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Aristotle and Hedonism

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I would like to repost this essay, of which I am very proud, from Homer Reborn.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle has two primary discussions of pleasure: the first at VII.xi-xiv and the second at X.i-v. The nature of the relationship between these two discussions and the subsequent debate amongst scholars serves no purpose here. Thus, what is required is a brief explanation of Aristotle’s views in both sections.

Aristotle begins, in VII.xi, by examining three critical views of pleasure. Having just finished his discussion of continence and incontinence, Aristotle characteristically beings his discussion of a new topic by examining popular views and conceptions of that topic. The purpose of studying pleasure, he states, is because:

“The study of pleasure and pain is the task of the political philosopher, because he is the master craftsman who decides the end which is the standard by which we call any given thing good or bad without qualification. Besides, the examination of pleasure and pain is one of our necessary tasks, because we have established that moral virtue and vice are concerned with pains and pleasures; and the great majority of people maintain that happiness involves pleasure (whish is why the word for ‘blessed’ is derived from a word meaning ‘to rejoice’).”[1]

After stating his purpose, Aristotle delves straight away into three common criticisms. The three arguments can be summarized as such: (1) Pleasure is not a good at all, (2) Not all pleasures are good, and (3) Pleasure is not the supreme good. In response to (1), Aristotle states that there are two types of good: absolute (objective) and relative (subjective). A good also can either be an activity (walking) or a state (contemplation). As such, some pleasures have an opposite pain or deficiency while other pleasures exist in a natural state containing no deficiency and as such are pleasurable in relation to the individual and the situation. Also, Aristotle makes the claim that pleasure is not a process[2] but an activity, and thus are an end in themselves. Aristotle prefers to call pleasures ‘an activity of our natural state’, and ‘unimpeded’. Aristotle continues to state that pleasure, when in its proper state, cannot hinder any other activity and thought because proper pleasure actually encourage proper activities and thoughts. Aristotle finally concludes his refutation of point (1) by stating that pleasure is not a product of any kind of art because an art never produces an activity. Thus, in relation to his other refutations, pleasure is not found in certain products in and of themselves but in relation to the individual and the product. As to argument (2), Aristotle answers this argument through a synthesis of his replies to (1) and (3). Thus he continues directly from his response to argument (1) to his response to argument (3) by stating that argument (2) does not necessarily disprove argument (3)-meaning that, if not all pleasures were bad, then there is no justification for why pleasure is not the Supreme Good. He then states that, if the unimpeded exercise of a faculty is a pleasure, then pleasure must be the supreme good because the good or virtuous man will exercise his proper faculties in an unimpeded manner. Thus, because happiness is perfect, the exercise of an unimpeded faculty is pleasurable, and an unimpeded activity is perfect, it is reasonable to assume then that pleasure following perfection is supremely good alongside happiness (though of course, Aristotle is careful to stress that this must indeed be the proper exercise of a faculty in order to achieve a proper pleasure). Aristotle then surveys nature, stating that because all animals and human beings desire pleasure and shun pain, pleasure must be the supreme good. This leads him to state that the reason pleasure is commonly understood only in relation to bodily pleasures is because this type of pleasure is the most common amongst all humans. Aristotle finishes his criticism of the three arguments by stating that pleasure must be a good because the life of the happy man must be pleasant, and the happy life is good. If the happy man’s life were not pleasant, then pleasure would not be a good, and the happy life would not be what everyone seeks.

After examining the different arguments against pleasure, Aristotle seeks to classify the different types or kinds of pleasure. Aristotle essentially portrays two major categories of pleasure: bodily and noble. He then begins to describe the nature of bodily actions, defending why they are not, as many other philosophers had said, bad or immoral in and of themselves. Using the principle of opposites, he states that because the opposite of pleasure is pain, and because pain is bad, it stands to reason that pleasure then is good. Moreover, the good and moral/virtuous man does not have to worry about bodily pleasures turning into licentious excess because his habits are good in such a way that correlationally his pursuit of bodily pleasures will be proper. He continues on to give two major points as two why bodily pleasures are so desirable. The first is that pleasures drive out pain; the more intense the pain, the more intense the pleasure. Thus bodily pleasures act, in once sense remedially to cure pain. Secondly, bodily pleasures being intense, people pursue these pleasures because of this intensity. If the pleasure is harmless, then Aristotle does not view this pursuit of intensity as a bad thing. However, if the pleasure entails some sort of harm, then Aristotle views this pursuit as bad. Thus Aristotle states that licentiousness and viciousness arrive when people do not have the moral fortitude to properly gain pleasure out of the proper things, instead substituting pleasure for other sources of enjoyment. Aristotle concludes his discussion of pleasure in VII.xiv by reiterating the point that pleasures which do not contain an accompanying pain do not contain or do not admit to excess.

