The Assault on Hedonism, Part 1: Plutarch

(x-posted to The Valve)

This morning, as I was rummaging in my fridge for celery, tomato juice, and raw eggs, it occurred to me that an all-out attack on the “permissive hedonism” of our society has begun. For conservatives, the theme is already familiar and exhausted; it derives from a particular interpretation of Christian moralism, and takes the rhetorical form of a defense of values, and a return to values. It is a shelter for homophobia, panopticism, evangelism — and sexism, since the threat of pleasure frequently comes in the tempting form of a woman. It is also a bait-and-switch. Conservative politicians with primarily economic agendas pay lip service to values, and the worrisome decline of values.

For liberals, however, criticizing hedonism is an innovation. In a recent post at Long Sunday, CR reminded us of a question W. J. T. Mitchell asked back in 2003, in an introduction to the “Future of Criticism” special issue of Critical Inquiry:

It has been suggested that theory now has backed off from its earlier sociopolitical engagements and its sense of revolutionary possibility and has undergone a “therapeutic turn” to concerns with ethics, aesthetics, and care of the self, a turn of which Lacan is the major theoretical symptom. True?

The phrase “care of the self” is a nod to Michel Foucault, who popularized the phrase in his multi-volume History of Sexuality. Foucault, who conceived The History of Sexuality as an attack on the dogma of sexual liberation, helped dissociate political theory from the old counterculture view that personal freedom was politically valuable. In other words, the “therapeutic turn” is inaccurately named. What really turned, taking ethics and aesthetics along with it, were the attitudes towards discipline and pleasure.

Therefore, Slavoj Zizek’s review of the film 300 is not, contra the claims of his apologists, an aberration or a falling-off. Zizek’s calls for discipline are a fundamental articulation of the dominant fantasies of contemporary theory. Since this conversation, about pleasure and about ancient Greece, is over-determined by the studies of the pleasures of the Greeks, that is where we have to look. Here, I’ll be framing the triangle of culture, pleasure, and politics using Plutarch’s comparison between Spartan and Roman rule. In my next post, I’ll draw on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Walter Pater’s The Renaissance to understand the problem discipline is trying to solve. Ultimately, I will argue that we have to decide between the futile discipline that opposes itself to pleasure, and the spontaneous discipline of aesthetics, which is constructed by pleasure.


The nature of all discipline antagonistic to pleasure is war. 300 is a film about the Battle of Thermopylae; after watching it, Zizek praises it for its “Spartan spirit of military discipline.” Alain Badiou, in his book on Saint Paul, announced that contemporary philosophy is on the hunt for a way to resurrect the “militant” as an exemplary figure. Of course, as Daniel at Antigram has written, there is no way to determine what is pure, untainted discipline, and what is masochistic pleasure; the important point is that the rhetoric is anti-hedonistic.

Zizek argues that in order to understand Sparta, we ought to “subtract all historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule” and “ruthless exploitation of and terror over their slaves.” Plutarch, who greatly admired the Spartans, felt no such divestment was possible. His comparison between the Spartan founder, Lycurgus, and the Roman, Numa Pompilius, is a crucial starting-point:

As the musicians tune their harps, so the one let down the high-flown spirits of the people at Rome to a lower key, as the other screwed them up at Sparta to a higher note, when they were sunken low by dissoluteness and riot. The harder task was that of Lycurgus; for it was not so much his business to persuade his citizens to put off their armour or ungird their swords, as to cast away their gold or silver, and abandon costly furniture and rich tables; nor was it necessary to preach to them, that, laying aside their arms, they should observe the festivals, and sacrifice to the gods, but rather, that, giving up feasting and drinking, they should employ their time in laborious and martial exercises….Numa’s muse was a gentle and loving inspiration, fitting him well to turn and soothe his people into peace and justice out of their violent and fiery tempers; whereas, if we must admit the treatment of the Helots to a part of Lycurgus’s legislation, a most cruel and iniquitous proceeding, we must own that Numa was by a great deal the more humane and Greek like legislator, granting even to actual slaves a license to sit at meat with their masters at the feast of Saturn, that they also might have some taste and relish of the sweets of liberty….[Numa] ruled a city that as yet had scarce become one city, without recurring to arms or any violence (such as Lycurgus used, supporting himself by the aid of the nobler citizens against the commonalty). (trans. Dryden)

Lycurgus, in this account, maintains martial discipline through the repressive use of internal force, and by encouraging continual war against the Helots, an enslaved population. (George Orwell appropriated this analysis, and Lycurgus reads nowadays as Orwellian.) And, in fact, it is clear enough how our contemporary rhetoric repeats this “screwing up” to “a higher note” through violence. Jodi Dean employs the vocabulary of sabotage, urging us toward a “discipline and spirit of sacrifice” working like “objects jamming the machinery of enjoyment.”

To whom are these paeans to discipline addressed? Who is it that lacks discipline and lives hedonistically? The answer is the consumer, or rather that portion of each individual’s life taken up by consumption. Let’s assume that our own desire, in the midst of a drawn-out, unjust, costly war, is to let down our spirits to a lower key, instead of embracing the incursion of militarism into every venue for art and culture. At least, since we have to start somewhere, to start by tackling the relationship between consumption and pleasure, and the silent withdrawal of the festival from daily life.

To be continued.