Hedonism and Stoicism are two philosophical schools of thought that offer completely different perspectives on life, happiness, and the pursuit of a fulfilled life.

Stoicism is reasonably well known and presents a clear path to happiness through virtue and logic.

Hedonism, however, is often misunderstood as unrelentingly pursuing pleasure above all else in an effort to find happiness.

Today we’re going to cover:

  1. A summary of Hedonism

  2. A summary of Stoicism

  3. The Similarities and differences

  4. How we can use these philosophies to better our own lives

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What is Hedonism?

Hedonism is the belief that pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the most important principles that drive the pursuit of a good and happy life, morality, and human behaviour. These pleasures can include sex, video games, drugs, and food, but they can also include listening to good music, spending time with loved ones, or reading.

It’s not so much about what we do, but more about what we should do: avoid pain and pursue pleasure.

Hedonism covers a lot of different schools of philosophy; however, we’re going to focus on the teachings of Epicurus from ancient Greece, who argues that life’s primary aim should be to maximize positive feelings, or pleasure, and minimize pain.

Sounds pretty good, right?

But, while many people see hedonism as a relentless pursuit of bodily pleasures at the expense of everything else, Epicurean hedonism is actually not as animalistic or as crude as that.

Epicurean hedonism values simple and moderate pleasures as well as the avoidance of pain.

He believed that more pleasure is not always better in the short term if it leads to less pleasure in the long term. Therefore we should look for a modest and sustainable kind of pleasure. This comes from two things:

  1. Ataraxia – an inner peace that comes from the absence of fear and negative emotion

  2. Aponia – freedom from physical pain

These two things art found through:

  1. Wisdom (knowledge of the world and self-awareness),

  2. A good social life

  3. Living with virtue

The enjoyment of simple and restrained pleasure was promoted as a way of making sure that the good things in life stayed pleasurable.

Epicurus believed in moderation. If we develop our own ability to abstain from pleasures in the present moment, we prevent excess from leading to dissatisfaction later on.

For example, if we eat too much good food, we might lessen our enjoyment of the food because we take it for granted and get used to it, but we might also cause ourselves physical pain from illness or poor health.

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed”), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

Epicurus Principal Doctrines

Key Concepts in Hedonism

  • Pleasure as the Highest Good: The belief that pleasure is the ultimate objective and intrinsic good.

  • Avoidance of Pain: Equally significant is the avoidance of pain and distress.

  • Moderation in Pleasures: Epicurean hedonism, in particular, advocates for moderate, sustainable long term pleasure over short-lived, intense ones.

Stoicism: The Pursuit of Virtue

Moving to Stoicism, here we have an ancient Greek philosophy that promotes every day virtue, self-control, and rationality as the keys to a fulfilling and good life.

Founded by Zeno of Citium, Stoicism teaches that our happiness should not depend on external circumstances, which are often out of our control, but rather on our own internal character and virtue.

The Stoics believe that virtue is the highest good and that acting with virtue in everyday life is enough for human beings to achieve happiness. These virtues are:

  • Wisdom – our understanding of the world around us and our ability to use logic and reason to make good decisions.

  • Temperance – our self-discipline and ability to delay instant gratification for longer-term good.

  • Justice – our ability to behave as a good member of society, to behave in a moral and ethical way towards other people, and to behave fairly.

  • Courage – our ability to do the right thing despite external events and pressures pushing against us.

Stoicism presents us with a clear framework from the ancient world with which to achieve well-being.

Key Concepts in Stoicism

  • Virtue is the ultimate goal: Virtue, defined as living in accordance with nature and reason, is the only good, and it’s enough for a happy life.

  • Emotional Resilience: Stoicism advocates for the use of logic and reason to manage our emotions, especially negative ones, to maintain inner peace.

  • Focus on What You Can Control: It emphasizes focusing on our own actions and responses, as these are within our control, unlike external events.

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Approach to Happiness

Both stoicism and hedonism have their own paths to happiness, but they approach the goal in very different ways.

Hedonism: Pleasure as the Cornerstone

In the hedonistic view, the pursuit of pleasure and avoiding pain are not just a recommendation; they’re a mandate for a well-lived life.

Pleasure, in this context, is broadly defined. It’s not just about indulging in sensory delights but also about seeking intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual pleasures.

  • Pleasure as the Highest Good: Hedonists see pleasure as the ultimate goal and the primary component of a happy life.

  • Varieties of Pleasure: This pursuit includes not just physical pleasures, but also intellectual and emotional ones. Epicurean hedonism, in particular, emphasizes the enjoyment of simple, moderate pleasures.

  • Avoidance of Pain: Equally important is the minimization of pain and distress, both physical and emotional.

Stoicism: Virtue as the Cornerstone

Stoicism, conversely, posits that true fulfillment is found through living a life of virtue. This includes wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. It’s a philosophy that advocates for inner strength and resilience, arguing that true happiness comes from within, independent of external circumstances.

  • Internal Over External: Stoics believe that true happiness comes from within and is not dependent on external circumstances or material possessions.

  • Virtue as Central: Happiness is achieved through living a life of virtue—this includes wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

  • Resilience and Control: Stoicism teaches that happiness is attained by focusing on what we can control (our thoughts, reactions, and actions) and detaching from what we cannot (external events, others’ opinions).

FAQ

Q: Can hedonism lead to long-term happiness? A: While hedonism focuses on pleasure as a means to happiness, it’s important to note that the Epicurean version of hedonism advocates for moderation and sustainable pleasures, which can contribute to long-term happiness.

Q: Is Stoicism about suppressing emotions? A: Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotions but rather about not allowing them to dominate our actions and decisions. It teaches emotional resilience and a focus on rational responses.

Q: Can these philosophies be combined in real life? A: Yes, many people find value in combining aspects of both philosophies, seeking pleasure and happiness while also cultivating virtue and emotional resilience.

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