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Introduction | History of Hedonism
Introduction Back to Top

Hedonism is the philosophy that pleasure is the most important pursuit of mankind, and the only thing that is good for an individual. Hedonists, therefore, strive to maximize their total pleasure (the net of any pleasure less any pain or suffering). They believe that pleasure is the only good in life, and pain is the only evil, and our life's goal should be to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Psychological Hedonism is the view that humans are psychologically constructed in such a way that we exclusively desire pleasure. Ethical Hedonism, on the other hand, is the view that our fundamental moral obligation is to maximize pleasure or happiness. It is the normative claim that we should always act so as to produce our own pleasure.

Hedonism usually pre-supposes an individualist stance, and is associated with Egoism (the claim that individuals should always seek their own good in all things). Epicureanism is a more moderate approach (which still seeks to maximize happiness, but which defines happiness more as a state of tranquillity than pleasure). A similar but more altruistic approach results in Utilitarianism, the position that the moral worth of any action is determined by its contribution to overall utility in maximizing happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.

The Paradox of Hedonism (also called the Pleasure Paradox), points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles, in that they cannot be acquired directly, only indirectly and we often fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them.

The term "hedonism" is derived from the Greek "hedone" meaning simply "pleasure". In common language, Hedonism has come to mean devotion to pleasure as a way of life, especially to the pleasures of the senses, and is synonymous with sensualism, libertinism, debauchery and dissipation.

History of Hedonism Back to Top

Perhaps the earliest example of Hedonism (and one of the most extreme) was the philosophy of the Cyrenaics, an early Socratic school founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, in the 4th Century B.C. (although, arguably, Democritus had propounded a very similar philosophy even earlier). The Cyrenaics emphasized one side only of Socrates' teaching that happiness is one of the ends of moral action (Eudaimonism), while denying that virtue has any intrinsic value. They maintained that pleasure was the supreme good, especially physical pleasure, which Aristippus considered more intense and preferable to mental or intellectual pleasures, and especially immediate gratification, which he argued should not be denied for the sake of long-term gain.

Epicureanism is considered by some to be a form of ancient Hedonism. Its founder, Epicurus, agreed that pleasure is the greatest good, but he identified pleasure with tranquillity rather than bodily gratification, and emphasized the reduction of desire over the immediate acquisition of pleasure. 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.

During the Middle Ages, Christian philosophers largely denounced Hedonism, which they believed was inconsistent with the Christian emphasis on avoiding sin, doing God's will, and developing the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. However, Renaissance philosophers such as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More revived Hedonism to some extent, defending it on the religious grounds that pleasure was in fact compatible with God's wish for humans to be happy.

Libertinism is a philosophy related to Hedonism, which found adherents in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, particularly in France and Britain, including the 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 - 1680), the Marquis de Sade (1740 -1814) and the occultist Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947). Libertinism ignores, or even deliberately spurns, religious norms, accepted morals, and forms of behavior sanctioned by the larger society, and encourages gratification of any sort, especially sexual.

The 19th Century ethical theory of Utilitarianism, propounded by the British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, developed and refined Hedonism, concluding that we should perform whichever action is best for everyone ("the greatest good for the greatest number"). Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood, while Mill preferred a qualitative approach dependent on the mix of higher quality pleasures and lower quality, simple pleasures.

Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982), one of the biggest modern proponents of Egoism, has rejected Hedonism as a comprehensive ethical system on the grounds that, although pleasure can be the purpose of ethics, it cannot be the standard or guide to action, as that would result in intellectual and philosophical abdication.

Contemporary Hedonists, as represented by an organization known as Hedonist International, strive first and foremost for pleasure, as did their predecessors, but with an additional emphasis on personal freedom and equality. Christian Hedonism is a recent controversial Christian doctrine, current in some evangelical circles, which holds that humans were created by God with the priority purpose of lavishly enjoying God through knowing, worshiping and serving Him.

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