(Having had more than enough eating, drinking and merriment over the holidays, I offer this piece to start the new year.)
“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” – is this not the simplest, most natural philosophy worth putting into words? It cuts through all religious, metaphysical, and supernatural assertions and points directly to the obvious: we’re going to die and there is no credible evidence that death is anything but the end. So why not enjoy the brief time we’re given as much as possible?
As far as it goes, this seems reasonable; as a personal philosophy, though, I don’t think it goes very far. Below I give a brief critique of this philosophy, touching on three points (though I could add more).
If you belong to the relatively privileged group of people who have leisure and abundant resources, it is not hard to put this philosophy into practice. For those who are impoverished or live in servitude, as much of the world’s population has lived for much of history, it has a good deal less to recommend it. For such people, eating and drinking are not an epicurean pleasure, but a simple necessity. They will take what merriment comes their way, but often it is not much. So when you subtract the “eat, drink and be merry” part of the formula, all that is left is “tomorrow you die.” That such people might turn to a more promising worldview is not surprising.
Even if we do have the resources and leisure to indulge in an “eat, drink and be merry” philosophy, the wisdom of such a philosophy is questionable. When we are young, we can get away with it. But eventually eating and drinking catches up with us. We become fat, alcoholic, and bored.
A closely related philosophy is “live for today,” which was something of a catch phrase when I was in my teens. Here, too, the problem is that the future catches up with you. I am amazed at how quickly the years between 30 and 65 flew by. Fortunately, even in my thirties I started to think about retirement and invested what I could afford in retirement accounts. Having recently retired, I’m very glad I did that. Had I adhered to a “live for today” philosophy back then, my life would be more difficult now.
Prudence, putting off today’s pleasure so that we might have a greater pleasure in the future, is the opposite of “living for today.” Moderating the “eat, drink and be merry” philosophy with a measure of prudence, improves it, but not much.
It is easy to confuse the idea of “living for today,” and the idea found in many forms of spirituality of “living in the present moment.” These are, however, very different ideas. Living for today requires no particular discipline, it is quite natural.
Living in the present moment is actually rather hard to do. Developing the ability to do this often requires discipline, sacrifice and effort. This effort, however, has an interesting payoff (at least in my experience). Attainment of the kind of mindfulness that allows us to stay focused in the present is accompanied by a kind of simple, but dependable joy. I call this “joy for free” because it costs nothing and is potentially available to us at any time and any place. I find this simple joy of mindfulness to be of a significantly higher quality than the pleasures of eating and drinking. It is an alternative form of “being merry.”
Obviously one could add all kinds of other activities that people have found as pleasurable or more pleasurable than the pleasures of the table. For instance, one could name any of the various pursuits that fall under the headings of beauty, truth and goodness.
And So Forth
At a relatively early age, I mused upon the inevitability of death, and decided that since I have but one to live, I would try to live the best life I can. But what is such a life? Pursuing an answer to that question became a quest that provided a lively focus to my life.
On that quest, I turned to sages of past ages who had also sought and tried to answer that question. In addition, I turned my life into a sort laboratory in which to test the various ideas I encountered. Among the many ideas that I tested was that of “eat, drink and be merry.”
The sex, drugs and rock and roll ethos that was widely present in my youth made it easy to indulge with gusto in this philosophy. It was exciting for a while, but after a few years I found it rather dull. I needed something that challenged the strongest aspects of my mind and of my spirit. Art, philosophy (including the natural philosophy we call science), and spirituality all provided a better challenge, and in each I found a particular joy. But it has been in spiritual practice that I have found the highest quality, the greatest sense of completeness.
To paint a more complete picture, though, I need to add that being married and raising a family has provided, perhaps, an even greater challenge to my mind and spirit. It has also been more rewarding and more difficult. There is a wonderful complementarity in turning from the lofty contemplation of a great philosophic idea or work of art to changing a diaper or reading a book like The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your child.
At quest’s end, I found the answer to the question What is the best life I can live? and it was simply: to live the one that I have been given, and to live it as openly, attentively and as lovingly as I can.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.