Our current culture could arguably be described as hedonistic-- encouraging people to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Any student of Stoicism, however, will learn that hedonism likely isn't the path to a good life.
At the same time, the idea that we can simply pursue pleasure as the ultimate goal of life is certainly appealing. After all, who doesn't want to feel good as much as possible? Who doesn't want to avoid the experience of deep pain?
In this article, we're going to take a look at eleven Stoic arguments against hedonism. When you step back and see things from the Stoic perspective, you'll find there are some equally, if not more, compelling reasons why the pursuit of pleasure above all else will actually lead to a tragic life.
The pursuit of virtue, on the other hand, might feel more difficult in the moment, but actually gives us the best shot at leading a good life. So, without further ado, let's dive in to settle the argument between hedonism and Stoicism once and for all.
The term "hedonism" doesn't refer to a specific philosophy but instead describes an entire family of theories. The common thread between all of these theories is that they all center around the notion of pleasure.
In this article, we'll be focusing on ethical hedonism and the Stoic arguments against it. First, though, we'll take a brief look at the different types of hedonism.
If you're new to the world of Stoicism, you can check out some of my beginner guides to the philosophy:
Here are some of the most frequently discussed types of hedonism and their general theses:
While psychological hedonism attempts to examine what people actually do, ethical hedonism prescribes what people should do.
The word 'hedonism' derives from the Greek word hedone, which means pleasure. Hedone itself derives from the word hedys, which means "pleasant" or "sweet."
In our everyday language, the word 'hedonism' refers to a form of self-indulgence-- when someone is described as 'hedonistic,' the implication is that they pursue pleasure above all else. Furthermore, the types of pleasures being referred to are almost always sensual, materialistic, and physical.
However, the history of hedonism in philosophy is more complicated than that. Philosophies that incorporated hedonistic ideas have almost always recognized the fact that pleasure can come from non-physical sources, such as friendship, knowledge, art, and reputation.
We find the most extreme forms of hedonism in one of the earliest examples of this philosophy-- among the Cyrenaics. This Greek school proposed that the sentient pleasure of the moment was the ultimate goal of a good life. The basic idea was that one cannot try to calculate pleasures that will occur in the future and weigh them against potential pain, and one should, therefore, try to experience as much pleasure in the moment as possible.
The Epicureans are also a hedonistic school, but they are seriously misunderstood in modern discourse. Epicurus did argue that pleasure is the supreme good, but he was in no way supporting the concept that one should try to cram as much sensual pleasure into each moment as possible. In contrast to the Stoics, the Epicureans believed that virtue was a vehicle one could use in order to obtain pleasure-- the highest good.
Hedonism experienced a revival during the late 1800s through the umbrella of utilitarianism. At this time, hedonism was proposed as both a moral and psychological theory, suggesting that achieving the greatest pleasure is an individual's only goal, and therefore, they ought to pursue that goal.
The ideas associated with hedonism have been criticized and attacked by philosophers, moralists, and thinkers for thousands of years. At the same time, we see the evidence of hedonism all around us in Western culture-- people pursuing material and sensual pleasures, engaged in endless consumeristic loops, and fixated on instant gratification.
The arguments of hedonistic philosophies-- particularly once you move past the more superficial notion of pleasure-- can be quite compelling. But is pleasure really the ultimate goal of life? Is the pursuit of pleasure the path to a good life?
Let's look at eleven Stoic arguments against hedonism to help us on our journey to discovering the best way to live.
Does pursuing pleasure really make life better? Will you really have a better experience as a person if you do everything you can to avoid pain?
"If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please."
People have been arguing against hedonism as a self-defeating philosophy ever since the ideas emerged in ancient Greek discourse, if not before that. In our modern day, we actually have scientific evidence to back up the fact that avoiding pain does not make us happier.
According to Donald Robertson, one of the main thought leaders in modern Stoicism and a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist, the pursuit of pleasure as the central goal of life contradicts what researchers have been discovering about human psychology for decades:
"It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly in conflict with modern psychological research in general."
- Donald Robertson
The Stoics and other ancient Greek schools, particularly the Cynics, would actually argue that training ourselves to accept unpleasant feelings is the best way to overcome pain and suffering.
"So called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments."
- Seneca the Younger
Rather than working to avoid pain, we should, instead, engage in voluntary hardship. The more we train ourselves to be able to handle difficulties and adversity, the more we can maintain inner peace, and the more capable we will be when we are met with obstacles on the path through life.
