Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Heathen), ch. 11, says,
the serpent allegorically signifies pleasure crawling on its belly, earthly wickedness nourished for fuel to the flames
Whether or not we agree with this allegorical interpretation (I believe most of us believe the serpent to have been either literally or allegorically the Devil), this interpretive moment should give us pause in late capitalism, in late/post-modernity.
As in, press pause on Netflix. Pause as you sip your coffee/Coke Zero/craft beer/Darjeeling. Pause the game. Pause as you eat a nice piece of chocolate cake.
Not only does late capitalism provide us with greater leisure time than any other moment in culture or history, it also provides us with means of entertaining ourselves, some by going out during our leisure (play/watch live sports, live performances, art galleries, museums, the cinema, night clubs), some by staying in. We seek pleasure in food, drink, entertainment, etc., etc.
And certainly, pleasure is not wrong, per se. Is it?
I think that a lot of us not only have enormous opportunities for pleasure (despite our professed busyness — some are themselves the cause of some busyness) but also have them as a chief goal of our lives. Get a good enough job to earn enough money not only to live on now and in retirement, but to live comfortably, even luxuriously. Organise our time when not at work to get as much pleasure as possible — as little as possible of necessary chores and work, thankyouverymuch.
I know, as a job seeker, I fall into this way of thinking about work. And as a weary father, I fall into this way of thinking about leisure time.
But Clement of Alexandria perceives pleasure as enticement to disobedience and evil.
Clement of Alexandria is, in some ways, at the fountainhead of sustained Christian reflection on asceticism (actually, the New Testament is). Elsewhere, in The Instructor, he recommends eating plain, simple food, and dressing simply. Imagine that! We can cheaply and easily acquire exotic food (from a Canadian perspective, is it not remarkable that I eat bananas and drink coffee every day?). Clement urges us not to.
Why? Well, let’s turn to “I Feel the Winds of God Today” stanza 2:
It is the wind of God that dries
my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise
the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease
or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze,
and I’ll put back to sea.
The shores of selfish ease are here and now in our comfy living rooms. The battlefield for our souls is not being waged in amphitheatres as pagans toss us to lions like Perpetua and Felicity (whose feast was this past Friday), nor at the stake like the Oxford Martyrs of the Reformation. It is being waged as we sit before our TVs, the blue light invading our hearts and minds, as we snack on unnecessary delicacies, and neglect prayer, Scripture, fasting, and almsgiving.
This, then, is why we need interiorized monasticism, to enter into the monkhood of all believers and gain the strength to fight selfish ease and pleasure, to find ourselves living, quickened, and basking in the glory of the risen Christ.