1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hedonism

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HEDONISM (Gr. ἡδονή, pleasure, from ἡδύς, sweet, pleasant), in ethics, a general term for all theories of conduct in which the criterion is pleasure of one kind or another. Hedonistic theories of conduct have been held from the earliest times, though they have been by no means of the same character. Moreover, hedonism has, especially by its critics, been very much misrepresented owing mainly to two simple misconceptions. In the first place hedonism may confine itself to the view that, as a matter of observed fact, all men do in practice make pleasure the criterion of action, or it may go further and assert that men ought to seek pleasure as the sole human good. The former statement takes no view as to whether or not there is any absolute good: it merely denies that men aim at anything more than pleasure. The latter statement admits an ideal, summum bonum—namely, pleasure. The second confusion is the tacit assumption that the pleasure of the hedonist is necessarily or characteristically of a purely physical kind; this assumption is in the case of some hedonistic theories a pure perversion of the facts. Practically all hedonists have argued that what are known as the “lower” pleasures are not only ephemeral in themselves but also productive of so great an amount of consequent pain that the wise man cannot regard them as truly pleasurable; the sane hedonist will, therefore, seek those so-called “higher” pleasures which are at once more lasting and less likely to be discounted by consequent pain. It should be observed, however, that this choice of pleasures by a hedonist is conditioned not by “moral” (absolute) but by prudential (relative) considerations.

The earliest and the most extreme type of hedonism is that of the Cyrenaic School as stated by Aristippus, who argued that the only good for man is the sentient pleasure of the moment. Since (following Protagoras) knowledge is solely of momentary sensations, it is useless to try, as Socrates recommended, to make calculations as to future pleasures, and to balance present enjoyment with disagreeable consequences. The true art of life is to crowd as much enjoyment as possible into every moment. This extreme or “pure” hedonism regarded as a definite philosophic theory practically died with the Cyrenaics, though the same spirit has frequently found expression in ancient and modern, especially poetical, literature.

The confusion already alluded to between “pure” and “rational” hedonism is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in the misconceptions which have arisen as to the doctrine of the Epicureans. To identify Epicureanism with Cyrenaicism is a complete misunderstanding. It is true that pleasure is the summum bonum of Epicurus, but his conception of that pleasure is profoundly modified by the Socratic doctrine of prudence and the eudaemonism of Aristotle. The true hedonist will aim at a life of enduring rational happiness; pleasure is the end of life, but true pleasure can be obtained only under the guidance of reason. Self-control in the choice of pleasures with a view to reducing pain to a minimum is indispensable. “Of all this, the beginning, and the greatest good, is prudence.” The negative side of Epicurean hedonism was developed to such an extent by some members of the school (see Hegesias) that the ideal life is held to be rather indifference to pain than positive enjoyment. This pessimistic attitude is far removed from the positive hedonism of Aristippus.

Between the hedonism of the ancients and that of modern philosophers there lies a great gulf. Practically speaking ancient hedonism advocated the happiness of the individual: the modern hedonism of Hume, Bentham and Mill is based on a wider conception of life. The only real happiness is the happiness of the community, or at least of the majority: the criterion is society, not the individual. Thus we pass from Egoistic to Universalistic hedonism, Utilitarianism, Social Ethics, more especially in relation to the still broader theories of evolution. These theories are confronted by the problem of reconciling and adjusting the claims of the individual with those of society. One of the most important contributions to the discussion is that of Sir Leslie Stephen (Science of Ethics), who elaborated a theory of the “social organism” in relation to the individual. The end of the evolution process is the production of a “social tissue” which will be “vitally efficient.” Instead, therefore, of the criterion of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” Stephen has that of the “health of the organism.” Life is not “a series of detached acts, in each of which a man can calculate the sum of happiness or misery attainable by different courses.” Each action must be regarded as directly bearing upon the structure of society.

A criticism of the various hedonistic theories will be found in the article Ethics (ad fin.). See also, beside works quoted under Cyrenaics, Epicurus, &c., and the general histories of philosophy, J. S. Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics (3rd ed., 1897); J. H. Muirhead, Elements of Ethics (1892); J. Watson, Hedonistic Theories (1895); J. Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory (2nd ed., 1886); F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (1876); H. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics (6th ed., 1901); Jas. Seth, Ethical Principles (3rd ed., 1898); other works quoted under Ethics.