Christmas, they say, is the most wonderful time of the year. We take time off of work, gather with friends, and indulge in eating, drinking, music, and merriment. For a brief period, the pleasures we ration through the rest of the year take center stage.
And then, each January, the newspapers fill up with advice on dieting, teetotalism, and the return to work. The prospect of this chilly month, when the guests are gone, the party is over, and soon-to-be-breached resolutions take sway, can even cast its pall over the holidays, our preemptive guilt eating away at our enjoyment: “I’ll regret this extra slice of pie come the New Year,” we tell ourselves. It’s as though the pleasures that we indulge in at Christmas can only ever be guilty pleasures.
Boisterous Christmas festivities have long been controversial. The Bible repeatedly commands the faithful to reject the pleasures of the flesh. The Puritans regarded Christmas as a sinful pagan festival, and made a point of working on Christmas Day to show off their virtue. Christmas celebrations were frowned upon, and sometimes banned, in colonial New England; the day was not a federal holiday until 1870.
Many philosophers have agreed with religious moralists about the worthlessness of fleshly pleasures: eating, drinking, and merriment. Plato thought that the soul was “defiled and impure” if it loved bodily pleasures and things “which one can touch and see and drink and eat and employ in the pleasures of love.” He believed that those who engaged in “gluttony” and “drunkenness” would be reincarnated as asses. The Stoics counseled their followers to suppress their emotions and regard sensory pleasure with indifference. Immanuel Kant thought that feasting and drunkenness were immoral, reducing humans below the level of animals, and warned against accepting invitations to banquets.
But not all philosophers have been such scrooges. Perhaps the philosopher who best embodied the Christmas spirit was the atheist David Hume, a man blessed with a jolly temperament (not to mention a rotund physique and fondness for red coats) worthy of a philosophical Santa Claus. In his view, to be a good person was to have qualities that were “useful or agreeable” to oneself and to other people. In contrast to Kant’s dour moralism and Plato’s otherworldliness, Hume thought that the best kind of person was someone cheerful, witty, and fun to be around.
Hume had sharp words for killjoys, railing against the “monkish virtues” of “celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence [and] solitude.” These practices, in Hume’s view, should be regarded as vices, for they serve only to make us and people around us miserable. It should come as no surprise that Hume enjoyed food and drink. He prided himself on his cooking and had a large wine cellar; his dinner parties were famous. For Hume, having a good time was the opposite of sin; it was the very essence of human life. Hume would have seen the hateful “monkish virtues” at work in January’s carnival of guilty self-punishment.
This is not to say that the philosophical bon vivant can find no use for fasting. Emilie du Châtelet’s Discourse on Happiness is not only a rebuke to moralists who tell us to suppress our passions and desires (these thinkers “do not know the route to happiness”), but a wise and practical guide to living a life full of “agreeable sensations and feelings.” Du Châtelet admits that “enjoyment of fine food, a taste with which God has endowed me,” can lead to discomfort and illness. But the solution is not guilty repentance, which only compounds our misery. Rather, when you feel overstuffed, you should cut back, not in order to “put an end to your desire for fine food,”—after all, “this passion is a source of continual pleasure”—but instead to “prepare you for a more delicious pleasure” afterward. Du Châtelet advocates an intentional, reasoned approach to pleasure-seeking: “Let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers.”
Hume and du Châtelet might have found good dinner company in Jeremy Bentham, the great proponent of utilitarianism and a steadfast defender of hedonism, who held the view that pleasure is the essence of the good life. Unlike his disciple John Stuart Mill, who insisted that the intellectual “higher pleasures” were far superior to bodily “lower pleasures,” Bentham was an equal-opportunity hedonist: If they were both equally enjoyable, then playing pushpin (a child’s game) was as good as reading poetry. Most philosophers have sided with Mill on this front, but we can see Bentham’s affirmation of simple pleasures as refreshingly anti-elitist.
In his private notebooks, Bentham showed that hedonism can be even more radical. From the bawdy carousing of the Middle Ages to the office-party liaisons of today, sex has long had a place amid the indulgences of the festive season. Most moralists have taken a dim view of casual sex, arguing that sex should be for procreation, or at least redeemed by spiritual love. Bentham’s view was simpler: Sex is enjoyable, and so it’s good. And, generations ahead of many of his peers, he saw no reason to disapprove of homosexual sex. In fact, because it couldn’t lead to unwanted children, he thought it might be the best kind of sex. Bentham would have told us to relish that impetuous festive hookup.
Arrogant and elitist, Friedrich Nietzsche would have been a bad guest at Christmas dinner, but he might have had time for New Year’s Eve. Though he looked down on mere pleasure-seeking, he rejected the “life denial” he saw in Plato and religious asceticism and celebrated the unruly side of human nature. Invoking the wild and drunken dances of the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, he identified the “Dionysian” spirit of lawless abandon as a source of life and creativity, and as vital to the creation of art. A culture that allowed the “Apollonian” forces of reason and order to dominate would become desiccated and unhealthy.
Still, letting go is not always easy. Our workaholic culture can make it hard to enjoy long periods of leisure without guilt. In his classic essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell argued that capitalists have indoctrinated society with a “cult of efficiency” that privileges “the supreme virtue of hard work.” But leisure, he argued, not work, is the greatest source of meaning in life. It’s the cult of work that keeps you checking your phone for work emails during the holidays, and, according to Russell, this is something we need to overthrow to create a happy society.
Another warning against the vices of capitalism can be traced back to the original hedonist, the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus taught that pleasure was the highest good, but although the term epicurean has come to connote extravagant indulgence, Epicurus in fact counseled a life of moderation. Cheap and simple food, he held, was just as pleasurable as delicacies. And although Epicurus’s chosen diet of beans hardly seems festive, he did have a useful message for the holiday season. Desire for food and friendship is good and natural, he thought. But desire for luxury and high-status goods just leads us to misery. Amid the barrage of seasonal advertising, that is worth remembering.
So, as we look forward to the festive season, let us harken to these jolly philosophical ghosts of Christmases past. Let’s take license to enjoy food, drink, sex, dancing, and idleness, without guilt. And rather than bemoan the supply-chain crisis, perhaps we might, inspired by Epicurus, take it as an opportunity to give our wallets a little festive holiday as well.