Wednesday, February 25, 2015

An Apology for Servitude

I am addicted to coffee. If I go for so much as twelve hours without swallowing a dose of caffeine, I get a headache, I stop enjoying anything I do, and the prospect of applying myself to any kind of work is too daunting to contemplate. On Yom Kippur, when I throw it away with all the rest of the world’s comforts, I suffer so much that God reliably takes pity on me and forgives my sins. And when I get my ration, there is very little that can resist my power to enjoy myself. I can cheerfully bear the heaviest yoke; I can love my fellow man. I am drunk on the spirit of Athena.

But my slavery to the bean is even baser and more servile than all this would suggest. It is a lover’s slavery. Opening my kitchen pantry last night to pull down some sugar, I caught a whiff of the ground coffee hiding behind the shelf. I was drawn to distraction: How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon. I can imagine, meanwhile, no greater comfort than to sit in my living room on a rainy day with my beloved in my hands, softened with plenty of milk and sugar. On a lonesome nighttime drive through New England, I fear no evil, for she is with me. When Dionysus thwacks me at night with his myrtle staff, she arrives at rose-fingered dawn to nurse my wounds.

I have been told that my dependence on coffee does not actually improve the quality of my life. For if I weren’t addicted in the first place to caffeine, I would not feel any pain in its absence. Nor would I be barred from the heights of mental activity that it raises me to. I would indeed live my life as my own man, safe from my flesh’s constant thirst for a fickle external good.

But coffee costs a dollar, and a few cents if I make it at home. Equipped with a travel mug, I can drink it whenever and wherever I want. It’s socially acceptable for me to have it with me in practically any context. How many other human needs are so easily filled? I have both an overriding physical need and the ready means to fill it. And it makes no difference that the need is of my own creation. If anything, making myself dependent in the first place was a gift to myself: I gave myself the pleasure, every day, of feeling like a wanderer in the desert who wanders in search of water, finally getting to slake his thirst at a spring. The ancient Epicureans understood this principle, and would occasionally stop eating in order to relish their food when they broke their fast.

But regardless: here are some of the other external things I’m physically and mentally dependent on: a roof over my head and fuel to keep myself warm. Food and clean water. Time to sleep. Antacids to quiet my heartburn. Books. Friendship. I am addicted to all these things in the same way I’m addicted to coffee, and though I would perhaps be freer if I weren’t, my need for them—and my quest to fulfill that need—is the one thing that gives my life any point.

An illustration. Male sperm whales are solitary creatures, who leave their pods at a young age to live on their own in the ocean. This seems crushingly sad to us, and a hollow, deeply lonely existence, but the whales don’t suffer for it. They have no need for friends, and it is indifferent to them whether they chance upon one of their kin. (That indifference is a good thing if you’re traveling through a sunless ocean surrounded by miles of empty water.) Would we want to share it with them? If we did, we would be free from the suffering that attends our loneliness, and human life would be less painful on balance. But the very possibility of fulfilling our desire to be close to other people is enough to justify that desire’s existence in the first place. Human beings suffer more than whales, but that suffering is fertile ground for joy. All we need to do is make sure we don’t live lonely oceangoing lives.

If you have an hour to spend, spend it reading:
But sometimes we do get screwed by our unmet needs. And it is indeed a problem that we can’t rely on external goods. As my favorite professor said, “if you stake your happiness on not having ebola, then you’re in trouble when you get ebola.” That’s true. But what of it? Rather than resigning myself to stoic indifference, I’ll make the brave move of staking my happiness precisely on being ebola-free, and on a whole lot of other external things. It might in fact be possible to disentangle myself entirely from all my desires, living a life of undisturbed moderation. I would be what some Buddhists call an arahant: neither longing nor suffering, neither hungry nor full, neither sleepy nor agitated. But that’s what death is for. And that can wait, for to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

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