The impossibility of hedonism

The Friday after Thanksgiving, curiously nicknamed Black Friday, is supposed to be the start of the Christmas shopping frenzy and one of the most profitable days for American retailers.  This year, it appears, shoppers are in an expansive mood.  Having been stuck in a couple of shopping centers through no fault of my own, I can confirm sightings of crowds so immense as to make the possibility of any transaction, I would think, nearly impossible.  People are out and spending.

Of course, they spend to get.  And their frenzy to consume would serve as evidence to  those who see self-indulgence as the ruling passion of the American character.  We are, our accusers believe, obese ghouls staggering blindly through shopping malls, unable to resist the call of pleasure, consuming unto death – ours and the world’s, which we pollute and exploit in the satisfaction of our desires.

This portrait has much truth in it, though only so far as it applies to the entire human race.  After all, Americans work longer hours than Europeans – and what are they doing in their free time, reading Kant?  Three years ago I took a taxi ride through the English city of Reading, and the only local spot the cabbie bragged about was the hideous new shopping mall.  Our own malls have been eclipsed by China’s, a country that seems determined to outdo us in every excess.

People seek pleasure and avoid pain.  This is a biological, not a philosophical, imperative.  It is therefore a description, not a prescription.  Quite naturally, though, philosophers have seized on this principle – the universal desirability of pleasure – and, by only a slight change in emphasis, have converted it into the end or goal of human life – the moral goodness of pleasure.

Such philosophers have been called in a generic way  hedonists, though we know them better by the names of their particular “schools”:  epicureans and utilitarians, for example.  All believed that the greatest good was the attainment of pleasure.

Richard Taylor writes:  “the everyday philosophy of vast numbers of people is the philosophy of hedonism, even though most of them may never have heard this word and perhaps never have read a philosophical book.”  I largely agree.  Why, then, do philosophers trouble themselves to write books, and establish schools, advocating hedonism?  The briefest consideration of the matter will show us why they take such pains:  the pursuit of pleasure as a moral ideal is deeply problematic.  In fact, I believe it to be impossible.

The problem has to do with the organization of the many pleasures we can enjoy.  If an individual is more than a pinball, bouncing off one pleasure in search of the next, then some principle must be introduced that ranks pleasures according to a scale of values.  But once this scale is accepted, its standards rather than pleasure become the highest moral good.  In my opinion, this describes the human condition pretty accurately.  Taylor’s statement should be modified to reflect this reality:  vast numbers of people seek pleasure, guided by a scale of values.

In Plato’s Gorgias, a recent read, Socrates turns this problem against the foolhardy Polus, who had  been advocating a hedonistic approach to the good life.  Once Polus admits there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” pleasures, his position is quickly demolished.

Beyond the problem of ranking, there’s an intractable problem with the very nature of pleasure.  Pleasure serves as a cue for a biological need.  Once the need is satisfied, the pleasure goes away.  We say truthfully that sex and food are among the greatest pleasures:  but even if it were physically possible, an endless orgy of copulation and eating would become less and less pleasurable, and soon end as a nightmare of misery.

Of course, such a binge is not physically possible:  so what are we to do with those long stretches of time between orgies?  What is the point of life when strong pleasures are unattainable?  By this path we again ellide out of the hedonist ideal, and enter a scale of values based on different principles.

The epicureans tried to get around this problem by moderating almost to nullity the pleasures of the body, while exalting the tamer pleasures of the mind; an approach they took to a logical extreme by defining pleasure as the absence of pain.  Of course, absence of pain is what the dead feel:  by this formula, I will achieve epicureanism – alas, as a  permanent condition – when I become a corpse.

For the living, the “pleasures of the mind” work well enough, if one happens to be a professor of philosophy.  For the “vast numbers” cited by Taylor, it may feel like the next worst thing to being dead.

If one isn’t allowed to love with passion, or play a sport with intensity, or roar in ecstasy when your team scores a touchdown – or, indeed, feel utterly moved by the beauty of, say, motoring down the Grand Canal on a perfectly sunny day, or reading Priam’s speech to Achilles in the Iliad, or listening to the last aria in the Marriage of Figaro – if all one is allowed is moderation in life’s great pleasures, I question whether we are allowed to live at all.  Epicureanism may be feasible as a doctrine of pleasure for eggheads; a type of pleasure that is, thankfully, impossible for the rest of us to attain.


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