Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Quantified Self: Some Thoughts from the 17th Century

We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.

First, let me be clear: tracking information about the self certainly has its benefits and its place. Self-monitoring makes us aware of habits we would love to ignore, which is invaluable if we have a habit we need to overcome. And it can reward us for overcoming: there is something bizarrely satisfying about writing down a success, however small. Some of us are not above writing things on a to-do list that we've already done, just for the pleasure of checking it off.

But notice the funny mixture of reason and absurdity here: we may reasonably track our exercise habits, for instance, to serve an important and attainable health goal. But we are not above playing silly tricks on ourselves to encourage this reasonable enterprise.

When I started running, I put gold stars on a calendar every time I made it out the door for a run.

I was an adult.

Thus we come to Pascal, expert on dualities of reason and absurdity. Lest we think that we have finally invented something new under the Sun, it is worth noting that a contrary Frenchman diagnosed all of the central problems with self-quantification in the 17th century. To wit:

Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).

Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.

Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).

Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .

Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).

Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.

One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Little Story About Humility

Not long ago, while visiting a friend in Denver, I came across this charming anecdote in Goethe's Italian Journey. It's stuck with me, so I thought I would post it. "Neri" is St. Filippo Neri (1515-1595), founder of the Oratorians.

[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”

Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787

(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Disillusionment

Can a state of disillusionment ever be coherent?

As a feeling, it is difficult to experience as anything but painful. It seems defined with the bad: it is a poignant sorrow, arrived at only when one realizes that a previous pleasure--or a previously pleasant part of one's life--has passed, and can only be partially recaptured at the expense of intellectual or moral honesty.

Yet such honesty itself requires us to appreciate being set free from an illusion. We cannot but feel, after such an experience, that having seen that illusion from both in front of and behind the curtain, we are now competent judges, in John Stuart Mill's sense. Knowing both sides, we have moved beyond an immature stage. This is progress, and it is to be celebrated.

Aside from such vague dissonance, however, disillusionment occasions a new problem, when we encounter those who have not yet seen behind the curtain: do we attempt to rip it aside, or not?

If we are at our best in such moments, we want to help, to offer the benefit of our experience to others. Yet this is a path--well, not really a path at all. It is a wall topped with razor wire, and it's not clear what's on the other side.

To tell a story of one's disillusionment is, very likely, to tell a story of one's failures. (For I have sworn thee fair, after all, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.) Such a story is a gracious offering. At the beginning of his essay on discussion, Montaigne notes that he learns better "by counter-example than example," and offers his own reflections on his imperfections in hopes that he "may teach someone how to fear them." But he also, too truly, notes that "when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are."

More importantly, life in front of the curtain feels comfortable for those who are living there. Efforts to tear it away can fail, and they can fail badly. One attempting the operation may well do more harm than good.

I struggle with this every once in awhile, particularly since my job and other aspects of my life bring me often into contact with young adults--many of whom have and are about to act on the same illusions I once had and once acted upon. And I don't have any great ideas about how to handle such situations, but here is a proposal for three rules of thumb. I truly welcome additional suggestions:

1.) Do your best to know your own motives. In these situations, I know mine are often mixed. The thing about which I am disillusioned, after all, is something or someone who has hurt me. That means that I might be making a little speech to myself about looking out for this young person's good, when in fact I want the pathetic revenge that comes from trash-talking a perceived enemy. If that's the dominant feeling, everything else I'm trying to do is suspect. Good advice, it seems to me, is more likely to come from a soul at peace with itself.

2.) In addition to suspecting your motives, suspect your experience at both the widest and narrowest margins. Your disillusionment about something as broad as, say, marriage, is unlikely to provide good guidance to anyone in a particular situation that does not resemble yours in numerous respects. (In other words, it's probably silly to be disillusioned about something this broad.) Likewise, your disillusionment about a single person may really be about your problems, or your problems in that relationship, rather than the other person's. (Remember this is a rule of thumb; I do not mean this to apply to anyone's disillusionment with any genuine abuser or other social monster.) Disillusionment about cliques of people, or institutions of various sizes, on the other hand, may well be instructive.

