One of my favorite quotes from the abundance of Romantic Comedies I have watched comes from the movie Letters to Juliet. In short, the movie is about a young lady who journeys across Italy with a grandmother and her grandson to help the grandmother find the love of her life from one of her teenage summers. The three of them are going to every house belonging to a man named Lorenzo Bartolini to try and find the right one. There is a particular scene during this search where they pull up to a luxurious estate with beautiful garden landscapes and a magnificent mansion. The seemingly arrogant grandson comments to his grandmother that it would be nice if this was the real Lorenzo because she could participate in his wealth without having to have gone through all the “messy bits”. Then she responds, “Life is the messy bits”. Bang. What a freaking line. The comfort of a luxurious life with minimal worries and maximal pleasures isn’t life. The journey, the fights, the struggles, the experiences. That’s life.
This quote is powerful because it opposes the hedonistic culture we find ourselves in.
A culture wrapped in itself. We seek to self-indulge and make the pursuit of pleasures our goal in life. A culture of consumers. We focus our lives on our pleasures, material possessions, and status. We want to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. All that is good is pleasurable. So begone everything that doesn’t make me feel good.
I am making generalizations of course, but I think these sentences elucidate aspects that drive our society. Lots of humans seem to find meaning and purpose in pleasure. But is that true? Can life be reduced to good feelings? Is life worth living solely for pleasure?
In 1974, a philosopher by the name of Robert Nozick put forward a thought experiment that addressed this exact issue. He asked us to imagine that there is a machine we could hook up our brains to and receive constant pleasure signals, so we could have unending pleasurable experiences. The question is: would we prefer this to reality? Would we prefer to stay hooked up to a machine and feel pleasure all the time, or live life?
I think this thought experiment presents something profound, especially in our current way of life. While pleasures can certainly be good, they are not everything. A real evil is done when life is reduced to the pursuit of pleasure. Because life is so much more than that. The hedonist declares there is no meaning in things not pleasurable. But, would we choose to be on the machine? I think if we answer his thought experiment honestly, our humanity shines through.
This idea is intensely illustrated in a fantastic piece of literature by Aldous Huxley entitled Brave New World. I want to end with a powerful excerpt from one of the ending scenes. In short, it is a conversation between a “Savage” boy that has grown up outside of the perfect utopia the Controller (Mustapha Mond) has helped create. The utopia of this new human race consists of maximizing pleasure, artificially creating and stimulating life, and ridding life of any discomfort. This scene is a dialogue between the Savage and the Controller, right after the Controller told the boy how in this utopia they got rid of hard labor and mosquitoes. Here it is:
“What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”
(“Twelve and a half million dollars,” Henry Foster had protested when the Savage told him that. “Twelve and a half million–that’s what the new Conditioning Centre cost. Not a cent less.”)
“Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond.
“Quite apart from God–though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?“
“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.