Aristotle picks back up his discussion of pleasure at X.i, after a lengthy discussion of friendship, by stating that:

“After this our next task is presumably to discuss pleasure; for it is generally agreed that pleasure is very closely bound up with human nature; which is why those who are educating the young keep them straight by the use of pleasure and pain. It is also thought to be most important for the forming of a virtuous character to like and dislike the right things; because pleasure and pain permeate the whole of life, and have a powerful influence upon virtue and the happy life, since people choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful. It would seem most improper, then, to neglect such important factors, especially since they admit of a great deal of controversy.”[3]

Akin to VII.xi, Aristotle begins by analyzing different views of pleasure. The three main arguments that he analyses are: (1) Pleasure is the Supreme Good, (2) Pleasure is wholly bad, and (3) Some pleasures are bad. In argument (1), he directly addresses the view of the philosopher Eudoxus. Similar to what Aristotle himself previously stated, Eudoxus believed that pleasure is the Supreme Good because every animal, rational and irrational, is drawn to it and seeks it above other things, and thus it must be the Supreme Good. Because pleasure, in this view, is not sought after as a means to something else, but is sought after in and of itself, pleasure must then be the Supreme Good. To this first point Aristotle seems to be in agreement. However, his disagreement with Eudoxus comes later on when Eudoxus states that the addition of pleasure to any good thing makes that thing more desirable. Aristotle states that this views stands in contradiction to the first statement because, if pleasure added to a good makes the good more desirable, then pleasure couldn’t be the Supreme Good because the good which was enhanced by pleasure would be a higher good than pleasure. Aristotle then begins his examination of argument (2) by calling this argument “nonsense”. If every animal, both rational and irrational, sought pleasure, Aristotle states that this argument does not make sense because there is no reason why all animals would strive for the bad. He then goes into a lengthy discussion about pleasure and degree or processes, defending his view that pleasure is not a process but an activity (as explained above; he will also, soon, magnify this distinction). Finally, he examines the view that some pleasures are bad by stating that those “bad pleasures” are not even really pleasures at all because what is pleasant to a bad person, who is not natural, is not the same as what is pleasant to a good person, who is natural. He continues by reiterating his point that some pleasures are good in and of themselves, because they do not have a deficiency, while other pleasures contain a deficiency, and thus must be handled with caution. Aristotle then begins a lengthy discussion as to why he believes that pleasure is not a process (this has been described above). What is most important from this lengthy discussion is that pleasure is whole or complete. He then relates pleasure to activity by stating that, in effect, pleasure is the proper functioning of an activity. Pleasure, if you will, is the gasoline of a car: the gasoline (pleasure) allows the proper activity of the car (to drive) to occur. Different than a car, though, is the fact that pleasure does not start or is not the cause of an activity, but rather is the essence of an activity which maximizes the potential of that activity. To the question of why people do not constantly feel pleasure, Aristotle replies with the answer of fatigue. Continued use of anything for a prolonged period of time fatigues that something due to the large volume of energy expended, and thus energy must be restored before that something is able to properly function again. Ultimately, Aristotle states that pleasure is essential to life because life itself is an activity, and an activity separated from a pleasure does not function properly at all-thus life devoid of pleasure is not a properly functioning life. Aristotle concludes his treatment of pleasure by pointing out the fact that, so as there are many different kinds of activities, so too are there many different kinds of pleasures. Thus the better pleasures are those that accompany the better activities. The result of this, then, is that the good man will live the most pleasant life because the activities of the good men are the best.

Though Aristotle has a tendency to fall into complicated digressions, his main view (if it is possible to synthesize the two treatments of pleasure) is that pleasure and an activity are so closely related that they could be viewed as one and the same thing, even though in a certain way they are distinct, and because life requires activity, and the good life requires good activity, the good life will necessarily be pleasurable. A very important distinction must be made, though, between Aristotle’s view of pleasure as the Supreme Good and hedonism, for unlike Aristotle’s view, hedonism is a malady upon mankind which serves no purpose but the destruction of those who faithfully adhere to it.

