We have hedonism all wrong, according to ancient Greek philosophy

Epicurus believed we should seek out simple pleasures.
Epicurus believed we should seek out simple pleasures.
Image: Reuters/ Luke MacGregor
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Hedonism gets a bad rap in our pleasure-espousing society. And yet, despite all its connotations with frivolity and danger, the word simply describes the philosophical belief that pleasure is a worthwhile pursuit.

The ancient Greek conception of hedonism embodies a far more simplistic, enjoyable approach to life than the consumerism and gluttony associated with contemporary uses of the word. This ancient philosophical approach to hedonism, most famously advocated by philosopher Epicurus, highlights how pleasure is missing in today’s success- and productivity-oriented culture—and why it’s so valuable.

In How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, CUNY Graduate Center philosophy professor Catherine Wilson shows how pleasure is fundamental to living a good life. Epicurus believed both current and future pleasure are important. Most of us are familiar with scolding warnings about overindulging in the present leading to future pain, and Epicurus agrees: Spending all your money on one vacation will be detrimental to your pleasure in the long-run when you can’t afford rent. But there are also dangers to forever postponing enjoyment for a future date.

“At the same time, it is possible to be too orientated towards the future,” writes Wilson; a great night out is well worth the hangover that comes the next day, for example. If you’re forever trying to hoard wealth for an unspecified future date, life will pass you by as you hunch over a computer. 

In Wilson’s book, which will be published later this month, she also critiques these presentations of hedonism as highly gendered. Female hedonism “is associated with retreat to a safe space at home in bed with low-budget self-pampering and grooming; male hedonism is associated with far-away adventures and high-budget conspicuous display,” she writes. Female indulgence is often displayed as shirking from work, whereas men are portrayed as having enough power to travel the world on a whim. Pleasure is defined differently according to gender and with a heavy focus on consumerism.

For Epicurus, pleasure wasn’t all about bubble baths and flashy watches. By contrast, Wilson writes that he celebrated far simpler pleasures, including the sight of the sea or sky, floral scents, or listening to music. A truly hedonistic life, in ancient philosophical terms, would not only be devoted to momentary, passing pleasures, but would carefully evaluate whether personal decisions—such as the career you choose, or your neighborhood—will create a pleasurable life. 

Though Epicurus’s approach can sound selfish from an individual perspective, these principles, writ large, are the basis for Marxist theories on social justice. Wilson points out that Marx wrote a doctoral thesis on Epicurus, while Engels believed that Epicurus’s “justification of enjoyment” was one of his worthwhile contributions to enlightenment. 

Ultimately, Marx wanted to shift society to create a culture where pleasure is more evenly distributed—and that means less work, more hedonism. This outlook still holds value today. Marx stressed that the lifestyle that comes from miserable workers engaging in the repetitive work of mass production is hardly geared towards happiness. “Enjoyment is deferred to evenings and weekends,” Wilson writes. “By evening, however, most workers are exhausted, too tired to shop for flowers on the way home, too tired to cook a tasty supper, certainly too tired to indulge a taste for science or philosophy, and inclined to stun themselves with alcohol or drugs.”

She notes that Marx sought a life that allows for flexibility. In one manuscript, he describes the value in a life where he could “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind.” What could be more hedonistic than that, in a world where time is the biggest luxury?

Living an Epicurean life is far more difficult in a society of economic instability and low wages, and, in Marx’s view, truly realizing Epicurean levels of pleasure requires societal changes. But while it can be frustrating to work endlessly for seemingly little reward, it’s worth remembering the value in seeking such pleasures. By evaluating the pleasure—rather than simply the money, security, or status—derived from choices, we can live as hedonistically as possible.