Hedonism is an ancient philosophy that (1) identifies the good with pleasure and the bad with pain and (2) recommends that individuals should pursue that course of action that they reasonably think will secure them the overall favorable balance of pleasures over pains.
One can distinguish the first of these positions — (1) above, from the second, (2) above. Proponents of the first are known as value hedonists. They affirm that what is pleasurable is good and what is painful is bad. Value hedonism is merely descriptive theory. However, proponents of the second position also affirm an ethical theory, or a theory of right action. Their view is not merely descriptive. It is also normative. That is, it indicates what people should do.
There are two basic types of individualist hedonist ethical theory. (1) Some hedonists focus on short term pleasures or whatever pleasures they happen to have. (2) Others focus on long-term pleasures and maintain that some of the long-term pleasures they focus on are greater than various short term pleasures. Since their earliest debates, hedonists have differentiated between immediate short-term pleasures such as the pleasures of sex or food and long-term pleasures such as those that we may gain from cultivating friendships or developing our characters.
Carvaka and Cyreanaics
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, 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; they consequently recommended devoting one’s life to its pursuit. The Ancient Greeks had a counterpart to the Carvaka in Ancient Greece: the Cyrenaics, as they were called, also 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.