3.) If you really know that the "illusioned" person cannot hear you, or if this is really the kind of lesson one must learn for oneself, it is probably best to curtail the attempt. I think we probably know this more often than we like to admit, because we like to believe that we have more power over people than we do. But if you just met someone, and she has stars in her eyes over some institution that is woven into the fabric of her life, chances are that you cannot help. And if you know that the person you're advising has little respect for your opinion, chances are that you cannot help. And if you've offered the same caution before, and it has fallen on deaf ears, chances are . . . .

But it is difficult. Because at least sometimes, one really wants to help.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Love Letter to Brasil (and Brasilians!)

A week has passed since Margaret and I were in Brasil. To convey what it was like is not possible—but a failed attempt strikes me as better than none at all. Before the trip, I had absolutely no expectations. Which is funny, since as a small child, I would check out books about S. America and imagine what life in the continent must be like, gazing at pictures of mountains, rivers and jungles. But adult life came perilously close to destroying my capacity for such wonder. So my attitude was "another plane trip, another conference." I had no idea what I was in for.

What was so striking about Brasil? First, the sensation of being in a land with very few English-speakers. Had we gone to Rio or São Paolo, things might have been different. But the site of the conference was Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. BH (bay-ah-GAH, as the locals call it) is Brasil's third largest city, but not exactly a tourist destination. Because of this, I hazard that BH gave me something more akin to "the real Brasil," as distinct from the side of the country carefully prepared for tourist consumption. Not that I exactly blended in. That my dress and my demeanor screamed "Americano!" from miles away, I have no doubt. ("You'll be marked as a tourist the moment you get there," an old friend of Peruvian heritage assured me.) And my Portuguese has very little going for it, beyond my general willingness to take some risks and make a fool of myself. (The brasileira at the airport thought I was trying to buy chocolate on credit, rather than proposing to use my credit card. The fault was certainly mine...) But the locals were so warm and so receptive to my bumbling efforts, that after a while I found myself spontaneously exclaiming "Amo Brasil!" This had the double merit of being true and being ingratiating. When the true and the useful coincide in this manner, one can only feel grateful.

Another unforgettable thing about Belo Horizonte—the sidewalks. Here in the States, or at least where I live, the sidewalks are mostly charmless paths of dull and drab concrete. In Belo Horizonte, they were typically colorful mosaics, with fascinating and unpredictable patterns. I wish I could describe these better. One of the more remarkable patterns was a hopscotch (see photo below).

Quite a large proportion of the local buildings, as well as the streets, are named after famous writers. On the first day, I found Montaigne and Stendhal. The last day presented me with a building calling itself "Edifício Montesquieu." There was also a condo (I think) sporting the name "Federico Fellini," as well as a salon called "Nixon," which I can only assume was not named after the former U.S. President. But it's difficult to be sure.

Anyone who appreciates food should certainly try the Brazilian cuisine. The buffets are generally much better than the typical American buffet. Our second night, Margaret and I went to a restaurant called "Amadeus." In addition to offering all the cheeses, fruits, and meats we could dream of, as well as the most splendid array of desserts I'd ever seen, Amadeus featured a wine cellar that we were able to personally inspect. Perhaps my favorite type of Brazilian restaurant is the rodizio. A rodizio invariably begins with an antipasto bar, full of olives, fruits, cheese, nuts and other delectables. Here the trick is to eat about half as much as you'd like to, since you need to leave room for the main courses. These consist of "endless meat." The server brings one kind of meat after another, about every seven minutes, and carves it for you at the table. He does not stop visiting your table, armed with juicy meat begging to be consumed, until he is explicitly instructed to do so. The rodizio we visited was a Lebanese place—"Vita Araba." I managed to stay just this side of the famous "meat coma."

Scenery, architecture, food—such are the standard fare of travel writers. No experience of travel should be without them. But how to write about them vividly, with imagination and flair? Obviously, I've got no idea. My strategy in the above paragraphs was to pick relatively two non-obvious items of interest—buildings with strange names and sidewalks with strange patterns—before debauching into the usual discourse about food. It would be a mistake, however, to leave you with the impression that scenery, architecture, food were what made Brasil for me.

