“Lord, of your grace all that I hope is this – Keep the realm of my pleasure prosperous; Avert from me the calamity of chastity; And keep far from me the doom of repentance.” Ubayd Zakani
The above quotation, Zakani’s “plea”, was written in the 14th century. Zakani was known as a man of letters and also known for his ribald satire aimed at the Persian aristocracy of his time. A lot of his poetry was censored by the authorities and so were those who later translated his works. His frequent references to homoerotic activity, and bawdy verse, made him a somewhat minor figure in the history of Arabic literature (Compared to Rumi and Omar Khayyam). However, the explicit, bold mockery of the upper classes and the rulers made him a courageous figure. As much as he lampooned their ways, according to historians, he was no saint… and had no intention to try to be one.
What then can we make of Zakani’s plea to the Lord to allow him a sensual life with no consequences or second thoughts? Was he being facetious? Whatever the purpose of his raunchy poetry, the excerpted quote here beautifully represents one side of the great debate about morality and sensuality. Zakani’s plea is clearly in the same camp as Epicurean traditions. This philosophy, derived from the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, considered pleasure the greatest good, and moral too. Even though Epicurus was well known for being a materialist and for his distaste of religion… especially encouraging freedom from fear of the divine… it is his hedonistic ideas for which he is best remembered (quite inaccurately as he recommended modest living, and was a vegetarian and celibate his whole life! It’s interesting how labels are put on people without factual support…it has happened throughout history and not uncommon today). Whatever the full truth about Epicurus’ teaching, the word “Epicurean” stands for a sensual, pleasure seeking lifestyle – the type of life prescribed centuries later by Zakani who ramped up sensuality to excessive levels. Throughout history there have been many like-minded writings, and followers, of this way of living. And, for many folks, it has been a road to ultimate dissatisfaction, or, worse, absolute ruin. Yet for others it is not only an enjoyable pursuit…it feels right.
Staying with the Ancient Greeks, on the flip-side of the Epicureans we find the Stoics. The founder of this school of thought was Zeno and he, and his followers, were interested in finding lasting happiness, just like the Epicureans. However, their route to what is “good” was not through what was pleasurable…rather, they believed humans to be rational beings – believing this was our true nature. Sensual experiences were not essential to our well-being… they did not have intrinsic value and were merely accepted, but not pursued. For the Stoics, a virtuous life was the pathway to happiness and consisted in following the laws of nature which, in turn, were determined by logical analyses*. Emotions were considered destructive because they could negatively affect one’s judgement. The stoics were well known for their calm demeanor and fortitude in the face of stressful situations.
In summary, there is a clear dichotomy in ways of approaching life: the Stoic passivity and logical behaviour versus the Epicurean pleasure seeking life steeped in emotions and sensuality. When one thinks of friends and acquaintances, it is surprisingly easy to place them in one camp or the other. It seems quite obvious which way of life most people have chosen. On the one side you’ll find hordes of intellectuals and religious folks… on the other you’ll find materialistic people and greedy business people along with many simple folk who are happy just to live well, with no thought of the meaning of life – people who couldn’t really give a damn about an afterlife or any notion of a deity (luckily they’re actually are lots of people living between these two extremes). The interesting, and most important, question is: “who is the happiest or most content?” Probably those who feel no compunction to repent… that is what Zakani got right!
Hemingway, of all people, may have contributed the best “litmus test” for determining the right path to contentment in this context (as I’ve ever come across). It’s not what your parents say, nor what your minister preaches, nor what the government decrees, etc. … . No, it’s a simple introspective (looking back rationally/retrospection) and emotional (responsive feelings/the after-effect) test that gives you your answer:
“I know only what is moral is what you feel good after;
And, what is immoral is what you feel bad after”.
Perhaps then, if morality is the route to happiness, and the purpose for living in a certain way, then what feels good and doesn’t twitch your conscience is a good bet. Sounds like relativity to me. To each his/her own.
*Remember that ancient Greek “philosophy” was mainly concerned with “a way of life” and not primarily concerned with metaphysics.