From what I read, Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist who passed away from cancer a few years ago, would not have shied away from the label hedonist. After all, Wikipedia notes that he referred to himself as an Epicurean.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”
Not many people would quibble with the idea that it’s right and proper for a sane person to go about finding satisfaction of desires. I mean, are we supposed to look for unhappiness instead? Are we supposed to search out opportunities for slavery or deprivation?
Actually the fact that so few Americans would find fault with a life lived in pursuit of pleasure clarifies the guiding philosophy of our day. We are, quite frankly, hedonists.
I shudder at the thought because I remember studying hedonism in school in connection to ancient Rome where toga-wearing Caesars were fed grapes by scantily-clad slaves, where they would gorge themselves then throw up so they could continue “enjoying” the feast, where orgies were routine. Drunkenness and debauchery seem the most appropriate words to describe what I thought of in conjunction with hedonism.
And now, hedonism is us.
Little did I realize back in those school days that in my lifetime young girls would binge and purge, that drunkenness and debauchery would describe a lot of college life, that “threesomes” would become a TV joke, that “dating” would be replaced by one-night stands and marriage by “relationships.”
As if all this isn’t bad enough, I look at the Church, and I see many professing Christians accommodating hedonism. Some do so in an unapologetic, aggressive way, saying that God has promised His children good gifts so we ought to be holding Him to His word by naming and claiming what we want.
Others are more circumspect, involving themselves in political movements that would ensure a continuation of the privileges of living in a wealthy, capitalistic society.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not an advocate of socialism in any form, but neither do I believe the Church should take up the fight to preserve capitalism. The truth is, one system is built on laziness and the other on greed, so it’s a little like picking your poison.
Except, with our hedonistic beliefs these days, not so many people recognized the poison of greed—unless, of course, it’s corporate greed. Corporate, that great nameless monolith that we can blame for all the ills of society, because goodness knows, Man certainly can’t be to blame.
In a round about way, this brings me back to my beginning—that innocuous definition of hedonism in the dictionary, the one so few people would mind being associated with. It’s hard to call someone greedy when they are simply trying to satisfy their desires, the same as everyone else.
There’s an unspoken understanding that people should play fair in the process, and those who don’t such as Fanny Mae and Bernie Madoff, deserve our wrath. But those racking up millions by playing baseball or basketball in Southern California? Glad to have you here among us. And wouldn’t we like to be just like you!
The problem for the Christian in accommodating this attitude, even in our subtle ways, is that we no longer imagine satisfaction without the pleasures of life, as if somehow God isn’t enough to satisfy us—just He, Himself.
How ironic when Paul says that to live is Christ. In a short passage to the Colossians he refers to knowing Christ as wealth, riches, and treasure. I wonder what we the Church in America would name as our wealth, riches, and treasure.