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  • Critical Pleasure under Late Capitalism
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

“[O]nly capital takes pleasure, said Lyotard, before thinking that we now take pleasure in capital.”

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1981)

There is only one position in the Western philosophical tradition that directs all of its energies to the pleasures of life. It is also the same position that has been almost universally castigated by philosophers. In fact, there is probably no other position regarding the conduct of life in the Western philosophical tradition that is more criticized than hedonism, the general view that the pursuit of pleasure is the sole aim of life. So why are philosophers so critical about a life of pleasure?

Hedonism takes its name from the Greek word for pleasure, hēdonē, which is also the Greek word for enjoyment and delight. According to the hedonist, the problem for philosophers is not what is the good life because everyone knows that it involves maximizing pleasure, enjoyment, and delight. The problem is how to obtain this pleasure — and to avoid its opposite, pain.

Hedonism thus builds its philosophy from natural experiences that are common to both humans and animals. Thus, for the hedonist, because the maximization of pleasure is a shared view of experience, it is incumbent upon the philosopher to develop a view of life that is faithful to our experience of it.

The question might now be asked if everyone already knows that the pursuit of pleasure is the sole aim of life, what then could philosophy possibly add to this?

Well, according to the hedonist, without the intervention of a philosophy of hedonism, we would not have the greatest assurance that our pursuit of pleasure would be successful. Here we need the intelligent, thoughtful, and well-reasoned work of philosophy to be better assured of maximizing pleasure in our life.

Put this way, hedonism does not appear to be a philosophy that should fear criticism — let alone repression. However, Roland Barthes is correct in his observation that hedonism “has been repressed by nearly every philosophy.”

As a philosophy of life, hedonism can be traced back at least as far as the Cyrenaics, and their founder, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristippus. A student of Socrates, Aristippus was born and lived in Cyrene, which is in Libya. After the death of Socrates, he opened one of the three major Socratic schools in his hometown from which the philosophical movement took its name, Cyrenaicism (the other two movements were Cynicism and Megarianism).

The leaders of this school included Bio and Euhemerus. But they also included two members of his immediate family: Aristippus’s daughter, Arete; and his grandson, Aristippus the younger. You can pretty much count on one finger how many major schools of Western philosophy were led by the combination of a father-daughter-grandson combination: in this regard, hedonism also stands alone in the history of philosophy.

Generally speaking, Aristippus contended that good and evil are reducible to pleasure and pain, and that the end of life is self-gratification. Aristippus interpreted Socrates’s teaching that happiness (eudaimonia) is one of the ends of moral action to mean that pleasure is the sole end of life. While he emphasizes immediate pleasures, he also tempers them with a measure of rational control. For him, the sole criterion of pleasure is intensity, and bodily pleasures are preferred to intellectual pleasures. Philosophy, for Aristippus, is the study of the best means of living pleasantly.

Arguably, the hedonism of Aristippus owes much not only to the influence of Socrates, but also to the circumstances of his life. Cyrene was a very prosperous and beautiful city when Aristippus resided there. The marble temples and buildings of its Acropolis were comparable to those of Athens, and it enjoyed relative peace and serenity. The citizens of Cyrene were said to be pleasure-loving and indulgent. Aristippus came from a wealthy family and enjoyed the pleasures that it brought him.

On a trip to Athens to see the Olympic games, he also made the acquaintance of Socrates and became one of his most devoted followers. After Socrates died, Aristippus travelled from place to place, charging a high fee for his teaching...


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