I'm Sam. I have a serious interest in practical philosophy and related topics- mostly Epicureanism, stoicism, skepticism, and rationalism.
The Ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism has often been criticized as a kind of hedonism. However, this critique oversimplifies what hedonism means and what Epicurus specifically believed.
Yes, Epicureanism is a kind of hedonism, but that may not mean what you think. In this article, we’ll explore what hedonism is and how Epicurean hedonism is different from modern kinds of hedonism.
What Is Hedonism?
At its core, hedonism is a philosophy that advocates the pursuit of pleasure. The term itself comes from the Greek word for pleasure, hedone. Just like the word, varieties of hedonism have existed since Ancient Greece; the earliest recorded philosophy of hedonism was that of Cyrenaic, a Greek philosopher living in the third century BC, who believed in maximizing the transitory pleasures of each moment. Since Cyrenaic, there have been many different kinds of hedonism.
The philosophy is so varied because pleasure can mean so many different things. For some, pleasure is primarily a bodily sensation coming from physical goods such as food, drink, or other bodily pleasures. For others, pleasure is intellectual and comes from learning and wisdom. Still others might find pleasure in good society or moral accomplishment. In many strains of hedonism, pleasure has a flip side: pain. For some hedonists, avoiding pain is just as important (or even more important) than attaining pleasure. But what pain and pleasure mean can vary between each philosophical school.
In his own time and in the centuries since, Epicurus (c. 341-321 BC) has often been criticized by people who believe “hedonism” to mean indulgence in bodily pleasures. Epicurean hedonism, however, is actually based on moderation and self-control. Epicurus believed that over-indulgence would lead to pain. Instead, he and his followers followed a simple diet and did not aspire to riches, fame, or excessive material belongings.
If someone tried to follow an Epicurean lifestyle today, you would be more likely to find him sitting in a garden with some olives and cheese than at a fine-dining restaurant or all you can eat buffet. For Epicurus, avoiding bodily and mental pain was key, and he focused on eliminating unnecessary fears and desires. He found pleasure instead from strong friendships, learning, and happy memories. Some people might expect hedonists to be selfish, but Epicurus built a communal school and residence, sharing all he had with a group of students. And because
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Epicureanism aims to remove unnecessary desires, true Epicureans do not take more than what they need or act out of greed. Epicurean hedonism, in its original form, is all about balance and quiet pleasure.
Hedonism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Just as there is no single type of pleasure, there is no single philosophy of hedonism today. However, there are a few strains of modern hedonism that are notably different from Epicurean philosophy. Some of the most influential thinkers behind modern hedonism are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), both of whom advocated a kind of “utilitarian hedonism.”
Much like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and happiness consisted of the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, Bentham shifted this understanding of happiness to make it collective. He argued that to act morally, each person should make choices that maximize the happiness of everyone affected by that choice. Bentham also believed that pain and pleasure could be quantitatively measured by intensity and duration. Bentham used these calculations to promote social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, animal welfare, and greater individual freedoms.
John Stuart Mill built on Bentham’s hedonist philosophy, adding that people should distinguish between low pleasures, such as bodily sensations, and the higher pleasures of the mind. To Mill, this distinction gave cultural activities such as theater and music great importance.
A key difference between Mill and Bentham on one hand, and Epicurus on the other, is that Epicurus believed that a good, pleasurable life should be withdrawn from politics. Bentham and Mill used their hedonist beliefs to shape social reforms designed to bring more happiness to the collective population.
Present Day Hedonism
Today, Hedonism has fallen out of favor as a moral or political philosophy. Many criticisms have centered on the difficulty of defining pleasure and defending pleasure as an objective good. Still, many people follow a version of hedonism, often drawing on an Epicurean vision of balance.
Others use hedonism to refer more simply to a pleasurable life: eating excellent food, drinking wine, et cetera. For a term that has been in use for over 2,300 years, it has many meanings. So if someone tells you they’re a hedonist, you’ll have to ask them if they’re an Epicurean, a utilitarian, or whether they simply enjoy a great meal or really like to indulge.
- Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Adamant Media Corporation, 2005.
- “Hedonism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. October 17, 2013. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism/
- “Hedonism.” Encylopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/hedonism
- Inwood, Brad and L. P. Gerson. The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testomonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.
- Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
- Mitsis, Phillip. Epicurus’ Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
- Sobel, D. “Varieties of Hedonism.” Journal of Social Philosophy 33.2 (2002): 240-256.
- Weijers, Dan. “Hedonism.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/#H4
© 2020 Sam Shepards