Hedonism: a philosophy misunderstood

by Philipp Prüller 

Photograph by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

After sipping on two Aperol Spritz in the City center of Bologna and a glass of terribly overpriced wine at the Airport Bar afterward, I slowly but surely feel that I am ready to discuss a topic very dear to me: Hedonism. My father tends to tell me, that I am responsible for most of the grey hairs that he developed in the last couple of years because of my sometimes rather unorthodox decision-making and behaviors. Throughout all my life I have been very eager to always try and live my life to the fullest and what greater justification is there than the modern view of Hedonism? Hedonism is publicly defined as “living and behaving in ways that mean you get as much pleasure out of life as possible, according to the belief that the most important thing in life is to enjoy yourself”1. Sounds very agreeable, doesn’t it? 

Well, unfortunately, Hedonism wasn’t intended to be understood that way and often gets a bad reputation. It almost seems like it nowadays functions as a justification for one’s egoistic behavior. Most people aren’t even aware of Hedonism although they live by its very principles (which have been twisted for a more public approach). With society urging people to “prioritize” or “enjoy” themselves, rather than working towards something more important, the original ideals of Hedonism have been bent to fit corrupted behavior. In the following, we will take a look at OG Hedonism according to one of the most influential Hedonists: Epicurus, who lived around the year 300 BC. 

Image from Flickr 

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Epicurus believed that the key to living a good life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, his understanding of pleasure is different from mine (and probably yours). It is important to understand that pleasure should be seen as the ultimate good in life, while pain on the other hand functions as the ultimate evil. He furthermore states that pleasure (as well as pain) is not only physical but also has other attributes. Pleasure should be seen as not only an empiric and bodily sensation but also as a mental state of calmness and an absence of pain. The pain therefore also includes mental states like fear and anxiety. The pursuit of pleasure is only desirable if it is morally right to do so. This is what fundamentally divides the Epicurean ideas of Hedonism from these of a raging alcoholic trying to justify his binge. In concrete terms, this means that Hedonism does not condone self-indulgence but aims to seek pleasure in harmony while focusing on concrete morals.

The highest goal of Epicurean philosophy is ataraxia (tranquility of mind/freedom of disturbance).

Pleasure is not the presence of pleasure itself but rather the absence of pain. Epicurus believed that true pleasure could only be achieved by a simple life without indulgence and excess. A poor man who lives free of anxiety and fear lives far more pleasurable than a rich man whose mind is constantly troubled.

If you take a look at the decreasing mental health in modern society, this seems to make sense. The world health organization (WHO) states that depression is“[…] a leading cause of disability worldwide[…”] 2 with an estimate of 5% of adults suffering from it. I think we can all agree that health is worth more than wealth and must be prioritized by everyone to live a good and fulfilling life. So, how do we achieve it?

Photograph by

Evgeny Matveev

on Unsplash

There are two types of pleasure: necessary and unnecessary. While natural pleasures such as food, friendship, and shelter are essential for our well-being, unnecessary pleasures such as wealth and luxury are not and should therefore not be pursued. It makes only sense to pursue what is essential. That being said, Epicurus did also believe that pleasure is indeed subjective and can be experienced differently. To impose your own ideas on others is perceived as wrong, as there should be no judgment towards the pleasure of others, for we cannot know anything of it.

Photograph by Siviwe Kapteyn on Unsplash

An important necessary pleasure is the idea of companionship. Epicurus states that friends are an essential part if you're striving to live a good life. Friends who value our well-being are a source of pleasure, as long as they are worthy of our trust and loyalty. It is to be expected that they will help us in a time of need as much as we are happy to help them. He further states that friendship should be based on respect and shared values, rather than on one’s possibility to gain something from it. Friends should be able to discuss philosophy on an eye-to-eye basis and achieve pleasure by doing so.

Photograph by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Another important idea to reduce suffering thru Hedonism is to understand the insignificance of death. We should not fear death, because it is the very end of all sensation: we will not be able to experience anything anymore and therefore It doesn’t make sense to be afraid. Death is often misunderstood and seen as an enemy. This leads to anxiety being caused, which as we know is the opposite of pleasure as we are trying to achieve it. To eliminate this, we only have to realize that the effects of death won't matter to us and therefore there is no reason to fear it. Death is to be accepted as a natural part of life and should not shift our focus away from the presence that we can experience.

This particular view of pleasure and pain in Epicurus's Hedonism also influenced other modern theories like Utilitarism (seeking the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible amount of people) or Consequentialism (actions should be judged by their outcome) and can therefore be seen as a basis for other philosophies to come. Hedonism is so much more than we make it out to be when we use it to justify our shitty behavior. It can also be used to try and achieve happiness and pleasure in a more general sense. The importance of friendship and the aim to minimalize anxiety has influenced the ideas of today in a lot of ways. In mental health care, for example, the influence of Hedonism can be seen in the promotion of self-care, positive experiences, and a focus on personal well-being (positive psychology). Individuals are encouraged to seek out positive things and form stronger relationships thru mindfulness and contentment. Hedonism offers a path out of an undetermined life.

Photograph by

Anhelina Osaulen

on Unsplash

What is the takeaway here? Embrace pleasure while avoiding pain, but look further than the surface. Pleasure is not doing drugs and behaving badly, but rather peace of mind. Pain is not only getting hit in the head but also not dealing properly with anxiety and mental imbalances. It is not logical to pursue wealth or fame at the cost of one's very own ability to experience happiness. Through self-control and moderation, we can attain a continuous, natural, and satisfying form of pleasure. By not indulging in excess, we pursue only what is right and will lead to a sustainable peace of mind, absent of anxiety. It is furthermore important to cultivate strong relationships with peers around us, who not only lift us along with them but also respect us and awaken a sense of camaraderie. Focus more on peace of mind and good friendships rather than Aperol Spritz (although sometimes both things go very well together).


1: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/de/worterbuch/englisch/hedonism

2: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression