Secular Threats to Christianity:A high priest of hedonism is dead. It is no desire to add more notoriety to the life of the late actor, Errol Flynn, that prompts us to mention him here. He has been lionized too much and praised when he should have been pitied. But the late lamented actor offers a prime example of the hedonistic way of life. For hedonism is the idea that the true goal of life is pleasure, that pleasure is the highest good of man, the guiding principle of human action.
E. RICHARD CRABTREE
Volume VI -- Number 3
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary
Jeremy Bentham, an Englishman who helped to popularize and systematize the philosophy of hedonism in the 18th and 19th centuries, put it this way, "Nature has placed man under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure."1To the hedonist, life consists of avoiding pain and gaining pleasure.
This is why it may be said that the hedonistic ideal is exemplified in the life of the late Mr. Flynn. Even his last will and testament contained the instruction that his heirs were to use his money to take a trip around the world. In effect he was saying, "Enjoy yourselves. Seek out pleasure. Pursue it." And this Mr. Flynn apparently did--with no social, religious, nor moral restraints.
Classical hedonism was not that bad. Aristippus of Cyrene was the first, clear-cut philosophical hedonist. However hedonism is much older than Aristippus. It goes back to the beginnings of mankind. Hedonism was apparently involved in the error of Adam and Eve, for Genesis records, "The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise" (Genesis 3:6). It was Aristippus who gave much of the impetus to the hedonistic ethic. He drew about him a group who shared his belief that "hedone," pleasure, was the true goal of life. In all fairness to Aristippus it must be said that he urged moderation and restraint. He saw the emptiness of sensual indulgence. He discovered the principle expressed by some wag of later years who said, "It may be 'champagne' the night before, but it is real pain the morning after!" And pain is evil to the hedonist.
Many who have never heard of Aristippus have heard of his more publicized successor in classical hedonism, Epicurus. Bible students are acquainted with Epicureans. In the 17th chapter of Acts, as Paul preached at Mars Hill, he encountered the Epicureans and the Stoics. These Epicureans were the disciples of Epicurus. He, like Aristippus, did not advocate base sensuality. As Georgia Harkness says, "The hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking, ethics of Epicurus was by no means the crass sensualism suggested by the oft-quoted 'Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die;' it centered in a refined enjoyment of congenial friends, simplicity of living, and freedom from tension in a cultured and unstrenuous life."2
Unfortunately the Epicureans did not maintain the lofty ideals of their master, for they slipped to a much lower level of sensual hedonism as had the followers of Aristippus before them. Eventually hedonism proved empty and unrewarding and became pessimistic in tone. Finally we find advocacy of suicide as the best means of escaping life's evil--pain.
HEDONISM VERSUS CHRISTIANITY
Hedonism has continued as a significant philosophy, and more important, as a pattern of life, up to this day. One thing should be noted here: hedonism is a secular philosophy, and it is usually found in the company of humanistic and materialistic interpretations of life. It would be difficult for us to find a way of life more antithetic to Christianity than this. Hedonism is the philosophy of selfishness. It is man serving himself. It is the ego enthroned and at times deified.
Christianity is just the opposite. The principle of Christianity is love or, as Paul Ramsey phrases it, "obedient love."3 This love is an uncalculating, outgoing spirit of loving concern which finds expression in deeds of service without limit. It is not love given for the sake of receiving love or other benefits in return. It is as unselfish as hedonism is selfish. Jesus taught that the first duty of man is to love God and the second duty is to love one's neighbor as one's self. Self-centered hedonism is squarely opposed to this Christian agape.
HEDONISM IN AMERICAN LIFE
Hedonism should not be thought of as some musty philosophy lost in the dim past. Far from it! Hedonism continues as the guiding principle in the lives of millions of Americans, and it may well be the most popular way of life in the world. Georgia Harkness says that Epicurus came to his philosophy by asking, "How can I be happy in these troubled times?"4 Many people today are asking the same question and coming to his answer.
