Some Americans have never heard the word hedonism but few have not experienced the impact of the philosophy of hedonism on their lives. As a world view, hedonism has as its basic principle the belief that the good and the evil are defined in terms of pleasure and pain. Man’s ultimate purpose for living is to be found in enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain. The hedonist’s constant goal in life is to pursue those things which increase pleasure and decrease pain.
Hedonism is not new. Historically, its roots go to the earliest times of recorded history. We could trace it to the Garden of Eden if necessary. In formal philosophy, however, hedonism can be traced to the ancient Greek culture, to the school of the Cyrenaics in the late fourth century b.c. The Cyrenaics were what we might call crass hedonists. We have probably seen their philosophy of life portrayed on film, in scenes of Roman orgies in which people indulged themselves in wine, women, and song with reckless abandon. Fellini’s film Satyricon was perhaps the most vivid portrayal of this kind of life-style that Hollywood has ever produced. In ancient times, pagans had a festival of celebration for the god of wine, Bacchus. Indulgence was the byword as Bacchus was honored by a wild orgiastic celebration.
Hedonism not only became a philosophy in parts of the ancient world, but was actually elevated to the level of a religion. Dionysius was worshiped by means of a frenzied orgy also. He was honored as the one who would give us the ability to break free from the chains that inhibit us. These chains were to be found in our normal states of consciousness and awareness. The Greek philosophers understood that there were limits to what we are able to know through the use of our senses. There was also a limit to the knowledge that we could attain by speculation on the basis of reason. Some sought release from the normal restraints of human knowledge by means of intuition or mystical experience while others worshiped the god that they thought would give them the ability to transcend the normal limits of consciousness. Dionysius was the god who provided the means. In the state of drunkenness a person became free of the normal inhibitions of waking life. People believed that in a drunken stupor they could make contact with the supernatural world during their mystical experience of “euphoria,” an experience called not “getting low,” but “getting high.” This meant breaking through the limits and the structures of normal consciousness. Added to this was an array of sexual involvements including temple prostitution. The prostitutes were able to help a person break down his inhibitions so that he could make contact with the gods and experience the feeling of ecstasy that was the release of the soul. The Cyrenaics adopted this crass form of radical indulgence in drunkenness and sex.
Epicureans: The Art of Finding Pleasure
The Epicureans of antiquity represented the second stage of hedonism. They were more sophisticated. Today we often use the term epicurean to describe a person with exquisite taste, one who can identify the finest wines, but who is not himself a drunkard. He has a gourmet palate and understands the intricacies of the culinary arts. He is knowledgeable about the finest clothes and appreciates the finer things of life, a person who is devoted to his creature comforts because he seeks to enjoy life by pursuing a sophisticated level of pleasure.
The Epicureans adopted a more refined variety of hedonism. They did so because they learned early the problem with Cyrenaic hedonism, the problem of excess. This problem has been referred to as the “hedonistic paradox”: if the hedonist fails to achieve the measure of pleasure he seeks, he experiences frustration. Frustration is painful. If we fail to find the pleasure we are seeking, the result is frustration and pain. The more we seek pleasure and the more we fail to achieve it, the more pain we introduce into our lives. On the other hand, if we achieve all the pleasure we seek we become sated and bored. Boredom is the counterpart of frustration; it is also painful to the pleasure seeker. Again, the paradox: If we achieve what we want, we lose; if we don’t achieve what we are searching for, we lose. The result of hedonism is the exact opposite of its goal. Its only fruit is ultimate pain.
The Epicureans also understood the price tag of pleasure. Part of the hedonistic paradox is that the momentary enjoyment of pleasure may have painful consequences. The Epicureans understood that if you indulged in too much wine, the result would not be exquisite enjoyment of fine-tasting wine, but the awful hangover of the next day. Likewise, if you overindulged in sexual activities, the odds were greatly increased that you would add venereal disease to your future misery.
Overindulgence has its price. In our own kitchen we have several warning signs: “Those who overindulge, bulge!” “A second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!” Recognizing the price paid for pleasure, the Epicureans tried to create a more balanced enjoyment of pleasure and pain. For example, they believed that one should keep pleasure at a moderate level; just a little bit of adultery is enough to spice up life and keep the excitement flowing in the human heart.
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.
“If It Feels Good, Is It Good?”
Hedonism makes a value judgment by saying that the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are good. At the same time, it produces a system of ethics which, in turn, produces a certain behavioral pattern of morality. A popular maxim of our culture is “If it feels good, it is good.” Goodness is determined by feeling. Popular music communicates the message that the final test of what is right is the feeling test.
The sexual revolution is rooted in a hedonistic ethic. A recent quote from author Helen Gurley Brown indicates how much our society has been influenced by hedonism. She has given us a new definition of promiscuity. In the fifties the word promiscuity meant “having sexual relationships with more than one person, outside of marriage.” The new definition by Helen Gurley Brown is “Having sexual relationships with more than one person in the same day.” Catch that phrase, “in the same day.” That is the new definition of promiscuity. We must understand that the sexual revolution our nation has experienced has not happened in a vacuum. There are cultural and philosophical reasons for these changes.
At the root, hedonism is a philosophy of despair. It reflects a deep-seated sense of hopelessness of people trapped on this side of the wall. It is a quasi-logical conclusion to secularism. If my life is bound by the poles of birth and death, if my life has no eternal significance, then why not grab whatever pleasure I can squeeze out of my brief time on earth? If death is ultimate and life is meaningless, we need an escape. Temporary euphoria seems better than none at all. The cocaine high, the sexual orgasm, the gourmet meal all offer at least a brief respite from constant despair. The final creed of the hedonist is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The ancient Epicurean and the modern hedonist both search for the same thing--peace of mind. They are looking for relief that goes beyond Rolaids. Peace of mind, however, is elusive. The deepest desire of man is for a stable peace, a peace that lasts without giving way to a hangover.
Saint Augustine was a crass hedonist before his conversion to Christianity. He pursued the sensuous route; he was a pleasure seeker. His famous prayer, penned after his conversion, expressed the human dilemma: “O God, thou hast created us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Augustine saw a link between human restlessness, a gnawing form of anxiety, and living against the purpose of our creation. We were created for God. Just as fish are in despair out of water, so the human soul is in despair when it is outside of fellowship with God. The Westminster Catechism asks: “What is man’s chief end?” The answer provided is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
The goal of man is God. He is the fountain of peace, the wellspring of joy. We were created for happiness, not gloom. We were created for hope, not despair.
Americans are guaranteed the “inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.” There is a profound difference, however, between pursuing happiness and seeking pleasure. We often confuse them.
Sin destroys happiness. By sinning we violate God. We injure our relationship with Him. We frustrate the goal of our own humanity. But sin is pleasurable. If sin offered no pleasure it would have little attraction for us. The enticement of sin is for the short-term feeling of pleasure. Pleasure is so called because it is pleasing to us. It is pleasant. Happiness is also pleasant. It is also pleasing to us. We can state it this way: All happiness is pleasurable, but not all pleasure yields happiness.
Pleasure and happiness are closely linked. But happiness is a particular type of pleasure. It endures. It goes beyond momentary euphoria to blessedness. It yields the authentic fruit of joy, a joy that lasts forever.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt was previously published in R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986.