Plainness and Ornament

November 24, 2004 | 21 comments
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With many other Christian traditions, we share the admonition to plainness in speech and other aspects of life: “Let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hand” (D&C 42:40)

For other Christians that admonition is largely a consequence of the fact that they have adopted a Greek philosophical understanding of the body. For most Greek thinkers, what is most real was what is intelligible, and what is most intelligible is immaterial (since materiality per se is not intelligible). As a result, they believed that the body got in the way of intellecting the intelligible. For them, however one was to understand salvation, it was a matter of turning from the sensible world to the intelligible. The body, being part of the sensible world, made that turn more difficult, if not impossible. Based on that understanding, those Christians who rejected ornamentation, whether of the body, of buildings, or of something else, did so because they believed that ornamentation brought attention to the material world and the body and, therefore, took attention away from divine things, things necessary for salvation. For them, the demand for plainness is a demand that we focus on the spiritual rather than on the material, and those two are fundamentally opposed to one another.

(Of course the question of when ornamentation goes beyond what is allowed has historically been a knotty question, as we see in the various iconoclastic movements that have occurred in Christian history. But I don’t think the complications of that history change the question I wish to think about.)

We, of course, do not believe that the spiritual and the material are fundamentally opposed. In fact, though it isn’t clear to me what we mean when we say so, we insist that spirits are material. Whatever else that means, it means that the spiritual and material aspects of our existence are not fundamentally at odds with one another.

How does our understanding of the need for plainness of dress and ornamentation connect with our rather different understanding of the body?

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21 Responses to Plainness and Ornament

  1. Keith on November 24, 2004 at 3:28 am

    Difficult question. Is there supposed to be a strong connection between plainness of dress and the body? Is the plainness supposed to be related to the body or would the plainness principle be unrelated to the body specifically and simply be related to plainness in general. (Though of course it’s always difficult to have a question in Mormonism that isn’t somehow related to embodiment.)

    Perhaps the general principle behind this is similar to why some music is not appropriate for a Sacrament meeting or where some styles of performing the music aren’t right–what Elder Oaks called the principle of non-distraction. That principle is, in my view, not doing thing in a way that brings more attention to self or to the performance rather than to God and reverence before God. The body can be dressed and presented beautifully, but in way that reminds one of the divine beauty and meaning of the body and in a way that doesn’t take one’s thought away from it’s divine significance.

    Perhaps what we call spiritual must differ from the spiritual and the corporeal as we usually understand it. The spiritual has a sense of the corporeal about it, but there still is the category of the spiritual as opposed to the non-spiritual. In otherwords, the spiritual must have something in opposition to it that is not simply the traditional opposition, the physical. So what do call it?

    For all of the (non)anwers I’ve given, I feel like I’m grasping at straws here.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on November 24, 2004 at 7:41 am

    “For other Christians that admonition is largely a consequence of the fact that they have adopted a Greek philosophical understanding of the body….those Christians who rejected ornamentation, whether of the body, of buildings, or of something else, did so because they believed that ornamentation brought attention to the material world and the body and, therefore, took attention away from divine things, things necessary for salvation.”

    Jim, I don’t think your second sentence above follows from your first sentence at all. That is, I think you’re associating an entirely distinct (an important) stream of Christian thought with an argument about Greek philosophy which, so far as I can tell, it has almost nothing to do with. I mean, where’s the evidence that those Christians who embraced (and still embrace) “plainness” do so because of an acceptance of Greek understandings of materiality? The early centuries of the Christian era, the time during which such ideas were presumably most present and powerful, saw a great proliferation of Christian art, ornamentation, vestments, ritual, pomp, and wealth, which continued unabated well into the late Middle Ages, only occasionally challenged by heretical movements. I think, if there is any linkage between Greek philosophy and early Christian thinking about ornamentation at all, it is that the Greek emphasis on the immaterially intelligible made the materially ornamental seem not bad, but irrelevant, which meant there was no real reason to complain about fine clothes, high altars, soaring arches, golden crucifixes, jewel-encrusted miters, and so forth. Those movements which did complain about such things, culminating in Luther’s Reformation, were less influenced by whatever elements one might wish to identify out of the legacy of Greek philosophy, then by a radicalization of a vaguely Manichean implication in Augustine (and Paul) that anything which, as Keith puts it, “distracts us” from God’s grace is an enemy to such, and thus comes from the devil. Ostentation and ornamentation are therefore, according to this perspective, not so much obstacles to embracing the immaterial, as you suggest, but constitute an actual material opposition to God’s gracious and demanding work in this material world.

