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Who Is Our Goddess of Pleasure?

by Steven Liaros on 29th November 2011

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The problem is unemployment; only growth can create the jobs. Schools and hospitals are underfunded; the answer is faster growth. We can’t afford to protect the environment; the solution is more growth. Poverty is entrenched; growth will rescue the poor. Income distribution is unequal; the answer is more growth.

If the answer to the problem is always more growth then who dares ask the question: What if the problems are caused by economic growth?

Quote from ‘Growth Fetish’ by Clive Hamiltonsourced from postgrowth.org “Occupy – A Cultural Strike” by Amelia Byrne and Sharon Ede

As Hamilton and others are beginning to recognise, economic growth is not our only solution to life’s problems and the management of the economy is not our only purpose in life. We all have personal needs that can be satisfied by the economy but as social animals we also have communal needs.

I find it interesting that many traditional societies recognised this and revered gods of pleasure. For example, IxCacao, the Mayan goddess of chocolate was apparently married to EkChua, the god of commerce. Like many marriages it could be seen as a tug-o-war, the more commerce, the less time for chocolate. A happy and contented marriage struck a good balance between the two. This was further highlighted by the fact that the Mayans used cocoa seeds as their currency. Think about it – you can work hard to earn lots of cocoa seeds but if you don’t take a chocolate break your seeds will eventually lose their freshness and become worthless. Another way of looking at it is that the purpose of work was to have enough chocolate to share with others.

In any case, there was no point storing up riches. Money was used only to facilitate trade and a balanced life included spending time with loved ones.

The Ancient Greeks took a different approach to the same issue. In addition to pleasure as an opposing force to commerce, they regarded all communal functions as diametrically opposed to the economy. That is, as well as social functions, they included public functions related to building a community and a city in this category. Dionysos was their god of wine, ritual pleasure and theatre. I call him the god of the public domain.

At the end of each work-day Greeks would gather in a symposium to drink with fellow citizens. The word ‘symposium’ is a compound Greek word, from ‘sym-‘, which means ‘together’ and ‘potein’, which means ‘to drink’. So a symposium was a forum where people drank wine together, a place where citizens interacted, debated, partied, a place of communion. The symposium was central to the Classical Greek understanding of ‘city’, of ‘household’, of ‘economics’ and of the distinction between the ‘public domain’ and the ‘private domain’. The symposium was held in a room, which was a part of the home but usually connected to the public square. It provided both a bridge, and a clear separation, between the public domain of the city, or the polis, and the private domain of the household.

The role of the host was crucial to the symposium because before the guests arrived he was responsible for diluting the wine. Diluting wine you say?!! Well Greeks considered that diluting wine showed that, as a civilized society, they were able to control, or manage, the use of alcohol. You see, when the host added water to the wine it was an indicator that he wanted a serious conversation, the symposium would be a ‘public’ event. When he chose not to add water, the symposium would be a ‘social’ event, he was happy for his guests to get drunk. So the Greeks had a clear and practical way of distinguishing the ‘social’ from the ‘public’.

Now, we generally understand what is meant by a ‘social’ event, let’s call it a party; but to fully understand what they meant by ‘public’, we must appreciate why Greeks offered diluted wine and didn’t instead offer, say, orange juice.

To the Greeks, wine was symbolic. The Greek god Dionysos was the god of wine, theatre and of resurrection after death. You might say, what do these godly duties have in common? Well, when you drank wine, you became different, you were no longer your usual or natural self. An actor at the theatre pretended to be someone other than his usual self and of course, the resurrected self was not the natural self. The Greeks used the word ‘ecstasy’, literally from ‘ec-‘, meaning outside and ‘stasis’, meaning ‘state’, your natural state or present situation and so Dionysos was the god of ecstasy. When you were ‘ecstatic’ you were outside or beyond your natural state and this was important to their idea of the public domain. To enter the public domain you had to drink wine in the symposium, specifically diluted wine, so that you could step outside your usual state. You had to step outside the private domain to enter the public. They were mutually exclusive. The private domain was governed by necessity and the responsibility to provide food, clothing and housing. To enter the public domain you had to firstly conquer the private domain. To be a free citizen you had to be free of necessity.

