All Things in Moderation

In last month’s post “Down to Earth“, I discussed Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of rich simplicity, what Buddhism calls the Middle Way. Rather than the vain pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of power or material possessions, the true source of contentment lies in the simple pleasures of life that are available to everyone, regardless of social status.

Some of the comments mentioned Epicurus, a person I should write about more often. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught a system of values that was more like modern secular humanism than any other philosophy of the past (with the possible exception of the Carvakas). Although he believed that the gods existed, he taught that they were material beings who took no interest in human affairs, or in anything besides their own blissful contemplation. He also taught that death was not to be feared, because the person who is dead no longer experiences anything and therefore is not suffering.

Epicureanism put the emphasis on pleasure, not as mindless hedonism but as reasonable indulgence in the good things available in life. Valuing intellectual pleasure more highly than sensual pleasure, it recommends the cultivation of friendship, an ethic of simplicity, and an attitude of tranquility in the face of life’s trials. Ironically, “epicure” in popular parlance has come to refer to a connoisseur of food and drink, which Epicurus arguably considered the least important of life’s pleasures.

The Epicurean view stands in opposition to the religious idea of imaginary crimes, where certain activities are forbidden not because they cause any harm to human beings, but solely because they’re believed to displease God. I consider that, when it comes to attracting people, this is an advantage for atheism: we don’t have to teach excessive self-denial, nor demand that people abstain from things they would like to do just because an ancient dogma says not to. Nor do we have to teach, as many religions do, that happiness is frowned upon and that the proper attitude toward life is one of renunciation or constant repentance. We should not promote thoughtless indulgence, but we can teach that people can partake responsibly in the good things of life.

For instance: We do not have to believe, as some religions do, that certain foods are off-limits and may not be consumed no matter what. I respect the opinion of people who abstain from eating meat on ethical grounds, but the arbitrary nature of religious dietary restrictions – demanding that foods be prepared only in certain specific ways, forbidding the mixing of foods that are perfectly allowable individually, or banning the eating of some animals but not others that are equally sentient – is nothing but irrational self-denial. An atheist can be a true gourmet, sampling all the different flavors and cuisines of human culture, and tasting the full palate of sensory experience.

We do not have to believe, as many religions do, that alcohol and other intoxicants are sinful or forbidden. Again, there are people who abstain from these substances for valid reasons. But a mature and rational adult is certainly capable of making responsible use of them, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. The quest to alter one’s consciousness for pleasure or ritual is as old as humanity, and in moderation, is a source of harmless relaxation and enjoyment.

We do not have to believe, as nearly all religions do, that sex is a mysterious and dangerous thing that must be practiced according to strictly prescribed rules. Everyone is familiar with the arbitrary and irrational restrictions that religious belief places on sexual expression: that sex should never be simply for the sake of pleasure; that you should only have sex with one person over the course of a lifetime; that women should not exercise sexual autonomy; or that sex is always immoral unless a member of the clergy gives consent. None of these rules are grounded in reason; they spring from ignorance, superstition and fear. Sex has real power to form (or shatter) emotional bonds, and if practiced irresponsibly, to lead to the spread of disease or unintended pregnancy. But sexual expression is enriched by diversity just like every other area of human culture, and an atheist knows that there is more than one way to have a healthy sex life.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • prase

    “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” (Petronius)

  • Delalyra

    Applause. Just applause. :)

  • journalnous

    The many ‘imaginary crimes’ of organised religion is somthing I’ve thought a great deal about in the past. The only conclusion I’ve come to is that people get some sort of perverse pleasure out of depriving themselves.

  • gruntled atheist

    …depriving themselves.
    and others.

    Nice, pleasant article.

  • Erika

    journalnous, I think another alternative to “The only conclusion I’ve come to is that people get some sort of perverse pleasure out of depriving themselves.” for explaining some types of religious deprivation is so that those who practice feel set apart or special. If some group does not do something that the society they are embedded in does (or vice versa) they have an easier time recognizing their members.

  • db0

    Just dropped by to say that I’m glad you brought up Epicurus :)

  • Leum

    Excellent! This post deserves a slot in the Must-Read Posts section. Epicurus gave us an excellent basis for morality (one that is echoed, amplified, and expanded by your universal utilitarianism), and does not deserve the slander that has been heaped on him and his ideas by theologians ever since. This post is an excellent answer to those who claim that morality requires a god.

  • the chaplain

    Thanks for a nice post. It’s no surprise that theologians have scorned and slandered Epicurus. If they presented his ideas fairly, those ideas would provide an attractive alternative to the stifling dogma that theists routinely push on people.

