Lifestyle + Wellness

We Need to Rethink Hedonism

unrecognizable woman model sitting in stilettos in armchair

February 16, 2024

Hedonism is an umbrella term to describe a family of philosophies centred on the role of pleasure in our lives. Last week I started talking about the role of pleasure in our lives as artists, and today I want to dig deeper in the philosophical foundations of this worldview.

Souls having a human experience

The common idea in spiritual circles that we are a soul having a human experience and not a body havng a soul is a Hermetic principle, tracing all the way back to antiquity.

When it comes to hedonism, Hermeticism takes the position that excessive focus on pleasures that are fleeting and therefore bound to cause pain when missing. Life becomes an endless chase for those pleasures rather than the pleasure in itself. 

But when we talk about the Emerald Tablet we are talking about a text that originated in the time of early Christianity, a little after the time of Epicurus, whose philosophy was more focused on finding pleasure in the moderation and limitation of desire rather than the desire itself. It was a philosophy of avoidance of pain rather than embracing of pleasure. 

Asceticism versus embodied living

Christianity on the other hand, was a philosophy of asceticism, with more or less open gnostic tones since the Church had to declare gnosticism a heresy at the council of Nicea in 325 CE to give a final parameter of what was orthodox in the battle between body and spirit. 

Another characteristic of Christianity was resignation to what is. Since it was effectively a doomsday cult, all the writings of the early Church and especially the Apostle Paul have a vibe of worry not about your lot in life whether you’re rich or a slave, you don’t have a lot of time to pray your way into heaven. 

So Hermeticism can be codified as a response to this mindset that prioritises the spiritual experience over the human experience just as much as hedonism. 

unrecognizable woman model sitting in stilettos in armchair

Defining “pleasure”

What appears to me to be the biggest point of contention is that no one has a coherent definition of pleasure that we can all agree on. At this time, we don’t have the science to be fully conscious of how pleasure works in our brain to swing the argument in one direction or the other.

What I have as a point of contention with both sides, personally, is the idea that hedonism equates to the motivational hedonism of the 18th century, which is about what motivates us to action. 

The more ancient forms of hedonism focused on the role of pleasure in our overall well-being and idea of a good life. If you look at things like hygge, and the way cosy comforts like food, good company, and soft materials make the happiest people in the world survive winters with no light while the rest of the world doesn’t fare as well in that kind of ranking it’s hard for me to argue that there is no merit to hedonism as a philosophy.

I’m far from an Abraham Hicks girlie, but in the emotional guidance scale we find the idea that some emotional states have a heavier energy and others are lighter. That, in my opinion, does not equate good or bad, which is a construct coming from our inability to sit with our emotions. 

The Emotional Guidance Scale

The 7th highest emotions on the scale are: 

  • Joy/Appreciation/Empowerment/Freedom/Love
  • Passion
  • Enthusiasm/Eagerness/Happiness
  • Positive Expectation/Belief
  • Optimism
  • Hopefulness
  • Contentment

These are all forms of pleasure that are deeper than the fleeting pleasure of eating a piece of chocolate or having an orgasm or whatever. 

Conversely, we have Boredom as the next step going lower on the scale. That’s a lack of pleasure. Then we start building the harder emotions on top of this lack of pleasure. 

And, on a very basic physiological level, giving us pleasure from physical touch to anything that gets the brain to produce oxytocin is a way to move back up the scale. It’s not a coincidence that mental health assessments ask you if you felt little pleasure in activities recently. The homeostasis of a human being is one of pleasure. 

woman drinking coffee from ceramic cups during interview

Hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure

I consider myself a hedonist, which is a vague term that covers a family of philosophies whose commonality is the idea that pleasure is key to humanity. It does not equate, like it does in popular culture, to the egoistic pursuit of short-term gratification by indulging in sensory pleasures without regard for the consequences.

It is, however, a philosophy that accepts that we are embodied in the human experience, and seeks to reconcile our instinctual impulses with the shared morality necessary to build a society. 

The English word pleasure comes from the French plaisir, “source of enjoyment, pleasing quality or thing, that which pleases or gratifies the senses or the mind,” which also means “discretion, will, desire, preference,” from the Latin placere.

Hedonism, however, did not enter the vocabulary until the 19th century, when it became a word to talk about the Greek philosophy specifically. The word hedone came to us through the Latin Suavis, which gave us the words sweet and suave. And it was, in fact, a name.

Living a good life

Hedone was the name of the personification of sensual pleasure, daughter of Eros and Psyche in the mythology. The idea of referring to the Greek philosophies as Hedonism reflects the biases of the 19th century scholars more than the philosophies themselves. 

Aristotle talked about hedone, too, as did many others, but we tend to associate the word specifically with Epicurus, and talk about his philosophy by that word rather than by his name as we do with all other schools. Doing that influences how much emphasis we put on the idea of pleasure in his philosophy, when pain was just as prevalent. 

Overall, Greek philosophers talked about hedone with regards to virtue and what makes a good life. I find it fascinating that the mythology has the god of love and goddess of the soul beget sensual pleasure, as it counters all of the views of the supremacy of the intellect over the body, and the tendency to asceticism in Christianity that dominated the intellectual history of the West for the past 2000+ years.

incense and white candles on a stool

Reclaiming Pleasure

A lot of discourse around pleasure, especially for women, is focused on sexuality, and that’s valid. I’m the last person you’d find advocating against that, because I know first hand the damage that purity culture has done to me and my first marriage. But pleasure is much more than just sexuality, or even sensuality as understood in pop culture.

Sensuality, strictly speaking, has to do with the senses. A beautiful sunset, the smell of a freshly brewed coffee, the soft fur of a kitten, a beautiful song, the taste of a fruit at just the perfect ripeness are all examples of sensual pleasures.

Embodiment is about presence with the reality of what is, whether it’s our emotions or the world and the people around us. Hedonism, to me, is a philosophy of life that reclaims this presence as the most important driving force in our lives.

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The character Amy Sherman-Palladino would write in a series about a traveling witchy photographer obsessed with Hakuoki
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