A genealogy of enjoyment

In a hedonistic culture, it is easy to forget that ‘enjoyment’ was once a rigorously theological concept.

Members of the Laughter Yoga club practise laughing during morning exercise at a public park in Hanoi
The principle of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' democratised the divine roots of enjoyment [REUTERS]

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain – In a hedonistic culture, obsessed with the maximisation of individual pleasures, it is easy to forget that “enjoyment” was once a rigorously theological concept with strong ethical overtones. The reminder, to be sure, comes from unlikely quarters: Hannah Arendt’s 1929 dissertation on Love and Saint Augustine. There, Arendt highlights a fundamental distinction in Augustinian thought between enjoyment (frui) and use (uti), attitudes appropriate to human relation to God and to the world, respectively.

Strange as it may sound, according to Augustine’s Christian Doctrine, to love God is to enjoy Him (Deo frui), which is to say, to relate to Him as an end in itself, not a means for external ends. Centuries later, Immanuel Kant would transpose this love onto other human beings, substituting the language of respect for the discourse of enjoyment. An austere ethics of reason will germinate on the ruins of the Augustinian distinction.

In contrast to Kant, proponents of the utilitarian “calculus of pleasure” seem to have preserved the ethical significance of enjoyment in a thoroughly secular context. Didn’t Jeremy Bentham’s principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” democratise the divine prerogative? Answering in the affirmative, we would overlook a significant nuance of the original Augustinian distinction, namely that to enjoy was to refrain from usage, to abstain from all considerations of utility.

Nothing in the world, including our own bodies, was exempt from the possibility of being used for human purposes. Only the Supreme Being or the Highest Good – for the sake of which human beings too existed – merited the attitude of use-less enjoyment. All other creatures were subject to rampant instrumentalisation, heralding the divinely sanctioned transformation of the entire world into a collection of raw materials for present and future consumption.

Despite these serious problems, Augustine’s writings hold out a beautiful promise for spelling out the logic of enjoyment without use. In Kantian and post-Kantian modernity, a pale afterglow of this promise typically lights up in the aesthetic experience and the disinterested pleasure proper to it that are insulated from theoretical explanations and concerns with utility.

But even art failed to save enjoyment in the robust sense, which had, by the time of Kant, long deteriorated into “mere” enjoyment, the entertainment value making artworks agreeable, and thereby detracting from the disinterest with which we ought to approach it. More gravely still, in the aftermath of its thorough aestheticisation, enjoyment no longer stood for a principle of ethical action – the position it had occupied at least since the antiquity of Epicurus – but instead became passive and utterly inefficacious. In a word, art was a far cry from a solution.

An alternative path lying before us is one Augustine himself considered both heretical and insecure: to enjoy the world elevated to the now-vacant place of God. Such elevation would not foreclose the possibility of utilising certain entities in the world as, for instance, nutritional sources; it would rather require a drastic shift in mind-sets away from the appropriative model of subjectivity and promote an understanding that consumption does not constitute the default mode of our relation to the world. In other words, use would become the exception from the general rule of ethical enjoyment.  

The Latin verb fruor, to enjoy, at the heart of the human relation to God as Augustine envisages it, is itself drawn from the natural world, or, more specifically, from the world of vegetation. It is not an idle curiosity that “enjoyment” shares its grammatical root with “fruit”. If etymology were to be taken as evidence, we could conclude that fruit are the prototypes of unlimited enjoyment by whoever cares to pick them – that they are there for the eaters’ pleasure.

Nonetheless, in light of Augustine’s interpretation of frui in opposition to uti, fruit, like the plant that bears it, must also be an end in itself: a carrier of intrinsic value, a vehicle for the perpetuation of the plant, and an incarnation of what permits it to share in the immortal through reproduction. Just as the fruit stands at the intersection of usage and use-less enjoyment, so everything else in the world may fall into one or the other category, depending on the kind of comportment humans adopt toward it.

In the Augustinian universe, the love of the world was misdirected and near-sighted at best. It represented a diversion from the love of God, a dispersion of enjoyment in numerous, insecurely possessed things, and hence, a renunciation of full and ideal Being. The repudiation of finitude made sense against the background of faith in the existence of perfection above this world, the perfection against which the world was measured (failing, of course, to measure up to it) and to which it could be sacrificed as a whole in the hope of salvation.

Once the transcendent absolute becomes questionable, however, the certainty that the world exists for the sake of something outside itself also crumbles. That Augustine’s distinction has not yet caught up with this momentous event is evident in the continuing treatment of the world as though it were a collection of utilisable objects, in the absence of anything meriting our use-less enjoyment, save for works of art, perhaps. What we urgently need to learn in the process of mourning the loss of absolutes is the sense of a modified Augustinian motto, Mundo frui! Enjoy the world!   

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life will be published later this year. His website is michaelmarder.org.