What did make Brasil for me, if not the impressive scenery, buildings and cuisine? The answer: its people.

I love Brasil—but what I really love are brasileros and brasileiras. In every location in which I encountered Brasilians—whether at the conference, restaurants, shops, museums, gelaterias, or the airport—they were some of the warmest and most welcoming people whom I've ever met, in any country. They were so willing to converse with a none-too-impressive American who tried, however poorly, to speak their language. Seeing my somewhat confused look in a bookstore, an employee approached me. After we talked a little, partly in English and partly in Portuguese, he led me to two sections. "Here are some classics in Portuguese!" he said proudly. "And here are some books"—gesturing to another shelf—"in your language." When I (sincerely) told him I was far more interested in the former, he looked at me with a mixture of surprise and respect, and proceeded to ask me where I was from and what my name was. After purchasing an inexpensive Portuguese edition of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, I decided it was time for some chocolate. The chocolate was fine. But what I really remember was the woman behind the counter beaming when I told her that her English was good, after she had asked me which state I was from. When I give a true answer to this question (i.e. "Texas"), I am no longer surprised when I receive a look of contempt. None of the Brazilians whom I encountered exhibited any such small-minded nonsense. They are not so provincial as to believe that Texans are just one thing.

My encounters with brasileros and brasileiras on the streets and in the shops were a daily source of joy. I should add that the Brazilian academics at the Hume Society conference were equally lovely. Professor Livia Guimarães, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), did an excellent job coordinating the conference as a whole. Though I had met her only once, Livia remembered me and embraced me (literally) as if we were old friends. Particularly memorable was the Hume Society's banquet, held the last night of the conference. I was quite fortunate to be seated next to two Brazilian academics, Luiz Eva and Cecília Almeida. Margaret and I had met Luiz the day before, and so knew that he and I both love Montaigne. Luiz spoke excellent English, and in a distinctly American accent, perhaps because he spent half a year at Johns Hopkins on a post-doc. Now he teaches at the Universidade Federal do Paraná. We spoke about everything from the style of philosophy most influential in Brasil, to why more people don't fathom that Montaigne is a philosopher, to why Hume remains a figure of interest and fascination, to the impossibility of translating the Portuguese term "saudade." After a while, Cecília joined our table. From what I gather, Luiz and Cecília had both studied philosophy in São Paolo. Cecilia is also interested in French skeptical writers—she specializes in Pierre Bayle—and recently accepted a position in the philosophy department at the Universidade de Brasília. In addition to encouraging my fledging efforts at Portuguese—her English was so much better than my Portuguese!—she gave me invaluable advice about where to travel next time we're in Brasil. (Not trusting my own ability to remember, I asked her to write it down, which she did.) Cecília also mentioned the prospect of yours truly coming to Brasilia to give a lecture. This I did not get in writing, but I am optimistic that it will happen. In any case, Margaret and I will be making another trip to Brasil.

In conclusion … but I won't conclude, since my time in Brasil has hardly concluded. In lieu of a conclusion, here are some photographs.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Regarding What We Do on Airplanes

This morning's reflection on Martha and Mary acquainted me with an idea that, I confess, was wholly new to me--that the story is in fact controversial, that some find the praise of Mary, at the apparent expense of Martha, unfair and dismissive of the contributions of women to hospitality and domestic life. Given my profound ignorance of this debate, I cannot presume to adequately represent the nuances of this criticism. But I would like to consider one version of it, which I take to reflect a nearby complaint that I can certainly understand.

Let us suppose that the complaint goes something like this: Martha's activities in this story reflect true charity. In keeping with her role in this society, and reflecting a deep commitment to neighbor love, she works to prepare her home as a welcoming haven for an honored guest. Meanwhile, Mary selfishly lets her sister do all the work of this preparation, while delighting in the company of this guest. Martha sacrifices for others; Mary satisfies her own desires. Why, then, has Mary chosen the better portion?