    It’s possible I’ve completely misunderstood your point, and if so I apologize; but I just don’t think the historical and philosophical set-up you provide for your (very valid and important) question holds together. Think about those Christian sects today whih most vigorously embrace principles of simplicity: the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and other churches in the Anabaptist tradition. Wouldn’t be correct to say that their teachings and approach to the gospel, from the perspective of those who are concerned about theology and the apostacy anyway, would probably be considered about as anti-Greek, about as accepting of the idea that “the spiritual and the material are [not] fundamentally opposed,” as any Christian movement anywhere?

  3. greenfrog on November 24, 2004 at 8:44 am

    While I have no basis to discuss particular origins of such practices, as I understand this aspect of our common cultural milieu, there is a distinct tension you’ve identified between what might be labelled as “unadorned” beauty and beauty through artifice. I framed unadorned in quotation marks, because, of course, the modern American version of unadorned beauty typically includes not just artificial hair color, but also meticulously and highly stylized hair cutting and grooming, liberal applications of face paint, the occasional nose job, and draping the body in fabrics of various kinds.

    As I think about it, Keith may be right that what underlies the authoritative institution of such distinctions (recall directives regarding tattoos and earrings) is the idea of distraction from the norm. The challenge with that as a principle, however, is that it presumes a norm from which one can be distracted. And while there are meaningful norms, they are neither universal, nor (so far as I understand) based on anything morally correct. So the result of this cultural requirement seems to be that while those who hold the norm aren’t troubled by the difficulty of seeing the divine through potentially distracting practices, all who do not hold the norm are placed on Procrustes’ bed and required to undergo a norm-ectomy — or maybe it should be called a trans-normal procedure.

    Are we in favor of that? ;-)

  4. Melissa on November 24, 2004 at 8:55 am

    “Perhaps what we call spiritual must differ from the spiritual and the corporeal as we usually understand it. The spiritual has a sense of the corporeal about it, but there still is the category of the spiritual as opposed to the non-spiritual. In otherwords, the spiritual must have something in opposition to it that is not simply the traditional opposition, the physical. So what do call it?”

    Keith,

    It seems like the word “natural” is the category that gets opposed to spiritual in the scriptures. King Benjamin tells us that the “natural man is an enemy to God.” We learn from Paul that the natural man can’t receive the things of the spirit (1 Cor 2:14) and from Ammon that the natural man can’t have knowledge of the things of the spirit (Alma 26:19-22). Alma tells us that the natural or carnal man are without God in the world (Alma 41:1) and in D&C 67:12 we read that the natural man cannot abide God’s presence. Although the terms get strung together, “natural” sometimes seems to mean something different from “carnal” or “devilish” (in some places it is used as a synonym for “carnal”, however)

    Still, even “natural” isn’t entirely satisfactory as an opposing concept or term for spiritual since scripture isn’t consistent in its use of “natural” even with individual chapters (see Alma 41—verses 4 and 12 use “nature” or “natural” in a different way than than verse 11).

  5. Nate Oman on November 24, 2004 at 10:08 am

    Russell: Given that Protestantism represents in large part a rejection of the Aristotilean Scholasticism of the Middle Ages in favor of the Platonist Augustinianism of late antiquity, why is it unreasonable to suppose that plainess might be linked to the (very Platonic) account of Greek thought offered by Jim. It seems to me that the Augustininian and Lutheran emphasis on avoiding that which distracts us from God is part and parsel to precisely the kind of metaphysics and epistemology sketched out by Jim. It is the disjunction between the spiritual and the physical that explains why physical ornamentation leads us away from God.

