Intermission: Three Minute Philosophy (Kant Edition)
This edition of the series is on the philosopher Kant (watch your pronunciation…. ladies, we are not degrading….)
Hedonistic behaviour 101
How to Overcome the Quest and Really Just Be Happy.
Why is pleasure (or the idea of it) so suspicious to so many? As a species we all want to be happy, but when one has too much happiness (a concept I find understandable in some ways, but strange to comprehend in others), humans look at this behaviour with suspect, ideas of lust, power and greed. Are such ideas always the only way to see such behaviour, or is there something more (in a different way of thinking) to this idea of “suspect pleasures”?
Where is a hedonist to look for her/his heroes?
If one were to look at the religious traditions of humanity, we would surely not find it there: they lack enthusiasm for the (illusory) pleasures of this world.
The Buddha was keener on eliminating desires than on satisfying them. Islam and Christianity are not much help either. They are more interested in pleasing their God than in pleasing humans. Judaism (if one were to study it closely) has managed a happier compromise with the ways of the world. Yet it too, like the other monotheism’s, keeps a wary eye open for recriminations from above, and so one must not have TOO much pleasure for fear of reprisals….
So while the religions of the world seem more lost in the pleasing of others, or in particular… THE ONE (what an ironic twist given the state of the REAL world today and the supposed following by the majority of persons of said religious ideologies… but I digress), I actually tend to see most religions ideas of hedonistic behaviour as slightly ironic. To me, it seems, most human religions are (in actuality) the foreplay (as it were) to the promise land… and in my understanding of such promise lands, they are vast bounties of untapped and endless pleasure… in short, they are bastions of hedonistic behaviour. So it seems to me, that in many ways, religions preach restraint, pain, suffering and guilt now for a hedonistic afterlife. Interesting, and ironic at the same time (and I am not here to bash religion).
So then, not interested in waiting for this apparent afterlife to enjoy your pleasures? Why not turn to philosophy and contemporary thoughts for a more open approach to hedonist behaviour…
But alas it seems, if one peruses the pages of the greatest western philosophers, one would find they have produced little that can serve as much of a guide for today’s enlightened hedonist. Philosophers tend to be ruminative, cerebral and cautious. In some cases their “religious” leanings become apparent when speaking about the pleasures of the flesh.
-Kant preached a stern gospel of dutifulness.
-Plato’s pleasures were unstintingly abstract and intellectual. A good Platonist? Well they would, it seems rather contemplate the perfect meal than eat it.
But there is one Greek philosopher whose name has become synonymous with the life of pleasure—especially sensual pleasures, and above all those of a gourmet type.
Not usually recognised in the first rank of philosophers, Epicurus, for much of the Christian era was condemned as a “pig and a sex-maniac”. In my readings about this man (and those whom have written/spoke about him), I have found numerous examples of those whom seem to see him as less than the perfect role model. A 12th-century bishop wrote “the world is filled with Epicureans for the simple reason that in its great multitude of men there are few who are not slaves to lust.” Attacks on Epicurus were common in his own time, too. Reports circulated that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-eating, and engaged in “notorious midnight philosophizing” in his garden with four women called Hedeia (“Sweety-Pie”), Erotion (“Lovie”), Nikidion (“Little Victory”) and Mammarion (“Big Tits”).
Exactly what Epicurus did in his “garden of lust”, will probably be never known. It seems to me he espoused a revolutionary and irreligious theory of the universe that would have ensured his notoriety (see hatred and disdain) even if he had been a sober eunuch on a diet.
According to Epicurus, the world consists of tiny material atoms careering around in space until they randomly collide and form the things and creatures we see. When our atoms disperse and we die, that is the end of us. In his thoughts even the “gods” are just collections of atoms, with no serious tasks to perform in the universe, and they could not care less what people do with themselves or to each other.
The aim of philosophy, Epicurus maintained, is to make people happy, and one of its biggest tasks is to quieten the unnecessary terrors caused by religion.
