On Aristippus and Hedonism

My friend Jason Topolovec counseled me to follow the way of Aristippus, to forget the past, forget the future, and “live in the present moment without thinking.”  He further added that I should never stop myself “from obtaining immediate pleasure.”

Aristippus was one of the foremost hedonists of his day.  His approach to life based solely on the pursuit of pleasures is not without its limitations, however.  One of these is that the  it lands us in the Hedonistic Paradox: the more we pursue immediate pleasure, the more it runs away from us. Many pleasures also carry great suffering along with them; we need only think of the promiscuous person who seeks to have sex with as many people as possible and ends up getting AIDS.

Moreover, happiness and pleasure do not always go together; we can have pleasure without being happy. Isn’t happiness a worthier goal than the fleeting experience of pleasure? Surely joy lasts longer than an evanescent moment of pleasure. This is not to say that pleasure is bad. On the contrary, a happy life may be founded on our enjoyment of those things that fulfill us.

Thought also can bring us great fulfillment, though it can also bring us great suffering. Living without thinking at all is foolish; living a life based on overthinking is equally foolish. The wisest and most fulfilling path is the path between these extremes, the reflective life.

With that said, living in the present moment, while also planning for the future and learning from the past, is part of the secret to a happy life. Our life is nowhere but here and nowhen but now. Even centering our attention on the breath can bring us great joy as it draws us into the present moment.

Obtaining immediate pleasure can also be very unwise; sometimes it is wise not to obtain immediate pleasure. For instance, if I drop out of school and give up my teaching career, I’ll have the immediate pleasure of freedom, but I’ll have a great succession of worries and problems thereafter. If we jump into a sexual relationship with someone, we may miss the greater joys of the blossoming of love. If we seek the immediate pleasure of driving before we know how, we may kill ourselves or others. Life gives us many examples like these. Therefore, we can conclude that it is best to weigh the pros and cons of pursuing certain pleasures and direct our attempts towards our larger goal: living a fulfilling life.


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