    Contast this aesthetics with that of someone like Abbot Suger (who built St. Denis in Paris and can safely be thought of as the intellectual god-father of the High Gothic). Suger argued explicitly that the physical beauty of the Church led one to God. In other words, ornamentation was not a distraction from worship, but was itself worshipful.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on November 24, 2004 at 10:40 am

    “Given that Protestantism represents in large part a rejection of the Aristotilean Scholasticism of the Middle Ages in favor of the Platonist Augustinianism of late antiquity, why is it unreasonable to suppose that plainess might be linked to the (very Platonic) account of Greek thought offered by Jim.”

    Ok, I can see where you’re going with this Nate, and I suppose it would be impossible to argue against any connection whatsoever. But I just don’t see it in any strong sense. Why, for example, would Luther, if he was presumably moved primarily or even significantly by a Platonic espistemology which among other things presented ornamentation as fundamentally resistant to the spiritual act of intellectual apprehension, have been so critical of the role of nous in living a holy life? In rejecting Aristotelian Scholasticism, Luther and his more determined Reformation followers were not, so far as my knowledge of their writings goes, recovering Plato’s quest for the Forms and its antimaterialist implications; they were rather recovering a Pauline principle which is in constant (and arguably productive) tension with Greek philosophy throughout Augustine: namely, the proto-nominalist rejection of our ability to think rationally about the means of salvation. In other words, their resistance to material ornamentation, to the extent they expressed such (and not all did), had more to do with the way they believed the pleasures and comforts of the world lulled us (Satanically, at least insofar as Luther himself was concerned) into a focus on the self and the mind–not, as Jim suggests, because they presented a limitation on what the mind is presumably supposed to be able to do.

    I guess I would agree that there are interesting parallels between the implications of certain antimaterialist elements in Greek philosophy and the resistance to certain forms of materiality present in some strains of Protestantism, but I don’t see any real genealogical linking between the two.

  7. Adam Greenwood on November 24, 2004 at 10:41 am

    I notice that the scripture Jim Faulconer cites talks about *personal* adornment. I wonder if the scripture might have nothing to do with plainness *in se* and everything to do with pride and competition. Invidious social distinctions, don’t ya know. Though we are also pretty plain in our churches, though economic reasons have much to do with it. On the other hand, we’ve never tried real hard to be modest and unassuming in our temples.

  8. sheldon on November 24, 2004 at 10:57 am

    I think the basis for plainess in Mormon thought has more to do with the idea that “one man shoud not possess that which is above another.” It has to do with pride and class distinction. The BoM is replete with examples of where ornamentation was a tool for creating separate classes, and rubbing poverty in the face of the poor. We need look no further than the local high school to see how this plays out dramaticaly these days.

    The ornamentation of the medieval church probably had similar sources–just good old fashion pride and the human need to separate the uppers from the lowers. They couldn’t very well have the priestly class going about looking like the masses, people might mistakenly think they were equals.

  9. Nate Oman on November 24, 2004 at 11:10 am

    “The ornamentation of the medieval church probably had similar sources–just good old fashion pride and the human need to separate the uppers from the lowers. They couldn’t very well have the priestly class going about looking like the masses, people might mistakenly think they were equals.”

    Sorry, sheldon, but this is a rather crass-dismissal of the aesthetic theory of medieval art. No doubt there was a certain amount of pride involved in medieval religious arts, e.g. the different towns in Northern France trying to out-do one another with higher cathedrals, but to reduce the entire tradition to “good old fashion pride” is about as compelling as dismissing the Protestant plainess movement as nothing more than a bunch of unimaginative and sanctimonious grinds.