Epicurus wrote in his thoughts it was crucial to overcome the fear of death and of an unpleasant afterlife. “All good and evil lies in sensation, whereas death is the absence of sensation,” “Hence a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by ridding us of the desire for immortality.”
Epicurus did once say that in order to lead a happy life, one needs first of all to be fed. Logical as this seems (yes, in order to have a better outlook on life, one should not have to be worried about where ones next meal will come from), In this fast paced Internet world of “news” and “infotainment news”, it should not be hard to see how easy it would be (and being he did espouse a less than flattering outlook on religion) such a statement could be taken out of context and used in a way to further his reputation as a glutton, thus attempting to discredit anything he has to say. Humans are very good at doing such things all the time to forward what they are trying to say… (yes, one could even say that about what I write here).
In fact, if one were to read a lot on Epicurus it seems more to me he condemned all forms of over-indulgence, and recommended a simple diet. And so if this is the case, perhaps his famous garden was probably not a place of midnight orgies, but rather the source of fruits and vegetables for his simple life as well as a calm respite from the bustle of the city (something I can and I am sure many others could relate to).
For Epicurus, tranquillity was the ultimate delight. That is why the real Epicurus denounced the rapidly rotting fruits of dissipation and excess. The constant pursuit of intense pleasures will in fact backfire, because it leads to the psychological hell of enslavement to unsatisfiable appetites.
And so then… what is a hedonist to do in their pursuit of their “ultimate” happiness?
Well, it seems, that firstly and most importantly, the would-be hedonist must take care to ensure that the pain of overreaching desire does not ruin her/his peace of mind and thereby defeat her/his original aim of securing a balance of pleasure over pain.
Strange it seems, but when put in those terms, this so-called hedonist behaviour sounds more like a guide to a balanced life in some ways.
Hedonist behaviour is alive and well in all societies on our planet, that I will not deny nor will I say is not a fact in some ways. If one were to look at the past decade and a bit alone, one should with no problem see how the race to “have it all” has brought the world to the state it is today. We all suffer from the symptoms of desire and pleasure, and no amount of religion or denying such self thoughts will ever change that fact. To deny oneself ones feelings seems more to say that one is not good enough to be whom one is… and in my thoughts, that is just denying whom we all are as a species. Pleasure is not wrong. Pleasure without thought is.
The best sort of life, says Epicurus, is one that is free from pain in the body and from disturbance in the mind. (That sounds a rather negative credo for a 21st-century devotee of the good life or the religious zealot espousing the need to see the evil ways of ones existence).
Epicurus seems to me to be a man of understanding…Understanding of the human condition and our need to have and succeed. He was not a man whom fought against such things, nor said that the path to pleasure was wrong… nor did he see another persons path as necessarily wrong either. More he spoke of moderation, self understanding and logical non-fear based thinking about ones self and ones place in existence (and how that came about).
Were he writing self-help books today (and I think that actually he would scoff at the idea of many self help books you see lining the stacks of our ever decreasing local book stores), Epicurus would probably acknowledge that health and peace are essential preconditions of happiness, (and on the flip-side are easy to belittle if you are lucky enough to have them).
But perhaps his most useful observation for the discerning hedonists of today, when such an intoxicating variety of gratifications are dangled before them, is a reminder of “caveat emptor”:
“No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.”
Tag that thought:
Looking for a bit of “light” reading before heading off to bed? Taking a trip and trying to find that perfect book for the long haul? Why not check out these…..The top 25 most tagged books of “philosophy” (I think there could be some debate on that) according to Zeitgeist and the god of all search engines (you know, the one we turned into a verb)…
- The Republic by Plato
- Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
- Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
- The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
- Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
- Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- The Symposium by Plato
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
- The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
- The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
- Utopia by Thomas More
- Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
- The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays by Albert Camus
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
- Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Candide by Voltaire