This is reinforced by the word Greeks used for managing the household. The ‘ikea’ or ‘ekos’, from which we derive the prefix ‘eco-‘, means household and ‘economia’ or ‘economy’ was the management of the household. The Greeks believed that the economy is the burden of our existence in the natural world. A responsible citizen would satisfy his economic obligations before participating in public affairs, which he could then do voluntarily and as afree citizen. Citizens would strive to complete these responsibilities as efficiently as possible so they could attend public events together with other free citizens. Freedom was freedom from economy, freedom from work, freedom from private responsibility. Only citizens who were free of economic responsibilities could offer the city a just government. The ecstasy of the free citizen standing in the public domain was an early expression of our idea of man conquering nature; but he conquered nature with the aim of being free to debate with his fellow citizens about how to build a good city.

This clear and deliberate separation of the public and the private domains is not unique to Classical Greece. In the Americas, tobacco, hemp, chocolate and coffee were variously used and served the same purpose as wine in Athens and so they were venerated in the same way. I wonder to what extent our drug addictions relate to our addiction to, or desire for, freedom?

Closer to home, we theoretically divide our week to separate the public from the private through the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday. These were both adopted as a day of rest and as a holy day. We once left behind the demands of work and the economy for one day in seven so as to focus on personal and community development. Today, we no longer have holy-days, we have a break, an escape or a vacation. We aim to separate or vacate ourselves from the daily grind, from the economy, but rarely with the conscious intention of finding a space for growth and development. We speak of recreation and do not appreciate that the word is re-creation, a time and place where we re-discover or re-invent ourselves through our interaction with others.

When these ideas were rediscovered during the Renaissance, the separation of the public realm from the private was expressed through clothing. People wore fine quality, clean, colourful, elaborate and impractical clothing to differentiate themselves from the laborers, to show that they were free. Hence the Italian love for fine clothes and your mother’s insistence that you wear your Sunday best to church where you received diluted wine so as to commune with the divine.

Today we, white-collar workers, have adopted the Renaissance idea of distinguishing ourselves from laborers through the clothing that we wear. We claim to show that we are free by ironing our shirts and wearing a tie. I like to call it the irony of the iron. We also purchase expensive material goods to show that we have the financial freedom to do so but ironically we fund these purchases by increasing our debt, a burden that limits our freedom. In Australia at least, average household debt is three times higher than it was in 1990 both when compared to income and when compared to the value of assets. The need to show that we are free has become the burden that steals our freedom.

So is there a simple summary of the distinction between private and public? The private domain is the domain that focuses on private interests, on the economy, on self-interest and this should not be over-looked. We need to provide for our personal necessities. The public sphere, on the other hand, is the place for focusing on public interests, on the interests of others who are not necessarily connected to us; it is the domain of selflessness. Where we come together with our neighbours to deal with our common interests and to create a common culture; it is the place of compromise, where we forfeit a little of our own interests so as to build common assets and a common understanding of our collective selves; the place where we willingly and freely help others, where everyone benefits through the free contributions of others. It is not possible to be selfish and selfless at the same time. You must choose to be selfless. You must choose to create a public domain.

Earlier, I deliberately used the expression ‘man conquering nature’ because Athenians, unlike other Greeks of the time who mostly lived communally, were so enamored by the idea of the public domain, that in their minds, it was justifiable to use any means necessary to conquer the private domain. This allowed them to justify slavery and the oppression of women in the household. Tyranny was justified in the household, because it allowed the head of the household to become a free citizen. But, of course, the maxim always holds that ‘the ends never justify the means’.  It is not possible to cultivate tyranny in the household and expect that the free citizen will enter the public domain as a just man. It is not just about putting boundaries on economics, but how you establish those boundaries.

According to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity.” I would argue that revolutions invariably begin because one segment of society is doing all the labor while another segment has all the power. This is the substance of the #occupy movement. The Athenians justified slavery because their rhetoric suggested that somehow slaves would benefit by living in the greatest city or the biggest or most powerful city; but a great city is different to a good city. The Sabbath allows everyone to be free once a week. We need to create a time and a space in our cities that allows all people to be free. Not bound by another set of oppressive rules, as required by organized religion, but free. We need to build a free public domain; and this should be the aim of housing theory. How do we build homes that assist us and free us rather than being a burden, both in terms of maintenance and in terms of the mortgage debt?

