, either.

33. oldsarge - November 27, 2010 at 04:08 pm

Ever since Senator McCarthy held hearings on what Americans should be eating, the official line has produced nothing but disaster. We were sold margarine because it was supposed to be better than butter. It's not. We were supposed to eat less red meat because beef was bad for us. It isn't. We were supposed to eat a low fat/high carbohydrate diet to stay slim and got fatter than ever. Where did this all come from? It sure wasn't from any endocrinologist who actually knew how the body worked. No, it came from lobbiests and lawyers! Yes, dance more and remember that red wine and dark chocolate are good for you.

34. tonyobrien - November 27, 2010 at 09:29 pm

Slovenia? A marvellous little country. No shame in that comparison.

35. counterseven - November 27, 2010 at 11:59 pm

We spend something like $90 billion each year on agriculture subsidies. (Some of this goes to tobacco, by the way.) Then the junk food industry, whose very existence depends on these subsidies, targets advertising to children, hoping to create lifelong customers.

But no, the real problem is our misguided attitude toward pleasure (which of course has *nothing whatsoever* to do with the nonstop ad campaigns shoved down our throats.)

No, the real villains, the real enemies of Freedom, are those dowdy, unsophisticated food police who have the temerity to ask an industry that we subsidize to behave differently.

36. transcend - November 28, 2010 at 02:15 pm

A nice enough overview of Epicurean history, but I must question the applicability to American culture. If anything, America suffers from an excess of hedonism, with the attendant insatiable desires, and horrid results like obesity. All of American life seems to have been reduced to the pursuit of happiness, bizarrely misinterpreted and narrowed into the pursuit of pleasure. Work is defined to both provide the means both to produce and consume endless objects of desire, so much so that if we slow down our consumption, the economy collapses.

If we are Puritans, then we are only Puritans in thought, not in deed. A dose of real Puritanism - including community spirit - might be more in order, rather than calling for more individualist and selfish pleasure-seeking.

37. t_paine - November 28, 2010 at 03:51 pm

agricultural subsidies (some of which goes to tobacco) (gasp!) can be opposed. Talk to your congressperson.

That the fast food industry would collapse without these subsidies is untrue. A small price rise, maybe? Or they might buy some Argentinean beef. Again.

The eating-buying habits of children are the business of parents. Not your business, not the state's business certainly. You don't like the advertising, don't watch. Don't be a victim. ("nonstop ad campaigns shoved down our throats"). Aw.

I'm not afraid of the hamburgers or fat people. I am scared of you, though. You got all the shoulds and oughts figured out for all of us, don't you?

So when we all finally get skinny will we be happy? Can we all schlep into the People's Pizza and Healthy Fast Food Warehouse Outlet and Exercise Center, smiling, knowing you and good ol' Uncle Sam have our lives back on track? Maybe we can meditate on that while we stand on line together?

38. t_paine - November 28, 2010 at 04:15 pm

trandscend: Sir/Madam,
Do you live this way?

"All of American life seems to have been reduced to the pursuit of happiness, bizarrely misinterpreted and narrowed into the pursuit of pleasure. Work is defined to both provide the means both to produce and consume endless objects of desire,"

I will assume from your superior tone that the answer is no. And so, please share with us how you avoided all these evils yourself, and why it is you think no one else has?

"A dose of real Puritanism" would involve telling others how to live, indeed compelling others to live a certain way. Puritanism was not only self-discipline, but the happy tyranny of the community over the nonconforming individual. That's real "community spirit". Almost tribal.

We could talk about this stuff with 'counterseven' while we wait on line.

39. t_paine - November 28, 2010 at 04:17 pm

trandscend: Sir/Madam,
Do you live this way?

"All of American life seems to have been reduced to the pursuit of happiness, bizarrely misinterpreted and narrowed into the pursuit of pleasure. Work is defined to both provide the means both to produce and consume endless objects of desire,"

I will assume from your superior tone that the answer is no. And so, please share with us how you avoided all these evils yourself, and why it is you think no one else has?

"A dose of real Puritanism" would involve telling others how to live, indeed compelling others to live a certain way. Puritanism was not only self-discipline, but the happy tyranny of the community over the nonconforming individual. That's real "community spirit". Almost tribal.

We could talk about this stuff with 'counterseven' while we wait on line.

