Wednesday 4 August 2010

Fr. Seraphim Rose on 'fun'

"[Modern life has become] a constant search for "fun" which, by the way, is a word totally unheard of in any other vocabulary; in 19th century Russia they wouldn't have understood what this word meant, or any serious civilization.

"Life is a constant search for "fun" which is so empty of any serious meaning that a visitor from any 19th-century country, looking at our popular television programs, amusement parks, advertisements, movies, music—at almost any aspect of our popular culture—would think he had stumbled across a land of imbeciles who have lost all contact with normal reality.


"It is important for us to realize, as we try ourselves to lead a Christian life today, that the world which has been formed by our pampered times makes demands on the soul, whether in religion or in secular life, which are what one has to call totalitarian.


"The message of this universal temptation that attacks men today—quite openly in its secular forms, but usually more hidden in its religious forms—is: Live for the present, enjoy yourself, relax, be comfortable.

"Behind this message is another, more sinister undertone which is openly expressed only in the officially atheist countries which are one step ahead of the free world in this respect. In fact, we should realize that what is happening in the world today is very similar whether it occurs behind the Iron Curtain or in the free world. There are different varieties of it, but there is a very similar attack to get our soul.

"In the communist countries which have an official doctrine of atheism, they tell quite openly that you are to: Forget about God and any other life but the present; remove from your life the fear of God and reverence for holy things; regard those who still believe in God in the "old-fashioned' way as enemies who must be exterminated.

"One might take, as a symbol of our carefree, fun-loving, self-worshipping times, our American "Disneyland"; if so, we should not neglect to see behind it the more sinister symbol that shows where the "me generation" is really heading: the Soviet Gulag, the chain of concentration camps that already governs the life of nearly half the world's population."

The Orthodox World-View - by Father Seraphim Rose of Platina


I was watching a kids movie called Sharkboy and Lavagirl the other day, and the plot revolved around the right of kids to have fun and the evil of grown-ups who thwarted this. 

This was a rather naive, pop-culture expression of a fundamental modern reality: good equals fun and evil equals those who would prevent us having fun. 


What makes Seraphim Rose use the word 'totalitarian' is the insight that to impose fun on society would be a totalitarian project - in outcome for sure, and quite possibly in aim as well...

The late Gordon Brown, New Labour UK government was playing with the idea of replacing Gross Domestic Product (and economic measures of governmental success)  with some version of Gross National  Happiness ( - based on surveys. 

That government would be regarded as best which would lead to the best 'happiness' ratings on poll... 

Aside from the incoherence and vacuousness of the ide, its utter lack of validity, its openness to corruption and its invitation to dishonesty - it would be a short and decisive step into totalitarianism for governments to deploy their power to 'make people happy'. 

What a nightmare! - and easy enough to imagine since most Sci Fi readers have already experienced it vicariously.  


Fun as the focus of life makes perfect sense in a secular society - if life is about nothing more than self-gratification, if 'heroism' is delusion, if God is dead; then anyone who interferes with self-gratification is evil. 

(Except that even this does not make sense, since evil people are merely having fun themselves in preventing the fun of others. A philosophy of fun cannot coherently argue that one kind of fun is better than another. Why should the fun of many count for more than the fun of one? - is fun something to be weighed and measured like coal? - that sound like a pretty un-fun perspective...) 


Fun has been the basic, counter-culture morality since romantic times and indeed earlier - from the clowns of Shakespeare, the 'artists' of La Boheme, through to the hippes of Easy Rider, and the slobs of Animal House. 

And all the amoral anti-heros and hedonistic sidekicks of high culture from Diogenes the Kynic, Leporello and Papageno in Mozart's operas, the Good Soldier Svejk, Han Solo...

We sympathize, we admire the clear-sightedness of these characters, their lack of 'hypocrisy', their quick wits, their simplicity... 

But when it exists in isolation this is a grown-up-kids morality, a pampered-pets morality - a pre-enlightened, non-self-aware, young animal perspective on life. 

Not the kind of morality which could sustain a civilization or a reflective adult life. Not the kind of morality which can, in fact, sustain a *human* life.

And indeed as soon as one becomes *aware* that fun is indeed the underlying morality - as soon as a counter-culture philosophy becomes explicit; when fun is 'officially' placed at the centre of things: it is the most dreadful, despairing, dull, desolate concept of life.


Jaz said...

I remember back in high school (early 80s) one of my teachers went around the class and asked everyone what they wanted to do in life. It was illuminating how everyone wanted to "have fun". I don't believe we all had a clear picture of what we really wanted, but the default answer, given without deep thinking, was telling.

I told some of the young men and women at church this tale. I suggested that if they ever came across such a situation they say something like: "I want to be holy and grow old and watch you all make wreckage of your lives as you seek fun, then have you revile me for being right and content."

dearieme said...

I don't much mind "fun" as a noun but as an adjective it's a sure sign of piffle. "This is a fun painting" invites, nay demands, the retort "Fuck off, madam".

Anonymous said...

I can agree with most of the sentiments expressed, but I'm not sure that I would want to hold
19th Century Russia up as an avatar of a "serious" society, given where that ended up; and no, the state of Russian society in the 19th Century is not unconnected with what happenned in the 20th. Also, some research indicates that Fr. Rose was (and is)a rather controversial figure within Orthodoxy - Does Fr. Rose actually represent mainstream Orthodox thought? Not a criticism, just a question - I don't know that much about Orthodoxy.

There's nothing wrong with having fun and enjoying yourself, but when these thing become the only goal in life, Fr. Rose is certainly right - where this ends up is the farthest thing from "fun".


Bruce Charlton said...

@Tschafer - I am no expert on Eastern Orthodoxy - being a very recent 'convert'!

But it was Fr. Seraphim Rose that drew me in, and also reading Byzantine history.

I'm not really interested by the 'mainstream' of any institution, since all institutions are (at any given time) substantially corrupt - more the core, or best of it.

Anonymous said...

"Fun is the one thing that money can't buy" -- a line from a Paul McCartney song which never fails to jar me when I hear it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - indeed. Jarring, and almost-totally false.

Because if fun is your main object in life, then money is the most useful assistance you could have (assuming you already have the necessary constitution).