“The pleasure of eating and sexual pleasure come from God.”
Pope Francis quoted in Carlo Petrini, TerraFutura (2020)
I wonder if the same can be said for the pleasure of murdering one’s enemy, or of pocketing the proceeds of a clever swindle. These pleasures certainly arise from the nature of things, and so might be seen as two more delicacies in the rich banquet that God has laid out for the guests he has called to his table.
Francis garnishes his eulogy to the pleasures of table and bed by observing that the first augments the vital function of nutrition, whereas “sexual pleasure is there to make love more beautiful and guarantee the perpetuation of the species.” He has, perhaps, failed to observe that societies obcessed with sexual pleasure do not perpetuate themselves, but rather dwindle, and that the gourmandizing masses of today are both overweight and malnourished.
I could argue that murderous vengeance not only affords pleasure to the murderer, but that it contributes to the noble cause of peace on earth. There will be no need for me to fight when all of my enemies are dead, so the permanent removal of people who get on my nerves might be seen as a small step towards God’s kingdom of universal love and absolute felicity. Some might say that the pleasure of pocketing swag is sanctified by the fact that it teaches the vanity of storing up treasure in this world.
I wonder if Francis has considered how a violent home invasion is an object lesson in the deep eschatological meaning of Matthew 24:43. If there were no actual thieves in the night, could we really grasp the sudden shock and alarm with which, our Lord tells us, we will greet his Second Coming? And so you see that the pleasure of terrifying people in their beds may also come from God, since it certainly adds to his glory.
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But this is all nonsense because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral problem of human pleasure.
I daresay that the enjoyment of no pleasure is always and everywhere devoid of good consequences. This was, incidentally, the essence of Mandeville’s argument in The Fable of the Bees (1714), the book that more or less ended Christian morality in the West. The subtitle of Mandeville’s book is Private Vices, Publick Benefits, which we might translate as “there is no wind so ill that it blows no good.”
The moral problem of human pleasure is that our desire for pleasure is imperious and insatiable, and no better illustrations of this problem can be found that the pleasures of table and bed. A man attached to the pleasures of the table will become a glutton, a gourmand, or a gourmet, and between the three types there is no moral difference. There is no moral difference between a gourmet nibbling a fifty-dollar glass of wine and a glutton swilling a hundred ounces of Big Red, because both have made themselves slaves to their palates. A man attached to the pleasures of the bed will likewise become become a slave to sex, and very possibly a pervert, because the ultimate orgasm is a nimble white stag that leads its hunters on a chase that goes just as far as they are willing to follow.
This metaphor of slavery to sin is not, I should add, my invention. It is prominent in a book with which Pope Francis is, I trust, familiar.