  • db0

    BTW, it’s not just theologians who slandered and hated Epicurism. The Stoics (Plato and co) of Ancient Greece were really opposed to it.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    “We should not promote thoughtless indulgence, but we can teach that people can partake responsibly in the good things of life”

    You are absolutely right, Adam. Modern thinkers will give three reasons why moderation in pleasures is required. First, Neurologically, too much pleasure overloads the brain’s pleasure-centres, prohibiting further sensations and depletes the feel-good neuro-transmitters serotonin and dopamine. Second, psychologically, it creates inflated expectations and a sense of boredom ( Hedonic treadmill). Third, physiologically, overindulgence in recreational substances like alcohol, nicotine or narcotics and even food creates tolerance, addiction or unhealthy obesity.

    As usual you have written a good piece and I agree that all things must be in moderation.

  • Valhar2000

    And let’s not forget an even more obvious reason to be moderate: you need to work in order to obtain the things that give you pleasure. If you have too much pleasure you can’t work, and then you are left with nothing. And this statement holds for many definitions of “work” and “pleasure”.

  • Valhar2000

    In fact, oftentimes, when I hear arguments in favour of the idea of self-effacement, they boil down to a dire warning of what I just said, creating a false dichotomy by ignoring the moderate way that Ebonmuse proposes. That and some rubbish about god or the spirit.

  • Mathew Wilder

    @ journalnous: Nietzsche has some insightful things to say regarding the urge to self-denial. You should check out Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals.

    @ db0: Plato was not a Stoic. You’re right, though, that Stoics (and others) mocked Epicureans. Quite unfairly, IMO.

  • terrence

    I think it was W.C. Fields (or not) who said, “Moderation in all things – but not to excess”

  • Paul S

    I’ve always been astonished at the way “believers” still choose to adhere to the dietary restrictions placed on them from a book written by wandering nomads in the Bronze Age. It’s also telling that when defending God’s deplorable actions against various tribes in the OT, Christians use the old “you have to take these stories in the context of the times in which they were written.” But they never stop to think that these dietary restrictions were simply “beliefs” held by ignorant men.

  • Leum

    Christians don’t hold to the Jewish dietary laws, which they see as being fulfilled or completed or superseded* by Christ. Jews hold to them (and Muslims hold to a much looser set of dietary laws) but for Jews it’s often as much about respecting your ancestors and being a member of a culture than about fearing God’s wrath (Judaism really isn’t a religion, it’s a culture that contains a religion and you can’t really worship God as a Jew if you don’t live as a Jew).

    *The word used varies from sect to sect.

  • bbk

    I believe that an ongoing fulfillment of personal goals is the key to happiness. I don’t believe in moderation as such, except that too much of something may no longer fulfill any goals. And I’m not one to judge what those goals are. If someone is a great industrialist and the goals they set for themselves happen to make them excessively wealthy, I won’t say that they’re not happy on the basis that they’re not moderating their wealth.

    I think that this is markedly different from the Jeffersonian “rich simplicity”. I think that happiness, unless it is constantly worked on, will just go away. Therefore, I don’t believe that there is a sort of achievable Nirvana that, once established, will provide lasting pleasure. Once attained, the original goal is useless and new goals have to be set. Nirvana is therefore a paradox. It is a mystical promise of transcendence, that, once achieved, will eradicate the need to set any further goals for oneself. But it is nothing more than a goal itself. So if the goal is to have no further wants or desires, then why pursue it in the first place?

    Moderation is similarly frustrating to me. Who wakes up one day and says to himself, “Oh look, I am so moderate. That makes me happy. I’ll just keep being moderate.”? Is it really one of those transcendent goals that, once achieved, serves to bring enduring happiness? And what kind of moderation is it supposed to be? Should a man only pursue moderately good looking women, vote for moderately honest politicians, and eat moderately well prepared food? Moderation can easily turn into mediocrity. I believe that it’s almost certainly the same thing. It’s one thing to talk about the moderation of alcohol and fatty foods because they are specific things with well-known negative consequences when taken to excess. But is it enough to not drink too much or eat too much in order to reach one’s full potential as a human being? I don’t think so. Moderation is a little piece of advice given to beginners before they learn the ropes, but after that it’s useless. While Nirvana is the goal of having no goals, moderation is the goal of having mediocre goals.

    I don’t think that Jefferson serves as a good example of his own ideal. He was an extremely accomplished man and he never grew complacent. He may have taken pride in the simple pleasures of life, but he never actually stopped at making them the whole of his pursuits. If he had, I think he would have found himself restless and unhappy. Instead, he was rich, powerful, and brilliant. He almost certainly attained his full potential as a human being.