40. goxewu - November 28, 2010 at 08:13 pm

* "We could do more for public health if the government spent a fraction of what it spends curbing smoking on promoting dancing." Sounds nice, has a rhetorical flourish, but it's preposterous--even if the "fraction" (one of those wonderfully elastic nouns) is 99/100ths.

* Smoking: The same rationalizations and denials employed by claimants of a public harmlessness of smoking used to be employed by claimants of a public harmlessness of chewin' tebaccy 'n' spittin.' Do I hear any calls to bring back spittoons in the public chambers from which ashtrays have been withdrawn?

* There seems to be, on the part of many supporters of Professor Klein, a belief that any state action regarding health amounts to a law in the criminal code. But (for instance) some public official or committee is going to decide what food and snacks are on sale on the campus of a public middle school or high school (i.e., it isn't going to be a free-for-all involving any purveyor who shows up), and just because that official or committee decides that only healthful food will be sold doesn't make the decision repressive.

* Arguments used to be made that it was nobody's business but an individual automobile driver's whether or not he or she wore a seatbelt while driving, and that only the individual motorcycle rider's business whether he or she wore a helmet. Those arguments seem rather asocial, quaint and even fetishy today.

* Does anybody really want to go back to "no smoking sections" on airliners, especially the ones that were expandable by seat signage if there happened to be a large number of smokers on the flight?

* Health may have become "the new morality," but I can remember when morality (e.g., the sins of masturbation or homosexuality) was somehow considered health (i.e., you'd deplete your ability to produce sperm, go mad, cause awful changes in your physiognimy, etc.).

* Does anybody but me detect a somewhat more than faint whiff of disingenuousness on the part of Professor Klein? His is a fine piece of writing from an obviously erudite academic, but it seems to me less like he really believes what he's saying--that all our current attention to health is a net negative--than that he's like a brilliant defense attorney relishing the chance to make an elegant final argument on behalf of a client everybody else in the courtroom thinks has been proven guilty.

41. t_paine - November 28, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Well, if everyone else thinks he's guilty, he must be guilty.

Struggling for a world just a little bit safer, though a bit less free.

There is a kind of cowardice in liberalism, not unlike Christian cowardice, lusting always after salvation. (Save me! Protect me!)

42. durangodad - November 29, 2010 at 12:26 am

Klein risks giving philosophy a bad name. Where is the practical understanding of interconnectedness? Where pursuit of pleasure leads to lung cancer, obesity-related disability, and disability from sexually-transmitted disease how does he propose society deal with the costs? Must we all gladly support the long-term care of the 45 year old with self-induced liver disease, the 60 year old with self-induced diabetes, the drug addict with hepatitis or aids. We can be compassionate while trying to change behaviours, but to encourage the pursuit of pleasures regardless of the outcomes -- this article must have been "tongue in cheek."

43. goxewu - November 29, 2010 at 06:58 am

* "Everybody else in the courtroom" includes the jury, who will shortly convict on the first ballot.

* Most of the time, we liberals desire to make the world a little safer not primarily for ourselves--though that's part of it--but for the citizenry as a whole.

* Does the "Christian cowardice" in Christian conservatives (the term seems so commonplace because there are so many of them) cancel out the supposed bravery (I'll protect myself!) in being conservative?

44. t_paine - November 29, 2010 at 10:59 am

Yeah, everybody.

How Noble. Two quotes from H. D. Thoreau, for fun.

"As for doing good; that is one of the professions which is full. Moreover I have tried it fairly and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution."

"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life."

As for your questions about Christian consevatives, you might find one and ask.

45. goxewu - November 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm

* Yeah, everybody. Even O.J. (Las Vegas edition, that is).

* What does quoting from Thoreau prove? (It's not particularly a lot of fun; Bierce or Mencken or Twain or Thurber or Wilde might be.)

* I could be glib and say that I can't find any conservatives who are real Christians, or ask in return why getting an answer from just one CC could stand for an answer from all of them. But I'll instead just re-ask t_paine, who seems a) to be a conservative, and b) in citing "Christian cowardice," purports to know something about Christians as a whole: Do "Christian cowardice" and conservative bravery (I'll protect myself!) cancel each other out in Christian conservatives?

