The danger of self-indulgence


Let us start as grimly as possible in the present: with my conviction that things do not look very promising for our civilization.

For two generations (and according not only to me) we have been watching catastrophic moral betrayal and collapse; and worse, the spread of a lethal apathy towards it.

The building and rebuilding forces of our society -- essentially church and family -- are by now almost everywhere under organized legal, legislative, and propaganda assault from the sterile vanguard of the atheist Left. The poison mist of "political correctness" swirls over our psychic landscape, and the great joyous and unifying truths which animated Western Christendom continue to be supplanted, both practically and symbolically, by the envious Big Lies of the political "activists."

(Hope that didn't sound too wishy-washy.)

But we have not lost access to the means of recovery. The wisdom upon which our Christian civilization was built is available not only through books still in circulation, but through surviving monuments such as her cathedrals, her art and her music and her poetry and even the hard core of her sciences. Surviving customs, such as Christmas and Easter, rekindle constantly with their true meaning; surviving language continues to carry centuries of folk wisdom in an unconscious stream.

The forces sustaining civilization are always less visible, and more powerful, than the forces of barbarism can understand. And the greatest of these defences is truth itself: the truth that was written from the beginning into the human heart, and will persist to the end. For every human being is endowed with a conscience, whether he wishes to have it or not. He may use various kinds of painkiller to suppress feelings of guilt, for crimes that really are crimes in the sight of God and nature; but the cause of that pain will never go away.

Hence, what we see in the streets around us every day: disinterested acts by people who believe only in self-interest; acts of decency, from people who hardly know what they are doing. Why, this past week, I even witnessed a gratuitous act of kindness towards a man, by a hardened feminist! (Can you believe it?)

But nature, in herself, cannot save us. We are not mere animals needing only nature's call. That part of our nature which rises to the fully human requires some degree of emotional, moral, intellectual, and yes, spiritual education -- which begins at home, with a mom and dad.

Let us consider this morning the perfect example for après-Christmas: "gluttony."

Nature's conscience tells us this may be a vice, and nature's body reminds us, in the squalour of the morning after, that nature's conscience might have been right. Were we birds of the field, we might have trouble ascending just now, and would be ripe for capture: nature might also enforce her laws.

But what is gluttony? Ask almost anyone today and he will say it is over-eating. The more subtle might extend this concept to over-drinking, or over-doing in other forms. Analogies are extended in casual phrases such as, "a glutton for punishment."

Yet our ancestors knew -- because they were taught -- that gluttony is not so simple. Even as plain indulgence, it takes different forms. One might eat and drink "too much," but also, "too soon," "too eagerly," "too extravagantly," or "too daintily" -- depending in turn on circumstances that are seldom cut and dried. (The list was from Thomas Aquinas.) A well-instructed conscience is aware of temptations on more than one side.

All of these things were once understood; and all of this wisdom is essentially recoverable.

It gets better than this. Dieting, to a purely cosmetic end, can be interpreted as a dangerously subtle form of gluttony. And self-righteous indulgence in herbalism, vegetarianism, teetotalism, and the like, easily tends towards what is called "spiritual gluttony" (by St. John of the Cross, who explains it more fully).

The wisest of Western thinkers specified that the pleasures of life -- and let's throw sex on the table with the food and drink -- are each to be associated with some proper end. We eat and drink to live and preserve our health. Sex is for procreation.

They are alike also in arguing that we should not be too scrupulous, too puritanical, too mechanical, in taking pleasure only to fixed purpose. We might drink and smoke to be convivial among our friends; sexual intercourse is also the intimate expression of faithful, married love. Our own happiness is a perfectly legitimate end, when there is no higher end in view.

But we must never actually reverse the moral order.

Gluttony therefore does not mean "over-eating," but rather, making food the end in itself -- "living to eat," and gorging to the sacrifice of health. Drunkenness does not mean too much wine, but so much as will impair alertness when we have duties to fulfil. Sex, in pursuit of pleasure alone, is likewise a form of gluttony -- though it is also something worse.

All of these things were once understood; and all of this wisdom is essentially recoverable.





David Warren. "The danger of self-indulgence." Ottawa Citizen (December 29, 2009).

This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.


David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled -- especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.

Copyright © 2009 Ottawa Citizen

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.