Hedonists share some basic characteristics with contemporary ethical egoists. Indeed given its focus on the consequences of action for the individual, we might view hedonism as one variety of ethical egoism. But it specifies “self-interest” and, in many of its forms, has a different view of human nature than typical modern forms of ethical egoism. Just as there are psychological egoists and ethical egoists, there are also psychological hedonists and ethical hedonists. Psychological hedonists maintain not only that all individuals, by nature, act in their own interest, they go further, claiming that the universal human interest is in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. For their part, ethical hedonists of an individualist bent have great similarities to ethical egoists. They simply maintain that individually we should not only seek what is in our self-interest but specify that this interest is to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain (those interests that are dominant for all humans and are indeed the ultimate human goods). Those who are both psychological and ethical hedonists then maintain that all humans seek pleasure and avoid pain and that they are right do so.
A similar set of questions arise with ethical hedonism as arise with ethical egoism. Here, rather than focusing on interests, though, the focus is on pleasures. Should one just pursue those pleasures that one happens to have? Or should one consider whether some pleasures are greater than others? Hedonists traditionally have differentiated between immediate short-term pleasures such as the pleasures of sex or food and long-term pleasures that we may have from cultivating friendships or developing our characters.
Both Ancient India and Ancient Rome knew various types of hedonists. In India Carvaka proposed that people are and should be motivated by their desire for pleasure. Proponents of Carvaka did recognize that pleasure is often accompanied by pain. However, as cynics about knowledge and the future, they did not develop a system encouraging individuals to forgo short-term pleasure for greater long-term pleasure but instead argued that the pleasure of intense short-term pain was worth the pain that followed it and they recommended devoting one’s life to its pursuit. The later counterpart to the Carvaka in Ancient Greece, the Cyrenaics, similarly recommended a life in search of intense short-term pleasure. (A contemporary equivalent might be seen in the philosophy of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.)
The better known philosophical version of Hedonism, however, was developed by Epicurus. Epicureanism, as the philosophy became known, advocated forgoing many short-term pleasures and instead focusing on the overall pleasure and pain distribution over a life time. More pleasurable than a life devoted to short-term pleasure was one in which one moderated one’s desires. Epicurus distinguished between “moving” pleasures and “static” pleasures. Moving pleasures occur when we are in the process of satisfying our desires, like the satisfaction we feel when scratching an itch. These are what people usually are referring to when speaking of pleasures. However, there is also the pleasure after the gratification has been achieved, the satisfaction after the scratch or after eating. Epicurus argues that it is these latter not the former pleasures that are the most satisfying. We should thus not seek the moving pleasures but rather ratchet down our desires so that we are more often in the state of static pleasure, feeling no itch to be scratched, metaphorically speaking.
There are natural desires — like the desire for food — that bring us great satisfaction and that it is necessary for us to satisfy. These, Epicurus finds, we should gratify, but not overindulge. Other desires are natural but not necessary, such as the desire for luxury goods. Epicurus thinks we are best served by not cultivating these. Though we might enjoy a luxurious desire now and again — like a luxurious meal — we are to be careful not to wake a striving for such desires. Vain desires, such as the desire for power, control, or great wealth should be forgone completely. As Epicurus states about his understanding of wealth: “If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give him more money; rather, reduce his desires.” The enjoyment of natural and simple pleasure is greater than all the riches in the world. Epicurus also thinks that virtues are needed for a happy life, as are justice and friendship. All such goods are ultimately instrumental, though. They are valuable insofar as they contribute to a happy or pleasurable life.
Ataraxia, or the tranquil life, was indeed the goal of Epicurus, and it required the mentioned goods. It also however required overcoming three base fears: fear of the gods, fear of the afterlife, and fear of death. While the Epicureans believed in gods, they thought that the study of metaphysics should lead one to understand that the ancient Greek view of the gods was incorrect. A correct understanding of metaphysics would show that though the gods exist, they have nothing to do with human affairs. They are thus not to be feared. Epicureans took a similar rationalistic approach to the study of the issues behind the fear of the afterlife and the related fear of death. Study should lead us, Epicureans thought, to conclude that there is no good reason to fear the afterlife or death. At death, since we cease to be, there will be no pain. Therefore death is not to be feared. Study also shows that there are no good reasons for the belief in the afterlife. Though many of the specific arguments of the Epicureans will no longer resonate with us, many will still find a reason to respect their view that a life of rational reflection will lead to the overcoming of superstition about metaphysics and will thus help individuals avoid the pains associated with such superstition.
Epicurus’s quest for the life of tranquility in community with like-minded people who were committed to simple lives of study and reflection did not just remain a philosophical ideal. In 306 BCE, when Epicurus was 35, he purchased a house on the outskirts of Athens and allowed people to live there. The space, which became known as the Garden, allowed women and slaves, and it became the first of many such communities throughout the Mediterranean. People in these communities shared in the communal work and spent time in reading, contemplation, and writing. They were in some sense like religious communities, but lacking traditional views of the gods and advocating simple lives of rational reflection in friendship and community.
Given the focus on the life of pleasure, though, as well as the rejection of traditional religion and metaphysics and the admittance of both men and women in such communities, these communities came to be viewed as quite threatening to early Christians. Early on there were consequently rumors of these communities as dens of decadence, depicting those within them as pursuing luxuries, engaging in orgies, and spreading dangerous ideas and a dangerous form of life. The Christians did respect some of the elements of the communal life however and various communes later became Christian monasteries.