Does this gripe sound familiar? Does it not ring the note of ressentiment that we all sometimes feel as we work to maintain our homes, our workplaces, our cities, while others engage in activities that we claim we would like to be doing--as soon as that work is done which is never done? 

The problem with this other-self interpretation of Martha's story, however, is that Mary is not actually focusing on her self. She is listening to a beloved friend, soaking up in rapt attention what he has to teach her, perhaps simply marveling at the peace that he seems to carry with him. This friend tells Martha, in response to her complaint, that she is fragmented by many things. Mary, on the other hand, has focused on the one necessary thing.

Might part of the point be that Mary is focusing on one thing?

Perhaps the divergence here is not between selfish isolation and altruistic sociability, but between dedicated vision and anxious fragmentation. Such fragmentation can make one feel alone when engaged in social activities, or destroy the genuine goods of solitude. Often, in solitude, we can hear the better voices in our heads, or access the well of our creative potential, or feel the resonance of the call of something higher than ourselves. We consume those opportunities when we fragment all our time alone, whether by our electronics, our busy work, or our anxieties. It is like setting fire to what Virginia Woolf called 'a room of one's own.' We must protect such rooms, even if doing so means leaving other rooms untidy on occasion.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

On Not Thinking About Beauty Enough

It is somewhat silly to express surprise at contradictions within our culture--as if any polity has ever enjoyed a perfectly unified conception of their common good--and as if one could expect anything approaching such unity in a polity as large as ours.

Yet one can occasionally learn a thing or two from reflecting on these contradictions, so forgive me for spending a few minutes on the bizarre and inconsistent ways in which we contemporary Americans relate to beauty.

Here is what I have in mind: a certain segment of us--perhaps all of us, some of the time--scorn any time spent thinking about beauty. We sneer at those who expend effort beautifying their persons, their houses, or their yards. We dismiss as superficial any effort to surround oneself with objects or cloak oneself in attire that others might find attractive. Those of us in the grip of this mood might shun shopping at Walmart--but only because we suspect that these goods were not created under humane conditions, not because we find them tasteless and plain.

And then there is another segment--again, perhaps all of us, some of the time--who obsess about our physical world and our appearance within it. The same woman who laughs at her friend who wasted $20 on a manicure during the day may crumble into a depression as she accidentally glimpses herself naked in the mirror that evening. And she may well find herself with renewed determination to beautify herself and her wardrobe in the future--and if she is successful, she will receive ample commendation from those happy that she is finally "taking care of herself."

Given the latter obsession, it is furthermore strange that so many people who spend extraordinary efforts on physical beauty end up with results that are so ugly. I will certainly not name names here, but consider what happens when an older man attempts to dress like a teenage boy, or the disastrous effect of too much makeup, too much cosmetic surgery, and too much too much everything.

One is tempted to think that the problem is not that we think about beauty too much. One is tempted to say that perhaps we do not think about it enough.

Consider this funny asymmetry: a beautiful exterior can quickly vanish when one discovers an unattractive interior. So as not, as Hume would say, to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, consider what we might call the White Christmas effect, when Bing Crosby's character withdraws, repulsed, from a lovely young woman's nasal, "Mutual, I'm sure."But the reverse does not hold: a physical deformity does not destroy the beauty of a lovely character. On the contrary, we tend to reinterpret the exterior when we come to find someone's character, mind, or heart lovable. Anyone who has ever fallen in love must know this phenomenon. Perhaps you found your partner quite dashing from the beginning, but it is only after one has fallen in love that one starts thinking that no one has ever had earlobes quite so charming . . . .

This transformation of the outer by the inner, which we do violence to by interpreting as mere self-deception, cannot make sense if beauty is a superficial, external value. If it is something worth dwelling on, living with, and offering a common account of, so that physical beauty is merely one instance of an enormously significant aspect of human life, then perhaps we can begin to make sense of such things.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Bitter Psalmist

The Psalms are sometimes described as comforting--recommended to those wrestling with dark nights of the soul. Reading over the past few days' Lenten Psalms, I'm afraid that any general recommendation of this kind strikes me as careless. For every Psalm 23, with its shepherding Lord leading us beside still waters, there is a Psalm 35, with its bargaining voice bitterly begging the Lord to put enemies to shame and violence in return for the promise of later praise. "Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers . . . ." The psalmist's resentment is matched only by self-righteousness: "But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning."