  10. J. Stapley on November 24, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    The preceding verse to the one that Jim gave us states:

    �For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.�

    This section was outlining the “law for the church�. Contemporary Christian aesthetics aside, is it not possible that the exhortation to dress plainly is related to the Book of
    Mormon tendency for the proud to dress in “fine� clothing? Especially, when we consider the ramifications of the united order?

    I’m also interested in the phrase �and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hand�. I not it doesn’t fit culturally, but it seems as if there is almost a calvanist flavor to it.

  11. APJ on November 24, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    J. Stapley: Your comment immediately reminds me of how identifiable the southern Utah polygamists are. I always spot a few conspicuously ‘plainly dressed’ mothers with lots of kids in the dollar store at the outlet malls of St. George. I know it’s a stereotype, but one of the most dependable one’s I know. It’s interesting that that ‘fundamental’ way of dressing (whether it’s fundamental Mormons or Amish, or whatever) is associated with repression by the modern world. Could the fundamentalists be living a life more in harmony with Book of Mormon teachings than mainstream members?

  12. clark on November 24, 2004 at 1:58 pm

    Just a couple of quibbles. One while Protestantism was wrapped up in the anti-Scholasticism movement, one ought be careful pushing the Platonic connection too much. After all most of the anti-Scholasticism of the Renaissance was also opposed by many Protestants, especially in England. Indeed some historians of science argue that it was the opposition to images and symbols that were ubiquitious in more Platonic philosophers that allowed a focus on numeric analysis to develop. Yes, I recognize that in the early years things were more complex, with some major Protestants quite willing to embrace various forms of hermeticism. But by and large there was a strong Protestant reaction to the developments of the Renaissance. In my opinion, the more Platonic movements were much more about ornamentation – especially hidden symbols and imagery.

    I bring this up since a lot of these survived underground and entered into Mormonism through masonry and related movements.

    I’d also play quibbler with the Greeks and point out that while we often tie Greek thought with various guises of Platonism, one really ought not neglect the Stoics or Epicureans who were quite different from the Platonists and didn’t buy into the whole immaterial notions of the Platonists.

  13. Keith on November 24, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    Melissa:
    “It seems like the word “naturalâ€? is the category that gets opposed to spiritual in the scriptures.”

    Yes. Now that you mention it, this seems clearly right (despite different ways the term may be used). And natural would not necessarily equal physical or material. I think the idea of ‘without God’ might be crucial. Thanks.

    APJ:
    “that ‘fundamental’ way of dressing (whether it’s fundamental Mormons or Amish, or whatever) is associated with repression by the modern world. Could the fundamentalists be living a life more in harmony with Book of Mormon teachings than mainstream members?”

    This is an interesting question. I’m not certain it follows that they are any more or any less in harmony with the Book of Mormon. Their dress does seem to be a deliberate rejection of the world (though one can assume that what they wear was at sometime in fashion in the modern world (albeit plain fashion) and not so clearly a rejection. Also, if fashion of the modern world is immodest, isn’t modest apparel worn by LDS folks now a similar rejection? (Of course, you ask about mainstream Mormons and answering even the modesty question is a difficult one.)

    It also seems that plainness is relative. I wear pants, shirt and tie to work. Simple. Or does it stop being plain and simple depending on brand, cost, style and so on? Would I be any more or less plain (in the scriptural sense) if I wore a blue shirt everyday, as opposed to wearing a variety (even something with stripes no less)?

    I think J. Stapley’s comment on pride is key. It’s been my experience, however, that even in plainness, one could be setting oneself apart from others in pride–something similar to making it known to all that you are fasting. ‘Please note, folks, that I am not like the rich and proud Zoramites or those who dress to make distinctions; my clothes aren’t fancy and (because I am also very frugal) all are bought at Deseret Industries.’ Pride can show up in many ways. (By the way, please don’t take this as an attack on dressing plainly or being frugal–least of all a slam at shopping at D.I. I love the place.)

