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Eat, drink and be merry...

"So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun." Ecclesiastes 8.15

In response to Immanuel Kant's severe deontology (duty before happiness), the Teacher's advice in this quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes might feel like a breath of fresh air! Certainly it accords with those who belong to the utilitarian stable of philosophy, built by the likes of John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Peter Singer. Jeremy Bentham went as far as to invent "hedonic calculus", a sort of pleasure-ometer, by which we can quantify the enjoyability of a given activity.

Yet one cannot escape that foreboding feeling, that the unbridled pursuit of happiness is bound to end in tears. Or is that too cynical? Singer's efforts to apply the insights of utilitarianism to real-life situations have led to some bracing conclusions. Meanwhile attempts to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures, in order to steer society away from the baser depths to which hedonism might sink, have evoked some moral cart-wheeling. Does it all amount to another example of humanity's tendency to take a good idea, milk it for all its worth, only to discover that you have created a monster?

One might argue that, far from being an incitement to indulgence, the Teacher's advice above is an invitation to simplicity: savouring those basic pleasures of food, drink and satisfaction from a good day's work. The over-riding message of the Book of Ecclesiastes is that life without God is empty, a "chasing after the wind". Into the void God pours shape and meaning and beauty and purpose. These are surely prizes worth having, rather than the vain baubles that rampant self-indulgence offers?



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