Hedonism: Pleasure and Despair


Hedonism makes a value judgment by saying that the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are good. Yet at the root of hedonism is a philosophy of despair. Dr. Sproul explains.

“If It Feels Good, Is It Good?”

Hedonism makes a value judgment by saying that the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are good. At the same time, it produces a system of ethics which, in turn, produces a certain behavioral pattern of morality. A popular maxim of our culture is “If it feels good, it is good.” Goodness is determined by feeling. Popular music communicates the message that the final test of what is right is the feeling test.

The sexual revolution is rooted in a hedonistic ethic. A recent quote from author Helen Gurley Brown indicates how much our society has been influenced by hedonism. She has given us a new definition of promiscuity. In the fifties the word promiscuity meant “having sexual relationships with more than one person, outside of marriage.” The new definition by Helen Gurley Brown is “Having sexual relationships with more than one person in the same day.” Catch that phrase, “in the same day.” That is the new definition of promiscuity. We must understand that the sexual revolution our nation has experienced has not happened in a vacuum. There are cultural and philosophical reasons for these changes.

At the root, hedonism is a philosophy of despair. It reflects a deep-seated sense of hopelessness of people trapped on this side of the wall. It is a quasi-logical conclusion to secularism. If my life is bound by the poles of birth and death, if my life has no eternal significance, then why not grab whatever pleasure I can squeeze out of my brief time on earth? If death is ultimate and life is meaningless, we need an escape. Temporary euphoria seems better than none at all. The cocaine high, the sexual orgasm, the gourmet meal all offer at least a brief respite from constant despair. The final creed of the hedonist is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

The ancient Epicurean and the modern hedonist both search for the same thing—peace of mind. They are looking for relief that goes beyond Rolaids. Peace of mind, however, is elusive. The deepest desire of man is for a stable peace, a peace that lasts without giving way to a hangover.

Saint Augustine was a crass hedonist before his conversion to Christianity. He pursued the sensuous route; he was a pleasure seeker. His famous prayer, penned after his conversion, expressed the human dilemma: “O God, thou hast created us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

Augustine saw a link between human restlessness, a gnawing form of anxiety, and living against the purpose of our creation. We were created for God. Just as fish are in despair out of water, so the human soul is in despair when it is outside of fellowship with God. The Westminster Catechism asks: “What is man’s chief end?” The answer provided is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

The goal of man is God. He is the fountain of peace, the wellspring of joy. We were created for happiness, not gloom. We were created for hope, not despair.

Americans are guaranteed the “inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.” There is a profound difference, however, between pursuing happiness and seeking pleasure. We often confuse them.

Sin destroys happiness. By sinning we violate God. We injure our relationship with Him. We frustrate the goal of our own humanity. But sin is pleasurable. If sin offered no pleasure it would have little attraction for us. The enticement of sin is for the short-term feeling of pleasure. Pleasure is so called because it is pleasing to us. It is pleasant. Happiness is also pleasant. It is also pleasing to us. We can state it this way: All happiness is pleasurable, but not all pleasure yields happiness.

Pleasure and happiness are closely linked. But happiness is a particular type of pleasure. It endures. It goes beyond momentary euphoria to blessedness. It yields the authentic fruit of joy, a joy that lasts forever.

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