Hedonism

I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity” (v. 1).  

- Ecclesiastes 2:1–11

Hedonism, the final non-Christian worldview we will cover in our brief study of philosophy, can be traced back all the way to the garden of Eden. Genesis 3:6 says that Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit partly because it was a “delight” to her eye. There was a certain amount of pleasure that the fruit gave her when she beheld it, and, no doubt, a degree of pleasure that she thought she would receive should she disobey God and take from the tree. In retrospect, however, Eve found only pain when she and Adam sinned (Gen. 3:7, 16–19).

As a worldview, hedonism is concerned with the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. At various points in history it has expressed itself crassly. We can think, for example, of the orgies and drunkenness in ancient Greece and Rome. Other hedonists, however, have been more thoughtful and have done their best to minimize the “hedonistic paradox.” A basic problem with hedonism is that in striving to achieve pleasure you may actually find what you most want to avoid — pain. If you reach too far in pursuit of pleasure you might fail and be frustrated, which is painful. Paradoxically, in looking to satisfy your own lusts you might just find a world of hurt. The Epicureans of ancient Greece are an example of these thoughtful hedonists. They pursued pleasure, but not “too much” in order to avoid the negative consequences of failure.

Tyranny is the logical end of hedonism. Perhaps I can maximize my pleasure only by maximizing your pain. A hedonistic worldview cannot consistently condemn me, since, after all, I am just seeking my own pleasure. Thoughtful hedonists might say pleasure is found only if no one is harmed, but this is an appeal to an objective idea of pleasure, which hedonism denies. Only the group with the most power can maximize its own pleasure when a transcendent norm does not define pleasure.

In part, Christianity is about the pursuit of pleasure, but this pleasure is one that is defined by a transcendent God. Christ says true pleasure is found in life eternal, which, to hedonism’s disgust, can only be found by those who are willing to endure intense pain for the Lord (Matt. 16:24).  

Coram Deo

Hedonism tends to say that the only pleasure worth having is sensual in nature. It is ultimately a futile pursuit, as Solomon says in today’s passage. We are made to have a relationship with an infinite being, and therefore nothing finite can satisfy us permanently. Jesus alone can complete us. As we pursue Him, Christ satisfies us (Matt. 11:30) and will both now, and in eternity, bring us to deeper levels of pleasure in Him.

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 23:19–21
Isaiah 55
1 Timothy 5:6
1 Peter 4:1–6

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