“Life is meant to be enjoyed”: on ecstatic states

A LIVELY theological crowd gathered at the Idler Academy on Thursday 24 October 2014 for philosopher Jules Evans’ talk on the 17th century English Mystic, Thomas Traherne — and his connection with babies laughing at dogs.

Jules, author of the best-selling Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, opened by telling us about the drug-induced breakdown he experienced after overdoing it on ecstasy and acid when he was a teenager. He also related a religious experience he had after falling off a mountain on a  skiing trip: “I saw a white light and was filled with love. This went on for about three months.”

Jules became interested in Stoicism and its modern descendant, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the school which teaches that we can control our reactions to events.

He said that Traherne was not well known in his time, and his work was only recently discovered. His great book was Centuries of Meditation. Jules read this and found it to be an uplifting manual: “It’s a manual for enjoying ourselves.” Traherne was adored by CS Lewis and quoted by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy.

Jules paraphrased Traherne’s message in the book: “We should study felicity. Folly messes you up. Wisdom is the answer.”

Traherne’s great enemy was his contemporary the rationalist Thomas Hobbes, who believed that societies need a strong central state to control our unruly impulses.

Jules went on to discuss Traherne’s attitude to nature. He was something of a proto-romantic, and believed that being in nature – trees, animals – could reconnect us with childish joy. To prove the point, Jules shows some hilarious clips of overjoyed babies laughing with dogs (above).

You could say that Traherne’s message was: “follow the bliss”.

Theologically speaking, Jules argued that Traherne united Athens and Jerusalem, in other words, he harmonised the pagan Greek tradition and the Christian tradition.

Jules concluded by saying that he is hoping for a Traherne revival. With that aim, we at the Idler heartily concur, Yes comrades, the Traherne revolution starts here.


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