by Andreas Saugstad
The word “hedonism” comes from the Greek word “hedone,” which means pleasure. In antiquity, a group of philosophers were called hedonists, because they believed that the highest principle of morality is pleasure and that the meaning of life is to reach a state of pleasure or happiness. Some people believe that the highest goal in life is to follow rules, and some believe it is to demonstrate one’s superiority over others (elitism, fascism). Some ancient philosophers – the stoics – believed that the guiding principle of life should be connected to controlling one’s passions and any kind of circumstances.
I am a Hedonist
I must, however, confess that I am a hedonist. I will not work out all the finer distinctions of my doctrine here, but the essay should give you a basic idea of how one might be a hedonist, or in my case a “cognitive hedonist” (cognition = thought, mental processes). “Hedonism” in contemporary language has a negative connotation.
By “hedonist” many people mean a person who seeks the pleasures in life, without any thought of morality and or analysis of the future. A “hedonist” is typically someone who loves to party, perhaps drink and smoke illegal things, showing an irresponsible sexual behaviour. Remember the final episode of Seinfeld when Jerry, George, Elaine and even Kramer were locked up in jail? They were accused of being selfish, and using other people for their own benefits. In a sense, Seinfeld and his friends may be labeled “hedonists”, at least as they were portrayed in this particular episode. These people were always seeking pleasure here and now, and most of the time someone innocent had to pay because of their egoism.
But by hedonism I do not mean the same as egoism. I guess I am a hedonist utilitarian, i.e. that I believe pleasure should be distributed among all people, and that the total amount of happiness in all conscious beings is what counts. If I can sacrifice in order to relieve pain in someone who is suffering terribly, I should do it! A hedonist should not be an egoist!
What is Pleasure?
Now, by hedonism I do not mean to say that the good life is to study in Santa Barbara drinking beer and smoking pot, dating mindless bikini babes. No no no! – don’t get it wrong! That is primitive hedonism, one should -on the other hand -advocate cognitive hedonism. As John Stuart Mill said, “It is better to be an unhappy Socrates, than to be a happy pig.” Ultimate pleasure is not achieved by engaging in a superficial activity or senseless lifestyle. I am not a party-person either. I love meeting people, and I sometimes go to parties, but I am very moderate when it comes to parties. I am also an admirer of Gregory the Great and Augustine’s views on sexual ethics. Postmodern sexual morality is unhealthy, and I embrace the Christian idea that sex is for marriage between man and woman.
So, how then can I call myself a hedonist? Hedone means pleasure and I believe in pleasure. The key is to find the right sorts of pleasures in life. True pleasure is something deep, more than satisfaction of urgent needs. Why is Homer Simpson, although a nice guy, a bit tragic? Well, maybe partly because he only lives for the immediate. He says “Mmmmmm beer!!!” and watches TV, but there is no grand narrative guiding his life (like religion) nor any intellectual ideas stimulating him. One of my true pleasures is to have good friends, another is to have my daily coffee or tea, a third is music, and fourth -the most important- my family. (I must admit that Homer Simpson scores on a couple of these, especially the last one).
But I also have another kind of pleasure, namely thinking, writing and conversation. I love to talk about philosophy, and pay attention to what is going on in the cultural setting I live in. I can get into a mild euphoria from seeing a new book in philosophy of religion or writing a small essay. I take much pleasure in observing and trying to understand society. For instance, if I watch a TV series from New York, you may say: “Why do you want to watch that trash?” Well, I must admit that for a while I agreed with you. For a period of two or three months last semester, I almost didn’t watch TV at all.
I lapsed into a neo-platonic mode of existence, where I felt that everything on TV was simple and perhaps a bit empty. But until next time I get to travel, I guess one good opportunity to pick up some impressions from other parts of the world is to watch some TV series. Let’s hope I can learn something, either about the minds of those writing the script, the ideas influencing contemporary Americans, or (if it’s a good show) even something about contemporary culture.
I take great pleasure in thinking or writing. That is why I study philosophy, and you may read something about this in my article Philosophy and the Good Life. Remember Socrates who always was hanging out at the agora the marketplace in Athens. He loved discussions and exchanging ideas. Mental traveling no doubt can sometimes be a great pleasure. It is one of those hedonist values that last, and can be part of your life for years and years.
The Example of Origen
One precursor of my hedonism was Origen, the Church Father from Alexandria. Origen was an intellectual Christian in the second and third century AD and was a lover of philosophy. He claimed that the mystical union with God was very much intellectual, and that in order to reach fulfillment one should contemplate divine ideas.
The interesting thing here is that Origen described this cognitive union with God (the source of all wisdom) in erotic terms, and he used this vocabulary associated with pleasure as metaphors to describe the relationship with God. The Song of Songs 1:2 in the Bible says “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”, and Origen interpreted that these kisses were insights into Scripture.
Joseph Trigg thus writes: “Such language indicates that, for Origen, mystical experience, if we choose to call it that, is as much cognitive as it is affective.” The Song of Songs thus teaches us that Bible interpretation itself is erotic” (See Joseph Trigg, Origen, Routledge 1998 p. 49) By using the erotic vocabulary, Origen hinted that illumination or wisdom is something that can be assoiated with great pleasure.
Although thoughts do not always come through divine illumination, I think search for wisdom is associated with much pleasure. Many Platonists (Origen was a Platonist) have felt that cognition and pleasure like Origen thought- are intimately connected.
Perhaps you will say “What about the old saying ‘No brain no pain’?” Well sometimes no brain implies less pain, but I say sometimes, because in total I believe trying to think makes life more interesting. Many writers or philosophers, I guess, would be able to tell you that they had some difficult times when thinking through some of the great questions. But I also guess that some of these thinkers would also be able to tell you that they wouldn’t live without those cognitive investigations.
This then is cognitive hedonism: Hedonist because pleasure is central to human fulfillment and morality. Cognitive -because cognition (thinking) is a way to reach such a pleasure.
Finally, I would like to add two important points.
I am not talking about some high-level, ultra-academic thinking, but something you can do no matter what. Everyone can find his or her own Cogito (I think), you can find your own line of thought. As I said, I am not an elitist, I am not promoting ideas that are only for a small group of people. Some people think that life is all about competition, but they are wrong, perhaps because their feelings have polluted their cogito.
Let me also repeat that hedonism is not the same as egoism. A good solution for for the thinker incurvatus in se is perhaps to try to publish and communicate some of their ideas. A cognitive hedonist should at least partly try to work for the benefit of others and try to serve the spirit of humanity.