Against hedonism

The modern obsession with self-indulgence is bad for the individual and even worse for society

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that we live in the Age of Hedonism. An age in which people’s lives, or at least the fictitious online manifestation of them, seems to be dedicated primarily to the obsessive pursuit of pleasure with no attempt at restraint. That the 2008-09 global financial crisis not only failed to contain this excess but perhaps even amplified it is all the more surprising and unprecedented. In 2009, the cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote about “capitalist realism”, the idea that capitalism had so permeated every aspect of our existence that we have been unable to imagine a future without it. One can easily argue that our cultural self-indulgence, so tied in with capitalism’s image of how we must look, think, and behave, is part of this phenomenon, producing the contradiction that the more individualistic we are made to be, the more we become like everyone else.

To me, one of the most visible manifestations of how the Age of Hedonism is upon us is the rise in popularity of music festivals. Granted, music festivals are hardly new, but it’s the “festival culture” that is now inescapably attached to it that is more notorious. It seems that festivals are less about the music nowadays and more about the “experience”, this being the pleasure in dressing in obnoxious boho chic, rave, or cybergoth outfits, behaving equally obnoxiously and taking as many pictures of oneself as possible. In a sense, festivals are now three-day long fancy dress or stag/hen parties, music be dammed. By far the most egregious offender is Burning Man, which nowadays resembles a hyper-sexualized Mad Max carnival filled not with marauding gangs but very affluent tech bros and Instagram influencers. If capitalism has ever had its greatest cultural victory, it is by perverting the original intention of this festival from an experience in communal self-reliance, to an orgy of Silicon Valley excess.

If only festivals were the sole manifestation of modern hedonism, perhaps I wouldn’t be complaining. Yoga, ostensibly a self-reflective, spiritual activity, is now used to adorn online dating profiles (the skimpier the outfits the better), preferably when taken in picturesque settings like Berlin’s Holocaust Museum. Restaurants now seem to compete less on the quality of the food but on how Instagrammable it looks and how quirky or gimmicky the decor. Social media is now also a competition for #LivingYourBestLife and #FeelingBlessed about all the amazing places you travel to and all the amazing people you have rooftop bar cocktails with. After all, you only live once (#YOLO). That everyone has been made aware of the mental health effects of these faux perfect lives yet continue flaunting them is testament to how the Age of Hedonism is not just a sum of individual actions but is firmly ingrained in the cultural fabric of 21st century life.

From Epicurus to Burning Man

Hedonism has a long history, and an ancient Greek philosopher who instantly comes to mind is Epicurus. Hedonism formed an intrinsic part of Epicurean thought, which emphasized the importance of pleasure as the highest good; even ahead of happiness as Aristotle would have argued. Pleasure, Epicurus claimed, was the one thing that people do for their own sake, and even in the case of actions that appear unpleasurable, these are only undertaken in order to achieve pleasure in the longer run. However, the similarities with modern hedonism end there. Epicurus was, in fact, very much opposed to certain types of pleasures and desires. For example, he distinguished between “moving” and “static” pleasures, the former being those that are obtained in the process of satisfying a desire (the pleasure of food, for example), while the latter were obtained after being satiated (feeling full after eating). These were, to Epicurus, the best types of pleasures since they no longer left a person wanting.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Epicurus also distinguished between different types of desires. Natural but necessary desires were those that human beings required for their very existence, such as food, drink, and shelter. Natural but unnecessary desires, were the above taken to extremes. One needs food and drink, but one does not need the finest wines available to humanity to accompany a five-course meal in a Michelin starred restaurant. Likewise, one needs shelter but not a country estate with a private garden maze. Thirdly, there are so-called vain desires as well, those which represent more abstract concepts such as fame, fortune, and power. Indeed, many natural but unnecessary desires are merely fronts for vain desires: it’s hard to imagine the burden of upkeeping a country estate (even if you can hire a mini-army of butlers and servants) is worth it were it not for the status it provides to the landed elite.

Quite simply put, it’s hard to imagine that Epicurus, if he lived today, would be dancing in a cybergoth outfit at a Croatian EDM festival. It is unlikely that his Instragram feed would be filled with selfies, pictures of pretty food, and pointless street art. He would probably not sell his soul to an investment bank or tech company merely to perpetuate an obnoxiously individualistic lifestyle based on superficial, fleeting pleasures.