Surely a more beautiful society would be one where the citizens freed themselves, not by conquering nature but by mastering it, by being stewards of nature, by working in harmony with nature to satisfy their needs. Surely we can build our households based on this interdependence and harmony so that all can be freed some of the time. We have learnt so much in recent years about water cycle management, about permaculture, food cycle and waste management and about passive architectural design and energy cycle management. Surely we are in a position to build a self-sufficient household for a clan of say, 10 or 20 people. Not just any 10 or 20 people as the ‘free-market’ will throw us together, but intentionally grouped by the people themselves because of common interests and, most importantly, because of complementary skills. I imagine a household where all the residents are equal shareholders so that the burdens do not fall on one or two in the household; and where there is a gathering place for holding a symposium.

This self-sufficient household for a small clan is my dream for our future and for the future of housing.

If anyone is interested in developing a collaboration/social networking site that facilitates the collection of people into clans and providing homes, converting social networking sites into ‘public networking’, maybe converting facebook to placebook, then please comment below or read my other papers at www.polisplan.com.au and contact me with your ideas.

There is one catch, this is not an economic project, it is a public project. There is no money in this, it’s a labour of love!

True fellowship among men must be based upon goals that are universal. It is not the private interests of the individual that create lasting fellowship among men, but rather the goals of humanity…”

I Ching, foundation text of Chinese society

Cross-posted from Polis Plan, 18 November 2011

This post was written by

avatar Steven Liaros blogs at Polisplan. He is principal planner at Newplan, an urban planning consultancy in Sydney, Australia. He has qualifications in civil engineering, town planning and environmental law and over 20 years of experience in local government.

Steven has written 0 posts on Post Growth Institute.

{ 4 comments }

avatar Gunnar Rundgren November 29, 2011 at 21:13

A great post with a lot of insights. I would like to add that the distinction between work (job) and leisure and between consumption and production is a rather artificial one. Look at food. We grow food, we harvest food, we cook food and we eat food. Eating the food is as essential in this loop as it provides energy for the work. And taking a break and rest is also essential. I don’t think our original societies had any conception of WORK as opposed to other activities. All these divisions of our life are not according to our origins. I am not sure what is right and what is wrong (something doesn’t have to be right just because we acted like that when we were hunters or gatherers) or how the IDEAL should look like, but I do think we come a long way be just deconstructing the myths and the perception that OUR way of doing things is built on some eternal rational foundation, rather than just being another societal construct.

avatar Steven Liaros December 1, 2011 at 21:22

Yes, Gunnar, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with your comments especially about deconstructing myths which I believe is the first step to reconstructing our societies in a manner that is more just for all.
With regard to the distinctions between the various aspects of our lives I recommend “The Human Condition” by Hannah Arendt (1958). She divides our ‘active’ life into 3 components, labour, work and action. Labour is all those repetitive things, the loop or cycle of life, the things we have to do to sustain ourselves and maintain our homes… these are continuous and never-ending. Work is the physical activity that finishes with an end-product, a tool or a machine… these are supposed to be a labour-saving devices. The purpose of work is to reduce the time taken to do labour so that we can create more spare capacity, spare time for leisure … or for the third category, action… that is political action, democratic action, public action.
At present our societies are constructed to increase the economy, increase work, which results in increased labour also as we have bigger homes with more things in them… leaving no time for leisure or for public action… the communal things that bring meaning to our lives.

avatar Nick Meinhold December 2, 2011 at 18:00

Hi Steven and thanks for your wonderful post. I am very interested in helping to develop the kind of site you describe. A group of us have been working for a few years now on a community very similar to what you describe. This group was born out of an attempt to provide the kind of environment most conducive to recovery from mental ill health, but we have emphasised from the start that the focus is on creating a community that is healthy and sustainable for everyone rather than for one specific group of people and not another. I could go on for ages but I will leave it at indicating my interest in your proposal. Thanks again for a thought provoking and inspiring post!

avatar Steven Liaros December 3, 2011 at 15:38

Thanks for your comments Nick.
I have had a look at your website and it sounds like you are building a sanatorium … originally a place that fosters health and well being by providing a peaceful environment close to nature and a supportive community.
I have been thinking more about this since reading your comments and receiving your email. I think we can learn a lot from each other.
I will email you directly to see how we can develop this further.

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