Question: "What is hedonism? What is a hedonist?"
Answer: Hedonism is a philosophy of life that supports pursuing all kinds of pleasure. Hedonists pursue a lifestyle of self-indulgence.
The term hedonism comes from the ancient Greek word for “pleasure.” Our concept of the philosophy of hedonism largely stems from the ancient Greeks. Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates, is believed to be the first to preach this philosophy. Aristippus believed that the ultimate meaning of life is pleasure and, thus, pleasure should be man’s greatest pursuit.
Aristippus’s ideas may not have taken such hold if he were not succeeded by his more famous student, Epicurus, who also subscribed to hedonism. Epicurus taught that there is no afterlife and so one must enjoy pleasure as the ultimate end, though he acknowledged occasional restraint could lead to greater pleasure later. The Epicurean school of thought went on to flourish, and Epicureans debated with the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:18).
Hedonism reemerged with prominence in the 18th century under philosophers like Jeremy Bentham. With its newfound popularity, it developed into a more nuanced psychological and ethical theory, but the base remained the same: one should pursue the greatest pleasure.
The hedonistic outlook is not supported by Scripture. In the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer delves deep into the folly of chasing pleasure: “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ . . . I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10). But in the end the verdict was that “everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
In His Parable of the Sower, Jesus says this: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).
Biblically, chasing pleasure chokes out the Word and is ultimately unfulfilling and meaningless. See also Proverbs 21:17, 1 John 2:15–17, 2 Timothy 2:22, and Titus 3:3. Pleasure is not meant to be man’s chief end.
Scripture states that man will find his ultimate fulfillment in the Lord, and that the purpose of humanity is to glorify God (Ecclesiastes 12:13; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Isaiah 43:21; Micah 6:8). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 summarizes, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
In the pursuit of the Lord, the believer will find true pleasure. Psalm 16:11 says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The presence of the Lord brings true joy.
In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul explains, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
We are not to pursue pleasure like a hedonist, but when we pursue the Lord, we will find the greatest pleasure there. Jesus set before us the right priority: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).