Hedonism is bad.
Really. It’s bad. I mean, I’m thinking of a story Donald Hall tells, where he says he dated someone who bragged about drinking two bottles of vodka a day. My first thought is “damn that’s impressive” and I’ve got to shut up.
There are two principal reasons why hedonism in general is bad. First, it serves as a license to addiction. This we’re very familiar with. The grounds needed to get someone to stop destroying themselves aren’t there. They want to see someone trying to stop their fun and freedom, and so they see what they want to see.
The other reason is a little less obvious. Hedonism, the thesis that pleasure is the good, can be frightfully ignorant. I don’t believe people are stupid, but I do believe people choose to be a certain way. And I do believe they can choose to be so aggressively stupid that their minds start working against them. With some hedonists, what I’m describing is obvious. Someone thinks they’re obtaining actual skills while playing online slot machines, willfully oblivious to the high they’re chasing. It’s not just that it is going to be hard to get them to stop. It’s also that explaining how reality works beyond online slots—you know, what end of the phone goes near your ear, how car windows work—is going to be painful.
There’s a more subtle form of hedonistic ignorance. Socrates in Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” (yeah, I know: this again. Bear with me) deals with the hedonist Aristippus. Aristippus is wealthy, moving from city to city, attended by his servants and slaves. He doesn’t want to deal with politics or have fellow citizens. He can maintain his lifestyle without responsibilities to others. Has he found pleasure, freedom, and the good for himself? It’s tempting to dismiss him outright as useless, as he exploits societal flaws because he has means. It’s harder to dismiss him if the entire Greek world is at war, obligations to one’s city entail injustice and violence, and freedom practically speaking cannot be had through unstable regimes eager for vengeance.
Classical hedonism can lead to dismissal of the notion of justice itself as hopeless. This is a privileged position, deeply cynical and ignorant. I have to remind myself it is extreme and that if I encounter it fairly frequently, that is because of insensitivity. An unwillingness to learn or grow. If society fails to address it adequately, this is less on account of particular philosophic views and more related to a lack of confronting stupid people saying cruel things.
When I turned to Epicurus recently, I found him thoughtful. I believe the “Principal Doctrines” has value for someone wondering why things have collapsed while searching for a sense of calm. Epicurus is a hedonist, but he thinks about different types of desire and does believe that people should consider their long-term good.
The first sentence of the “Principal Doctrines” can prove immensely useful. “That which is blessed and immortal is not troubled itself, nor does it cause trouble to another.” 14 year old me would be unimpressed. I can imagine myself mocking this as prelude to selling people a lifetime supply of healing crystals, essential oils, and star charts. But those of us who’ve wrestled with religious matters for some time can see how this could be the reflection of someone with experience. “That which is blessed and immortal is not troubled itself.” Not the blunt, cruelly-directed “God doesn’t care,” but the difficult question of why and how a divinity would see things exactly the same way we do. Epicurus does not say “you can’t have a personal relationship with God.” He does not overtly deny Providence. He invites you to question, for yourself, how exactly either of these work.
“Nor does it cause trouble to another:” the “blessed and immortal” does no harm. Whatever is divine has to act divinely, be above all our petty concerns. To be honest, 20 year old me would not have understood this, much less 14 year old me. I was far too busy trying to prove myself, to say I did the work. But the willingness to be ethical is not mere work. At each step of the way it asks for change, and then after change occurs, more change is necessary. Simple declarations of virtue are problematic, to say the least.
Epicurus addresses another topic my mind often swivels back to, that of fame. “Some, thinking thus to make themselves safe from men, wished to become famous and renowned. They won a natural good if they made their lives secure; but if their lives were not secure, they did not have that for which, following the rule of nature, they first sought.”
I feel like these words reflect today’s situation. Being famous and renowned is about security. A number who’ve achieved viral fame on TikTok want health care. Plenty want celebrity to elevate their families. There’s no desire for immortality, a legacy sung for the ages. Rather, there’s the practical question of what fame actually does for someone.
Epicurus, I am sure, means to aim at the notion that being remembered in poetry secures one’s life. He wants those listening not to confuse their name with the lives they are living. But we can use his words to think through our situation more deeply. Can fame be a means to an end, that end being secure lives?
The typical answer we’ll hear: fame is frivolous, unreliable. We’ll hear this from people who watch television or YouTube all day, who have celebrities they like and obey. What’s really happening? A regular paycheck and assigned hours entail structures which offer psychological comfort. We feel like we’re doing something right, as our lives have a semblance of order. Best not to think about fame, or for that matter, “rights” or “merit.”
Some of us feel ignored and neglected within these structures, and this isn’t just a feeling. The best way to control someone is to overwhelm them with insecurity. You can achieve this by not paying them any attention, especially when they demonstrate merit or advance humanity. You can let them have their semblance of order and no more.
Fame in our world can break an oppressive status quo. It can expose mediocrities dependent on their privilege. It can shed a spotlight on massive injustices. What’s at stake isn’t really “fame,” when you think about it. It’s the attention that a democratic society would normally give, if it showed respect for its citizens. But our society consistently confers legitimacy to the crudest, loudest, angriest voices, drowning out those who want to respond to actual problems. One of the few ways past that megaphone is “fame.” Obtaining it is a genuinely political act, if rightly understood.
Epicurus in the "Principal Doctrines" does address justice directly, and from what I’ve seen, his approach has strengths and a fatal weakness. One strength is his placing justice in this world, answerable less to our notions of reason and more to what it does for all of us. “In general, justice is the same for all, a thing found useful by men in their relations with each other; but it does not follow that it is the same for all in each individual place and circumstance.” These seem like fairly wise words to me. There’s no panic about disorderly conduct if the law isn’t strict or brutally enforced. Instead, we find a sensitivity to the fact people have to make tough decisions. Justice needs to be “useful” for our “relations.”
But Epicurus’ rhetoric can’t begin to address the craziness we live with. He doesn’t live in a society where people are willing to overthrow the government rather than admit racism is bad. “Justice is the same for all” is far too primitive to address how societies can create and perpetuate divisions and delusions which last generations. In order to get to ideas which can create a more robust conception of justice, his thought can’t focus on happiness he posits as natural. It needs to grapple with how power is exerted, how ideas themselves are forms of power.
Justice isn’t only “a thing found useful.” People live and die for it. They believe, not unrightly, that we will be judged by it, or that we can set an example that matters through it.
I don’t believe Epicurus is shallow or privileged. Philosophy wants to work with the elements, what’s at the basis of everything. And justice appears to us to start with the individual or a small group. It appears to be a thing of immediate use. The notion that there are structures which run deep—not just into our traditions, but our language, habits, and minds—dictating what we see as just or unjust is not fun for a philosopher who sees his job as getting to the root of things. Plato’s work is much more advanced regarding this topic, but I don’t even know that matters. Plenty of academics read Thrasymachus’ statement that “justice is the interest of the stronger” and agree that justice is a complicated construct stemming from powerful interests. Then they forget this notion applies to our world, pretending like the moral order is immaculate, never to be challenged.
Epicurus, Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings. Translated by Russel M. Geer. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964. 60-65.