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Hedonism in European Thought


Hedonism is a modern word derived from the Greek hedone, or "pleasure." As a philosophical position, moral hedonism justifies pleasure as a good, or even the good. Its history can be traced back to Hellenistic philosophy.

Ancient ethics can be defined as a response to the question: "What is a good life?" The first reply to such a question is "happiness" (eudaimonia). This starting point is common to Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), to Epicureanism and Stoicism, but then the competition about the proper definition of "happiness" begins. What is happiness? And here, with the variety of meanings of eudaimonia, the discrepancy among philosophical traditions unfolds. Yet, at the point where the disagreement begins, we find a remarkable consensus about what usually comes to mind as the most obvious candidate. It is pleasure.

Now, for Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, hedone is both the first and the worst candidate. Only the Epicureans, after the Cyrenaics, accept it fully as the condition of a good life. The claim that pleasure is a value, even the criterion for moral worth, lies at the core of hedonism and its tradition.

Of all the philosophers who reject the value of pleasure, the most radical is Plato. He endorses the archaic vision of delight as oblivion, carelessness, and selfishness; worse still, except in the enjoyment of knowledge, pleasure cannot truly be, because desire is insatiable.

Whereas, for Plato, pleasure is unlimited, irrational, incompatible with virtue, especially justice, for Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.), pleasure is rational. It is a state of well being, made possible by the avoidance of pain, both physical and psychological, and by the satisfaction of desires, which are necessary, natural, and measured. For Epicurus, you calculate the amount of pleasure gained from an action, a passion, or a habit. You weigh the consequences, you make an optimal decision, choosing between an intense excitement, for which you will have to pay later, and a renouncement that will prevent predictable anxieties. This evaluation requires a constant use of prudence (phronesis), the moral and intellectual ability to anticipate the consequences of your choices in the long run. Pleasure is thus compatible with virtue. It is even virtue's essential goal, since, in order to be healthy and tranquil, you need to be thoughtful, cautious, and wise in all deeds. To the same end, you also have to manage the people around you, your beloved, your friends, your fellow citizens; and in view of that, you have to act beautifully (kalos) and justly (honeste).

Justice is nothing else than what is useful (sympheron) to avoid reciprocal harm within a community. Natural law is the acknowledgment of what successfully serves individuals in order not to injure each other. Pleasure is not ecstatic and excessive, and therefore it is not destructive. It is, on the contrary, beneficial and peaceful, thus it is vital. It is not shortsighted and self-centered; it is clairvoyant and inevitably generous. The Epicurean shift in the ethics of pleasure, intended as a person's best interest, is innovative. It is the original source of utilitarianism and of the transformation of the passions into reasonable calculations, a critical turn in the emergence of modernity.

During antiquity, Epicurus's thought was little known in Greece, yet became influential in Italy, where its simplicity fascinated the Roman elite. Philosophically, it was constantly under attack. Its novelty—its candid acknowledgment that human beings are equipped for honest pleasure and entitled to it—appeared always suspicious. Cicero was particularly contemptuous of it, precisely because of the conflation of honestas and voluptas (pleasure). The Epicureans couple the two, he claims, something which is to be deplored since the latter obscures—not to say pollutes—the full splendor of the former. The dialogue De finibus bonorum et malorum revolves around the disaster of such a disfiguration. Cicero argues that virtue and pleasure must be distinct and opposed to each other. When it comes to morality, the skeptical Cicero speaks a language with Stoic accents and sets the stage of a paradigmatic controversy about hedonism, which will constantly reemerge in modern philosophy.

On one side of this debate stand the Stoics, with their theory of virtue as the exercise of reason, the eradication of passions, and a complete detachment from any contingency. Following the principle of Platonic ethics, the Stoics fight against any form of instrumentality to which the good might be made subservient. To say that virtues are conducive to pleasure, and that pleasure should be their end, would be to degrade them to the level of means; this would be contradictory to the idea of honestum, as that which should be attained for its intrinsic, absolute value. On the other side are the Epicureans, for whom the good life results from a constant assessment of profits and losses, contingent to what can be expected, from the environment and in the foreseeable future. Virtue is connected to pleasure for an ethical and psychological reason. Evil is not simply done: it is not conducive to pleasure because evil is also felt by the one doing evil. Mistakes cause emotional disturbance. Vices are sources of endless worries, fears, and anxiety, whereas pleasure consists, above all, in a sensation of relief, from any kind of unsettling feelings. It is for the sake of tranquility and in one's best interest to avoid wickedness, envy, lust, violence, and all other flawed behaviors for the life of those who cultivate these passions is nothing but distress (intercapedo molestiae). By contrast, the honestum and the iustum (justice) set the mind to rest and results in ataraxy, a peaceful, as well as a virtuous, experience. It follows from a rational choice not to be anguished, but that means, of course, that the value of all the virtues depends upon their utility to that end. "Pleasure" is the name of their instrumentality.

In the fifteenth century, Lorenzo Valla and other humanists revived this debate about the possibility of a honesta voluptas and of a voluptuous excellence. The most important statement about the value of Epicurus's wisdom, however, is to be found in Erasmus' Colloquium familiare, entitled Epicureus (1533). This dialogue in defense of vera voluptas (pleasure in truth) offers a fervid celebration of the Garden, certainly inspired by Lorenzo Valla. Following a traditional line of argument that reverts to Torquatus, the Epicurean character in Cicero's De finibus bonorum ac malorum, a Mister Pleasure, Hedonius, takes up the defense of what can be an authentic and fine form of hedonism, against an incredulous Spudaeus (Earnest). There is no virtue without pleasure, Hedonius claims, and no true pleasure without virtue. This morality is compatible with Christian theology, because the calculation of pleasure is the perfect means to reach the end of afterlife bliss.

Even more, a virtuous existence is already exquisitely agreeable. Epicurus "puts the happiness of man in pleasure" and considers that a life is the happiest if it contains the maximum of pleasure and the minimum possible of sadness. "What could be said, that would be more saintly [ sanctius ] than this sentence?" asks Mister Pleasure. Indeed, nobody is more Epicurean than the Christians who lead a pious life (Christiani pie viventes): here are the most Epicurean people. True pleasure has nothing to do with sensuality and luxury, but with the fruition of true goods (vera bona), he argues. Now such enjoyment is possible only in a healthy and pious soul, because only a virtuous existence makes humanity happy, by reconciling God, the source of the highest good (summi boni fons) with man. The origin of that fruitio (fruition) and thus of voluptas, is God, more precisely the absolute goodness of God, the summum bonum that flows, so to speak, into the various forms of goodness accessible on Earth. Erasmus' praise of the Epicurean/Christian pleasure could not offer a more consistent resonance to the morality presented by Raphael Hythlodeus and the Utopians in Thomas More's Utopia (1515). With their insights about voluptas, those virtuous pagans, untouched by the Revelation, have found a kind of pre-Christian wisdom.

The defense of honest pleasure, against the recurrent misunderstandings of Epicurean ethics, continues along the same lines and with the same anti-Stoic arguments through the works of Pierre Gassendi to culminate in the "apology of Volupté," to be found in the Encyclopédie by Denis Didérot (1713–1784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783). After the eighteenth century, it is in the language of utilitarianism, therefore in terms of maximized advantage or best interest, that this ethic continued to flourish. In the early twenty-first century hedonism lost all philosophical dignity, to become a lifestyle, good only for literature and advertising.

Giulia Sissa

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