As material for worship, I do not claim insight into how to handle such a text. But reflection on this public confession of anger, weakness, and desperation did make me think about an apparent paradox of our broadly self-disclosing culture. That we have such a culture should be obvious to anyone who has a social media account, or anyone who has heard a politician or celebrity criticized not so much for engaging in shameful behavior, but for being unwilling to "share" with the public her feelings about such behavior. On the one hand, we make extensive demands on people to unveil their inner lives. We do so both in our relation to public figures and in our friendships and intimate relationships. Nietzsche diagnoses this tendency as another kind of bargaining: "People who give us their complete trust believe that they therefore have a right to our own. This conclusion is false: rights are not won by gifts."

On the other hand, we often have very little patience for disclosures when they are offered. We require public confessions to end with expressions of renewed self-resolve ("I'm just excited to move on to the next phase of my life") or the kinds of promises that are almost impossible to keep ("I'm just so sorry I let down my fans, and I will never let that happen again.") Of course, that we have such requirements does not mean that we always want people to satisfy them, which would take away the fun of excoriating those who fail to do so. Indeed, one suspects that the opportunity for such judgments may be the real good sought by far too many hearers of confessions, both public and private.

The illusion of public openness encourages forgetfulness of one of Christ's most pervasive messages--that we have no standing on which to judge the hearts of others. It is so, so easy to forget.

I should know better. Having been painfully shy since I was a very small child, I had the blessing of turning painfully awkward in adolescence and being the subject of psychological and, less often,  physical bullying. Being a false master of instrumental reasoning even back then, I decided to stop looking so awkward as quickly as possible, and set about reading and applying the relevant tomes. My reward for this, since it did nothing, of course, about my natural shyness, was that my new high school classmates decided that I must be a horrible snob. They had no way of knowing that I was really a nerd in hiding.

As an adult, a bout with a chronic but invisible illness showed me how quick people can be to attribute any failings to motives that are easily available to them, when they have no access to the real ones. Pain that is not seen cannot explain impatience with colleagues or struggles in relationships, and people will fill in what they cannot explain.

These are relatively easy examples to share, but I am not claiming to be self-disclosing. The point is--I should know. But I forget. Indeed, this tendency is perhaps the besetting sin of shy people: we are constantly presuming to understand other people's reactions to us, as if we are uniquely capable of seeing disdain in the face of others.

Any such presumption fails profoundly to respect the differences between persons as well as the vexed problems of self-knowledge. None of us either owns or fully understands a single human being--least of all ourselves. The presumption that we can, and that we can make judgments on the basis of such knowledge, results in some of the subtlest and therefore most painful forms of cruelty available to otherwise civilized people.

Any confession of pain or weakness therefore demands the utmost compassion. We cannot purge our discourse of "offensive" language, since the number of offenses is infinite. But we can take seriously, and charitably, claims that one has indeed been offended, even if the source of that offense has been a source of joy for us. The practices and institutions that nourish one person always have the potential to wound someone else. That is how human power works.

So I will endeavor to be grateful to the psalmist, who had the courage to record resentment, despair, and unabashed demandingness of God. This courage enables us to speak these feelings aloud, under the protection of corporate recitation of scripture. And they can perhaps remind us that those beings of otherness to whom we pass the peace may truly be in need of it. As are we.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Plump Berries and Cruel Winters: Some Reflections on the Truths and Lies of Hedonism

"Why does everyone desire pleasure? We might think it is because everyone also aims at being alive." (Aristotle)

If it makes sense to speak of the expertise of a culture, and if our culture is expert at anything, it may appear that it must be expert at the pursuit of pleasure. In addition to all the traditional bases of sensual gratification--food, sex, mind-altering substances--we spend much of our time inventing new ones. Poor Aristotle never knew the joys of millions of musical pieces available at the touch of a button, or yelping one's way through a foreign city in search of exotic delights, or luxuriating in awe-inspiring cinematography. And I'm pretty sure that he never tried Scotch.