  14. Peggy Snow Cahill on November 25, 2004 at 3:07 am

    Well, I think Sheldon has a point. I do think that the admonition to be plain in our dress is indeed connected to pride. That’s why some of the scriptures go on and on about the tinkling bells and broided hair or whatever (you know what I mean!) that we adorn ourselves with, when all that is not only unnecessary, it distracts us from what is important, and it causes us to think that all those adornments somehow make us better than others who are less adorned. I have noticed that some of the most amazing dressers in the world are women in the Church who have tons of money, but because they are married to Church leaders, they dress very simply-in very expensive (compared to me!) clothing that is incredibly plain, yet beautiful. Not many of us can really relate to the part about the work of our own hands…but more do in the Church than the rest of the world.

  15. David King Landrith on November 27, 2004 at 1:18 am

    Russell Arben Fox: where’s the evidence that those Christians who embraced (and still embrace) “plainness” do so because of an acceptance of Greek understandings of materiality?

    I’m not sure whether you intend this question as a joke, so if I’m mistaken in taking it seriously, I beg your pardon.

    That said, I think this question mistakes the intent of Jim’s allusion to Greek philosophy. I could argue that most westerners adopt a basically Cartesian theory of knowledge, even though a large fraction of them (perhaps a vast majority) have never even heard of René Descartes. Jim’s assertion doesn’t hinge on anyone’s awareness of Plato and Aristotle.

    It’s undeniable that there’s a strong undercurrent of Greek metaphysics running through most Christian theology. This is as much a product of the forthright Platonic realism found in pre-Scholastics and the Aristotelianism of the Scholastics as it is a product of the fact that (as westerners) we are all the intellectual children of Plato and Aristotle.

    sheldon: The BoM is replete with examples of where ornamentation was a tool for creating separate classes, and rubbing poverty in the face of the poor. We need look no further than the local high school to see how this plays out dramatically these days.

    I think that you’re right on the money, sheldon. Also, I think that it makes good financial sense (see below).

    APJ: Could the fundamentalists be living a life more in harmony with Book of Mormon teachings than mainstream members?

    I think not. The more fashionable the clothing, the shorter the period in which it’s appropriate to wear. So in addition to the fact that we shouldn’t seek to distinguish ourselves from others based on our prosperity, buying conservative clothing makes good financial sense. I buy most of my clothes at Costco (kaki pants and button up shirts), and I’m certain that my family puts fewer resources (cash and labor) into clothing than fundamentalists.

  16. Jim F. on November 27, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Sorry for taking so long to get back to some of your questions and comments. Between the up-coming end of the semester and holiday preparations and celebrations, there hasn’t been a lot of time for blogging.

    Rather than dealing with each response separately, let me try to respond to them as a whole.

    David King Landrith was correct in pointing out that I wasn’t suggesting a strict genealogical connection between Platonism and the tendency of some Christians to think about the rejection of ornamentation in Greek terms. I was noting something that appears in much Greek philosophy–including, in the end Aristotle, in spite of himself–and runs through our culture whether we are aware of it or not. (And I think I was clear that I was speaking only of “those Christians who rejected ornamentation,” rather than all Christians. Nate’s point about Abbot Suger is a very good one.) After all, in the end everything points toward nous for Aristotle, nous, that is not sullied by matter, and as David implied, we can see the same phenomenon in Cartesianism in two ways: its almost wholesale though unconscious adoption today, and its insistence that the mind is “better” than the body. The Stoics and the Epicureans are, I think, also very good examples of this tendency. Though not Platonists, they were equally as “guilty” of thinking that the body was an impediment to understanding truth as were the Platonists. Thus, as part of our Greek intellectual inheritance, we have a tendency to think in those terms and, especially I think, to read Paul in those terms. (More about “natural” below.)

