Alternative Hedonism and the Pleasures of Simplicity

Hedonism can be defined as a way of life which treats pleasure as the ultimate good. It can be distinguished from utilitarianism, which treats happiness as the ultimate good. Hedonists are not so much concerned with happiness, in the sense of overall wellbeing. They are more interested in the carnal, sensual, and immediate pleasures of food, intoxication, sex, leisure, nature, art, and the like. By indulging oneself in such things, the hedonist aims for pleasure, pure and simple.

Hedonism, one can hardly deny, has some attraction. After all, aside from a few terribly confused religious fanatics, who could possibly be opposed to pleasure? Not me, that is for sure. I love pleasure. One need not consider pleasure to be the ultimate good, of course, to admit that.

From one perspective, consumer society can be understood as a social system designed for the purpose of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Sophisticated technologies are exploited for the stated purpose of reducing work and making life easier and less mundane. The marketplace provides a dazzling abundance of consumer goods and services which promise to satisfy every imaginable consumer need and desire. Money, it could be argued, is pleasure in the form of paper, from which it would follow that more money implies more pleasure.

The liberal-democratic systems which structure modern consumer societies are based on the ideals of individual freedom and consumer sovereignty. In return for being left alone, consumer-citizens are asked for little more than to fulfil their civic duty once every three or four years by voting in elections. Aside from that minor inconvenience, the consumer-citizen is otherwise left free to pursue pleasure by maximizing consumption in the marketplace of goods and services. Spending money is the method of gratifying both one’s deepest and one’s most superficial desires. The slogan of our age seems to be: “I shop, therefore I am.”

Nice in theory, perhaps – or perhaps not even nice in theory. Whatever the case, consumer reality today is reflecting a picture that differs greatly from its own self-image. Increasingly the negative and debilitating features of consumer society are becoming evident, to none more so than consumers themselves. The pursuit of money and market consumption is proving so often to be a false target when it comes to the attainment of pleasure.

Sociologists and cultural theorists report that life for many people in consumer societies today is a hurried, noisy, alienated, and agitated existence, disconnected from nature and community.[1] Overwork leads to ill health, physically and mentally – even spiritually.[2] There’s too much to do in too little time. Small things become annoying; strangers seem dangerous; friendships fade into cyber-space. Food too often comes in highly processed forms, eaten while sitting in traffic. Health and sanity declines further. The music on the radio doesn’t inspire; it barely entertains. The flat-screen at home is merely a distraction. Everywhere – overtly or surreptitiously – advertisements are imposing themselves on our consciousness, leaving us with barely a moment for our own thoughts. O for some peace! O for some pleasure!

When Theodore Roszak looked deep into the eyes of modern consumers, he was prompted to ask: ‘Is it not clear enough that these are the many twisted faces of despair?’[3] To some extent, at least, we might agree that there is some truth in Roszak’s diagnosis. Many of the inhabitants of affluent societies have tasted the ‘promised land’ of consumerism and found it to be tasteless.

But this raises the question: Is there an alternative?

Despite being burdened by the materialistic culture we have inherited, we remain free to recompose our own fates, to make things new, to be self-defining and world-creating pioneers once more. Another world is indeed possible, and in this new world of tomorrow (or today) I suggest there is room for what philosopher Kate Soper has called ‘alternative hedonism.’[4] Let me briefly explain this interesting concept, for it is implicit, in many ways, to the idea of voluntary simplicity.

It was in 1901 when Charles Wagner wrote, ‘Pleasure and simplicity are two old acquaintances.’[5] The idea here – which apparently even needed stating back then – is that much money and many possessions are far from being a prerequisite to a life enriched with pleasure. It may well be that expensive delicacies, fine wine, luxurious holidays, silk clothing, precious stones, etc. are pleasures that can be purchased. But it is all too easy to forget that such things have to be paid for, and that implies (for almost all of us) that we have to work to pay for them (often in jobs that do not always inspire). By limiting our consumption of ‘market luxuries,’ therefore, we can limit our working hours, and thereby make sure we have enough time for those ‘simple luxuries’ that also provide pleasure – which provide perhaps an even a greater, more intense, and longer lasting pleasure than that which can be provided by luxurious consumption.

Think of the European Bohemian’s of the 19th century. Many of them lived lives of extreme material simplicity, but they did so for the sake of their art and for pleasure. We might not want to emulate the Bohemians in every aspect of their lives, but perhaps they do have a thing or two teach us about the non-materialistic pursuit of pleasure.

Or we could turn for inspiration to the eminently wise words of John Burroughs:

[T]o be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropical fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wild flower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.[6]

The core insight of alternative hedonism is that a life of pleasure can be best attained not by working for and then purchasing luxuries, necessarily, but by finding time for those ‘simple things’ in life that are free or at least inexpensive – things such as time with family and friends, time to swim in the ocean or read a good book, time to be creative, to make love, to sit under a tree in the morning and listen to the birds with a cup of tea. In other words, alternative hedonism does not see material simplicity of life impoverishing, but enriching. Indeed, it sees the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer culture as impoverished. There will always be conspicuous consumers, of course, who seek ‘the good life’ through market expenditure. All I am suggesting is that we relinquish to those people the pursuit. I conceive of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement – at least one dimension of it – as a movement that seeks (and finds!) pleasure outside the market.

