The Hazards of Hedonism

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet addresses his daughter Elizabeth, off on a boring visit to her old friend Charlotte and the insufferable Mr. Collins. “On pleasure bent again,” he murmurs. And there is a character in P. G. Wodehouse who has an aunt who collects dried seaweed. “Sometimes I think she lives solely for pleasure.”

Call these oblique critiques of hedonism. Pleasure is often sought in strange places, but even when it is not, hedonism is a hard taskmaster. In this context, pleasure usually means venereal pleasure. In some novels, the pursuit of it is on an almost innocent Benny Hill level – Tom Jones, Fanny Hill. Such insouciant romps take on a darker tone in the Marquis de Sade, with pain, administered and received, seen as the logical term of the quest for pleasure.

In my flaming youth, a friend of mine and I slipped into a downtown theater renowned for showing raunchy movies, drawn by the announcement of Jungle Passion. It turned out to be a travelogue, We skulked out like those bilked by the King and the late Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. Shame on us.

The thing about pleasure is that it is not an object, it accompanies some activity, and pleasure can be ranked insofar as those activities on which it rides piggy-back can be ranked. Venereal pleasure accompanies those activities aimed at the preservation of the species, activities which are not the ultimate purpose of life. Nothing wrong with them, of course, and pleasurable they certainly are, but if they are pursued at the expense of our overall good we then have disorder and what is called the life of pleasure.

Many novelists, particularly French novelists, provide us with depressing depictions of this life. Baudelaire, of course, and his contemporary Huysmans. Their women of pleasure are melancholy creatures, caught in a dehumanizing life; and of course the same is true of their patrons. Fun of the larky Benny Hill kind is nowhere to be found. In short, the life of pleasure turns out to be pretty unpleasant. That is not what’s wrong with it, of course, merely a predictable consequence of the disorder.

Kierkegaard opposed living religiously and living ethically to living aesthetically. Aesthetics has a very wide range in this schema, with pleasures of the flesh the least. The mark of the Kierkegaardian aesthete is that he attempts to live entirely in the present. That being impossible for a human being, his is a life of despair.

Adolescents of all ages dream of a life spent mindlessly in the pursuit of pleasure. Targets easily available, the antics practiced and varied, with no remorse following. The partner of such fantasies is merely a projection of the desires of the pursuer. No mind of her own. “Leave your mind alone,” James Thurber suggested. The trouble is, it won’t leave us alone.

Pagan philosophers found in the fact that mental activity is our defining trait, the basis for saying that the pleasure accompanying it is the highest. The contemplative life affords the highest pleasure. And of course for us the beatifying vision of God promised us is fulfillment and happiness to the highest imaginable degree. But is not the pursuit of this state and its accompanying pleasure selfish? The dismissive description of heaven, union with God, as pie in the sky in effect reduces the enjoyment of the beatific vision to the table pleasures of the squire in Tom Jones. Both are selfish. The saint and the hedonist are both out for Number One.

Only God and the Blessed Virgin can be loved more than ourselves. We are to love our neighbor as ourself. Charity sees the neighbor as destined for the beatific vision, and treats him accordingly. Why isn’t this a quest for companionship in a selfish activity?

To love God solely as mine, as something for me to possess, is a defective love. Of course the lover’s activity is his and no one else’s. St. Thomas spoke of two ways to regard the ultimate end. The subjective relating to it, mine and yours, and its object, God, goodness itself.

St. Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” stresses our experience of God. But the God we experience is the summation of all goodness, utterly incommensurate with any created will. It is metaphysically impossible for God to be my good.. That is why loving Him as if he were, or could be, is defective.

But I digress. Like Mr. Bennet, we make sport of our neighbors and ourselves, noting that most of our pursuits provide pleasure only of a limited sort. Hence Augustine’s description of our hearts as restless. Jane Austen wouldn’t come right out and say that, of course. Why state the obvious?

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.