    I would go so far as to say that there has been little in the Western philosophical tradition that hasn’t thought in these Greek terms: body, bad; mind, good. Nietzsche is obviously an example of someone who worked very hard to avoid that way of thinking and one of the reasons I find him quite interesting. The British empiricists tried hard also to avoid it, though with less success. For the most part, they couldn’t escape their Cartesian heritage. I think that Hume escaped it, though he is usually read as its culmination. His move to sentiment after having shown the absurdity of Cartesian certainty in Book I of the Treatise is, I believe, a very interesting move away from the Greek tendency. I would perhaps include others at about the same time, such as Reid and Butler.

    Keith’s suggestion that deviation from the norm is at work in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants admonitions for plainness, as well as Adam Greenwood’s, Sheldon’s, and J. Stapley’s suggestion that pride and class distinction are the problem, are both right. (However, I agree with Nate that Sheldon has unfairly characterized medieval aesthetics, and I think Keith is absolutely right to remind us that pride can take many forms, including pride in being unadorned.) The Book of Mormon consistently links fine clothing with pride.

    Greenfrog’s point about making deviation from the norm is good, unless the norm is the norm that Adam, Sheldon, and J. Stapley point out. That makes the norm a whole lot less Procrustean. However, it isn’t obvious that being part of a community and conforming to the norm of that community might not always be described as “Procrustean” by someone who prefers individuality over community. BYU’s edict that I may not wear a beard only grates on me when I’m thinking in individualistic terms. When I’m not, it doesn’t bother me at all. (That is not to say that I think there is something special or inspired about the edict, only that it is part of what it means to be a member of this particular community.) Some communities can go too far in their demands of what to expect of their members. I think that the Taliban were a particularly good example of that, but it isn’t easy to say just how one would define “too far.”

    As for the term “natural” in the scriptures: I think it most often has to do with the absence of the Holy Ghost. I think that in most cases we can reasonably understand “natural” to describe a person without the Holy Ghost. Of course, there are passages, such as that which Melissa points out, Alma 41:4, where it is used to mean something more like “proper,” but those uses are, I am fairly sure, the minority.

    In Paul, I think that words like “carnal” or “flesh” have a similar meaning: “without the Holy Ghost.” I think one can only read the end of Romans 7 and the first half of Romans 8 in those terms. There he is fairly explicit in rejecting the equation of “flesh” and “the body.” (See, for example, Romans 8:8-9, where he says that the Romans are not in the flesh. That only makes sense if “flesh” does not mean “body.”) Our tendency to read Paul through the “Greek” understanding of body and spirit is abetted by his occasional references to Stoic philosophy, but I think it is a mistake.

  17. Clark on November 27, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    Jim, I guess my point with the Stoics and Epicureans wasn’t to suggest they didn’t view rationality as one of the greatest goods, merely to point out that how they did this was very materialistic. After all wasn’t Epicureus the one who said all goods start with the stomach? (Or something along those lines) So asceticism in both, while definitely similar to the Platonists, also is quite different in other regards. But the Stoics in particular valued Socrates notion of the inner/outer world. I don’t think this is necessarily saying the mind is better than the body, since for both they are so entwined. Rather that the inner world is more important than the outer world. With the Stoics, as I recall, it was felt that one had freedom only within the inner world. (I don’t recall how the Epicureans viewed this, but I suspect their Hedonism led to fairly similar views, since pleasure was an inner experience)

    The reason I bring all this quibbling up is because my sense is that for the Epicureans what is important are our experiences of the world that bring pleasure. They just asserted that what was most pleasurable was discussing ideas with ones friends. For the Stoics happiness was more or less akin to that old addage of letting me only worry about the things I can change and ignore the things I can’t. Since they felt you can only change the inner world…

    But it seem that for both this isn’t valuing immaterial things more than material. Far from it. And that was what I was getting at. One can recognize that what we in common speech call being materialistic is bad, without abandoning a commitment to materialism.

