Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Amiable Hedonism

Not every hedonist is stretched out in the sun, skin as orange as Hulk Hogan’s, quaffing endless daiquiris and enjoying the unwavering attention of blondes in bikinis. Not at all.

The red-eyed, coke-nosed, nightclubbing rouĂ© is always easy to pick out of a crowd. Blatant dissipation has a certain look to it. It’s a look often accompanied by pickled livers, deteriorated septa and a pressing need for drugs with names that end in -cillin.

But there is a less-talked-about and much more amiable variety of hedonism that often goes undetected. The neighbour who just shoveled your driveway may have hedonistic leanings. Your hard-working best friend might be a closet hedonist too.

That lady who’s always fundraising for the church down the street? A total hedonist.

The Eye of the Beholder

Amiable hedonism doesn’t obviously erode the fabric of society; on the contrary, it may appear to support it. It doesn’t declare its self-interest with fanfare and neon displays. Sure, a hedonistic lifestyle may be fun for the person living it, but it is not necessarily indolent. It’s possible to be hedonistically hard-working, hedonistically athletic or hedonistically sociable. It’s possible to pass for an altruist or a religious obsessive, yet still be be rankly hedonistic at heart.

By definition a hedonist is anyone whose life is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. It comes from the Greek hedone, meaning “pleasure”, “delight” or “sweetness”. The English word “hedonist” was coined to describe the follower of ethical systems (such as Epicureanism) in which any sort of pleasure ranks as the highest good.

Think about that for a bit. Pleasure, by definition, is in the eye of the beholder. You get to say what the word “pleasure” means to you. Nobody else can define it for you. The thing that gives you pleasure may not be the thing that gives me pleasure. An activity that makes me feel gratified and gives me a sense of well-being may be something entirely socially acceptable, even frequently praised. The thing that gives you the greatest gratification and pleasure may be something I consider trivial, tedious, stuffy or old fashioned and pointless.

Hedonism is about motivations, not actions.

Amiable Hedonism and the Will of God

Amiable hedonism is not about what particular activity I’m engaged in at any given time; it’s about the fact that I’m engaged in it primarily because it suits me.

For the amiable hedonist, the will of God doesn’t enter into the major decisions of daily life. If the hedonist appears outwardly decent and moral, it is because it pleases him to live that way or because the reaction of others to his apparent morality and decency gives him a good feeling. He may not deliberately order his life in opposition to the will of God; it simply doesn’t occur to him to take God’s purposes for him into serious consideration.

The Not-So-Amiable Hedonist

Hedonism starts with the words “I will”.

In prophesying against the king of Babylon, Isaiah aptly illustrates the thinking that led to the spiritual downfall of the original Day Star, Lucifer:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!
  How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!
  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven;
        above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;
  I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
  I will make myself like the Most High.’ ”
That’s a lot of “I wills”, and it’s a lot more ambitious than most human hedonists are inclined to be. But at some point Lucifer decided that the thing that would give him the most pleasure in all the universe — the thing that would be most personally gratifying to him — would be for Lucifer to be Number One.

What God might have wanted from him instead never entered into it. And so he became the prototype for every human hedonist to follow.

Satanic hedonism is the farthest thing from amiable. It is transparently self-interested, power hungry and willful, and naturally so: Isaiah is giving us God’s righteous perspective on Satan’s rebellion. From Satan’s perspective, the same thought process would surely be portrayed in a much more flattering and apparently reasonable light.

That’s what you’d expect from a serpent, after all.

The Practical Hedonist

The amiable hedonist channels the same Luciferian spirit, but in a much more socially acceptable way. Still, the prioritization of personal gratification is just as repellent to God in human beings as it was in the guardian cherub.

Luke records the Lord’s parable of a rich fool:
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Do you notice he’s got only one less “I will” in his monologue than Satan himself, despite his intentions seeming (to us) a lot less obviously offensive?

After all, from our human perspective, this amiable but very practical hedonist is not doing anything really wrong, is he? He’s not a rebel. He’s not starting a spiritual insurrection. He’s kind of a proto-capitalist, actually. He’s working hard, to all outward appearances blessed by God in his business and even showing foresight by planning for the future.

And yet God calls him a fool. His priorities are backward. He thinks the goal of all of life is to be described with the words, “Eat, drink, be merry”, and in this he is sadly mistaken.

“I will” doesn’t have to be set directly and intentionally against God to be worthy of judgment. Amiable hedonism is still just as hedonistic at its core.

Recognizing the Amiable Hedonist

Can this be you? Can this be me?

I’d like to think it isn’t, but I’m not all that confident. Far too much of my life is concerned with what I’d like and how I feel. Far too many of my decisions are made with my own interests at the forefront. Far too much of my time is spent on things that, five minutes after I leave this life, will be of no consequence not only to me but to anyone else in the world.

That’s not a comfortable thought.

How do you recognize an amiable hedonist? He or she becomes notably less amiable whenever the suggestion is made that a different set of priorities might be in order.

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