Sunday, 11 January 2015
Defending Dionysus: Skillful Hedonism. Part I
The opening phrase "Since the dawn of time, philosophers have wondered..." is an academic faux pas, so I will begin with something roughly analogous.
An ever present fear of pleasure runs through western thought. It starts in various schools of ancient philosophy, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, but it periodically resurfaces in post-hellenic thought. For instance, John Stuart Mill attempted to steer utilitarianism away from its hedonistic origins for fear of it turning us all into insensate pigs. In modern literature the anxiety about pleasure incarnates in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" where it takes a distinctly political turn. It seems that writers and philosophers just can't leave us pleasure-lovers alone.
Of course when I talk about a fear of pleasure what I am really talking about is a fear of hedonism. We enjoy pleasure and what is agreeable is generally what we pursue for most of our lives, but we wouldn't dare to admit that this is our "ethic". This rejection of pleasure as ethic generally manifests as one of two distinct arguments.
The first argument is that, as long as it requires the kind of tribulations that hedonism refuses to endure, endorsing hedonism will require us to sacrifice that which elevates humans above mere machines. Love, Art, Philosophy and Science, so the argument goes, cannot exist in a world where all we care about is rave music and cake. The second argument is that the pursuit of pure pleasure is disastrous to one's health and inevitably leads to misery.
Discounting the second argument, let's just pretend that part of being a skilful hedonist is in avoiding such nocuous pitfalls, we see the first argument points to a potential tension between pleasure and human achievement. Why might we suspect such a tension? Perhaps it is because the higher forms of human activity that typify our human idiosyncrasies require discipline.
To truly love philosophy necessitates a willingness to read at length and wade through periods where you don't fully comprehend what is being written. Science has a similarity in that it requires a methodical rigour and carefulness that a mortal Dionysus stereotypically would not possess. Even something as frequently frivolous as art often requires careful attention to historical context and an appreciation of artistic technique.
A confusion between the hedonistic and the bestial is at play here. There is an un-warranted assumption in the argument that pleasure seeking people will not think any further forward than the present moment. The hedonist is, according to this prejudice, a philistine incapable of delaying gratification.
However the moronic, orgasm obsessed glutton discussed above is no hedonist worth emulating.
Someone incapable of self-discipline or higher cognitive engagement could never possibly binge on fine cuts of salmon, guzzle wine or even organise a moderately successful orgy unless others did the leg work for him. A skilful hedonist, who succeeds through their own virtue rather than that of others, must have the ability to delay gratification. You can't enjoy an excellent meal unless you are willing to put the effort into creating one. Consequently a skilful hedonist should be capable of appreciating the vast swathe of cerebral pleasures offered by philosophy, science and art. They may even be able to appreciate the pleasures of religion: as oxymoronic as that may sound.
To strive for hedonistic perfection is not simply to chase others who can satisfy your cravings; it is also to practise the inventing, acquiring and delivering of pleasure to others. People acting as parasites should be tossed to the curb, they make life harder for everyone; but in these times, who can say no to a bit of artisan pleasure procurement?