From the pursuit of happiness and joy of life – hedonism as a philosophical concept
In modern times, the term hedonism is negatively connoted for many people. Hedonists are generally described as pleasure-seeking and reckless in their quest to satisfy their needs. If you live hedonistically, you should also be work-shy, cozy and at the same time wasteful. Hedonism, however, describes a philosophical current whose origins go back to antiquity.
In the center of a hedonistic life in the original sense is by no means the constant and unreflected need for physical pleasures, but simply happiness. Throughout history, the term hedonism has always meant a fulfilling life in this world. In this context, the role of this millennia-old philosophical understanding is that of a practically viable alternative to theological conceptions that place immortal existence in the hereafter at the center of human existence.
What is hedonism?
In the modern world, where the values of enlightenment and rationality play a central role, the finiteness of earthly life is well known to many people. Accordingly, we try to make the best use of the limited time. In this context, however, the claims of the individual are very different and characterized by individual views of life.
While some people strive primarily for material wealth, others find fulfillment in education or spiritual orientation. For some people culinary, physical or intellectual pleasures are significant, others try to use their talents purposefully or to achieve immortality through meaningful deeds, inventions or creative work.
What is common to all those people who consciously want to lead fulfilling lives can be described in a positive sense as the implementation of hedonistic ideas. Hedonism does not mean laziness and greed, nor the unreflective craving for constant enjoyment, but the knowledge of the finiteness of life. This is accompanied by the endeavor to accept all possibilities offered by life and to implement them in everyday life.
The essence of hedonism is thus the goal of being able to look back on a fulfilled life in old age. A hedonist is a person who reviews his life at some point and can confidently say that he has not wasted the limited time of his earthly existence. He is aware that human destiny is defined by the ability to fashion the only life according to individual standards and needs – with everything that it offers and reveals.
History of a philosophical design
As early as the fourth century BC, scholars in Ancient Greece formulated the idea that the life span on earth is limited and that there is no evidence of immortality and survival after death. The first philosopher to hold that view was Aristippus of Cyrene, who was in intense dialogue with his contemporary Socrates. He has gone down in history as the founder of philosophical hedonism and was the first scholar to define the meaning of sensual pleasures and bodily pleasures of all kinds as natural states of man. In connection with this flow within philosophy, however, the Epicurean of Athens, active about a century later, became more well-known with its concept of ataraxy or peace of mind.
The ideas developed by the hedonists of ancient Greece contrast with the teachings of Plato. According to him, the soul of man dives into the shadow realm after death and, after purification, gains access to a higher existence in the hereafter. The hedonists, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of this world and saw man as part of the natural cycle – with a limited existence that should inspire him to fill it with valuable experiences.
Even in ancient Rome, the ideas of the hedonists were discussed and developed further. The Roman thinker Lucretius, guided by Greek scholars, sat down intensively with the finiteness and concomitant with the reality of nature in relation to human life. With this, Lucretius created a philosophical design that inevitably called into question the existence and the universe of the gods. In this context, it is no wonder that Christianity regarded the flow of hedonism as a danger and subsequently brought it into disrepute. Christianity is based on the idea of a life full of privations and the orientation of the soul on the other side.
Hedonism as an alternative to the immortal soul
The hedonists of ancient Greece and Rome wanted to show their contemporaries the role of a happy and fulfilling life in human existence . Central motives of her teachings were rational, in every connection natural and easy to reach desires, the meaning of consciously perceived moments as well as rational needs and a sense of balance and reason shaped lasting sense of pleasure in every sphere of life.
Through the strict rejection of Christians who condemned all hedonistic thinking in antiquity, this philosophical trend gradually lost its importance over the centuries. Through the formulation of different moral concepts, hedonism became more and more a theory within a discussion that dealt with the good life in general.
Hedonism became the subject of intellectual discourse again during the French Enlightenment, when the philosopher and physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie again questioned the immortality of the soul through his conception of materialistic man. His image of man was taken over in the 20th century by the British logician Bertrand Russell. Both philosophers considered the separation of the soul from the body of man, and thereby their immortality, as implausible. With the scientific achievements of neurobiology, the philosophical approaches were finally confirmed – with direct effects on human behavior, which seeks to lead a valuable life with one mortal soul. Thus, discussions about moral and ethical principles in the context of a pleasurable life are unavoidable. This is why hedonists are still valued, condemned and associated with negative qualities in the moral context.
The hedonist as a moral person
In an age where austerity in terms of natural resources and financial resources, on the one hand, is faced with overwhelming wastefulness and recklessness on the other, hedonism, as a philosophical concept of life, has succumbed to a superficial, unreflective understanding of morality. An equally strong influence on the valuation of hedonistic ways of life is exerted by the strong contrast between the ancient philosophical trend and the religiously defined ethics. Therefore, the basic notion that a hedonist opposes valid precepts and moral structures is omnipresent to this day.
The hedonist in the true sense of the word is not prepared to oppose social principles or even consciously commit immoral acts. On the contrary, people with reflective hedonistic ideas define happiness as a principle, as the starting point of existence – not only for oneself, but for others as well. Not only the rational pursuit of happiness , enjoyment and sensuality is important in their life , but also the claim to be able to evaluate and to survey the consequences of all actions.
Moral and individual evaluation of hedonism
In today’s society, mental and intellectual values are always put over physical and sensual. The enjoyment of an intelligent book or a classical play is thereby automatically better rated than that of a sexual act or a bottle of wine. Accordingly, hedonists who consciously and consistently satisfy sensual desires of every kind are described by many as immoral. Here, however, the view of the philosophical origins is worthwhile, because the pursuit of pleasure and joy is due to a moderate desire in the ideas of the ancient hedonists. The thinkers of this movement explicitly formulated the claim that every action must conform to nature.
By individually assessing the meaning of sensual and intellectual values, a hedonistic life can be interpreted differently by each individual. A hedonist can be a person with a passion for expensive watches as well as someone who wanders through pristine forest landscapes every free minute. Every desire, every sensuality and every need is considered desirable in hedonistic thought – provided that no one comes to harm in fulfilling their desires. Whether material interests or mental claims, the central question is always how far the hedonist becomes an egotist in the realization of his desire for pleasure. Therefore, individual morality in hedonism always plays an important role.
In the understanding that existence is limited in time or the soul is by no means immortal, hedonism above all means a happy life. Hedonists seek fulfillment in professional activities, in interpersonal and sexual relationships, in everyday activities and in spiritual and sensual pleasures in their free time. For personal happiness through a hedonistic lifestyle, there is no panacea.
All hedonists have in common is a consistent and thoughtful action to avoid negative feelings and experiences as much as possible, and to enjoy the existence. Whoever implements the philosophical concept of exploiting all possibilities remains true to himself in all situations of life. Best conditions for strength of character, mental balance and a positive charisma. The search for happiness in life is a living and ever-changing confrontation with one’s own values and ideas. And one that in most cases results in knowledge, not laziness, selfishness or recklessness.