Most historians agree that Queen Marie Antoinette, who had the bad luck to marry King Louis XVI, did not say, when asked about the plight of France’s starving underclass, “Let them eat cake.”
It was one more canard, a blob of mud lobbed at a royal family that, like all families, as Queen Eleanor says in the play The Lion in Winter, had its “ups and downs.” But some great lies stay in our collective imagination far longer than complicated truths. Unlike his louche grandfather, Louis XV, this King was interested in science and mechanical engineering. He was a proud disciple of Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that the scientific method, and not religious interpretation, was the ultimate arbitrator of reality. He also wanted to be a fair, responsive king to his subjects.
Plump and somewhat socially awkward, he married a knock-out of a queen who became an aristocratic style setter–until she and her family became a target of anti-monarchist rage that, ironically, owed some of its sensibility to Enlightenment ideals, as translated and transplanted by America’s most famous propagandist, Thomas Paine. Louis and his queen were not the first royals to lose their heads (Britain did it first to Charles I, though they spared his queen, Henrietta Maria). But their reputation as callous swells who lived high while their subjects starved, has lived on. When we imagine a person carelessly indulging in luxury, Marie Antoinette’s name comes up.
What is it about refined pleasure that riles us up so? As much as we adore the luxe life, and watch helplessly as so many of our leaders–elected, appointed or merely powerful–flaunt their wealth–we also condemn it as being somehow not quite what God, justice or fairness, would permit. It does us no good to know that the famous line from the Declaration of Independence that ensures our God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was originally written “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” A last-minute edit changed so much then, as now.
It is possible to trace some of our conflicting attitudes about pleasure back to a philosophical tug-of-war between two great ancient schools of thought: Stoicism and Epicureanism. The first is named for the Athenian Stoa, a long porch that covered a marketplace, where Zeno and other founding philosophers preached (you can visit a reconstructed version that is located close to the original). The second derives from a Fourth Century Greek who was called Epicurus (the name means good friend), who offered his take on the life-well-lived in an Athenian school he called The Garden.
Both philosophies tried to tackle the fear of death. Both philosophies agreed that our physical bodies stop, grow cold and, like any other living thing, begin to turn into something else. While it may be nice to believe in an afterlife as described in the ancient texts, we really can’t be sure what awaits us.
It may be nicer, still, to hope that prayer and sacrifice to a god will quiet a storm, banish your illness and make good things happen. But, if you read Homer (and the ancient Greeks did, to the point of memorizing him, as some of us have memorized parts of the Bible), you know that the gods quarrel among themselves, act capriciously with mortals and frequently do things that make people miserable.
So it makes sense to make the best of the life we have, right now. How would we do that? Both philosophies suggested a goal of a peaceful, respectful existence with friends and family. We should face danger and uncertainty with a calm composure when we fight an enemy, comfort a sick child, or find our home destroyed by an earthquake.
They divide on the answer of how you achieve that calm. The Stoics say you should interrogate your emotions, your opinions and your passions. The rational result of his examination is that you may not determine when you die, you cannot influence the stock market, you’ll have to let a disease may have to run its course, you can’t force your neighbor’s dog to stop yapping, you’ll be overwhelmed momentarily from the pain from an injury or a loss, but, in theory and in practice, you can control yourself. It may not be easy, and you may fly off the handle every once in a while, but we can agree that self-discipline brings an understanding of what tends to push your buttons. This understanding can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs, and when death pays a visit.
The Epicureans want a similar calm, but they find the path is in a kind of stillness that derives from the absence of pain. This may have some similarity to forms of mystical meditation. It may also derive from the satisfaction of having your immediate desires met in a way that is fair, ethical and moral.
If life is an uncertain, frequently chaotic series of events beyond your control, the astute Epicureans may put themselves in situations where they are at peace. Not only is it permissible to pursue pleasure, but, when done in moderation (in a manner that, in theory and in practice, does not harm or diminish the pleasure of those you are with), the happiness that derives from pleasure can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs or death pays a visit.
To put it bluntly, if you don’t enjoy your life, who will?
These philosophies are much more complicated than this, and, like any system of thought, they are riddled with paradoxes and ethical problems. Among the greatest difficulties with Stoicism is the Freudian concern about repression: are so many of our psychological obstacles due to the beast in all of us trying to work its way out? Many social situations presume a loosening of control: we are expected to grieve at funerals, laugh at a funny joke and savor the passion of love, even if, like so many characters in Shakespearean comedies, passion turns us into a fool. Better to be a fool for love than to let love’s gifts go to someone else.