Completely antithetical to both Stoicism/Christian Asceticism and Aristotelian ethical theories concerning pleasure is Hedonism. Hedonism, by placing pleasure itself as the Supreme Good, acts as a cancer upon any ethical framework built up either by tradition, religion, parentage, or conscious philosophical adoption by invalidating the need for a framework at all. Akin to pure nihilism, hedonism has no need for ethical guidelines because the only guideline is the maximization of bodily pleasures (whereas in nihilism, the guideline isn’t anything at all). Thus the end, pleasure, is achieved by pursuing anything which brings about a temporary state of the end; sex, alcohol, drugs, and food themselves are the substitutes for virtues such as courage, temperance, magnanimity, or justice. This is due to the fact that, since virtues are the means by which humans mold and guide their lives so that they might achieve their end goal (the good and happy life), no form of molding is needed by the hedonist because the supreme end is almost immediately achievable. Epistemologically speaking, sensation and perception replace reason as primary epistemological tools, sensation and perception being directly correlative to taste and touch (what Aristotle views as inferior sense due to their reliance upon something else, or contact-sight, to Aristotle, requires nothing but the opening of the eyes to actualize the sense, whereas taste and touch require a foreign entity in order to actualize them). Reason and more intellectual pleasures are shunned in favor of bodily pleasures. In discussing temperance at III.xi-xii, Aristotle explains how the licentious man pursues bodily pleasures as opposed to intellectual pleasures because these bodily pleasures are readily available (especially amongst opulent societies) and plentiful. Thus the hedonist approaches and evaluates the world not based upon reason, but based upon animalistic or brutish scales of pleasure-maximization/pain-minimization[4]. Reason then is almost viewed as an enemy, it being the “agent of destruction” which, combined with the inner-voice of traditional morality (a person’s conscious), seeks to destroy hedonism by returning the individual to more normal levels.

Even proper states or conceptions of pleasure are destroyed by hedonism, being replaced by range-of-the-moment, whim-based pursuits. In effect, the intellectual is shunned in favor of the physical. To obtain pleasure via the hedonistic virtue of sex, notions of love or meaning (intellectual pursuits) are thrown out in favor of physical pursuits; the aim in the encounter being which partner (or partners) can maximize the amount of pleasure gained. Repetitive encounters with the same pleasure results in diminishing returns, thus making it necessary for the hedonist to seek even greater and more lavish instances of an encounter in order to reach the same level of pleasure as had been previously gained. Thus what once was one sexual partner a month turns into one sexual partner a week; even then, as the pleasure returns from this repetition become diminished, an even larger number of encounters are sought. Eventually, a point will be reached where norm itself is not sufficient (traditional sexual encounters), and thus a new or more obscure encounter is sought (sexual fetishes). This degeneration is not peculiar to sex; in the same way, the glutton increases their normal food intake to the point to where even normal food is insufficient, and thus for different or more rare types of food (eating McDonald’s everyday turns into eating McDonald’s everyday, plus a bag of cookies). Hedonism in this way even works to destroy itself because what once was required to obtain the appropriate level of pleasure is now insufficient to meet the ever-expanding demands of the hedonistic drive. A more proper definition of hedonism might thus be a degenerative motion towards ever-expanding physical pleasures achieved through the sacrifice of the mind to the body.

The effects of hedonism, of course, are first shown physically as the body is the first area of attack by the cancer. Physical effects of hedonism commonly include such modern day pandemics as obesity and STD’s, though with prolonged continuation, more immediate and serious physical maladies such as liver failure occur[5]. However, as these bodily encounters transform from occasional binge encounters into ingrained habits, the cancer of hedonism begins to spread from the body to the soul or the mind. In regards to sex, the actual meaning of sex itself is destroyed. As a consequence, the sexual hedonist finds himself increasingly unable to have meaningful or long-lasting romantic relationships as he is unable to grasp the principles behind sex and love, instead being able to only view the relationships through the lens of sexual gratification. Other important activities to a romantic relationship, such as deep conversations, cuddling, or spending quality time with one another are viewed as impediments to the actualization of the goal. Where the romantic partner might try and engage in a romantic evening by having a quiet dinner, a glass of wine, and lighting some candles while listening to soft jazz music being played in the background, the hedonist will (not being able to appreciate these details or the higher meaning behind them) become antsy and bored, trying to rush through the “mundane” in order to “get to the good stuff”. Similarly, the hedonist of alcohol tends to ignore drinks of lower alcohol content or more flavorful, expensive drinks in favor of cheaper, more pure alcoholic beverages (the shot of course being a favorite; short and simple, the alcoholic content of one beer is consumed in less than five seconds). Drunkenness is elevated onto a platform, especially when hedonists socialize their “virtues”, creating an arena of competition amongst one another to see who can become the most intoxicated (or who can sleep with the most number of people, in the case of the sexual hedonist). Due to the establishment of these habits within the psyche, the hedonist begins a perilous spiral, racing down the track away from the depression and loneliness within at ever increasing speeds blindly towards the perceived saving grace of greater pleasure.

