Is hedonism a viable philosophy?

Onfray’s neo-hedonism derives from his admiration for the so-called ‘libertine’ thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries who, rejecting the perfectible nature of mankind extolled by Christianity, regarded our mortal existence as an essentially physical experience which, far from having to be denied or controlled by strict moral codes, should, on the contrary, be enjoyed and enriched to the full … while it lasts! Precursors of the materialist and sensualist thinkers of the Enlightenment, these vilified moral pioneers had the courage to free themselves from the pressure of received opinion and openly professed a candid innocence (and subversive doubt) in matters of religion and ethics. One of them, the poet and playwright Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) was imprisoned for his libertine opinions and fled just in time to avoid his pending death sentence. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), for his part, revived the philosophy of Epicurus and paved the way to a freethinking attitude towards the political and religious establishment, soon to spread across the entire European continent.

Although Onfray lays claim to being a distant disciple of the French libertine thinkers, his philosophical stance remains very close to the Epicurean ideal as he insists upon our personal responsibility to further our inclinations and desires without damaging or jeopardising other people’s freedom. Hume first pointed out the deep egotistical trait in everyone of us when he remarked that all human pursuits ultimately depended on trivial subjective preferences: ‘It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’. Yet, Hume, for all his scepticism about the actual power of reason did, in no way, advocate an openly hedonistic attitude to morals. What would other philosophers have to say about the ‘hedonist’ alternative to conventional morality? IB students should be able to answer this question on the strength of their growing philosophical knowledge, by contrasting moral theories offering partial responses to the timeless dilemma between personal satisfaction and moral rectitude. Such a speculative exercise would certainly help students to draw a clearer distinction between the pure ‘cogitos’ and the ‘lotus eaters’ of philosophy.

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