46. navydad - November 29, 2010 at 06:12 pm

"I loved this piece. And to the naysayers in the response, all I can say is they surely are not philosophers and should not pretend to venture into that beautiful habitat of thinking."

I'm pretty sure that I do not "pretend to venture into that beautiful habitat of thinking." I don't know what that means, but it sounds nice, I guess. Of course, that's one of the main problems when humanities types try to address the real world. A lot of flowery language and erudite quotations that mean little, if anything, within which there are a couple of good, although obvious, ideas. Klein's writing is so opaque that it is hard to distill out the central arguments.

Klein points out that Americans spend more on health care than other industrialized nations and yet, as a group, we have poorer health. Good point, but then he follows it up with his silly discussion of pleasure and morality. Gee, I always thought that our strange system for financing health care (employer provided, for-profit insurance, fee for service) plays the major role in our dysfunctional health care "system." Not as interesting as quoting dead guys who wrote cleverly. And then there's this: "Americans are insistently encouraged to consume vast quantities of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but booze is never publicly celebrated. Rarely do we hear about the charms and benefits of alcohol". What planet does Klein live on? I don't watch much TV (sports, history, movies) and I still see lots of alcohol ads, most depicting good looking, smiling, sexy groups of apparently successful young people. No burnt out alcoholics at the end of the bar in these images. Prescription drug ads list so many risks and side effects that I'm surprised anyone takes them. I don't recall any dinner guests asking if they can bring some Xanax, but they always bring a bottle of wine, as do we when we visit for dinner. When I made a toast at my son's wedding people raised glasses, not pill bottles. Give me a break! Alcohol is celebrated constantly in our culture and psychiatric drugs still have a stigma attached to them.

The topic that I thought Klein would address is interesting and important. I wish he had said whatever he was trying to say clearly and concisely. But of course, that would take about a paragraph, there would be nothing original in it, and no one would be interested in publishing such stuff.

For example, California's medical marijuana laws have led to some fascinating discussions related to Klein's purported topic. A lot of people seem to think that it is acceptable to smoke pot to relieve the pain and nausea of chemotherapy, but not to get high. It's acceptable to take Adderall if you have a diagnosis of ADHD and you use it to study, but not if you just want to stay up all night talking. It's acceptable to drink alcohol to celebrate important events, but not to "escape."

And please, please, do not quote Freud. He was wrong about almost everything. To paraphrase hildavcarpenter:

And to the yeahsayers in response, all I can say is that they surely aren't psychologists and should not pretend to speculate about human thinking and behavior.

47. the_eco_thought - November 29, 2010 at 06:57 pm

I've written somewhat on "You are what you eat" and ideology in some essays for instance in Cultures of Taste, Theories of Appetite.

I just wrote a post on the essay here:


48. t_paine - November 29, 2010 at 09:09 pm

I'm slow to respond; had to work today.

Yes, you could be glib. Sorry for the Thoreau. I keep forgetting it's not exactly a literary blogplace here, and I get carried away.

Now, I know that you see everything through these political filters, liberal and conservative and all that, so you are at a disadvantage, and I understand and forgive. But I assure you I am not any of those things. Everyone who opposes you is not automatically something you can categorize. You certainly know as much as anyone what a conservative is.

" Do "Christian cowardice" and conservative bravery (I'll protect myself!) cancel each other out in Christian conservatives?"

I don't know. But you are beginning to act like the legendary Roc bird again.

I am a scholar and I try to look at the world clearly. I know a great deal about Christianity, historically and theologically.

And, finally, as far as Christian conservatives go, I did recommend you find one and ask him, but I did not suggest that he should be the only one you ask. Knock yourself out. Bet they're fun to talk to.

Here's hoping I didn't miss any of your questions.

49. dank48 - December 02, 2010 at 03:28 pm

Thank heaven we have people who know what's best for all of us, whether we like it or not. Except that the problem goes back at least as far as Juvenal: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Cigarettes haven't been advertised on television in decades. Alcohol has been all along, at least as far as beer and wine are concerned, and lately even the hard stuff is. I personally love those commercials showing someone acting like a jackass, e.g. talking to the girlfriend on the phone while drinking in a bar, claiming to be sick, or smoozing with the guys over this hot older chick, who turns out to be someone's mother. . . . All followed by "Please Drink Responsibly" in eight-point type and a sotto voce coda. No hypocrisy here.

