The Selfish Misconception - An Example of Closed-minded Hedonism
Personal pleasure is the only thing of any real value to anyone. But this does not mean to say that we should indulge in every possible way at every possible time, for these are the people who are least satisfied and most destructive. Hedonism spawned from the general assertion that the best parts of life will be what we all seek for no other reason than attaining that something. This is the aquifer which fills all of hedonistic thought; the resulting variations are merely products of interpretation and personal preference. At this point, some would start to argue that what we are describing is pleasure, while others might rather say it is happiness. They might quickly move on to searching for what pleasure and happiness really are and how it can be related between individuals. But basically, the point here is that there is some universal phenomenon that drives everyone into action of some kind, whether it be making a meal, running for office, or raping and pillaging a village. Put simply, Satisfaction drives everything.
Predominantly, Hedonism is misconceived by people who twist its basis towards their own selfish, vain desires. They take what could be a simple explanation for human impulse and use it to endorse their own selfish quest for ever-increasing heights of pleasure. Sadly, it is these same people finding themselves years down the road without satisfaction and pleasure. These people are very easy to find, and because of their very primal satisfaction of desire, have existed through most of human history (If not all). People of this nature are very solipsistic leading to major long-term problems. This can be shown easily through the contrast of Cyrenaic and Epicurean philosophy during the Ancient Greek era.
Aristippus, a follower of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school in the 4th century B.C. Named for his hometown of Cyrene, the school taught a sensualist hedonism and skeptical epistemology. They believed that because of the subjectivity of the senses, nothing could be found as truth based solely on experience. Experience could only be had, not used as a basis for any conclusions. (i.e. "I am feeling hot." Not "It is hot.") Under a Cyrenaic viewpoint, pleasure becomes the ultimate goal because it is the only quality that can be known about an experience. Also, Cyrenaics preferred physical pleasure to mental pleasure, as it was more intense and therefore, to them, more pleasing. Since they concentrate on instantaneous individual pleasure, they argue that immediate pleasure should not be deferred in place of long-term gain. If one can only know their current experiential self, then how can one know that their future self will be the same and plan according to it?
Epicurus was born in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. and studied under the followers of Plato; He founded a few schools, which let Epicureanism flourish until the rise of Christianity (which threw it out as ungodly). Although Epicurus valued personal pleasure as the only inherent value to any person and that all other values are used simply to capture this pleasure, he isn’t your stereotypical closed-minded hedonist. His take on hedonism was, as was the common Greek interpretation, that happiness, rather than pleasure, was the ultimate goal. He asserted that a person must be at their happiest if their desires are fulfilled and their fears are controlled if not totally let go. An advocate of the simple life, Epicurus taught how overindulgence leads to insatiable desire, which can become destructive and in the end unsatisfying, whereas if one concentrates on reducing one’s desires, one can be happier and have a more stable lifestyle. If you can’t be happy with what you have now, are you going to be happy with more? Take for example modern day consumerism and materialism. Most people want to have the big screen TV and shiny new SUV, but there will always be more stuff to buy. They’re in endless pursuit of the height of material wealth, but the bar keeps being raised, and to excessive levels. The only way to reach the top is to define your own limit and say, "this is enough, this is all I need."
Through this theory we see the Epicurean use of relative best. He recognized that people were looking for the best life they could have and that they had been caught in an endless "arms race" if you will. Instead of trying to fill yourself with material wealth, (which has no limit) decide on an appropriate amount for yourself, which covers your necessaries and a little extra. Then you’ll have reached a limit, making you fulfilled.
Epicurus was also convinced that fears were one of the main sources of pain, and so, appropriated his time to trying to dispel them. He figured that the main fear that plagued society was the fear of death. Death, to him, meant annihilation, as in "to be made non-existent". He said that since the dead person isn’t there to experience being dead, there can’t be any pain and therefore it isn’t bad. And since being dead only involves the dead, it shouldn’t be a problem for the living either. Another way to put it to someone who is afraid of death is to ask them what it was like before they were born. This should give them a good idea of what to expect.
The polarization of the Cyrenaics and Epicureans led to a bitter rivalry and often they would criticize each other. Cyrenaics would rant about how the Epicureans led a lifeless life; a life without pleasure. That their asceticism reduced the overall quality of life and turned it into a long wait for death. But in rebuttal, the Epicureans demonstrate the fallibility of skepticism. If a skeptic says, "Nothing can be known!" Ask how he came to this knowledge. Not only is skepticism self-refuting, but also it is an impossible lifestyle as it values, believes in, and says nothing. The Epicureans, in substitution, posit a relative solution to the subjective aspect of experience. Although they might agree that because of its subjective nature, experience cannot tell us how the universe is absolutely, they emphasize that experiences can be predicted. If you look at an apple and come to the conclusion that it is red, it may not in the underlying fabric of space have an intrinsic quality which we could call red, but you can know that if you look at it again it will still appear red. The Epicureans also disagree with choosing immediate gain over future benefit; as Socrates’ contention is that pleasure is an optical illusion where the near seem big and the far seem small.
Hedonism has been interpreted in various different ways. But one reoccurring theme is the selfish, thoughtless hedonist who overindulges in as many physical pleasures as can be gotten. These people must be corrected if we are to get anywhere as a species. These people are one of the many reasons for societal decay and all of its side effects. The only way to cure the system is to start from within. If we can change the very way that everyone thinks, then we might have a shot at producing a better, more stable, and reality affirming world.
June 19, 2007
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