Some of the ancient hedonists proposed that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is natural to both animals and young humans. Adults should, therefore, develop an ethic based upon the natural instincts we see in the natural world and in our own young.
The idea here was that what is instinctive to people is what is best for them-- what is natural equates to what is healthy and good.
“Everything that happens in the world happens in accordance with the nature of the whole, and this nature is a rational one.”
The Stoics proposed that animals do not, in all circumstances, solely pursue pleasure and avoid pain. For example, there are many creatures that will put their own life on the line to protect their young.
They believed that humans were constituted by nature to develop and possess reason, a "distinct and uniquely human capacity." Therefore, living in agreement with nature means living in agreement with our ability to reason.
The Stoics argue that there are some things in life that are in our control (internal events) while some that are not in our control (external events).
One of the most important steps one can take toward a peaceful life is to learn how to discern between what is in our control and what isn't in our control. Once we have separated these two aspects of our lives, we can learn to accept what we can't change and focus our attention on those things we can change.
"The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts."
- Marcus Aurelius
For example, if you believe that the pursuit of pleasure is what will make you happy, and you spend all of your time pursuing a high-paying job that lets you take lavish vacations and buy all sorts of fancy toys, what happens if you all of a sudden lose your source of income?
In contrast, if you can figure out how to find peace and contentment despite what occurs in the external world, your ability to be happy won't be swung around by events out of your control.
In Stoic philosophy, virtue is the only good. When we act virtuously again and again, day in and day out, we are walking a path to a life of contentment and inner peace.
The only evil, on the other hand, is vice. While the four Stoic virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, their complimentary vices are foolishness, injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.
"It is a sin to pursue pleasure as a good and to avoid pain as an evil."
- Marcus Aurelius
To live a hedonistic life, one must frequently choose not to follow these four cardinal virtues. In the pursuit of pleasure, they are rejecting the importance of being guided by these core ideas. While all of the virtues come into play here, the most directly related one is temperance.
"There is no evil that does not promise inducements. Avarice promises money, luxury, and a varied assortment of pleasures: ambition, a purple robe, and applause. Vices tempt you by the rewards they offer."
- Seneca the Younger
As I've said before, being a Stoic doesn't mean selling all of your possessions and finding a cave on a mountainside where you can live a life as an ascetic hermit. The idea isn't to give up all earthly possessions or pleasures but to be moderate in relationship to them.
A hedonist will get black-out drunk despite the fact that they have to work in the morning, while a Stoic will enjoy a drink or two so as not to spoil the next day. A hedonist might put all of their disposable income towards an impractical yet flashy car, while a Stoic wouldn't let their baser impulses drive them to financial ruin.
At the end of the day, it's pretty easy to think about circumstances where trying to obtain pleasure and avoid pain could lead us to act in ways that we intuitively feel aren't right.
However, feelings of guilt and conscience are far from universal. We often don't have to look very far to find examples of people who seem to be acting in a self-interested way despite the potential consequences for others.
In Stoicism, virtue is the only good. The four virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. By acting virtuously in all of our doings, we can achieve a good flow of life.
"If we were to measure what is good by how much pleasure it brings, nothing would be better than self-control- if we were to measure what is to be avoided by its pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control."
- Musonius Rufus
In the above quote from Musonius Rufus, we are given some insight into the Stoic view of pursuing pleasure. Though it seems paradoxical, self-control actually brings us the greatest pleasure and helps us avoid the greatest pain.
It is through self-control that we can actually enjoy the true pleasures of life-- those that are hard-won and have staying power. At the same time, it is through self-control that we can avoid the pain that comes from acting thoughtlessly and being driven by our baser, more short-lived desires.
We all know at some level that short-term gratification doesn't bring us lasting happiness. We can fixate on buying a fancy car and forge forward until we are able to drive it home from the dealership, only to find all of the warm fuzzy feelings dying off quickly.
"Pleasure, like a kind of bait, is thrown before everything which is really bad, and easily allures greedy souls to the hook of perdition."
This traps us in a terrible loop-- pursuing pleasure, finding it, feeling empty, and starting the cycle over again.
"Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones."
- Seneca the Younger
The above quote from Seneca does a great job of explaining the Stoic view of temperance. You aren't supposed to deny yourself happiness or enjoyment in life, but you also have to keep the big picture in mind.
