One of the most solemn moments in the evolution of the principle of authority was at the promulgation of the Decalogue. The voice of the angel commands the people, prostrate at the foot of Sinai:
Thou shalt adore the Eternal it said, and nothing but the Eternal;
Thou shalt swear by him only;
Thou shalt observe his feasts, and thou shalt pay his tithes;
Thou shalt honour thy father and mother;
Thou shalt not kill;
Thou shalt not steal;
Thou shalt not commit fornication;
Thou shalt not commit forgery;
Thou shalt not covet nor calumniate;
For the Eternal commands thus, and it is the Eternal who has made thee what thou art. Only the Eternal is sovereign, wise and worthy. The Eternal punishes and rewards; the Eternal can make thee happy or unhappy.
All legislators have adopted this style: all, in speaking to man, use the words of a sovereign. Hebrew commands in the future tense, Latin in the imperative, Greek in the infinitive. The moderns do the same thing. The tribunal of M Dupin is as infallible and terrible as that of Moses. Whatever may be the law, from whatever lips it maybe proclaimed, it is sacred; even when pronounced by that fateful trumpet, which with us is the voice of the majority.
Thou shalt not assemble,
Thou shalt not print,
Thou shalt not read,
Thou shalt respect thy representatives and functionaries whom the fortune of the ballot or the good pleasure of the State has given thee,
Thou shalt obey the laws which their wisdom has given thee,
Thou shalt pay thy taxes faithfully,
And thou shalt love the Government, thy lord and thy god, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, because the Government knows better than thou what thou art, what thou art worth, and what is good for thee; and it has the power to chastise those who disobey its commandments, as well as to recompense to the fourth generation those who are agreeable to it.
When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote this in his 'General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century' in 1851 he had yet to encounter the health lobby. The problem for the workers of his day was eating at all. Now, with the abundance available to affluent people in the developed world, the old formula needs reviving.
Thou shalt not eat fatty foods,
Thou shalt not drink (apart from a single glass of red wine - an antioxidant you know darlings),
Thou shalt cut down on salt,
Thou shalt not smoke (anywhere),
Thou shalt drink hot water and overpriced herbal infusions rather than pollute your body with caffeine,
Thou shalt count calories and units,
Thou shalt worry about your cholesterol levels constantly,
And thou shalt love bran, muesli, and other tasteless crud with all thy heart and all thy soul for they maketh the bowels perform with satisfying regularity and yea even frequency.
And those who disobey these commandments shall be visited with plagues of obesity, epidemics of diabetes and the vengeance of high blood pressure. And lo! the NHS will be bankrupt and it will all be your fault.
And so I was pleased to read this piece that asks us to, "Imagine a world in which public policy declared that pleasure is the principal means to health". What a nice thought. The author, Richard Klein, is inviting us to rediscover Epicurus and assert a new Epicurean philosophy.
I particularly liked this:
For many people, a life without the oil of drink becomes too much to bear. A little wine eases the vague and subcutaneous unease that stress puts on our muscles; a martini induces a moment of forgetfulness when the anxieties and fears of the day recede. In pursuit of happiness, Americans are insistently encouraged to consume vast quantities of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but booze is never publicly celebrated. Rarely do we hear about the charms and benefits of alcohol, or the sociability it has promoted from the dawn of time, or the pleasure and consolation it has infused into the lives of billions over the course of human history.I will drink to that.
In part this is a reflection of long standing struggle between the moralists and the hedonists. A peculiar feature of our social history is the spreading throughout the nineteenth century of notions of respectability to growing sections of what had been a boisterous working class. Much of this was imbibed by a section of the left who posited future utopias that would lead to the remaking of people as earnest, thoughtful, sober ascetics. I like to celebrate the eclectic bunch of libertarian leftists, radical liberals and others who saw this as social control by a stifling middle class rather than social improvement.
None of this is to deny that there are very real issues of both private and public health; alcoholism is no joke neither are the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco, all is not a fabrication by the moral puritans. Yet this is recognised by an Epicurean approach that is about understanding the body and its pleasures, thereby limiting self-harm and exercising restraint. But there is something hidden by this obsessive concern with diet, which Klein does not address, the great global public health issue of our times is not fibre but poverty. Poverty kills, poverty stunts physical and intellectual development, poverty is the real health crisis. And so an emphasis on pleasure as a principle of health must mean pleasure for all, not the conspicuous consumption of the good things in life by a few.
In the British context it is often said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marx. In this sense, at least, this is a pity. As Klein points out, Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus.