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Varieties of Modern Hedonism

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  • Mathew Morrell
    A unique brand of hedonism has emerged from our Faustian Late Culture that distinguishes itself from earlier forms of hedonism, but whose outcome is ultimately
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 14, 2005
      A unique brand of hedonism has emerged from our Faustian Late Culture
      that distinguishes itself from earlier forms of hedonism, but whose
      outcome is ultimately identical. Whenever the majority of the
      populace embrace hedonism, either spiritually, intellectually, or
      sexually---for hedonism is not synonymous with sexual perversity!---
      no the mater the era in which they live, that nation suffers
      collapse. It is a law of nature, that nations rise and fall
      according to a sociological pattern ending with moral primitivism,
      i.e. hedonism. In late cultures we see formless populations in which
      the great, conclusive, philosophical systems of the past---of Plato
      and Aristotle in Greece, or Goethe and Kant in Europe, of Alfarabi
      and Avicenna in Arabia---disintegrate to be replaced by increasingly
      chaotic world views. Finally the great mass of humanity spirals
      helter skelter into the moral chaos in which it has generated from
      its own soul-forces.

      Hedonism is the philosophy that views the pursuit of pleasure as
      being the highest good; and whether the pleasure sought is body-
      centered or intellectually-centered is wholly irrelevant. Hedonism
      is a way of viewing life. It is a philosophy that dominates Europe
      and America---indeed threatens to destroy them---and is found in the
      least suspected areas of our culture. Forms of hedonism include the
      classical hedonism of Epicurus, or the Utilitarianism of John Stuart
      Mill, or the hedonism of Freudian psychology, or the mass market
      hedonism of the New Age movement. Of course we know of the hedonism
      that has its intellectual ground in the philosophy of Marx, Freud and
      Darwin---the type promoted on college campuses---but as to religious
      hedonism we are generally ignorant. This is because we think of the
      religious hedonist as being above the sexual hedonist, because he
      seeks pleasure from God. Yet, by definition, they are the same. If
      religious ecstasy is the objective, then he is a hedonist by
      definition. His aim is not wisdom or spiritual knowledge, but
      sensation. Not in shielding himself from universal love, but in
      basking in it, the religious hedonist languishes in God as a drug-
      feign might languish in an opium high. To achieve "the ecstasy" he
      might resort to painful austerities. And what was their reward for
      their austerities? An eternity of pleasure of course---the all
      feeling, all senses, sense of cosmic benevolence emanating from the
      universe. That is their paradise. The religious hedonist suffers
      through his temporal life fully expecting compensation in the after
      life where he may immerse himself in the pleasure that he had
      previously denied. Pleasure is the aim and the objective.

      The New Age hedonist is different than the religious hedonist in this
      sense. The New Ager fully expects eternal reward, not only in the
      after life, but right now---yet sacrifices nothing to achieve it.
      Moreover he is philosophically opposed to the whole idea of sacrifice
      and penitence, for that would mean that the vitalization of the ego
      and the will are required to elevate the soul, not pure beingness.
      Therefore he doesn't pray regularly. He doesn't meditate with
      discipline. He doesn't aggressively study---so as to sharpen his
      visions. Instead he prefers just "to be"---a passive, almost docile
      receptacle of universal love, but one with heavy eye lids and an
      occasional yawning breath. He prefers the life force of others, via
      JZ Knight or LSD or Mao, over the vision that comes from suffering
      and self denial. The New Ager is the lazy oaf of mankind's spiritual
      community. With all your life blood, purge them from your church if
      they arrive in large numbers lest your church falls into their
      hands. Otherwise you'll find the Mystery of Golgotha replaced by the
      Kama Sutra, books on foot message, crystal worship and Jimmy Carter

      Beyond the New Age, however, almost all forms of modern hedonism owe
      something to Freudian psychology, that great communistic synthesis
      finalizing the Darwin-Marx Trinity: which reduces mankind to a space-
      sharing animal. For a moment, contrast Freud's outlook with our
      historical grandfathers from past epochs. According to the ancient
      Egyptians the human individual was a "god in flesh" whose true
      spiritual origin was the stars and not the ape-filled jungles of
      Africa. The Greeks believed mankind possessed a higher soul.
      Eastern traditions view all life forms as having souls---ants,
      flowers, oxen, and humans. In the yogic disciplines the human
      personality is a complex spiritual principle distinct from the
      physical body. But in the modern cult of science mankind is simply
      an evolved ape. Atop the ape are the ego and the superego, forming a
      pyramid of sorts: with our animal selves operating on the pleasure
      principle and the superego continually striving to repress the lower
      self in order to achieve moral perfection. According to Freudian
      psychology, neurosis is the result of the two being in conflict with
      one another; the ego's inability to harmonize the primitive impulses
      of the id with the moral conscience of the superego. If the conflict
      becomes uncontrollable then insanity is the result.

      A very funny scene occurs in Woody Allen's "Midsummer's Night Sex
      Comedy," when Dr. Leopold (a crusty Freudian psychologist played by
      José Ferrer) has a mental breakdown in which his id emerges from
      underneath the scholarly demeanor of his superego. The ultra-
      civilized psychologist, with his silver beard, round spectacles and
      prickly demeanor, becomes his antithesis; the equivalent of an angry
      savage as he pursues a man who committed adultery with his wife. The
      scene is brilliantly directed. After attempting murder, the
      psychologist finds him self completely invigorated and freer than
      he's ever been. In essence, his mental breakdown freed him from the
      moral constraints placed upon him by his own superego. He has "let
      go." He has become his id. The "mental breakdown" is the theatrical
      vehicle that Woody Allen uses to bring his story to a climax, not
      only in Midsummer, but in other works---Hannah and Her Sisters,
      Crimes and Misdemeanors, Love and Death---in which his main
      characters confront the essential problems of human existence. Why
      do I exist? What is the purpose of life? The answers come to them
      in dramatic-comedic "revelations" that reestablish their contact with
      reality, but only after psychological distress sharpens their focus.
      Not all Woody Allen characters resolve their inner conflicts, like
      Leopold did, by surrendering to the id; nor do they seek the comforts
      of religion or the intellectualism of New York academia. Although
      these might be acceptable solutions for his secondary characters, the
      primary characters in his movies are usually too conservative and
      uptight to overindulge in a life of decadence (although they would
      like to, at times).

      In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer looks visibly out of place among the white-
      clad new-age celebrities and entertainers attending a Hollywood
      Christmas party. He is a somber, cynical New Yorker, dressed in a
      tweed sports jacket, surrounded by loud music and tanned, good-
      looking men and women. Although Alvy feels awkward and perturbed,
      Annie is fascinated by 1970s era California and its spiritual
      simplicity. In the den-like screening room a partygoer lounges
      lackadaisically on the couch, stoned and smiling nonsensically. Alvy
      rolls his eyes. The idea of getting high and watching TV all day is
      contrary to Alvy Singer's sense of purpose---but not to Annie's. She
      takes Alvy's arm, saying: "It's wonderful. I mean, you know they just
      watch movies all day." Alvy responds with saracasm: "Yeah, and
      gradually you get old and die. You know it's important to make a
      little effort once in a while."

      The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, would have agreed. He believed that
      the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good, but that the life of
      pleasure has its limitations. Overindulgence leads to decadence and
      increases suffering; so while we should seek pleasure we should also
      seek restraint as a counterbalance. In this way we maximize our
      enjoyment of life by living a moderate lifestyle with time devoted to
      friends and to philosophical discussions. This is the "good life,"
      according to Epicurus (c. 270 BC). Any pleasure that reduces
      subsequent pleasures is, in Epicurean terms, bad and should be
      avoided or curtailed, for instance the overindulgence in sex. If
      overindulgence decreases your sexual sensitivity, that it is a
      reduction in pleasure and unhappiness is the result. The only
      pleasure that is good is one that creates tranquility, stability, and
      harmony within one's self.

      In Epicureanism we have a thoughtful, highly civilized complex
      ethical system that, for the first time in Greek history, contains no
      metaphysical content. The emphasis of 2nd century BC Greece, under
      Roman control, has shifted away from Classicism and centered on more
      practical, non-metaphysical concerns. Here we have an ethics devoid
      of those universal contingencies that were of primal importance in
      earlier periods but now meant close to nothing. Epicureanism has no
      need of God or to align its ethics with any sort of Platonic Form-
      World. Without form, Epicureanism rose from the soul of a
      civilization growing increasingly practical-minded and materialistic,
      its aim being, not unity with higher principles, but peaceful
      coexistence and the maximization of pleasure. Epicurus became
      popular lecture-room philosophy when Greece its self was in its
      cultural winter time, when it required moral restraint, and decadence
      was a problem threatening the health and virility of the republic.
      By then the spiritual creative impulse of Homer's Greece had died-
      out, its mystical-metaphysical dreamworlds extinguished by the
      ethical-practical tendencies of the new cosmopolitan man and his
      taste for civilized pleasures. In so far as the role of metaphysics
      within the realm of Hellenistic-Roman philosophy, it had none.
      Philosophy was ethics by the time of Epicurus. It had no ground in
      mathematics. Pythagorean metaphysics had exhausted its potential
      centuries before, to be replaced by hyper-abstract Stoics, the
      Epicureans, Peripatos and the Academy. Plato and Aristotle inspired
      Romanized Greece about as much as the metaphysics of Judaism inspired
      Woody Allen, the atheist.

      It is easy to understand why vital individuals reject Epicureanism,
      or even Late Greek classicism. The philosophical ideal of Romanized
      Greece, c. 200 BC, with its emphasis on stability and tranquility,
      stands at odds with the vitality of any person who values spiritual-
      creative impulses. Healthy individuals do not desire stability,
      after all. They value growth and expansion. They're attracted to
      extremes and won't settle for the tranquil "middle ground" of
      classical philosophy or the "good life" of Epicurus. Instead of
      pacifism they prefer heroism and adventure, intensity experiences,
      and not pleasure seeking. Epicureanism is the hallmark of a
      civilization that wants to die peacefully.
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