The millennial contradiction

It would be easy to bash millennials for not having the common sense and self-reflection to realize how counterproductive their hedonistic lifestyles are. Or how hypocritical, given how this generation appears to be supportive of many laudable social causes like climate change, women’s, minority, and LGBTQ+ rights and presumes to be staunchly anti-capitalist. On the other hand, one can also err on the side of sympathy and claim that hedonism is merely the rational outcome of a post-financial crisis future ruined. This is, after all, a generation that in many respects will be worse off than their parents and grandparents. If buying a home is out of reach, what is the point of saving for a deposit? Better to spend whatever meager savings on enjoying the present. By this logic, hedonism is simply the result of hyperbolic discounting (a preference for a smaller short-term reward rather than a larger long-term one) brought about by economic and political choices that were never under their control.

The other argument one could make is that modern hedonism is ultimately harmless. So what if thousands of douchebags make a temporary desert city in Nevada? Who is affected by people deciding to dress like dickheads for a music festival? What’s the harm in paying for overpriced cocktails in a rooftop bar? It would seem that the answer is nothing at all, but certain manifestations of modern hedonism do have considerable negative impacts. The most obvious one is travel. Not only has the rise in air travel led to a huge rise in carbon emissions, but large swaths of popular cities have seen a serious deterioration of the quality of lives of their residents as a result of overcrowding and a rise in housing costs through the AirBnB effect. Some studies have even suggested that street art (or as I like to call it, graffiti made by and for white people) also raises house prices.

In a more abstract sense, there is an overwhelming sense of “sameness” as capitalism responds to modern hedonism by making every city in the world resemble each other. Exposed brick and hanging lightbulbs. Chalkboard signs with quirky puns. Walls painted with angel wings for girls to use on their online dating profiles. Cities that were once cradles of diversity are now everything but; in my last visits to New York City (where I partly grew up in and have always felt “at home” in) I was saddened to see how hipster bars and restaurants have wiped out some of the local charms of Manhattan neighbourhoods like Little Italy. All of this fuelling the hyper-consumption of a generation that claims to be perennially “broke”. But this should not be surprising. Instagram is also notorious for the same pictures in the same locations repeating themselves ad nauseum.

How original

Hipsters today, capitalists tomorrow

Forget the physical and abstract impacts of modern hedonism. I, like Epicurus, fear the psychological ones. The inability to restrain unnecessary desires, particularly at a young age, is not ideal conditioning for the rest of one’s life. If one is incapable of leaving so many unnecessary desires unsatiated (or better yet, not finding them desirable in the first place), what is to stop this impulse from dominating the pursuit of more dangerous desires like wealth? If you must go to as many music festivals possible, if you must dress as obnoxiously possible to each of them, if you must take as many pictures of yourself as possible, and if you must share them all on social media, how are these impulses any different from amassing a stupefying amount of wealth for its own sake?

There is a historic precedent for this: it is not a coincidence that generations that also succumbed to their most primordial hedonistic desires like the hippies of the 1960s, later became the arch-capitalist baby boomers that vote for people like Trump and Boris Johnson and defend their pensions rather than fund education and healthcare for the young. In contrast, the so-called Greatest Generation, born into the hardships of Depression and World War II, would support the broadly egalitarian policies of the post-war period. Granted, it is not easy to draw robust conclusions on the basis of a generalized observation like this, but still, it’s hard to deny that the restriction of unnecessary desires early in life could lead to political attitudes that are considerably less self-indulgent later. Which is why I fear that today’s hipsters, for all their supposedly progressive leaning views, could very well end up with very economically conservative attitudes when they get older, especially those who end up modestly affluent.

Of course, this evidence is ultimately anecdotal. My cohort, the cynical and nihilistic Generation X, has produced a disproportionate share of tech bros. To our credit, idealism was never our strong suite but neither was being hedonistic: drinking cheap lager while listening to grunge or Britpop was the highlight our youth, while the temptations of cheap travel, digital cameras, and social media were simply not there. Would we have behaved any differently if these things existed? Possibly yes. But the beauty of counterfactuals is they can never be proven. Ultimately, I believe there is a place for Epicurean hedonism, and that our enjoyment of many of life’s pleasures is essential for both our physical and mental well-being. But today’s perversion of the concept does little good for the individual. And it could do a lot of bad for society in the longer run.

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