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Today, we mostly think of the term hedonism and think of heavy indulgence in all things bad. In movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, it seems as though the great drive to be rich and powerful is solely for the love of overindulging in drugs, partying, and sex. The word hedonism is used in common speech to stand for debauchery and over-indulgence in things that give us physical pleasure. However, hedonism is actually a philosophy that not only can lead a person to a happier life but also a healthier and more moral life.
While the earliest example of Hedonism was the philosophy of Cyrenaics, an early Socratic school founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, in the 4th century B.C., Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) is by far the most important and enduring Classical Greek philosopher regarding Hedonism. (philosophybasics.com) Epicurus is very often wrongly remembered as being an indulgent foodie who based his happiness on culinary pleasures. To be sure, nothing could have been more incorrect. Epicurus personally ate bread and water primarily. Things like wine and cheese were rare treats enjoyed with friends. “Thus, for Epicurus, the highest pleasure consists of a simple, moderate life spent with friends and in philosophical discussion. Epicurus was also careful not to suggest that we should live a selfish life which impedes others from obtaining their own pleasure.” (philosophybasics.com) During Epicurus’ time, there was a large push for trade and commerce, and increasingly the goal of the society was to become as wealthy as you can. For Epicurus, that was a very shallow and potentially harmful life motivation. He felt man naturally chose pleasure and avoided pain—the core principle of hedonism. Epicurus saw that the pursuit of money and bodily pleasure would often lead to an ever-escalating hunger and desire for more—leaving the person feeling defeated, stressed, and anxious of never having enough. Epicurus believed one should pursue simple, natural pleasures like bread, water, and friendship, and then learn to get rid of unnatural desires like enormous wealth or debauchery. “‘[According to Epicurus]. You need to stop desiring anything you don’t naturally need,’ says Warren [prof. of Classics at Cambridge University]. ‘Inspect those things you desire that’s either unnatural or unnecessary; then you should recognize that and stop wanting it.’” Epicurus genuinely believed people needed very little to be very happy and that we had the correct tools to live the good life. If we would investigate our desires and pursue the things that give us the most pleasure as well as examine our desires for things that ultimately prove to do more harm than good, we would, in the end, have a long and happy life with little suffering. Most of the time, we suffer because we desperately want things we do not need, and that will not give us pleasure. “It’s easy to fall into false beliefs about what matters, based on the expectations of those around us. Hedonistic philosophy helps to puncture those views and reminds us what’s truly valuable. True pleasure, far from being frivolous, is the ultimate indication of a life well-lived.” (Hedonism Holds the Secret to a Happier Life, but Not for the Reasons You Think by Olivia Goldhill, August 18, 2018, Quartz, qz.com)
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842) is a famous 18th-century philosopher that is primarily attributed to being the father of the philosophy utilitarianism. “Utilitarianism is a theory of morality, which advocates actions that foster happiness or pleasure and opposes actions that cause unhappiness or harm. When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole. Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group.” (Utilitarianism by Carla Tardi, June 14, 2020, investopedia.com) Jeremy Bentham believed in the essential hedonistic idea that man was driven to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Hedonism then was the backbone of morality. If man wanted to live a highly ethical and moral life, one should not only take actions for oneself that create happiness (or pleasure) and lessen pain, but one should also consider the many. One should make decisions based on what would make the most people happy and what would keep the most people from suffering pain. “In the late 18th century Jeremy Bentham revived hedonism both as a psychological and as a moral theory under the umbrella of utilitarianism. Individuals have no goal other than the greatest pleasure; thus, each person ought to pursue the greatest pleasure.” (Hedonism, britainica.com) Jeremy Bentham argued that ultimately people want to be happy and do not want to suffer pain. To live the best life, one should pursue a life that generates the most happiness and the least suffering possible. The way to make the most happiness and the least amount of pain is to make decisions based on what would make the most people happy. In a very real and simple sense, the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham says that the path of hedonism is the path of not being selfish and the path of considering how our actions affect the world and the people around us. The ultimate pleasure in life is being a cool person.
Far from being about overindulging in bodily pleasures, hedonism recognizes the basic human drive of pursuing pleasure while avoiding pain. Philosophers such as Epicurus and Jeremy Bentham both believed that the hedonist principle was correct; however, they rejected the common idea about what pleasure really is. Epicurus saw that greed and over-consumption only left people with more and more greed and hunger—never feeling happy or satisfied. Living a simple life of fresh air and good friends was a road to real pleasure and less pain. Later, Jeremy Bentham would take up hedonism and agree with its basic idea that man pursues pleasure and avoids pain. For him, it was the fundamental principle to build a greater moral theory. He believed a happy life was to live by the moral principle of trying to make personal, business, and political decisions on what would bring the most happiness and least amount of suffering to the greatest amount of people.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
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