Japan and ancient Greece vs Christian West

Foucault explains, in the second volume of History of Sexuality, how the Greeks saw five basic needs: Eating, drinking, sleeping, having sex and exercising. The challenge for humans was to find a sound relationship to these needs. One shouldn’t over-consume any of them. (Food and drinks goes without saying, but the Greeks also despised bodybuilders.) The keyword was sofrosyne – moderation, a kind of self-discipline; it’s nicer to go to bed if you’re sleepy (having had the discipline to get up early in the morning), and it’s nicer to eat if you’re hungry (having had the discipline not to eat some snack at the slightest feeling of hunger).

Foucault’s point was that the Greeks saw sex as just one of these basically good needs. There were no rules governing certain sexual practices; the only taboo was to indulge in sex, but it was as much a taboo to indulge in any of the basic needs/pleasures. This contrasts with Christian Europe, where sex in itself was seen as a basically negative need, and where certain (not to say most) sexual practices were banned.

Today I learned that the Japanese traditionally have the same view as the Greeks. The needs or greeds are called yoku/欲, and they are sorted into basic needs and worldly (or social) needs:

Basic needs/drives (honnouyoku/本能欲)

  • Appetite/”food drive” (shokuyoku/食欲)
  • Sex drive (seiyoku/性欲)
  • Sleep drive (suiminyoku/スイミン欲, unsure about the kanji)

Worldly needs/drives (shakaiyoku/社会欲)

  • Career drive (shusseyoku/出世欲, middle kanji seems to be wrong)
  • Conquer drive (seifukuyoku/征服欲)
  • Money drive (kinsenyoku/金銭欲)
  • And many others …

Even though Buddhism is basically critical of all “greeds”, the resemblance with ancient Greece is still striking in that sex is not treated in a special way, the way it is and always was in Christian Europe. Just like the Greeks, the Japanese built a whole science of what Foucault calls “dietics”, or how we relate to our needs: The Japanese word kinyokushugi/禁欲主義 means something like “forbidden greed-ism” and can maybe be compared to the Greek sofrosyne.

Conclusion: The values and mindset of ancient Greece are not to be found in Christian Europe (obviously, hello!), but rather in the Japanese culture.

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