A few years back, I was walking past the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange downtown, a neo-classical building that had, by that time, become a luxury gym, and I noticed this large image hanging between columns:
I imagined what it would be like to be seen or ‘read’ by this ad, feeling like I had nothing to commit to other than $200 a month to have a body shaped aesthetically. Fuck off, Equinox I said to myself. I’ve committed to lots.
But had I?
I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately, likely prompted by a post by Zohar Atkins, a rabbi, theologist, and philosopher whose substack, What Is Called Thinking?, asks questions I often find myself surprised to care deeply about, and I appreciate his means of thinking through them. This post is about the difficulties of desire, knowing not only how to get what you want, but what, even, to want:
[M]odern liberty means we have choice but not all choices are equally good or good for us, so if we worship liberty alone, we’ll have nothing to help us know what to choose. We have more choice than ever yet the overwhelm from it can lead to fatigue or even despair, a life of constantly weighing options.
Leo Strauss might say that the ancients were aware of the modern tendency to excess and so curtailed our options intentionally. But the more interesting question to ask is whether we can celebrate choice itself without cheapening the importance of a counter-veiling weight in life, commitment.
You’ll recall I wrote a post some months back about hedonism as a virtue, and looking for a way to chase hedonism compassionately:
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.
A reckoning of accounts was the idea, every pleasure of the hedonist—whether it’s being fed grapes in your divan, spending all night at a sex club, or even reading for hours and hours—having a cost, and the hedonist being sure to ‘cover’ those costs in some way. Pay the people feeding you grapes a living wage. Vote for policies that value and protect the laborers in the vineyards. Etc.
Atkins’s notion of commitment gives me a more interesting idea for a kind of check on hedonism and gluttony and such: What are you remaining committed to other than yourself and your pleasure?
When I talked before about the hedonist being, traditionally, a gross figure in the stories in which they appear, I think that disgust comes from the image they cast: here’s a person who uses their unimaginable privilege only for their own benefit. The hedonist’s commitments turn always back to themselves.
This idea also helps me understand what bothered me and my friend about the sober conference-goer. To recap:
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.
Ascetic pleasures are the other side of the same coin as hedonistic pleasures—both commit the self to the self. When it comes to sobriety specifically, that commitment is to be honored, after a history of the sober person abandoning and betraying their selves and their bodies. Perhaps this is one of the allures of 12-step programs: your newfound commitment to yourself is always also a commitment to others, through sponsoring, through sharing at meetings, etc.
So: what am I committed to?
My partner, and the parts of my job that involve other people (students, colleagues). My newsletter, which while others have told me doesn’t need to come out every other week I’ve committed to writing and releasing it every other week. This is chiefly a commitment to myself, but people have told me they enjoy Shenny, so it’s also a (small) service.
But I’ll confess here to feeling very non-committal. I don’t volunteer. I don’t have a group or club I meet with regularly. I have 2 sets of friends with whom I still hangout on Zoom, every other week, like clockwork, all these many years after shelter-in-place orders. In wanting to catalogue my commitments, I’m returned to the question What for?
Why is commitment so important? Isn’t hedonism about achieving a freedom from commitments? Atkins sees in this approach a deadening of the mind, not by being spoilt through excess, but by being dried up inside the self, atrophied in the absence of external motivators.
This I agree with, particularly as a teacher. Commitment to others or something outside the self is a virtue because, in opening ourselves up to others, we learn more about them. This world can’t move forward with all of us living with, acting for, or believing solely in ourselves.
Hedonism teaches us to value pleasure as a moral good. Its check need not be a balance of pain or drudgery. Commitment—of course its the ending I’ve been aiming for—can in this regard become a pleasure in itself.