Pater and hedonism (continued)

The psychologist can also enter the argument. How does the human pleasure system actually work? ‘How to live a pleasurable life’ is as much a question of science as it is of philosophy. Addiction is an unfortunate fact for the hedonist (just as the dangers of repression are unfortunate facts for the Stoic). Positive Psychology has very clear recommendations – though little to say on the wilder side of things: it seems to assume a fundamentally sensible approach to life. I rather like it for this, but part of me feels this would not convince the determined hedonist or the emotionally ambitious young person setting out on the journey of life.

Part of Pater’s problem was that he was gay in an era that was appallingly prejudiced. Sex has a natural ebb and flow to it, but Victorian society wouldn’t allow him that. Any love that he felt had to be hidden (he actually spent years of his life afraid of being blackmailed) – another reason for his maybe putting too much weight on purely aesthetic pleasures.

In the background, I hear Aleister Crowley intoning “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. He’s wrong, not for some high-minded philosophical reason, but because of basic psychological realities. Some pleasures are addictive and destructive – look at any junkie. Love, which is pretty central to our nature, is by definition of other people (unless you are a narcissist): the birth of my daughter was, perhaps, the moment when I fully understood that I wasn’t the most important person in my life. More generally, we are social creatures, unlike solitary ones like pandas, jaguars and kingfishers. We have evolved emotions and conscience in order to live in groups (of about 150 people, if Robin Dunbar is to be believed). OK, ultra-charming and ruthless sociopaths can and do prosper, but my sense is that most selfish people lose out. We need other people in order to be happy ourselves.

All these facts, which mean that a relentless pursuit of personal pleasure is not a great life strategy, are products of how we have evolved, not of some abstract philosophical argument.

Of course, a pure Crowleian philosopher can still turn round and say, 'So what? Facts have nothing to do with values, and I'm asserting this as a maxim.' The sensible person would still ask for reasons, however. 'Because I say so' isn't a very convincing one.

I’m still loath to totally damn the existential quest into indulgence. Quests, generally, make us bigger, better people. But in the classic Joseph Campbell model, quests are things we come back from, armed with wisdom, rather than tunnels we vanish down, never to return.

Maybe the great philosopher Marie Lloyd should have the last word: a little of what you fancy does you good. Lesser philosophers may ask her to define how much ‘a little’ is – but maybe that’s something we all have to find out on our quests.


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