At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”

There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne  worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”

Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”

Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.

Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.

There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.

I think Eliot is on to something.


8 thoughts on “Hedonism

  1. A deep subject with no easy answers, and one I have been pondering on for a while, ever since a friend told me that she was happy because she has “lots of nice things”, and that was all that mattered to her — her own happiness. I’ve been working on a piece for a couple of weeks now about that term “happiness”, and how differently people define it. It disturbs me to look around and see people who seek only their own happiness, without much of a care for those who are seeking only survival. Good post, Hugh … thought-provoking, to say the least.

    • We pretty much tend to confute “happiness” and “pleasure.” The Greeks thought happiness was a condition of the soul that comes with well-being and harmony within the self. That is often found by looking outwards, though we seem to have forgotten how to do that as well. I develop this theme a bit in my book “The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida.” Still available from Amazon (or from me if you so desire).

      • I agree … I think happiness, if it exists, is found within, not from material things. Now about that book … I’m intrigued and was fully planning to buy it on Amazon so you would get royalties. Until … I went to Amazon to find it and found it ranges in price from $125 to $305, which is somewhat out of my price range! So, if you have an extra somewhere, I would happily pay you the retail value for it.

  2. Oh, you’ve touched a nerve. What you (and George Eliot) say is so true. Hardship is a fact of life and it builds character. We all have our share of hardships, but on a global scale we Westerners have so little to complain about and yet we often do. We are never satisfied. Today, the industrial giants toss us tidbits like cheap monster screen televisions that dominate our living space, computers and a myriad of other electronic gadgets, and we believe possessing these objects will give us pleasure. But these same toys are used by the powerful to control us. Like drugs they make us think we are deriving pleasure from them when in fact we have not only become addicted to them, but slaves of a virtual world that is totally meaningless. And dwelling in this virtual reality has made us lose sight of what real pleasure is.
    You are correct: character and solidarity have become attributes of the past. Run amok consumerism has replaced perspective and common sense, and this obsession with possessing (accumulating) things like every year’s new iPhone, is destroying us and our beautiful planet. The magnificent forests of the West Coast burn, the Southern states are hammered by hurricanes and flooding, and the Covid-19 pandemic is destroying families and the economy. In the meantime our President fiddles in the White House, using his power to satisfy his ego and personal wealth at the expense of the faithful dupes that are his admirers. That president has never experienced hardship and his lack of character because of it has been disastrous for our country. Sorry, I digress.
    Pleasure derived from objects is fleeting and can never be satisfied. Pleasure can be derived from a job well done, from helping out where help is needed (doing the right thing), and pleasure is putting down those artificial aspects of our lives, and personally and physically reconnecting with people, nature, and our souls, and doing what we can to assure that we and our neighbors have what we need so that we can find pleasure in what we already have.

  3. Hugh, well written. It is funny you write this now, as there was a great piece on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel this weekend on “participation trophies” in sports. The key lesson as to why this is wrong is simple – failure is a far better teacher than success, especially superficial success. Life is not simple, life is not perfect. If we seek only pleasure, we get addicted to that short fix and other problems go unfettered. Keith

  4. I returned to the forest this past week for a four-day respite.. very nice, after 6 months of being confined to a small quadrant of the city! I read your post and pondered your thoughts often while interacting with neighbors – and with the wildlife. Not seeing those neighbors for over six months, and knowing that their lives with little income were more affected than mine, I insisted on them accepting a token donation for ‘potatoes and soap’ (they laughed)… in turn, before I left one had delivered a lovely lunch = thanks to the just-killed chicken sacrifice from their free-range options. the other household shared a just-picked sample of field corn, thanks to another neighbors’ cattle trampling their small patch. the corn was earmarked to harvest when dry – to feed their chickens…
    So I pondered your post – and for sure we shared out of compassion to each other, and out of love – and not to ‘feel better’ from the mind, but from the soul…

    Yesterday I witnessed the Brown Wood Rails foraging through the compost in search of still-good remnants of the squeezed oranges… I had three oranges in the house ready to go back to the city – but cut one, tossed the half in the irection of the bird, which quickly ran to it – and not away from it! It surely thought the Gods had shared it, already cut and so easy to eat! A second came out of the thick terrain, and the first one picked up the orange and dashed out of sight. I cut the other half into half again and tossed them.. Yes, it was just as easy to share with the birds, who only reaped benefits of rotten oranges or ones dropped by accident from other birds pecking from above.

    I will continue to ponder your post as I watch on the news videos how people of the world often forget about anyone except themselves.

    On a serious note, my friends in Colorado continue to ‘battle’ the wildfires west of fort collins.. They’ve now been silent for a week, and I’m very concerned. Makes my own challenges so small.

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