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Today it could be said that we live under a pleasure-seeking and
pain-avoiding regime, where the central political goal is the
minimization of public discomfort and the maximization of public
satisfaction. President Bill Clinton personifies this tendency. In
fact, one of his chief claims prior to being elected in 1992, was that
he could feel our pain. Supposedly, this better qualified him for high
office. Today, the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al
Gore, quite often, involves a similar pleasure and pain equation.

Last week, Gore proposed to release emergency oil reserves in order
to stop the economic pain caused by higher oil prices. Before that,
both candidates talked about cheaper ways of medicating American
citizens. (One of the primary uses of medication is to relieve pain.)

Political talk about education reform is another example. The real
solution to America’s education disaster would involve something very
painful, which is called “discipline.” Improved school discipline would
require parents, teachers and children to use pain and discomfort as
tools to shape behavior. But that is not acceptable under a hedonistic
regime. Therefore, nobody is talking about genuine classroom
discipline.

Republican arguments for smaller government emphasize the benefits of
lowering taxes, easing financial pain. Democrats prefer to alleviate
pain by spending tax dollars on government programs. The two parties,
in essence, are both hedonistic in their outlook.

The philosophy of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure is very old.
But in America’s past, there was a greater tolerance of pain and a
greater willingness to delay gratification. America was once a frontier
society, where pain and discomfort went with the territory. Moving West
in a covered wagon meant a chance to own land. But it also meant years
of hard work and personal sacrifice.

In the 1860s, America fought a great civil war. The resulting pain
was accepted by millions and pleasure was set aside to defend specific
principles. In the midst of that moment of pain, Abraham Lincoln was
re-elected. Today, it is doubtful that the country would sacrifice like
that.

Since Eisenhower, every American president unlucky enough to govern
during a time of pain, like a costly war or serious economic downturn,
has been denied a second term. This fact has trained politicians to be
attentive to issues of public discomfort. Pain must be eliminated, and
pleasure increased.

But pain is not entirely bad. In political terms, pain forces us to
adjust our thinking and our plans. In economic terms, pain is necessary
for long-term economic health. Perhaps that is why Fed Chairman Alan
Greenspan disagreed
with Clinton-Gore’s use of the country’s emergency oil reserves to
relieve momentary economic pain. After all, painfully higher oil prices
create incentives for investing in the energy sector — which alone
might guarantee a future without critical shortages.

Unfortunately, techniques have been developed to treat economic pain
without regard for underlying causes. Today we have at our disposal the
political equivalent of extra-strength Tylenol. When government
intervenes in the market, when currencies are propped up, when oil
prices are kept down, pain is prevented. Markets rise and things look
good for a short while. But the underlying problems are not addressed.

The fine print on a Tylenol bottle says: “Do not use for more than
10 days unless directed by doctor.” It also says not to use more than 8
pills in a 24-hour period.

We have exceeded the 10-day usage and the 8-pill per day limit. Our
country is about feeling good and feeling good now. By living to avoid
pain in the moment, we have merely deferred our trouble. We have put it
off, without really solving any of our most basic problems. Look at how
we have handled Russia or China or Iraq or the de-industrialization of
the country. We trade with our enemies and do not defeat them when we
are set to do so. We claim victory, of course, but this is just another
pill that we take.

It seems we have become a nation of Epicureans or hedonists.

Epicurus was an ancient philosopher who advocated a philosophy that
is sometimes called “hedonism.” He said that pleasure was essential to
a good life, but he recommended only moderate pleasures — because too
much pleasure could bring pain. Looking around us today, it is obvious
that this philosophy has gained a large number of adherents. Many
Americans no doubt find Epicurus to be logical and sensible. But
Epicurus was severely criticized by moralists and philosophers from
Cicero to Nietzsche. The criticisms proposed are deep and important,
because such criticisms might be applied to our society and our
political life.

Cicero believed that Epicurean thinking led to moral and political
decadence. Pleasure is not the sole object of life, argued Cicero. A
good life requires knowledge, and knowledge is often painful. A good
life also depends on accomplishing something worthwhile. But nothing
worthwhile is easy. There is always the necessity for sacrifice.

Friedrich Nietzsche also attacked the Epicurean position. He called
pain his “dog.” It was always faithful, and always followed him
around. This dog had great lessons to teach. As for pleasure,
Nietzsche did not think it was the source of happiness, but “the slow
fire over which” the rabble is roasted. The greatest happiness, said
Nietzsche, was power — and power has nothing whatever to do with
pleasure.

The major religions, and especially Christianity, teach that man’s
spirit is the critical thing. Next to the health of one’s spirit, the
pain or pleasure of the body is unimportant. In fact, Christ sacrificed
his body on the cross. This is an important teaching, which suggests
that there are higher values than bodily values.

There are many things in life that stand higher than pleasure and
pain. If we look at the great philosophers and religious teachers,
there is knowledge, accomplishment, power and spiritual attainment.
Pleasure is often sacrificed and pain required for the possession of
these things.

Taking these observations into consideration, America’s recent
tendency toward Epicurean thinking must be viewed with alarm. It is no
wonder that under a regime of market hedonism knowledge is in decline.
It is also doubtful that people are achieving what they once achieved.
In terms of power, it is only logical that our military should be in
serious decline. After all, the military ethic teaches an acceptance of
pain and sacrifice as basic. How could this ethic survive in a society
that — above all — avoids pain and seeks pleasure?

The greatest danger to us, however, is found in the shabby state of
the American soul. We have sought titillation and pleasure in our daily
lives. We have avoided painful truths. Our moral muscles are flabby,
and our politicians are a reflection of this flabbiness. There is no
other explanation for the Clinton presidency, and no other explanation
for the fact that Al Gore has been ahead in the polls.

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