The depression comes about due to the fact that the hedonist never actually achieves anything of value. Since man was endowed by nature with a basic blueprint for proper functioning, though of course volition allows him to discover and follow this blueprint or not, the abdication of this blueprint results in a contradiction between what is and what ought to be, a sort of inner turmoil (the degree to which this turmoil takes place within other systems which, though they do not fully follow nature’s blueprint, maintain a basic level of happiness and success within their life is achieved incidentally to the degree in which the system’s virtues correspond to those set forth by nature). Using modern psychological terms, the hedonist at this point almost gives off the impression of being bipolar due to the rapid fluctuation of emotional/mental states. Having no higher moral basis or intellectual understanding, the hedonist is a slave to whim. Due to the fact that bodily pleasures requires almost no need for teleology, the Supreme Good as bodily pleasure inhibits the growth and development of the psyche, brutishly focusing on the moment-to-moment struggle for gratification. Thus, not only does hedonism replace epistemology and ethics, but it destroys the very framework upon which such a system could be built. Popular hedonists phrases such as, “Live in the moment” and “Live from day to day” exemplify this teleological suicide. Where Christianity places ethics as the ladder to God and Aristotelianism places ethics as the ladder to happiness (each ring of the ladder corresponding to a virtue-though of course, I am not implying that all virtues are equally hierarchical), hedonism does away with the ladder all together, rashly claiming that the end (pleasure) can be found instantly. To the hedonist, the concept of enduring through a trial to achieve better results in the future does not exist because the hedonist has no concept of future. This explains the historical inverse relationship between higher degrees of hedonism and lower production yields or shorter work schedules; the hedonist does not want to work! The problem with the abandonment of teleology all together is that, when the hedonist reaches a stage where he wishes to rise out of his own cesspool, he timidly looks at the ladder of another system, vaguely and childishly attempting to climb seldom tread ground or forgetting how to tread it all together. Thus hedonism entails another danger in that the act of getting out of it is a painful and arduous task. Indeed, unless a Supreme Good has ingrained itself within this individuals mind, allowing them to draw upon the minute yet ever-increasing pleasure gained from striving for said Good, it is very typical that the hedonist either falls back into hedonism or slides into a state of deep depression and turmoil.

Very typically, hedonism is not an isolated case within an individual, but exists or comes about in a larger social sphere. In many cases, the hedonist and his friends or social groups resemble a symbiotic mutualism or commensalism. Friendship takes on a new sense as hedonistic individuals aid one another in their quest for ever-greater feats of pleasure. Once traditional acts of friendship, such as bonding time, are redefined in relation to pure pleasure. Though a group of friends might drink such an excessive amount of alcohol that they do not specifically remember what happened or what was said, the event was considered a successful time of bonding (and thus they feel closer to one another) due to the fact that validation (in and of itself a form of pleasure) is received from the other hedonist. This occurrence can even cross over into sibling relationships, where what once was considered bonding between siblings (such as playing a board game, swimming, or drinking coffee and talking late into the night) is transformed into similar hedonistic activities as friends. Indeed, this can even cause strain or damage relationships between a hedonistic sibling or friend and a non-hedonistic sibling or friend due to the hedonistic sibling or friend believing that the non-hedonistic sibling or friend has no desire to bond, and to the non-hedonistic sibling or friend despairing the physical and psychic demise of their loved one. Social stratification then occurs between the hedonist and non-hedonist, possibly explaining the existence of “red-light districts” within larger, wealthier cities; hedonists prefer to associate with other hedonists and tend to despise non-hedonists.