Getting wasted every Friday night might bring you pleasure in the moment, but will it get in the way of enjoying life down the road? What will it make tomorrow look like? How will it impact your ability to achieve your larger, more lofty, more meaningful goals?
- Seneca the Younger
Through experience, we all learn that the pursuit of shallow pleasures can end up causing us a great deal of pain. Whether you're tempted to cheat on your spouse, over-indulge in processed foods, or try a drug you know is terribly addictive, our rationality and reason tell us that the pleasure we'll receive is short-lived and the pain we will likely experience is enduring.
One of the concepts in Stoicism that has had a great impact on modern adherents is the idea of controlling one's emotions. It's important not to suppress your emotions or lie to yourself about how you feel, but you also don't want to simply be a puppet controlled by your emotions.
"The most miserable mortals are they that deliver themselves up to their palates, or to their lusts; the pleasure is short, and turns presently nauseous, and the end of it is either shame or repentance."
- Seneca the Younger
If you engage in a hedonistic lifestyle, you're setting yourself up for an emotional rollercoaster ride. The more manically you pursue pleasure, the more deep your resulting depression and pain will likely be. This is something that can easily be seen in the lives of addicts-- the more they pursue the thing that brings them pleasure, the more other aspects of their lives fall apart.
The truth of the matter is that seeking pleasure rather than attempting to live virtuously will come back to bite you. Without the ability to see the big picture of our lives, we might be tempted to try and feel the best possible way we can in every moment. However, soon enough, we'll find that we are not in control of our lives-- rather, our desires are what dictate our thoughts, words, and actions.
"It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them."
The strangest paradox occurs when we pursue pleasure-- the more we get what we're looking for, the more we need to feel that good feeling. The analogy of a drug addiction is, again, relevant here. Think about the way that a person's tolerance increases as they use a drug more and more-- the more successful one is in achieving the feeling they're looking for, the harder it is to find.
"Of pleasures, those which occur most rarely give the most delight."
This quote from Epictetus speaks a truth that we all know at some level. If you're a billionaire and everything you could ever want is at your fingertips, you'll likely become numb to the enjoyment of even the most lavish pleasures.
"The pleasures of the palate deal with us like Egyptian thieves who strangle those whom they embrace."
- Seneca the Younger
If we let it, the pursuit of pleasure will control us. It will make us do things we know aren't right, and it will lead us to hurt ourselves and others. This doesn't mean life shouldn't be pleasurable, but it does mean we must be able to be self-aware of our desires and use our greater rationality to ultimately decide how to live.
Though we've largely talked about the idea of pursuing pleasure, the other side of the hedonistic coin is avoiding pain.
"It is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death."
Is it really right to try and avoid pain, though? Is it even possible for us to avoid pain in life, or are we simply suppressing our true feelings?
- Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics argue that the pain and fear we experience result from our own judgments, not from external events. That means that, in order to avoid pain, we must conquer our internal world-- our minds.
Furthermore, Stoicism proposes that difficulties and adversity actually make us stronger. What occurs in life is also a part of a much larger story-- that of the universe and fate. Everything that happens to us, the Stoics say, is necessary if not good, and a central part of the good life is embracing our fates.
Building off of the previous point, the truth is that much of our growth as personalities comes from struggle and pain.
"When pain is unbearable it destroys us; when it does not it is bearable."
- Marcus Aurelius
We find this sentiment repeated in the famous quote from Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Even the worst experiences-- or perhaps especially the worst experiences-- give us the opportunity to learn and grow.
When you look back at your life, you can likely identify moments where you had a major shift in perspective. These are times when you learn something powerful, something new, that you still use to this day. While these sorts of insights can arise from positive experiences, the truth is that the most compelling moments of growth usually result from having been put through the wringer.
Are you interested in learning more about how Stoicism compares and contrasts with other philosophies, world views, and religious traditions? Make sure you out these other posts:
Hedonism is a fascinating concept that has been present in philosophy for thousands of years. It's hard not to be enticed by the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate goal in life, but the truth is the Stoic arguments against hedonism are far more compelling.
What do we really want in life? Do we want to feel good in short spurts as much as possible, or do we have larger purposes we want to pursue? Is it really so important to avoid pain, or is it more essential that we engage with life in a virtuous manner and find key lessons in our struggles that help us become the best possible versions of ourselves?
To learn more about Stoicism and how it can help you lead a rich and good life, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.