It is doubtful whether the average American has worked out his philosophy as did the early hedonistic thinkers, but there are many who are devoted to its practice. The "good life" is the nearly universal goal. The great American pursuit is the pursuit of happiness. And if we were to ask the average American what happiness is, the answer would probably include these elements: a comfortable home, a reasonably new automobile, a pleasant circle of friends, a refrigerator and freezer well stocked with food, and a position of prestige and respect in the community. Is there something wrong with this? No. Even from the Christian point of view, none of these is wrong in itself. The Christian ethic should not be confused with asceticism which is the doctrine that the material world is evil and the object of despite. The Christian does not reject pleasure because all pleasure is evil in itself. But there is a fundamental error inherent in the pursuit of these things. It is the belief that these alone make up the "good life." It is the idea that life is fulfilled in the satisfying of our own wants. Christ taught that the pursuit of pleasure will ultimately prove empty. He warned "a man's life consisted not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."5 This is the tragic error of the hedonist, for he makes the pursuit of pleasure and the instruments of pleasure his end and purpose of life, his reason for living.
This is the context of many lives into which we bring the gospel of Christ. The Christian messenger comes with a call for self-denial, for cross-bearing, for sacrifice, for generous and selfless love. At times those who hear this message may be as unreceptive as the Epicureans and Stoics of Mars Hill, for hedonism remains a powerful rival to Christianity.
HEDONISM IN THE CHURCH
Even in the church, among those who are disciples of the loving, selfless Christ, hedonism has made its inroads. Is it not an expression of hedonism when a Christian protests that he cannot give generously to the church but spends hundreds of dollars each year for the purchase and maintenance of an automobile? Is it not a reflection of hedonism when a church member refuses to pledge his support to the program of the church but willingly pledges $100 or more each month for many years to a bank or building and loan company for a home? Is it the intrusion of hedonism into our Christian thinking which keeps church members glued to television sets during the time of evening worship services in our churches? The hedonistic pattern of thought may be reflected also in our own church programs with the emphasis on pleasant buildings, comfortable, if not luxurious facilities, happy gatherings, recreation programs--all this to the possible detriment of the mission of the church which is sacrificial evangelism. Even in the life of the church, hedonism, the appeal of the "good life of pleasure and comfort" intrudes itself.
THE HEDONISTIC PARADOX
Hedonism, for all of its appeal, is a most empty philosophy. It is selfish and parasitic. It takes but does not give; it asks but does not offer. In addition, those who follow this way of life face what the philosophers of ethics call "The Paradox of Hedonism." It is this: pleasure is not gained by pursuit. The more one seeks it, the less one finds it. It is like the rainbow which retreats as one approaches it. The more one tries to seize it, the more elusive it becomes.
On the other hand Christian teaching brings divine wisdom to bear on human life to teach man what is true happiness. W. H. Fitchett in The Beliefs of Unbelief states that the one effective formula for the conduct of life is that which is found in the Bible. He says, "The Bible . . . somehow holds the secret. . . . It teaches the art of happiness. The supreme end of the Bible, of course, is not enjoyment, but character. It treats happiness as one of the bi-products of character. And its philosophy of happiness somehow works alike for the individual and the race. Happiness is to be found in the laws the Bible teaches, and nowhere else.6 Jesus summarized it best when he said "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."7
1. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. edited by Wilfrid Harrison. New York: The Mcmillan Company, 1948, p.125.
2. Georgia Harkness, Christian Ethics. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957, pp.16, 17.
3. This phrase is taken from Paul Ramsey's Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), where the term is used repeatedly to indicate the central theme in Christian ethics.
4. Georgia Harkness, The Sources of Western Morality. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954, p.199.
5. Luke 12:15.
6. W. H. Fitchett, The Beliefs of Unbelief. New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907, pp.254, 255.
7. Matthew 6:33.
Scanned: Michael Riggs
Edited: Matthew Honig