Alternative hedonism, in short, is about reclaiming the pleasures that are all too often lost in hustle-and-bustle of the rat race.

And now for the main point: The importance of alternative hedonism, as I have outlined it, lies in the fact that people are unlikely to desire or insist upon more sustainable forms of consumption in the absence of a seductive alternative to the dominant consumer lifestyle. Therefore, by exposing the negative side effects of consumer culture – which are not always obvious – and by highlighting the many pleasures of an alternative approach to consumption – which have been all but forgotten in the modern age – the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’ brings to the surface the self-interest that lies at the heart of sustainable consumption. And that, above all else, may be the key to igniting a quiet revolution in attitudes toward and practices of consumption. At the very least, it is a perspective deserving of some serious consideration.

Less money, less stuff – but more pleasure! Indulge thyself!

I should qualify all this by reiterating that I am not holding up ‘pleasure’ as the ultimate good. The term ‘alternative hedonism,’ in fact, is probably a bit misleading in that regard, and perhaps I should have just given this post the title, ‘The Pleasures of Simplicity.’ A life dedicated solely to the pursuit of pleasure, I would suggest – even the ‘simple’ pleasures that I have just been highlighting – would arguably be a narrow and limited life. It would be a life that never explored the deeper mysteries of the human condition. It would be to neglect the grandeur of existence in its infinite dimensions and possibilities. It would fail to look outside itself in recognition of and respect for the dignity of others, and therefore it would fail to appreciate the inescapably ethical context within which all life takes place. Certainly, there is more to life than pleasure.

My point is only that if, for you, pleasure is one important aspect to living ‘the good life’ – as it is for most of us – then ‘a simpler life’ of reduced and restrained income and consumption may well be the most direct path to achieving that goal.

So, when there seems to be a shortage of pleasure in our lives, let us be moved into action by the immortal words of the great alternative hedonist, Henry David Thoreau: ‘Simplify, simplify.’

The choice is ours, if only we choose it.

[1] See, e.g., Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000); Robert Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000); John de Graaf et al., Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2005).

[2] David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000).

[3] Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (1972) xxviii.

[4] The term was coined by Kate Soper. See, e.g.:…/SoperAHWorkingPaperrevised.doc

[5] Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1998 [1901]) 95.

[6] Quoted in Clara Barrus, Our Friend John Burroughs (2008) 133.

5 Responses to “Alternative Hedonism and the Pleasures of Simplicity”

  1. Tessa Wallace says:

    I love this essay, thankyou again Samuel for another boost of inspiration and further confidence that I can choose my own way to live, and that it doesnt have to be the same as everyone else as long as it makes me feel good, and do good.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Tessa, thanks for your message. I’m very glad to hear that these words provided some support and inspiration. It was, dare I say, a pleasure. 🙂

  3. Hear hear, Samuel! Fabulous essay. I’ve only just discovered your blog and can’t wait to read the rest. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you about taking back the pleasures of life.

    My tool for evaluation is elegance: Pleasure, Purpose and Simplicity.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Hiram Crespo says:

    I loved the essay, and in fact I’ve written in my blog and in other outlets about the importance of being a conscious consumer, but was puzzled by the declaration that there’s somehow something wrong with having pleasure as the goal.

    I think behind this declaration may lie some vestiges of the vulgar conception of hedonism as instant gratification, which (if I’m reading you correctly) you have accurately come to reject.

    I will at least explain the Epicurean view, for the sake of clarity.

    IN Epicureanism, we believe in rational, calculated hedonism. The so-called dangers of hedonism (as vulgarly understood by non-philosophers) are neutralized when the pursuit of pleasure is subjected to hedonic calculus, when one measures the long-term gains versus long-term losses with the goal of NET PLEASURE in mind.

    I also wish to reiterate the relationship between hedonism as an ethical imperative and natural selection, which has made pleasurable the things that we NEED. As natural beings, the pleasure/aversion principle serves us as the stop and go sign in our path in life.

    Also, pleasure and pain are the REAL, tangible criteria for ethical decision. This is extremely important and I hope you consider this.

    Many idealisms that are divorced from hedonism and from the consideration of pain and pleasure have generated A HUGE amount of unnecessary suffering throughout history (from socialism from “the free market” that capitalists believe to be infallible and which produced both slavery centuries back and Bolivia’s water wars in recent years). By making choices and avoidances without listening to the input from nature in the form of pleasure/aversion, sometimes even well-meaning people make mistakes, they hurt themselves and each other.

    Epicurean and philosophical hedonism, if properly understood and practiced, can lead to true civilization where conflicts are resolved non-violently (via the social contract, or the hedonic covenant as Michel Onfray presents it–an agreement to maximize everyone’s pleasure and minimize everyone’s pain), where things that cause pain are called evil and things that cause pleasure are called good, and things carry their proper name.

    THAT is hedonism. And it’s sad (but revealing) that the religions that hate life have also made us hate pleasure.

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