How many people are killed by secondhand smoke? How many people are killed by drunk drivers? Never mind us tobacco-suicides; we obviously have it coming.

God knows this isn't to defend smoking or drinking or any other habit or activity somebody else finds offensive, ill-advised, or noisome. It is to point out that, while my right to swing my arm ends at the tip of your nose, when you deliberately insert your nose into my space, collisions may occur.

Now, I've just got to hustle out into the cold to wallow in shameless self-indulgence.

50. goxewu - December 02, 2010 at 08:17 pm

Re t_paine:

C'mon, the Roc bird thing (a fancy way of saying, "You've got your head up your a**") was hardly flattering to a scholar of t_paine's credentials when he last used it, and it doesn't get any more elevated with repetition.

Oh, but 'tis a literary blogsite here--relatively speaking. It's just that Thoreau isn't very funny and is frequently, and irritatingly, quoted to make the quoter seem like somebody on the banks of Walden Pond who sees ever so clearly past other people's foibles, right to the heart of things. (But t_paine would never do that.)

Finally, it isn't I brought who up "Christian cowardice" and likened it to "a kind of cowardice in liberalism," which certainly seems like seeing things through "political filters" to me.

Since "a kind of cowardice in liberalism" is presumably not present in conservatism (otherwise it would have been "a kind of cowardice across the political spectrum") and since such a great number of American political conservatives publicly couple their conservatism and their Christianity, it seems fair to ask somebody who asserts that there's "a kind of cowardice in liberalism that's not unlike Christian cowardice" how that "Christian cowardice" plays out in those many, many publicly self-pronounced Christian conservatives. Answering me by cutely suggesting I go find a Christian conservative and ask him or her is--not to put too fine a point on it--an evasion. I'm asking someone who asserts there's "a kind of cowardice in liberalism" and who also says, "I am a scholar...I know a great deal about Christianity, historically and theologically." I'm asking an expert.

51. t_paine - December 03, 2010 at 12:48 am

Hey, lighten up. It wasn't me who was acting like the legendary Roc bird. I don't bring up the bird unless it's absolutely necessary.

I can't be the first writer you've read who points out the childish supplication, the fearful, beseeching nature of Christian worship and prayer. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, William James, others.

I see this same drive to find safety, to isolate oneself from reality, in the Utopian, the socialist, the liberal progressive, who would give anything, their freedom, their soul, even, in a Faustian bargain to save them from personal responsibility and danger, who would concede to live with the stink of the mob, arms linked in sweaty solidarity, just so they might not be left to their own devices, alone and at risk.

Much easier to go with the PC flow, right? Make sure all the right people approve of you.

52. goxewu - December 04, 2010 at 03:26 pm

Yeah, and I don't call people ignorant m*****f*****s "unless it's absolutely necessary." (I'm not calling the obviously intelligent and erudite t_paine a dumb mofo. I'm just pointing out that the "unless it's absolutely necessary"--in the the utterer's mind, of course--gambit doesn't excuse employing a fancy version of "You've got your head up your a**" in a comment thread that's supposed to be a little more classy than one dealing with Southeastern Conference football.)

t_paine's descriptions ("childish supplication, the fearful, beseeching," "this same drive to find safety, to isolate oneself from reality") of a certain psychological set seem accurate enough. But they're hard to imagine in, oh, Glenn Beck or Orrin Hatch or Sarah Palin or any number of political conservatives who make a big deal of also being Christians. So I thought I'd ask a scholar--who knows a lot about Christianity both historically and theologically, and who happens to have a "Brainstorm" pseudonym that's evocative of someone who's a conservative, too...and who has, if memory serves without panning the "Brainstorm" archives, tendered several comments on "Brainstorm" threads that would indicate a conservative political bent--how this happens.

But I'm old enough so that if t_paine wants to delay offering an answer long enough, I'll probably eventually keel over and die and he won't have to deliver the goods.

53. t_paine - December 05, 2010 at 04:23 pm

Did he call me an ignorant Mofo?
Anyway, as you know the Roc bird is only an attempt to lighten the mood when we begin to sound like 13th century logic-choppers counting souls in Limbo or something.

