Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Hedonism?

Recently, in articles about hedonism (yeah they exist, and yes I do read them), the term “eudemonia” keeps coming up. Usually it goes something like this:

“The Greek term eudemonia is often mistranslated to mean ‘happiness,’ when in reality it encompassed much more than happiness; more accurately the term refers to state of fulfillment…”

Inevitably, it is contrasted with “hedonism” already presumed to be “wrong” and consequently “lesser than” eudemonia:

“The pursuit of pleasure is merely hedonism, whereas true fulfillment and ‘eudemonia’ can only be obtained by…”

And here is where you fill in the blank with the author’s particular belief as to what truly provides happiness and fulfillment e.g. God, service to others, kindness, etc. But whatever the conclusion, hedonism is consistently regarded an inadequate pursuit to any right minded individual.

Epicurus - The Original Hedonist
Returning to the Greeks though, you’ll find the likes of Epicurus arguing that the path to eudemonia is through the pursuit of pleasure. So while the Greeks may have had these distinct terms, they didn't consider them mutually exclusive.

I know I can be loose with my terms of hedonism, pleasure, and the pursuit of happiness, but I guess my objective with this hedonism project it’s to achieve eudemonia – fulfillment – and yes, even enlightenment.
So why Hedonism, why use that term for my pursuit? Well, first off who wants to have to explain the term eudemonia every time you use it? Second, I think it actually better describes what I am doing in my approach – That is, once you get past the simplistic definitions of hedonism.

I think part of my hedonism is a reaction against asceticism – the notion that enlightenment comes to those who deny and overcome their desires. Whether through oaths of chastity or poverty, it seems widely accepted that eliminating these “distractions” of desire somehow enables a “purer” sense of being. I believe the Buddhists view desire as the source of suffering, and that to eliminate suffering one must naturally eliminate desire.
Buddha ultimately gave up the ascetic life,
but was he also a hedonist?

Now, the Buddhists may be right. This may well be the way to enlightenment (or Nirvana if you're a Buddhist).  Still I wonder if there might also be another path. This ascetic way of thinking seems like a byproduct of a culture of scarcity; the notion that most desires remain unsatisfied, or when fulfilled for one, necessitates their being denied to someone else. If I eat that slice of pie no one else gets that slice.

Hedonism, or enlightened hedonism as I’ve come to term it, instead comes from a culture of abundance. I’ve been clear that don’t think it’s a possible pursuit before one’s basic needs are met. But those are taken care of desires and pleasures fulfilled do not necessarily take away from the desires or pleasures of others. Actually they can be grown, shared, and increased with others through social interactions. Perhaps one can become enlightened by leading an ascetic life, but I think the same might be true for someone pursuing life as a connoisseur.

When people ordinarily use the term “hedonism,” I think “pleasure” is defined too simplistically -  that they all ultimately reduce down to getting wealthy, famous, or laid. Those desires have their place, but I think our desires are far more complex than that. More importantly they often are at odds with each other. To me, this is where their value lies. Confronting the contradictions in our desire force us to make those existential decisions that define who we are.

A quick example from last weeks’ cocktail quest – Champagne cocktail #3, a attempt to make a lemon based champagne cocktail. On the surface this doesn’t sound all that significant, but take a look at some of the desires that drove this quest:

Could a Failed Cocktail
Lead to Enlightenment?
  • A desire to improve my skills in mixology and the use of champagne
  • A desire Learn about Limoncello, a liquor I’ve never worked with
  •  A desire serve others by being a good host, providing good drink and entertainment
  • A desire to feed my own ego for receiving praise for what I thought would be a sure winner of a cocktail
  • A desire to be seen as an expert mixologist
  • A desire to simply enjoy the pleasurable buzz of a cocktail.

Now the cocktail was a failure. It was a drink whose parts were best enjoyed separately. So while I may have satisfied a few of the desires noted above, I also failed to satisfy some. Did I come out ahead in the decision to attempt this cocktail? I certainly learned something from the experiment, and what I learned will help me be a better mixologist in the future, and better satisfy those desires. Does that make me more enlightened? Or would I have been more enlightened to have not engaged in the experiment at all and just served my guests tap water or just ignored them altogether while I chanted in the next room? Yeah, enlightened or not I think the later would have just made me a pretentious prick.

It’s the decisions I make that define who I am, and I don’t think I can make authentic decisions without acknowledging my desires – all of them, the lazy ones, the self-conscious ones, the one’s that just want to get drunk, along with the one’s that want to share with others, and help satisfy their needs and desires. Heck, were I religious, I think the desire to serve God, would also have to be a hedonistic quest for it to be a sincere one.

Simply put, hedonism is my path to eudemonia – or at least the one I’ve chosen to follow.


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