  18. Jim F. on November 28, 2004 at 2:11 am

    Clark, I wouldn’t claim to be an authority on the Stoics, the Skeptics, or the Epicureans–not even a little bit of an authority–but I read them differently. Very quickly and even more dirtily: I see them as three related, overlapping philosophies in which the inner is, indeed, valued over the outer since (for the first two) what is ultimate cannot be known. If we cannot know what ultimate harmony with the divine requires, then we must find as many ways to be unperturbed as possible. Most perturbation comes from the body, so we ought to keep it in check, prevent it from disturbing whatever harmony with the Ultimate is possible. The Epicurean modification of that view was to claim that they did, indeed, know what it meant to be in harmony with the Divine, for happiness was the key. And happiness required the same kinds of disciplines that Stoicism and Skepticism required. None of these required extreme mortification of the flesh, but as I read them, they do require that we understand the body as an impediment to whatever union with the Ultimate is possible.

  19. Clark on November 29, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    I just want to make a few more comments here that I intended to write last week but never had time to.

    First I think one must distinguish between rationality as a means to an end, which I think characterizes stoic and epicurean focus on it, and rationality as the end itself, which I think is more characteristic of Plato. i.e. where the object of thought and thinking the object are the same – a perception of the intelligent world.

    With the Epicureans, rationality is important, but precisely because our goal is to experience all necessary pleasures and minimize pains. This is very bodily focused, but we bring to value the mental, because the mind, unlike the body, can also look forward or back in expectation or remembrance. Yet even those expectations or memories are still tied to empirical experience.

    Now there is among the Epicureans a focus on harmony as tied to the Good, much like the Platonists, and to a degree the Stoics. But this harmony is viewed as a well balanced state (katastema) of the flesh and our expectations regarding the flesh. i.e. the harmony isn’t a cosmic one, but one tied to our bodies. The debate amongst epicureans thus becomes the two aspects of happiness: freedom from disturbance or pain and then pleasures of awareness. The former are things to be eliminated while the latter are what is left. This then leads to two schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans over which is greater, physical or mental pleasures. The Epicureans privilege the mental, but certainly don’t neglect the bodily pleasures.

    What Epicureaus focuses in on is the dangers of “empty opinions.” This is because what is necessary for the body and what we often give it are quite different. (As all with expanding waistbands know) This leads Epicureus to state, “wherever intense seriousness is present in those natural desires which do not lead to pain if they are unfulfilled, these come about because of empty opinion.” Thus, for example, what causes stress for people isn’t unfulfilled sexual desire, but human beliefs contaminating such appetites with unnatural intensity. The only way to overcome this is to learn the limits of life – the understanding of correct principles. The distinction between the flesh and the mind is thus that the flesh (our unthought unbridled instincts) thinks there are no limits to appetite. (i.e. eat as much as you want, take drugs, all without thought to consequences) The mind can fear the future and thinking brings about greater pleasure. This limits is thus very similar to the Stoics. The flesh merely demands not to be in pain at present. The mind is content if it understands that pain is tolerable and pleasure easy to procure. That is because of the play of memories and expectations in understanding. i.e. I can enjoy sore muscles from working out if I know it brings about future stability. But a logical implication of this stance is, “he who least needs tomorrow will go with greatest pleasure to meet tomorrow.” This is fairly similar to what you find in Buddhism regarding attachments being the cause of much suffering.

    Likewise a lot which is attributed to mere intellectual focus, ala the Platonists, is really tied to friendship and practice. That is because friendship and discussion are so important. “Friendship dances round the world announcing to us all that we should wake up and celebrate blessedness.”

    I’ll not go into the Stoics too much. There are lots of similarities as well as important differences from both the Epicureans and the Platonists (I’ll leave alone the Aristotileans as I don’t know too much about them nor how influential Aristotle was in practice as its own movement as opposed to a criticism of Plato)

    The Stoics saw nearly everything as body. The universe is a kind of organism of which we are parts. Thus in a sense the ideal good is to function properly as part of the whole. The basic Stoic stance comes from Socrates in the Meno. Since what is rational is the logic of the organism as a whole, the good is “what is complete according to nature for a rational being as rational.” But this really is just functioning perfectly in ones place. And to know what that place is can only be arrived at by reason. Thus the elevation of the mind. Once again though, it isn’t for its own sake, as with the more Platonic groups. It is because reasons provides us with the goal of our existence and that existence is tied to material function.

