I think many feasts are done wrong.
I recently wrote a blog post about the trouble with house parties, and then when I was reading Aesthetics, Hildebrand hit me with a thunderbolt. I realized that perhaps that trouble is merely symptomatic of a wider trouble.
In Hildebrand’s treatment of the aesthetic value of spiritual beauty, he contrasts it with the aesthetic disvalue of the prosaic. The prosaic is the unattractive quality of being dull, un-poetic, attracting no more than a practical interest. The prosaic is perhaps best embodied in the visual of a series of office cubicles, or a factory assembly line. It is not only the absence of beauty, but an actual stifling of it, an almost deliberate negation.
He then follows this up with the point that the antithesis between the prosaic and beauty is not to be confused with the antithesis between the everyday and the festive. (2) And this I found surprising, because surely the ‘everyday’ or the ‘habitual’ seems like almost the same thing as the prosaic? However, simply because a thing happens every day does not guarantee that it is prosaic. For instance, sunrises and sunsets both occur daily; every day I encounter people who fill my life with joy, and every morning the married man wakes up next to the woman he loves. These cannot be prosaic realities. In spite of the fact that human nature possesses a terrible flaw that the more habitual and everyday a thing becomes, the more we tend to associate it with the prosaic, this does not in any way indicate that everyday occurrences are in fact prosaic. This is, in itself, a significant thing to meditate on, though it is not the main point that I am looking to arrive at.
In reality nothing need be prosaic, it is entirely possible that the every day be filled with beauty. So what then is this ‘festive’ that is the antithesis to the ‘everyday’? The festive is the unique quality of a thing capturing its beauty in as far as it grants a relief from the labor of life, a vacare, a foreshadowing of the eternal rest which awaits man beyond this life. It also contains a certain brightness, a vivaciousness, an aesthetic warmth. It is high-spirited. Lastly, but most importantly, the festive is exceptional, it has as its object a special occasion, a particular source of joy: a wedding, a birthday, an ecclesiastical feast, the Sabbath. This is especially why the festive is the antithesis to the everyday; it revolves around objects that are qualitatively special and unique, demanding of us a festive and joyful spirit. The third quality is the reason for the first two: the vacare and the high spirits.
But then, Hildebrand mentions offhand something that I found to be of incredible relevance. There is a different kind of festive, a festive in which the first two qualities are present but not the third. This kind of festive is a relief from labor and a lifting of the spirits, but without a reason to do so. It is feasting merely for the sake of feasting. (4)This is typified in the ‘bread and circus’ which the Roman emperors used to pacify the mob. They handed out easy sources of entertainment to keep them occupied. This second type of the festive is entertainment solely to be entertained. In other words, it is nothing but distraction.
This second type of the festive is inherently illicit, it denies feasting its very reason for existence. It puts the cart before the horse in the sense that feasting is celebration, and celebration is about something. Feasting without celebration is… nothing but self-indulgence.
This second kind of the festive differs from the prosaic in that it is not dull and can even be vivacious, but, unlike the first kind of festive, it does not lift us out of the prosaic, it does not actually provide us with something that is qualitatively opposed to the prosaic, it does not center around an object with goodness and beauty.
These two senses of the festive result in two attitudes toward feasts and feast days. In one attitude, when a feast day or a celebration rolls around, I ought to feast; I ought to be joyful and high-spirited, I ought to eat, drink, and be merry, not because tomorrow I may die, but because today is good. Life is beautiful and it is especially beautiful today. There is moral merit in this kind of feasting.
In the second attitude I am constantly looking to escape from life. And feasts and celebration are simply an opportunity to do this, or rather, an excuse. Here I feast because I find life is not good, and with a little bit of pleasure I am able to ignore this fact. I just want to “Forget about life for a little while.”
Unfortunately, I find that this second sense of feasting often dominates the modern man. An example of this is the Catholic who thinks that it is ‘weak’ to excuse himself from his Lenten fast on Sundays. This is not something that is permitted simply because otherwise one couldn’t make it all 40 days; this is something that is demanded by the nature of the Sabbath. Another example is that because we constantly look for excuses to “have a good time”, the actual days on which we ought to do this do not seem so special and important. Ever notice that birthdays, Christmases, Easters, or 4th of Julys can sometimes feel more like awkward social gatherings that are societally demanded than legitimate celebrations?
Perhaps one might object that there aren’t that many actual feast days and if we reserved celebration for those times then life would be exceptionally boring. I beg to differ, there is at least one Sabbath every week. And there are the great feasts: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year’s. There are also more personal things, birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries. And there are accomplishments, completing of great tasks. There are friends who are able to visit; there are going-away-parties. There is the changing of seasons; sometimes there are just exceptionally beautiful days. There are more than enough reasons to celebrate! What the two different types of the festive distinguish more than anything else is one’s attitude towards celebration. It is the difference between looking for an excuse to self-indulge, and the openness to acknowledging and participating in the inherent beauty in the world by one’s own joyful attitude, which can be further manifested in and through material ‘props’ if you will: a fine meal, a spirited beverage, a fire, and above all, companions.
Ask yourself this question, do I celebrate for me, or do I do it for the sake of that which is celebrated? True celebration is the latter and it is by far the more joyful, for as in all things, when I put myself first, I tend to lose myself. When I place my own enjoyment as the end, somehow my concentration on myself prevents me from actually enjoying. This is but a revelation of that great and mysterious statement in the Gospels, “For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it.” (Luke 9:24)
Do not feast for yourselves, but learn to feast for a reason.
(2) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, pg. 222
(4) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, pg. 223