Hedonism: “Grabbing for All the Gusto!” (pt. 2)

from Mar 31, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from Hedonism: “Grabbing for All the Gusto!” pt. 1)

Stoics: Seeking Peace of Mind
In addition, the Epicureans searched for the same thing that the Stoics sought, but they approached it in a completely different manner. The goal of Epicurean philosophy was the achievement of peace of mind. This quest was not unique to the Epicureans. Doesn’t everyone want peace of mind? The answer is obvious, but how does one obtain it? The Stoics felt that the only way to find peace of mind was by adopting a philosophy they called “imperturbability.” That means you don’t let anything bother you. You adopt a “stoical attitude” toward all things. You do not get emotionally involved, you do not get your hopes up, nor do you let your hopes down, but you maintain an emotional state of equilibrium where nothing bothers you. You adopt a detached feeling toward those things over which you have no control.

This philosophy was based on a very deterministic understanding of the world. That is to say, all things happen by fixed mechanical causes. According to the Stoics, we cannot change things. “Que será, será” (“whatever will be, will be”) was originally the song of the Stoics. They said, “The only thing that I have control over in my life is how I inwardly react to circumstance. If I’m going to get hit by a car this afternoon, I can’t help that because I have no control over it.” The Stoic sought to master the ability of being “cool.” He would try to not allow anything to shake him up inwardly.

The Epicureans approached the search for peace of mind from the other direction. They believed that one could change the state of affairs as well as the events that affect our lives. That happens, primarily, through an active pursuit of pleasure and an active avoidance of pain.

Few people in our society will come right out and say, “Hedonism is my philosophy of life. I live for pleasure and for the avoidance of pain.” Hugh Hefner of Playboy might put his name to a philosophy like this, but most people still have a negative opinion of this view of reality (even though we live in a secular environment). Yet in the same breath, we would all acknowledge that there is a little of the hedonist in every one of us. Even the masochist is a hedonist. He is a reverse hedonist, for he seeks to maximize pain, not in order to avoid pleasure but to gain it. He has a short circuit in terms of pain and pleasure, but he is still seeking pleasure.

In facing reality we need to ask ourselves, “Who does not want to have experiences that are pleasant?” Who really wants to enjoy pain? I’ll be the first to admit that I want pleasure and that I want to avoid pain; I want comfort and I want to have a full stomach at the end of the day. I want to feel good; I don’t want to feel bad! No one I know differs in that way. Hedonism has capitalized on a universal “given” in human nature. All persons are creatures of sensation. We have feelings. We experience pain and we don’t like it. We experience pleasure and we do like it. What the hedonist does is to affix the suffix ism which transforms pleasure into a philosophy of ultimates. Pleasure becomes the ultimate criterion of value, so that truth and goodness are determined by what produces pleasure.

The Bible presents a very different view. Christ tells us from the beginning that a committed relationship with Him will involve pain. Christ was not a hedonist when He went up to Jerusalem. He had a duty to perform which was good and true, but which was also painful. The hedonists would declare Christ a fool forever. In their eyes, He voluntarily accepted unnecessary pain.

The Optimum of Pleasure Is in God’s Kingdom
To put things in balance, we must say that Christianity does not call us to seek suffering, or to pursue pain, or to flee from that which is pleasant. There is no sin in enjoying the pleasant and being free from pain, but there are times when the Christian must choose the road that results in pain. Because of this, we do not consider hedonism as the highest good. We believe that the ultimate good will bring us the maximum pleasure and the minimum of pain. From a Christian perspective, the location of maximum pain is in the pit of hell and the optimum abode of pleasure is in the kingdom of God.

Pleasure is defined differently by the Christian than by the hedonist. Hedonism tends to see pleasure strictly on the level of sensual feeling, and it is restricted to physically quantifiable dimensions.

Try an exercise for the next week. Count the number of times you see or hear the word feel or feelings. Then consider how the word feeling functions in our culture. The term is so pervasive in our society that traditional forms of language have changed to accommodate it.

As a teacher, I read many students’ papers. I wear out red pencils, not to mention my hand, correcting presentations that repeatedly say, “I feel that we should do this….” “I feel that Descartes is wrong,” or “I feel that Kant made a mistake here.” The refrain is monotonous: “I feel, I feel, I feel.” When the student declares, “I feel that Kant made a mistake” he means that he thinks Kant committed an error. The student is making a cognitive judgment. It is not a feeling, it is thinking. To be sure, thoughts evoke feelings. The student may feel remorse or jubilation about discovering an error in Kant, but that is a result of his cognitive evaluation. It is not the cognitive evaluation itself.

The exploration of feelings is appropriate for the physician or the psychologist. When an individual comes to me for counseling, I know that feelings are important. In such a situation, I don’t ask the husband, “What do you think of your wife?” I ask feeling questions because I know they are the loaded ones where the emotions are expressed. I will ask him, “How do you feel when she does this or that?” I am trying to get at the feelings. I don’t want to deny for a moment that feelings are an essential part of what it means to be human. But feelings are not the same thing as thinking. The sensuous has become so exaggerated in our culture that we talk about “feeling” ideas instead of “thinking” ideas, about “feeling” thoughts instead of “thinking” thoughts.

The interest of the general public in the relatively new science of psychology has grown at an explosive rate. We are a nation preoccupied with analyzing our moods and our feelings. One obvious manifestation of this preoccupation with feelings is seen in the explosion of drug use. Mind-altering drugs are used to induce euphoria. The cocaine and marijuana industries in this nation, as well as that of alcohol, are multibillion-dollar-a-year businesses.

In 1963 I was working at the Saint Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. I remember one day a Cadillac limousine drove up in front of the hospital and a girl stepped out of it and was escorted to the psychiatric ward. She was admitted to the alcoholic section there. She was fifteen years old. The story of her admission went through the hospital like wildfire. It was astonishing to the workers that a fifteen-year-old girl could be a hard-core alcoholic. That was more than twenty years ago. Today there are literally millions of teenage alcoholics in the United States. The public broadcasting networks have sponsored a film entitled The Chemical People that documents the epidemic spread of child alcohol and drug addiction. The quest for euphoria, for free-floating escape from pain has a heavy price tag.

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This is part sixteen of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.