    Now how does all this relate to the original topic?

    Well for both the Epicureans and the Stoics what was most real was material, not immaterial. Likewise reason was a good, not for its own sake, but because it provides us a proper harmony of material. For the Platonists there was a harmony, but a harmony with the most real which was immaterial.

    This has application to Mormon views because I think it changes how we deal with plainness and ornamentation. Take the Epicurean view, for instance. Focus on unnecessary jewelry and so forth increases our pain because it increases the intensity when we don’t have them. Yet we don’t need them. Thus it is wrong to focus on what is unnecessary. Indeed we will be happier without them because then the loss won’t bother us. We will be more stable.

    Take the Stoic view now. Each of us has a goal or function as being part of a larger body. To focus on things that don’t contribute to this end is to function poorly. We thus don’t function in our part of the whole and are unhappy.

    Both of these views, unlike the Platonic one, seem quite consistent with Mormonism. Look at the Nephites and their focus on clothing. It was unnecessary and led to conflict because it affected the intensity of its lack. Thus classes arise because one has what an other wants, even though it is unnecessary. Likewise the Stoic view is probably where Paul got part of the imagery of the body of Christ, of which each of us has a part. Are we functioning as a proper member of the body of Christ if we take our wealth and use it for ourselves rather than the functioning of the whole body? I think this is fairly similar to say Brigham Young’s views of the Law of Consecration. Having wealth isn’t bad, so long as it builds up the whole.

    So I don’t think either sees the body as an impediment, rather the body is the focus and recognizing what the body is (it’s meaning) is essential to happiness. To understand the body as an impediment to something else is to miss the body’s place in happiness.

  20. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    “and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hand”

    Jim, I’ll never forget my astonished awe at watching your daughter Beckie design and sew an entire dress in a few hours one Saturday night to wear to church the next day. Are we to read this language as a still-in-force injunction to produce our own clothing? (I hope not, but how else could one read it?)

    The conversation has zeroed in on plainness in dress and adornment of the body, and perhaps the text justifies that context only. But I think the tension between plainness and adornment is in play in other aspects of the gospel, as well–as Wilfried’s post about candles and ritual suggests. While in the Nauvoo temple last week, I was struck (as anyone who attended the open house might have been–I’m not revealing anything unknown here) at the contrast between the richly detailed wall illustrations in the creation, garden and world rooms and the stark whiteness of the walls in the veil and celestial rooms. Is this because plain blank whiteness is a higher form of beauty, or merely because we don’t know what the celestial kingdom looks like and thus don’t know how to illustrate the walls of the celestial room? I feel it’s the latter reason; and our vision of a highly social and productive celestial realm suggests that, when the time comes, we’ll have plenty of subjects for illustration of the celestial room walls. (Although there won’t be a need for temples at that point, I guess.)

  21. Clark on November 30, 2004 at 12:33 am

    I think that especially the early Saints were highly influenced by the still prevalent Renaissance views of heaven. Thus the fairly strong Greek influence in the SLC Celestial Room. (IMO) Although I laugh everytime I go in for two reasons. For one, it always reminds me of David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. (Those of you who remember the curtains know what I’m talking about) The other is the very Greek looking sculpture. When I first went to the SLC temple I couldn’t figure it out. One of the attendants, I guess noticing my bemusement came up to me and told me it was a gift from the French Government back in the 19th century and didn’t mean anything. (Why they put it there I can’t say) I also get a laugh at the very large vase in front of the door to the Holy of Holies. While it is a simple unadorned vase, I suspect its proximity is just to keep people from looking through the keyhole.

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