I'll try to answer.
I love the religious impulse as poetry and myth.
I detest religions that require man to help god in the world, help god save souls, enforce moralities, guard his works and institutions, even including killing people for him. He should be able to do this stuff himself. (In fact, the most energetic of evangelicals fear for their weak god so sincerely they blaspheme and insult him in their desperation.) I don't admire those who grovel and worship.

I treasure the individual.
I detest groups, clubs, associations, parties, movements. So I don't like conservatives inserting themsleves into matters of the family, the marriage bed, the childbirth bed, or who would propagandize my children.

I don't like progressives who would treat us all as a single organism, telling us what to eat, drink, or smoke because it impacts some other person's insurance bill ("we're all in this together"), or tell me my moral/ethical obligations to others based on their emotions, as if they knew with certainty.

I find people who would not embrace violence in defense of something they love and value to be worthless and untrustworthy. I quote Thoreau because, with all his faults, I see in him a man who would rather be away from the mob, who would just walk away. I can't imagine him singing the Company Song or waving his flag at the rally. At the same time, a reluctant, but violent, abolitionist, who spoke at John Brown's funeral.

I hate the impulse to Political Correctness, and I detest that I sometimes hesitate to offend when it is necessary. I try not to inflict unnecessary pain.

I don't like Ugly. I admire people who can create beauty.
I don't like people who start all their sentences with 'I', so I'll conclude this tiresome post. Hope it clarifies.

54. t_paine - December 05, 2010 at 07:00 pm

Adding a couple comma's

I find people who would not embrace violence, in defense of something they love and value, to be worthless and untrustworthy

55. goxewu - December 05, 2010 at 08:52 pm

* I specifically said, "I'm not calling the obviously intelligent and erudite t_paine a dumb mofo." I was merely trying to point out the disingenuousness of t_paine's trying to justify an insult by saying he only utters them "unless it's absolutely necessary."

* I don't buy the Roc bird (i.e., "You've got your head up your a**") as an attempt by t_paine "to lighten the mood." He knows it isn't, and is just trying to wriggle out of having gone playground on me.

* t_paine still hasn't answered the question about the seeming contradiction of "Christian cowardice" (inherent in beseeching some entity for salvation) and the many Christian conservatives who tout self-reliance (e.g., not beseeching the entity known as the Government for welfare). What he's delivered is a kind of academic's Boy Scout's Oath. (I, too, embody it, except for "reverent.")

* The last line about "people who start all their sentences with 'I'" is funny, though. So all is almost forgiven.

56. goxewu - December 05, 2010 at 08:55 pm

Addendum: Somebody who would throw punches over, say, his Bentley being scoffed at by a Ferrari owner is probably worthless and untrustworthy. Tip: Getting too general in order to sound like a Founding Father is not good.

57. t_paine - December 05, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Thanks for the tip, Gox. I tried to be straight with you, against my better judgment. (Not much wrong with the boy scout oath.) It's not always a competition, you know? Cordially, TP.

58. goxewu - December 06, 2010 at 01:45 pm

t_paine has been anything but straight about my question. I know it's probably a toughie for a conservative who's a scholar familiar with Christianity to explain to explain how Christian conservatives can both a) enveigh against wanting a higher power (the Government) to "Save me! Protect me!" and b) simultanenously suffer from what t_paine calls "Christian cowardice" in "beseeching" a higher power to "Save me! Protect me!" But it's a legit (and obvious) question.

So far, the answers t_paine has given have been to disingenuously suggest I go ask a conservative Christian, tell me in effect that I've got my head up my a**, point me to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and James, and recite his own personal virtues.

Still, my persistence has become a "competition" to t_paine and by now I should know that a real answer is not forthcoming. So I give up.

59. t_paine - December 06, 2010 at 06:31 pm

You don't really read my posts, do you Gox? I answered your question two posts back with an 'I don't know'. I'm not a conservative, not a Christian. Hello?

But wait! Screaming in from the nether regions, it's the LRB, deafeningly loud now spiraling above us, Oh, god! A sonic CRACK! a flash of biological lightning... then silence. A few feathers drift down on the breeze...

60. goxewu - December 07, 2010 at 07:17 am

I know t_paine is a conservative and not a Christian. But he says he's a scholar who knows a lot about Christianity, theologically and historically. So I thought he might be able to do that arcane, mysterious, intellectual thing that scholars often do--connect the dots--and explain how...oh, forget it.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. I've got my head up my a** for pursuing this. Classy.

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