Tuesday, July 20, 2004

My Sybaritic Existence

In a flattering post, for which I am most grateful, Keith Burgess-Jackson says he envies me my "sybaritic existence." A sybarite, however, is a voluptuary or sensualist, whereas my existence inclines more or less toward the ascetic. Here is what Robert Hendrickson has to say about 'sybarite' in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 701:

Sybarite. One ancient Sybarite, legend says, complained to his host that he could not sleep at night because there was a rose petal under his body. Inhabitants of the Greek colony of Sybaris on the Gulf of Tarantum in southern Italy, the Sybarites were noted among the Greeks for their love of luxury and sensuousness, and to some extent for their effeminacy and wantonness, all qualities associated with the word sybarite today. The fertile land of Sybaris, founded in the sixth century B.C., made luxurious living possible, but too many pleasures weakened the people. The neighboring Crotons, assisting the Troezenians, whom the Greeks had earlier ejected from the city, destroyed Sybaris in 510 B.C., diverting the river Crathis to cover its ruin. It is said that the Sybarites had trained their horses to dance to pipes and that Crotons played pipes as they marched upon them, creating such disorder among their rivals that they easily won the battle. The city of Thurii was later built on or near the site of Sybaris.

Too many pleasures weakened the people! There is a moral here. But getting back to Dr. Keith's post, he says the following in explanation of it in an e-mail message: "I did pause before writing 'sybaritic,' since, as you say, it connotes hedonism. But you do say on your blog that you're living a life of creative leisure, which I assume gives you pleasure! (Isn't leisure a form of hedonism?)"

A plausible response, except that it raises the difficult question whether there is any justification for a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Can it be maintained that the pleasures of Aristotle's contemplative life (bios theoretikos) are intrinsically superior to the pleasures of the flesh? I will consider this vexatious question in my next post.