What I am about to write is, like much of what appears on this blog, hardly original. The basic points have been made before; all I am doing is repeating them in the light in which they strike me. But there can be a value in reiterating certain ideas, especially when those ideas strike at one of the particular blindnesses of a given age.
Provided that he or she is somewhere in or above the middle class, the modern American—probably the modern European as well—is practically obsessed with excellence of goods and of bodily health. Perhaps because it has been so long since the struggle to eat, to live, and to find shelter has been an urgent and time-consuming pursuit for them—for us—we tend to focus, sometimes a little too intensely, on the importance of choosing our goods, our foods, and our exercise routines well.
The actual dangers inherent in this tendency are matter for another time. Here I will only note that, if one’s life actually enables an abundance of lifestyle choices, there is certainly something to be said for making those choices matter. Living intentionally, while it can (like all other things) become a jealous god, is no bad answer to being saddled with an overabundance of worldly blessings.
Intentional living becomes particularly admirable when it takes the form of a choice to limit consumption. I have made fun elsewhere of Simple Livers, but the joke is a joke at the expense of those who abuse the concept. To declare that one will not buy more food or furniture than is necessary, and that one will be attentive to one’s own sense of “necessary,” constitutes a laudable decision.
Moreover, there is a certain broad degree of acceptance, among moderately thoughtful people at least, that such a decision is laudable. Despite the continued glorification of consumption across various media (which depend, after all, on consumption for their survival), most people if pressed will admit that there is something good about turning down a second piece of cake, or continuing to drive that used car a little bit longer. They might not make the same restrained decision themselves, but they can admire those who do (as well as those who don’t).
This is all the more striking when one considers the fact that both the desire to eat and the desire to possess are essential to human life. Without any food at all, you will die; without some goods (shelter from the weather, a few rags to cover one’s nakedness) personal long-term survival will not be possible either. Nevertheless, despite the necessity of food and goods for survival, we admire those who choose less food and fewer goods than they could easily obtain. The person who buys only what they need at the grocery store, who never throws food away, who always takes home a doggie bag, is admitted more than the person who is constantly having to throw away spoiled food, or who chooses to glut himself on restaurant meals.
What is still more striking: we admire those who make a voluntary choice not just to moderate but to drastically limit their consumption of food and goods. The person who fasts for a political cause, who chooses to limit their calorie intake to lose weight or sustain their long-term mental health, who eschews a car, who owns only fifty items—this person is regarded as practically a secular saint, one to be admired and emulated to the best of our weak ability.
Once again, to reiterate: I do not mean to (excessively) mock the secular saint of restrained consumption. His habits are essentially Christian, or rather, are those to which Christians should aspire, though he does not have Christian reasons for the aspiration. His habit of restraint and moderation is, in its Christian form, the virtue of temperance; and his most drastic limitations will be associated by the Christian with the special call of the Evangelical Counsels to holy poverty. Today we are perhaps more likely to encounter the abstemious urban professional than his equally moderate foreuncle, the abstemious monk. But the overall human attitude towards restraint in the areas of food and goods remains the same for us as it was for the early Christians or the medievals: respect and admiration.
In one third area, however, previous ages and our own part company dramatically. On one third appetite we stand in profound disagreement. That appetite of course is the appetite for reproduction.
I’ve chosen to use the term “reproductive appetite” in part because at bottom, that is what the appetite in question is directed towards. Take the most hardened evolutionary biologist aside and he will tell you that, while he enjoys his wife’s company for a variety of reasons, the basic reason for his enjoyment lies in the fact that it tends to perpetuate the species. On this, he and the pagan Aristotle and the Christian Aquinas and Pope Francis are all in agreement.
We tend, however, not to think of the reproductive appetite as being about reproduction. There has been a profound disjunction in modern American society between the desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another human being, and the species-oriented purpose of that desire. Of course, people have always had a tendency to pursue intimacy while attempting to avoid its sometimes inconvenient by-products.
But this tendency seems to have become in recent years the accepted norm. The attitude which was once the special province of adulterers has become the standard perspective of your average healthy American boy and girl: It feels good, so why not?
Meanwhile, while our respect for the actual necessity of the reproductive appetite has decreased (“Children? Pshaw. We’re overpopulated anyway”), our sense of the importance of the appetite—which I had better rename “the appetite for intimacy”—has increased. In fact, our respect for the appetite for intimacy has grown so great that we can no longer imagine moderating it, much less limiting it in a drastic way. In fact, we tend to view anyone who dares to do so as sick.
Think about it for a moment. Food and goods are necessary for life. The appetites for these things are not only good but individually necessary. Nevertheless, we recognize the moderation of these appetites as an important matter, and give great respect to those who achieve it. But the appetite for intimacy? Certainly it makes life more pleasant if indulged, but it is hardly necessary for individual survival; literally billions of people who have practiced abstinence or chastity have lived to tell the tale, and hundreds of millions have died at ripe old ages without having broken their fast.
And yet for some—dare I say it—perverse reason, the modern American persists in thinking of this appetite as the one which may not under any circumstances be moderated or questioned. Nay, he considers those who do moderate it as being themselves somehow distorted, ill, or perverted.
Meanwhile, he eats only sustainably raised goods, donates to the fight against world hunger, lives car-less in a city loft, and prefers open windows to air-conditioning.
I applaud his self-restraint, but I question his consistency.