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Hedonism: Part One

Hedonism: Part One

What is it and where did it come from?

When we first uttered the words "hedonism" on an early-stage brand call with our agency, I think I saw my Mother choke on her sip of coffee. The idea that Sansorium might represent hedonism, was an absolute, in-the-name-of-the-father-son-and-holy-spirit, "no" from my Scottish Catholic Mother, who's greatest sin was getting engaged to an English Protestant at age 16 and running away to Canada by the age of 19. (Her greatest accomplishment – I'd say.)

Hedonism has always had a lip-stained portrayal: debaucherous and overindulgent activities whilst half-naked, drug-filled, sex-ridden and, of course, fuelled by alcohol. Look up the word on Google and you'll see what I mean.

However, by Oxford standards, "hedonism" does not depict any such activity. It merely states it as: "the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence". It suggests a philosophy, a way of being. So where did hedonism get such a tarnished reputation? 

Its Greek derivitive, hēdonismos, means "pleasure", and the earliest record of hedonistic philosophy dates back to an old Babylonian epic in Mesopotamia (4th Century) that said "fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night....these things alone are the concern of men." Call me crazy, but this definitely suggests that early civilizations viewed the greatest pursuit in life was pleasure. This philosophy was persisted by The Cyrenaics, a hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BC by a Socrates student. They taught only the intrinsic good in pleasure, not only the absence of pain and momentary sensations of the body, but also the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be attained from altruism.

So where did this modern day pleasure-aversive narrative come from? After a century, the Cyrenaics school was overshadowed by Epicureanism, a philosophy which was was founded in 307 BC by Epicurus, as a challenge to Platonism (what most Western philosophy is founded on). He had a superstition for divine intervention and believed that the highest pleasure was obtained through friendship, knowledge and living a virtuous and modest life. He praised the enjoyment of simple pleasures and encouraged a life of abstaining from bodily desires like sex, and not eating too richly, so as not to risk dissatisfaction later.

Epicureanism danced in the arena with other philosophies that all played a role in the foundation of Western socio-cultural narratives, so it's no surprise that in the last few hundred years, alongside religion, societies showed a greater acceptance of modesty and self-sacrifice than audacity, pleasure and self-indulgence. 

But as we've seen, everything forbidden becomes an obsession. Part two coming soon...

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