As I was browsing the Bible this afternoon, this passage, from the famed Sermon on the Mount, particularly resonated with me:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” – Matthew 6:19-24
What does this mean? Jesus asserts, in so many words, that the pleasures produced by money, material goods, social status, fame, etc., always decay, are always at risk of vanishing, and are always dependent on chance and circumstance. Those who treasure these pleasures above love, wisdom, and beauty will live in fear of losing them, and cannot delight in them in like manner as the tranquil soul delights in its tranquility. Love, wisdom, compassion, patience, and beauty transcend these limitations; they are gifts that you do not lose when you give them away, and once acquired, they cannot easily be lost — and only one who honestly seeks them can enjoy earthly pleasures as they ought to be enjoyed: as fortunate products of circumstance that do not truly belong to us and may be taken away by fate at any moment.
Consider, too, these sayings of the sage Epictetus, the Greek Stoic whose philosophy greatly inspired Christian ethics: “In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you” — and upon losing something, we must tell ourselves: “I have lost nothing that belongs to me; it was not something of mine that was torn from me, but something that was not in my power has left me.”
I do not believe that any of this implies that asceticism is necessary. It is possible to delight in earthly things without trading in our souls — but only if earthly things are not our masters. Our souls must be rightly ordered to properly delight in earthly things without abandoning the necessary quest for love, wisdom, and beauty. In other words, this matter is not as simple as a basic either/or proposition. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes notes, we can enjoy daily earthly pleasures — but we must never allow ourselves to mistake them for what they are not.