A life in which the pleasures of food and drink are not central is missing a crucial dimension of a good life. Food and drink, are a constant presence in our lives, and thus can be a constant source of pleasure if we nurture our connection to them and don’t take them for granted.
Because food and drink are an easily accessible source of pleasure for most of us, barring poverty or disease, to care little for them is a kind of moral failure with consequences not only for the self but for others around us.
But to nurture that connection to everyday pleasure requires thought and restraint. Pleasure can be dangerous when pursued without reason and self-control. Addictive pleasures damage us and everyone around us. Addicts, in fact, cannot feel pleasure as readily as the non-addicted and require increasing levels of stimulation to find satisfaction. Addictions and compulsions are pathological and are no model for the genuine pursuit of pleasure. Thus, we need to make a distinction between pleasure that we get from thoughtless, compulsive consumption, and pleasure that is freely chosen. Pleasure freely chosen is actually a good guide to what is good for us and what should matter to us.
This emphasis on freely chosen pleasure is important not only for keeping us healthy but because certain kinds of pleasures are deeply connected to our sense of control and independence.
Some of the pleasures we experience come from the satisfaction of needs. When we are cold, warm air feels good. When we are hungry even very ordinary food will taste good. But such enjoyment tends to be unfocused and passive. We don’t have to bring our attention or knowledge to the table to enjoy substances that satisfy basic needs. We are hard-wired to care about them and our response is compelled.
However, many pleasures are not a response to need or deprivation. We have to eat several times a day, but we don’t have to eat well several times a day. Pleasure freely chosen is essential to a good life because it expresses our independence from need.
I can be perfectly comfortable at the moment, yet be pleased by the warmth of the sun as it breaks the clouds and comes streaming through the bay window. A light snack does away with hunger pangs, yet I am still seduced by the smell of garlic gently sizzling in olive oil. These pleasures are the lagniappe of life because they transcend need. We experience them as pleasures even though we aren’t suffering from their deprivation.
Wine and good food are not necessities. We are not compelled to enjoy them and when pursued thoughtfully they are not the result of a compulsion. Pleasure rather than the satisfaction of needs is the point of our experience of them.
They are a surplus, beyond need and necessity, and thus a form of grace.