The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life 'in the state of nature' as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Today, more than three hundred years later, any attempt to describe a 'state of nature' would be seen as a work of pure fiction. But his phrase lingered on, and it has often been mistakenly thought to refer to the Middle Ages. The result is that most people think the Middle Ages have nothing to teach us - especially about the 'soft' side of experience: pleasure, happiness, intimacy….
But there has been wisdom the world before now, and much can be learned from the centuries that have gone before us. A perspective from another century can even make our wisdom look quite shallow at times. The 'pursuit of happiness' is a hallowed phrase, but what would it mean to someone living, say, seven or eight hundred years ago? What kind of happiness do you get when you have 'pursued' it? The very word 'happiness' is related to the word 'happen': a straightforward view tells us that happiness has to happen; if it is tracked down and possessed, it is only like the dead body of what it was. What kind of pleasure do you get when you have pursued pleasure?
Pleasure, St Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century, is good and not evil: it accompanies the right working of each human faculty. (There is no Puritanism there at all: that was the invention of a later century.) A colleague of his in the following century, Johann Tauler, wrote: "Pleasures should come and go with the actions that occasion them, but they then should not remain with you." This is the soundest advice we are every likely to get, I believe! There is nothing here about the pursuit of pleasure or happiness - in itself a very nervous notion, as well as exhausting and profoundly cheerless. These people from an older time tell us: Do something that is valuable in itself, and pleasure will accompany the doing of it. But happiness and pleasure are side-products; they arise spontaneously when you are doing something else. The secret of being miserable, said George Bernard Shaw, is to have enough time on your hands to worry about whether you are happy.
Pleasures "should not remain with you." What did Tauler mean by this? Look at it this way. When something is over, it is over; to bring it back is to bring back a dead thing, and it is to be dead oneself - not available to what is happening in the present. When we try to prolong some pleasure or bring back an old one, we open the door to addiction, and then follows the self-defeating cycle of pursuit followed by dissatisfaction followed by frantic pursuit. In this way, if we take it to its extreme, we are capable of side-tracking our whole life. Let bygones be bygones, we say, in relation to personal hurts; but we need to say it also in relation to pleasures. Let them pass, let me not be attached to them. Attachment spoils everything. There are perfect moments that can only happen, that cannot be planned and that cannot be prolonged. A spontaneous gesture of affection from a friend, or a compliment, or a spirited conversation: these are no longer spontaneous when they are planned, they become flat and empty. Even in nature there are moments like that: the quality of light across a hillside, the behaviour of an animal or bird, a particular hush of the wind in the trees. These are moments of natural 'grace', and when Christians speak of divine grace they mean something like that, but going beyond it. The word 'grace' means 'gift'. Such moments are gifts, gifts of the moment, and they cannot be captured in greedy hands.
"You are too attached…to be able to understand what is going on," Tauler said. It was a throw-away remark, but a statement of deep understanding. Attachment to pleasure blinds us: not to every aspect of a situation, but to every aspect but one. To live a deeply human life requires a great deal of natural intelligence. This intelligence has nothing to do with school or college, and its one 'subject' is life itself. If we become weak in that subject, it matters little how strong we are in any other. The real wisdom, said Tauler, is to be able to respond in the moment to "whatever God gives, whatever God takes away."