The Heretical Cult of Pessimistic Pleasure


G.K. Chesterton observed in his day the beginnings of something that we now are now seeing the full expression; namely the cult of the pessimistic pleasure seeking.

Something that G.K. termed,

“the self-conscious snatching at  a rare delight”.

A form of modernist hedonism which is rooted in the philosophical belief that,

“we are all under the sentence of death  and the only course was to enjoy exquisite moments simply for those moment’s sake.”

To which G.K. responded,

“It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw. Great joy has in it the sense of immortality; the very splendor of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in.”

“Happiness is like religion, and should never be rationalized.”

The problem of trying to find happiness in snatched moments is that it cannot be done. True happiness has within it an expectation of eternity.

“A man may have a moment of ecstasy in first love, or a moment of victory in battle. The lover enjoys the moment, but precisely not for the moment’s sake. He enjoys it for the woman’s sake, or his own sake. The warrior enjoys the moment, but not for the sake of the moment; he enjoys it for the sake of the flag. The cause for which the flag stands may be foolish and fleeting; the love may be calf-love, and last a week. But the patriot thinks of the flag as eternal; the lover thinks of his love as something that cannot end. These moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary.”

“Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant.”

The modern cult of pessimistic pleasure then fails at its very object,

“No blow then has ever been struck at the natural loves and laughter of men so sterilizing as this carpe diem of the aesthetes. For any kind of pleasure a totally different spirit is required; a certain shyness, a certain indeterminate hope, a certain boyish expectation. Purity and simplicity are essential to passions.”

In stark contrast the Christian faith offers the hope of happiness, precisely because it embraces eternity. When we turn from our rebellion and embrace the love of God, that very act opens us up to the experience of eternity, which in turn opens up limitless opportunities for happiness.

“Wine, says the Scripture, maketh glad the heart of man, but only of the man who has a heart. The thing called high spirits is possible only to the spiritual. Ultimately a man cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things. Ultimately a man can enjoy nothing except religion.”

“Jesus Christ … made wine, not as a medicine, but a sacrament … at the high altar of Christianity (He) stands in whose hand is the cup of the vine.

Drink, he says, for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God.

Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup.

Drink, for this is my blood of the New Testament that is shed for you.

Drink, for I know of whence you come and why.

Drink, for I know of when you go and where.”

(all quotes from G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, pp56ff)