But if Aristotle is right--and on this I think he is--that desiring pleasure is essential to life, then we are all linked by this single interest, with one another, with our fellow citizens of whatever origin, and even with ancient Greek philosophers. Wouldn't it be reasonable, then, to evaluate our options, public and private, by considering how much pleasure they produce?

This simple logic is the logic of one form of utilitarianism. Its very simplicity holds out the promise for easy-decision making, fairness, and harmony among humankind, but unfortunately, it has a fatal flaw.

Our pleasures are not static. And they are not all equal, even when it comes to their capacity to sustain pleasure.

Indulge me in two examples. Sometime in the mid-aughts, I decided that it might be time to reconsider the eating habits that had just barely gotten me through part of my first three decades on earth, but which promised to make later middle age little fun indeed. I honestly don't remember what I was in the habit of eating for breakfast at this time, or even if I ate breakfast at all. But what would have sounded lovely to me, had I the time to prepare it, would have been a homemade buttermilk biscuit, with plenty of butter tucked inside of it to melt on the spot. But I soon learned that in the new, healthier language I was speaking, just a teaspoon of that butter would cost me as much as a whole cup of blueberries, or even more strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries.

I started eating a lot of berries. And I fell in love with them.

This was not a wholly new love, and it took little work to achieve. I had picked berries in Southern summers as a child, and I knew the joys of eating them straight off the vine or bush. But I had never before appreciated the way in which they pair beautifully with any number of other foods, the way in which they seem to capture the fire and the consolation of the sun, or the way in which they have what I called, in a whimsical moment, "plump beauty."

That biscuit with melted butter still sounds good to me, but there is now no way that I would choose it over a bowl of fresh berries.

The second case was more difficult. I have been running since my junior year in college, almost twenty years now. And for most of those two decades it has been a chore. Sometimes the chore has been rewarding: during a long struggle with chronic pain, the discovery that I could still run brought me a moment of exultation during a very dark time. But it has long been primarily duty that has forced me out the door.

Then, one day last year, I found myself in the park near my house in Southwestern Pennsylvania, slogging up the beginnings of the difficult hill that ends my running route, smiling. Somehow, gradually, this had become not just a duty, but a pleasure. I can say something about the nature of that pleasure--how it relates to the intimate connection with nature that one finds at certain odd hours of the day, how it arises from the playfulness of feeling one's body move rhythmically, how it sets one's thoughts free to wander in directionless yet productive patterns. But none of this would be sufficient. This pleasure is its own feeling, not to be defined in terms of other goods. And it is this pleasure that now takes away (at least most of) the resentment that I would otherwise feel at leaving the house when the wind chill is in the single (sometimes negative) digits, as it has been so often lately.

The intensity of both of these pleasures was a new discovery for me. How much more impoverished, then, are we choosing to make our lives, when we take our given pleasures to be determinative? Or when we focus on pleasures that everyone can share innately, because that seems easy or more marketable? Or when we take those pleasures simply for what they are in their most childish form, for much the same reason? No mature adult approaches the table with the same tastes that she had as a child or even adolescent; why would we approach music, art, reading, or even sex that way? We cannot truly be experts at pleasure if we assume that everyone is born with the relevant expertise. On such a paradigm, "expertise" becomes what Thomas Hobbes would call insignificant speech.

Aristotle knew this, of course. He goes on to discuss the way in which the activities we love will determine which pleasures we seek, and how pleasure will loop back onto those activities, reinforcing our love even more. Some of these activities promise short bursts of pleasure, some produce quick pleasure followed by enduring pain, and some offer sustained, joyful satisfaction. The path to the latter may be arduous, but the determined hedonist cannot be deterred by such inconveniences, when there is so much promise of plump beauty at the finish.