When one then takes a larger look at the world as a whole, it is apparent that hedonism is more prevalent amongst wealthy and opulent nations or societies, or the wealthy in a nation, than more poor or middle classed nations or people. This is due to the fact that in order to be hedonistic, enough “material” must exist with which the hedonist can indulge. More poor (and even middle class) individuals within a society, or more poor (and middle class) societies themselves occupy a predominant amount of time pursuing the basic requirements of life, leaving very little time to form hedonistic habits and lifestyles. The man who works all day to provide enough to feed his family for that day does not have the time or resources to then indulge himself on the finer things of life. Wealthy nations or individuals, on the other hand, have the resources available to “buy” time and materials. While this is not in and of itself bad, and in many cases it can be a very good thing, the problem lies when the wealthy or opulent individual or society does not have the moral framework to withstand the flashy appeal of hedonism. For indeed, few individuals will deny that if given the choice between a nice cake or a stick of celery, the celery will appear more pleasing. Thus the individual who can afford to buy a scrumptious cake will have little reason not to do so. This brings about a very interesting dilemma: due to the fact that a wealthier society is in ways better for the individual (in terms of abundant food supplies, exceptional health care, technology to allow time for loftier pursuits, etc.) and in ways worse, as has been previously described, it stands to reason then that as the wealth or opulence of an individual or society increases, so too must the strength of and adherence to a proper moral system. This is historically proven by the fact that the fall of some of the greatest empires or societies in the world, from Egypt to Greece, Rome to Venice, France to Victorian England, all witnessed at the moment before their fall an abdication of traditional moral standards or ways of living in favor of hedonism, brought about by the opulence of said societies.

In summation then, it can be said that hedonism infects all major branches of philosophy. In metaphysics, hedonism replaces God or reality with delusional worldliness; in epistemology, reason or faith is replaced by pure sensation or perception; in ethics, a moral code or teleology is replaced by whim-worship; and in politics (or social ethics), friendships or proper relationships based upon the good or some value are replaced by hedonistic parties of indulgence. If not cured, hedonism in fact will eventually destroy any philosophy at all within an individual, making the adoption of a new philosophy seemingly impossible. The ultimate question, then, is what philosophy is best suited to prevent or cure hedonism?

Many different philosophies have tried to offer their cure for hedonism. The problem with most philosophies, however, is that their solution to hedonism is to move to the opposite extreme: asceticism or stoicism of some degree. In these philosophies, the individual tends to view the body or world as evil, and thus pleasure as evil. Abstinence from pleasure, or at least the minimalization of pleasure, is the best course of action because it separates the individual from the source of corruption. The problem with these philosophies is that, by going to the opposite extreme, two important things are left out. First, though Aristotle in Book II stated that it is good to shoot for the opposite extreme so that we may properly land in the mean, in actuality shooting to the opposite extreme usually also misses the mark. In addition, by glorifying the opposite extreme, the individual who was not a hedonist tends to fall more easily into hedonism through his natural curiosity at pleasure and thus, being sheltered from it, this individual has no concept of how to properly deal with this pleasure. Secondly, as Aristotle states in Book VII and especially in Book X, pleasure is actually a good thing-it makes life worth living!

The proper alternative, or cure, is then clear. The proper way to both treat an individual who is a hedonist or to prevent other individuals from becoming hedonist is to adopt the Aristotelian ethical system, especially in regards to Aristotle’s views of pleasure. The individual who properly adopts Aristotle’s ethics will live such a good (moral) life that the “bad” pleasures are not actually pleasures to them, and thus the pleasures that are not bad are relished as an essential aspect to the enjoyment of life. This transformation not only applies to the noble or intellectual pleasures, but also to the bodily pleasures as well; the man of proper virtue will properly engage in and enjoy alcohol, food, and sex. Thus his life will not display any of the repressive curiosities of asceticism, or the destructive consequences of hedonism, but rather-by properly combining both to reach the mean, lead to a life where both happiness and pleasure coexist in harmony.

[1] NE 1152b1-4

[2] To Aristotle, a process is a type of change which spans a duration of time, changes from something to something else, ie. a it has a starting point and a finishing point, and thus due to the change, the process is never complete in one moment of time but is only complete when finished. An activity, on the other hand, is always complete at any selected moment in time because it has neither a starting nor a finishing point, and it does not require any stretch of time. See Metaphysics Θ.6,1048b18-23.

[3] NE 1172a19-21.

[4] It is worth noting here that very rarely does a person become fully hedonistic, and thus the degree to which they are hedonistic is the degree to which they shun or abandon reason. Similarly, the degree to which the person becomes hedonistic is the degree to which they shun or abandon traditional morality. Very often this process of degeneration takes a considerable amount of time and is usually found within older hedonist. Many people will delve a certain level into hedonism before returning to a normal state due to the strong influence or pull of their traditional morality. Aristotle states that this is especially true within children or youth, who being “young and lusty” will reach levels comparable to a hedonist, yet as they mature grow out of these levels.

[5] These physical problems of course can exist within individuals who are not hedonistic. However, these maladies are more common to or prevalent amongst hedonists due to the excessive exposure of the hedonist to the items or states within which these maladies occur (excessive eating, sex, and drinking).

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