And let us not forget that some of our greatest artistic and creative moments happen when we suspend our sense of control, forget about who we think we are, and return to a child-like state of play. This would not have troubled the Romans, who put most of their creative, imaginative work in the hands of freedmen and slaves. The Emperor Nero thought he was an artist, and was roundly ridiculed for it.
Like Marie Antoinette, Epicureans have been tarred by history. The word is frequently used as a synonym for overindulgence, sensuality, gluttony and–most significantly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a turning away from God to embrace the “idolatry” of the sensual quick fix. The God of the New and Old Testaments has left us with a stack of laws, commandments and restrictions, and, though one of my college religion professors pointed out that there are far more positive references in the Bible to the consumption of alcohol than negative, the Western world’s predominant faith holds that a kind of stoicism is better when around the fermented grape, than the ecstatic hedonism of the Dionysian cults that were popular among educated, aristocratic female Greeks and Romans.
Islam bans alcohol completely. You just can’t have it. Not once. Not ever.
We all know those who indulge themselves so regularly that they consider it not just a privilege, but a right. The Emperor Domitian expelled the Stoics from Rome (especially those senators who criticized him) in the early Second Century AD. Another historical irony is that among the most important advocates of Stoicism is one of Domitian’s predecessors, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations–a book he wrote for himself with no intention of publication–remains among the “best sellers” of classical literature.
Marcus Aurelius tried to live as simply as possible. He married one woman, had children (who died before they could succeed him, alas) and didn’t indulge in any of the orgiastic excesses that some Roman Emperors–Caligula, Nero and Marcus Aurelius’s son and successor Commodus–are famous for. He practiced tolerance of others but either ignored, or condoned the early imperial custom of persecuting Christians.
Another great exemplar of Stoicism was the Roman slave Epictetus. He lived a little earlier than Marcus Aurelius. Philosophy teachers love to point out the coincidence that the two greatest Stoics of late antiquity were at the opposite ends of the economic scale. Epictetus was born with nothing, may have been maimed by his owner, and died with nothing but his thought and the fame it brought him. Marcus Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family, singled out for greatness by the Emperor Hadrian and adopted into a into the imperial line of succession. When he assumed the purple at a time when Rome was at the peak of its imperial power. He could have anything he wanted and do just about anything he wanted, but he chose to live simply, practice self control, and jot down his thoughts about the life-well-lived in a notebook.
It is Epictetus who motivates this writing. Among what little of his thought survives is a quotation: “If I must die today, then I will die. If I am not to die immediately, let me have lunch.”
There is more to this than the sudden, comical plunge from the solemn to the mundane. This is one more example of a reasonable attitude toward the fear of death: as long as my end is not imminent, I might as well go on with the necessities of living. The Romans ate one big meal of the day, at noon (with plenty of opportunities for snacks and special feast meals), so it is possible that Epictetus’s lunch was the only food he would have. It is likely that the fare was plain.
And yet, I couldn’t help but think about the leftover birthday cake sitting in the refrigerator. My wife and I have birthdays four days apart, and, after all the boxes, gift wrap and packing material had been taken to the curb for the garbage collectors, the cake remained in the cool darkness, waiting.
The cake had come from a baker known for the purity of ingredients and the beauty of display. It would have been eaten sooner if my sister-in-law had not baked a cake for us.
My wife had some of the bakery cake last night, and dismissed it with an almost Stoical chill: It was mostly buttercream, she said, in a tone that implied such things were not to be taken seriously. When she asked later if I wanted a slice, I invoked my self-control and replied that it might be better to leave the cake where it was.
But, this morning, when delving through the refrigerator to make breakfast, I saw the cake box. I made a very healthy oatmeal and banana porridge (no sugar, cream or butter added–just oats, water and two ripe bananas). We had low-fat milk in our coffee.
I had no fear of death when lunch time came around. I opened the refrigerator, imagining a salad when, lo and behold…
It wasn’t just buttercream. It was a smooth, coffee-scented celebration of…
I used to be a restaurant critic and, though I know the lingo, I’d rather not use it now. Suffice to say,
If I am not to die immediately, let me have a lunch of cake, every once in a while, for no other reason than how good cake tastes.