Life is short — so we should live in a way to derive as much pleasure as possible. This is the logic of Hedonism…the ultimate purpose of life is very simple — seek the greatest amount of pleasure for yourself. But is it possible (or even desirable) to live only to satisfy our personal whims and desires whatever the cost?
This week we revisit the original idea of hedonism as ancient Greek philosophy that argued that pleasure and happiness are the primary or most important intrinsic goods and the aim of human life.
In this episode:
- How we think about hedonism today (ex. The Wolf of New York)
- Why hedonism is so appealing even when we consider ourselves moral characters
- Brief history of Hedonism from the ancient Greeks – Democritus, Aristippus and Epicurus.
- Hedonism vs Stoicism (the big schools of Greek Philosophy)
- Epicurus’s 3 kinds of desire
- Finding pleasure by removing pain
- Tetrapharmakos ‘The Four-Part Cure’ (Epicurus’s guidelines on how to live the happiest possible life)
- Bringing back Enlightened Hedonism – slow down, enjoy simple pleasures, pay attention!
In a brilliant book entitled The Hedonism Handbook: mastering the lost arts of leisure and pleasure, Michael Flocker gives a passionate and humorous defense of Hedonism. He writes, “Lying on a couch watching television with chips on your belly is numbing rather than pleasurable. Nor am I into working for 51 weeks and then going on a bender. My hedonism is about setting aside a little time each day to cultivate true pleasure.”
Images of hedonistic characters captivate us because, as Desiree Kozlowski writes in her article ‘What is hedonism and how does it affect your health?’, “they seem to reject the sensible responsible way to live. They indulge their carnal appetites in ways we dare not, with scant regard for the consequences.”
However as Kozlowski suggests, we might be better off calling this behaviour debauchery.
Because although the original Hedonists of Ancient Greece certainly thought that the aim of life was pleasure, they also advised that we live moderately and limit our desires in order to avoid the pain of overindulgence.
In fact, according the Hedonists like Epicurus, the greatest good comes from seeking modest, sustainable pleasure through freedom from fear (atarayia) and the absence of bodily pain (aporia).
In this sense, hedonism as we now think of it — excessive eating, drinking, sex etc would be out of the question as the discomfort and ill-health we would suffer from this lifestyle both in the short-term and certainly over time, would nullify the pleasure we experienced while indulging ourselves.
This is not, actually, hedonism.
And contemplating Hedonism in the context of Greek philosophy encourages us to ask ourselves how we conceptualise pleasure. Many activities we enjoy might be great in moderation, but become a problem in excess. And if we were to move into areas of addiction, pleasure is no longer the motivation nor the result of our behaviour. Relief, at that point, is perhaps the best we can hope for.
For Epicurus, this aim to seek pleasure as the ultimate purpose in life also had interesting implications for his attitude to the social contract. He argues, for instance, that we should obey the laws of society simply because the consequences of punishment or fear of getting caught take away the pleasure of the act.
When something causes trouble to obtain, it can’t be a source of pleasure. And so, Epicurus says, “It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honourably and justly.”
A practical definition of a Hedonist today might be someone who tries to maximise the everyday pleasures while still balancing other concerns. We might think of this as “rational hedonism”. In fact, Epicurus emphasised a simple, harmonious life without the pursuit of riches or glory.
Maximising pleasure, unlike with debauchery or addiction, need not take the form of more, bigger, better. Instead, we savour everyday pleasures. We relish them while they’re happening, using all our senses and attention, actively anticipate them, and reflect on them in an immersive way.
So, if my morning coffee gives me pleasure, I might pause and relish it while I drink it: inhale the fragrance of it fully and focus on the nuanced warm, smoky, bitter deliciousness of it. I should fully attend to the warmth of it in my hands, to the feeling of it in my mouth, and to the cascade of sensations and flavours it delivers.
Not only that, in the morning, before my coffee, I can anticipate it. I can think how lovely it will be. And later, as I go about my day, I can pause and think about that coffee, about just how warm and good it was, how it smelled and tasted.
In other words, I can immerse myself in these moments, in the anticipation, in the drinking itself, and in the remembering, and bring all my attention to them. This kind of savouring results in a totally different, and richer, experience than if I absent-mindedly gulp down the coffee while dodging traffic and talking on the phone
Okay…we’re off to savour some of life. Let us know what small daily things you find pleasure in – join the conversation here.