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The Cruelty of Hedonism Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 06 October 2011

At the beginning of Book Two of his epic On the Nature of Things, the Epicurean poet Lucretius imagines himself standing upon a promontory, looking at the suffering of someone below:

How sweet, to watch from the shore the wind-whipped ocean
Toss someone else’s ship in a mighty struggle;
Not that the man’s distress is cause for mirth –
Your freedom from that trouble is what’s sweet.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when the innocent Miranda believes she sees a ship wrecked off the coast of their island, she cries out to her father Prospero, “O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer! Poor souls, they perished!” The difference between the two reactions is, in the end, the difference between a culture of hedonism, even at its noblest, and a culture that finds the meaning of suffering in the shadow of the Cross.

Let me not suggest that Lucretius was a moral monster. If there is any case to be made for hedonism, Lucretius is the man to make it. He follows his master Epicurus in insisting that it is beneath our dignity to pursue pleasures of the flesh. He believes in an austere modesty in matters of sex, temperance in food and drink, and the enjoyment of good conversation with friends:

in the shade of a tall tree by the riverside,
most pleasantly when the weather smiles, and the season
stipples the green with fresh and lusty flowers.

He is fond of animals, and deplores the shedding of their blood upon pagan altars. He seems to like children, and imagines a newborn baby, like a mariner tossed ashore, wailing “as is fit / For one whom so much suffering awaits.” He recommends that a man marry a woman not for her looks, but for her compliant disposition, and says it will then be easy for the two to learn to live with one another. He abhors warfare, and misses no opportunity to reveal the pointlessness and the waste of military aggression – and of enmity generally, inimicitia, the opposite of the Epicurean ideal of amicitia, friendship.

         Fr. Damien: his joy is a mystery to hedonists

But how much there is missing! The Roman statesman Cicero scorned the Epicurean directive to retire from public life with its dangers and its bitter quarrels, not to mention service in the army, on the grounds that the Epicureans proposed no way to pursue or to secure the common good. The good ruler, as opposed to the tyrant, the demagogue, the self-idol, puts his considerable energy at the service of others, and may well wear himself out in the task. 

It is not clear how to justify such a life if it does not bring pleasure. Or consider that fundamental commonwealth, the marriage. Lucretius writes some of his most acid satire against foolish men in the throes of love, who fall prey to illusions, believing that their obese girl friends are a little busty, or that the consumptive girl is a little delicate, and so forth. It does not occur to him that, as Richard of Saint Victor puts it, ubi amor, ibi oculus, where love is, there is an eye. 

Perhaps love sees, in the less-than-perfect face, a genuine beauty. Perhaps the pleasure-seeker is blind. What happens when one’s marriage proves difficult? What if the son is a prodigal? What if the daughter proves a harlot? What comfort does hedonism provide then, when the main source of contentment in life is spoiled? Are we to divorce the wife, and forget the children?

Joy comes as a surprise; it must be accepted as a gift. But pleasure is no surprise. It is hunted down. The hedonist, then, is always working against the clock, and against the deterioration of his own body. He must find pleasure while he still can. And when he is dying, the hedonists about him wish he would get on with it quietly, so as not to trouble himself or them with complaints. “Get your sobs out of here, scoundrel, and quit your whining!” cries the personified Nature of Things to an old man who weeps that his time is gone. Such a man is like one who has feasted at a banquet table and is unwilling to make way for the younger to have their fill. 

A hectic competition thus lies at the heart of the hedonist’s life. The social contract – described by Lucretius long before Hobbes – is at best a truce, a mutual agreement not to harm one another. Love is held in suspicion. We seek nothing together, unless we find pleasure in someone else’s company. The friendship is subordinated to the pleasure, and if the pleasure disappears, there is nothing left to hold us together. Meanwhile, people scramble for the delights they can attain, and not everyone will be victorious.

The ugly, the simple, the weak, the poor, the sinful, the tiresome, the sick, the dying – much joy can come to those who seek them out, much joy, and much heartache, and perhaps little pleasure. But the hedonist cannot understand Father Damien, or Mother Teresa, or the man who waited so many years for his prodigal son to come home. Hedonism is a thorn, and no rose.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by M., October 06, 2011
Thank you Prof. Esolen in leading the way to our only hope as JP II wrote at the end of Fides et Ratio:
“I ask everyone to look more deeply at man, whom Christ has saved in the mystery of his love, and at the human being's unceasing search for truth and meaning. Different philosophical systems have lured people into believing that they are their own absolute master, able to decide their own destiny and future in complete autonomy, trusting only in themselves and their own powers. But this can never be the grandeur of the human being.”
written by Martinkus, October 06, 2011
Thank you, Professor Esolen for yet another insightful and eloquent column. May I add, to paraphrase St. Augustine, man is happy not when he gets what he wants but when he gets what he should want. A corollary would be: Man is happy not when he gets what feels good to him, but when he gets what is objectively good for him. And the greatest good is to obey the Great Commandment given by Our Lord. And the best way to obey to the Great Commandment is found in the creed, worship, morality, and prayer of the Catholic Church.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Achilles, October 06, 2011
So Grump, man is the measure of all things? Are you not prone to error in your judgement? You find Lucretious' mind more ordered than St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas?
The call to put things in their proper order is an act of discovery not personal decision. We are born servants, our free will is limited to choosing our masters, not inventing reality. I suggest again to you my friend that you mistake appearances for substance. Ask Plato about it.
written by Bangwell Putt, October 06, 2011
This fine piece brings to mind a passage written by Prof. R. R. Palmer: "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the coming of Christianity. It brought with it, for one thing, an altogether new sense of human life. Where the Greeks had demonstrated the power of the mind, the Christians explored the soul, and they taught that in the sight of God all souls were equal, that every human life was sacrosanct and inviolate, and that all worldly distinctions of greatness, beauty, and brilliancy were in the last analysis superficial."

Situating Christianity as the source of this new understanding is complicated by the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who eloquently includes the lack of worldly distinctions in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

I believe that the readers of thecatholicthing will welcome more instruction from Prof. Esolen on this topic.
written by z, October 06, 2011
yes, thank you Professor Royal. Anthony Esolen, compelling arguments when needed . never gets old to hear how Christ has changed this world. Beautiful Congratulations and thank you for the informative incites. What an addition to the world. "But the hedonist cannot understand Father Damien, or Mother Teresa, or the man who waited so many years for his prodigal son to come home. Hedonism is a thorn, and no rose."
written by Grump, October 07, 2011
Achilles, beyond "atoms and the void," what is there? All the rest is mere noise.

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