The other night, a friend and I were heading to a happy hour hangout at one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco—a detail I open with because this post is trying to understand some things about gluttony, restraint, money, pleasure, and virtue. We were equally wary and excited. ‘For the record, I’m dressed like I’m about to go mow the lawn,’ I texted her beforehand, and she said, ‘For what they charge they should give us clothes to eat in.’

They did not give us such clothes, but nor did they seem to sneer at my raglan T advertising a vintage jockstrap company. We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S. A related question: how much of the war against smoking cigarettes in the last few decades has been about public health, and how much about another victory for puritanism—defined loosely as the belief that the purpose of having a body is to keep it ‘clean’ and ‘holy’?

I imagine all of us have our own answers to that question. I’ve got a number of friends and former students who are sober, and I have every reason to believe they’re happier. I’m not any kind of authority on the reasons behind that form of doing without, but I am curious about some things that I’m here to try to work out. Namely:

  • What was the exact nature of the conflict between those people at the writers conference?
  • At what point do your habits, behaviors, and commitments become an identity you hold up alongside or against others?
  • In making heroes out of hedonists, in siding every time to the pursuit of pleasure and excess over restraint, am I indicating something of my overall values, or is it just because pleasure is easy and I can’t handle difficult feelings?

More nights than not, I drink more than the doctor-recommended 3oz of spirits. Am I drinking too much, or am I allowing myself a pleasure for its own sake? That seems to be the basis of hedonism, an ethos that seeks to maximize pleasure in its isolated form, meaning that the pleasures we get from donating our time or money to a cause we believe in, or the mild euphoria I feel after swimming a mile first thing in the morning—these are not the pleasures of the hedonist. These are ancillary pleasures.

Sometimes I feel this is the point of life: to ever increase one’s ongoing pleasure without causing increased pain in others. But pleasure has a cost. Booze at a certain amount does things to my digestive system I pay for later. All drugs and consumable vices carve themselves on the body in some fashion, and so we have the motto of temperancers everywhere: All Things In Moderation.

Temperance and moderation have its own pleasures, I imagine. But don’t feel. That is, when I provide myself temperate pleasures—when I say no to a(nother) vicious thing I enjoy—that pleasure is tinged with Good Boy status. I feel like I’m in school hoping for the gold star on my ditto. What I still, in my 40s, have not yet found a way to do is undertake and enjoy temperate pleasures for myself, and not for the approval of some (ghostly, but pressing) judge.

Hedonistic pleasures likewise carry a naughtiness to them. Oh this is really gonna piss my parents off.


Let me change gears here.

Sex Addicts Anonymous has this phrase they use: Keep working your circles. It refers to the central understanding of sobriety in SAA. Sex is part of being alive, and so abstinence can’t look the way it does in AA, say. Much of the early work a new SAA initiate goes through with their sponsor involves sorting their sex practices and behaviors into two circles: the Inner Circle, which holds all the things they did that brought them to SAA, all the stuff they feel bad about after; and the Outer Circle, which holds all the sex stuff that makes them feel good.

This is a psychosis, and here’s why: Everyone’s circles in SAA are different. Hiring sex workers can be in one person’s inner circle, because it’s what brought them to SAA, while it’s in another person’s outer circle, because they feel ‘addicted’ to masturbating alone to porn, and hiring sex workers is a great way to engage their sexuality with another person. Sex with sex workers, then, is neither good nor bad, it’s something in SAA that causes some of its members shame.

AA has the chemical process of addiction to base its work around. SAA has the emotional process of shame. If shame marks the boundary between the sex you feel good about and bad about, your troubled relationship to sex will not be improved by stuffing that shame into a closet. Sorting your circles accepts that shame is an augur, a useful tool. Let me accept and trust my shame to better have the sex I want, says the temperate SAAer.

But why not accept the sex you want to have to better understand shame and its effects?

When I asked that question and saw in its answer a far deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, I left SAA.


Another way of relating the above to the topic at hand: What does it take for someone to put every sex practice under the sun in their outer circle? (That’s the good one, confusingly; let’s just move on from the fact that SAA makes one’s ‘Inner Circle’ a thing to be avoided, bucking all idiom trends.) What happens to your identity after you dissolve the boundary, vis-a-vis your vice, between yes and no, have and have-not?

I said earlier that the point of life seemed to be increasing pleasure without increasing pain, and yes I see in that balancing act sneaky temperance waving at me, but I’m noting here the pain and harm side of all this. What makes hedonists chiefly gross figures in our myths? I’m thinking here of Des Esseintes, or Midas, or even Hedonismbot:

It’s likely a failure of my imagination this morning, forgetting some hedonists of humble means, but the key factor seems to be money. As I said before, hedonism costs—and more than the health and well-being of the hedonist’s hungover body. Vices aren’t free, and so the lesson we teach over and over again is that hedonism will lead to corruption as absolutely as absolute power. Decadence. Human trafficking. Hunting ‘the most dangerous game’.

A more everyday example is the city I live in. San Francisco—at least in terms of climate and landscapes, but also in terms of employment levels and social services—is a pleasureful place to live. For some. Creating and maintaining that pleasure requires a workforce too underpaid to afford to live among it, especially since San Francisco opted in on becoming a bedroom community for tech workers employed elsewhere. So when you go out to eat, there’s always the question of what has it cost the person who made your food for you to eat it at this price you’re willing to pay?

Which is why I was happy to pay the high prices at Che Fico, which recently added a 10% service charge to every dine-in check—paid in addition to, not in lieu of, the standard tip. Tips get distributed among the whole kitchen staff. Line cooks there reportedly make $72,000 a year.

Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm. In this formulation, we can bring hedonism in among the other virtues, which—if you believe Montaigne—are found only through some form of pain:

[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful, and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.

from ‘On Cruelty’

So maybe hedonism is just another way we chase after holiness.