The Cruelty of Hedonism

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.