Skip to main content
Select Source:


hedonism is derived from the Greek hedone, meaning ‘sweetness’, ‘joy’, or ‘delight’, and refers to theories about the nature and function of pleasure. Originally, hedone was the sort of sweetness that could be appreciated by taste or smell; then hearing was involved; finally, it was applied metaphorically to any pleasant sensation or emotion. The word's history reminds us that much pleasure is rooted in physical needs and desires.

‘Psychological hedonism’ attempts to explain human conduct, claiming that people are motivated solely by the desire for the maximum degree of pleasure, and invariably act on the stronger of conflicting desires. This need not mean that everyone automatically seizes the most immediately attractive opportunity: the principle of deferred gratification often comes into play, when people sacrifice a present pleasure in hope of greater pleasure to come. Nevertheless, this theory requires a very broad view of pleasure. Imagine, for example, a group of commuters shivering at a bus stop on a cold winter morning. Presumably they have all left their warm beds at the compulsion of some overmastering motive: duty, ambition, or fear of poverty. Yet if you told them they lived for pleasure alone, they might well invite you to redefine your terms. ‘Ethical hedonism’ covers the doctrines that pleasure is the only ultimate good, and that everyone should live with that end in view, though they need not seek pleasure for themselves: thus ‘ethical egoism’ reconciles pleasure-seeking with altruism. Most discussions of pleasure cover both psychology and ethics. A closely-related subject is the examination of what pleasure actually is. This often involves philosophical attempts to decide whether pleasure can be distinguished from happiness, and, if so, to assess their relative merits.

The ancient Greek legacy

Hedonism's history is bedevilled by two false and damaging assumptions: that it advocates only bodily pleasures, and that they are invariably sinful and degrading. In fact, most philosophers seem to share this distrust of the body and advocate rational hedonism, regarding spiritual and intellectual joys as more lasting, and less likely to produce painful or inconvenient consequences. A rare exception is Aristippus (435–356 bc), a body-centred, radical hedonist who identified good and evil with pleasure and pain. He was frequently depicted as the embodiment of shameless, irresponsible sensuality. Epicurus (341–270 bc) also defined life's goal as happiness, but found it in tranquillity, arising from wisdom and virtue, rather than in active sensual enjoyment. He and his followers were often accused of bestial devotion to bodily gratification and indifference to all other concerns; this probably arose from a wish to discredit his materialism, rejection of superstition, and denial that individual identity survived after death. Today, an ‘epicure’ is a gourmet, rather than a monster of indiscriminate depravity: this sense of the word was already developing in the description of the Franklin in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400). He was ‘Epicurus’ owne sone', believing that perfect happiness lay in pure delight, whose house was always full of food and drink, abundant in quantity and superb in quality — woe betide his cook if the sauces were insufficiently piquant! However, a more sinister image of Epicurean theory and practice was also in circulation: for example, in Shakespeare's King Lear, Goneril complains that her father's unruly knights have reduced her court to something like a riotous inn:‘epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac'd palace.’
She certainly has no wish to imply that catering standards have risen under their influence. Epicurus' dubious reputation reflected the Christian tendency to regard earthly pleasures as the evil lures of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

As rational hedonists, Plato (c.428–c.348 bc) and Aristotle (384–22 bc) were less subject to misrepresentation. Plato's Phaedo depicts Socrates arguing that the true philosopher should study to separate his soul from his body by cultivating wisdom and weaning himself from physical pleasures. At death, it will join the gods in a happy state of immortal wisdom. The souls of those who have addicted themselves to sensual delights hover disconsolately about the tombs of their host bodies until they become reincarnated in animals: hardly encouragement to physical fulfilment! Although in later dialogues, like the Philebus, Plato allows pleasure a role in the good life, he stresses the importance of intellectual joys, and makes pleasure itself subordinate to other qualities, such as reason. The most obviously corporeal delights are dismissed as false pleasures, adulterated by the pains of privation and appetite. Similarly, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics recommends the pursuit of ‘eudaimonia’, ‘happiness’, but advocates temperance in physical pleasures (especially those involving taste and touch) and places the greatest value on abstract contemplation.

Utopian synthesis

Rational hedonism acquired a new lease of life when classical learning, combining with Christian theology, engendered Renaissance humanism. Thomas More's Utopia (1516), first translated into English by Raphe Robinson, describes an ideal commonwealth whose philosophers believe that ‘all our actions, and in them the vertues themselfes be referred at the last to pleasure, as their ende and felicitie.’ Nevertheless, they rank pleasures in an order which gives low priority to the body:
‘They imbrace chieflie the pleasures of the mind. For the delite of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasauntnes, they determyne to be pleasures muche to be desired, but no other wayes than for healthes sake.’Any man who pursues bodily satisfaction for its own sake
‘must nedes graunt, that then he shal be in most felicitie, if he live that life, which is led in continuall hunger, thurste, itchinge, eatinge, drynkynge, scratchynge, and rubbing. The which life how not only foule, and unhonest, but also how miserable, and wretched it is, who perceveth not? These doubtles be the basest pleasures of al, as unpure and unperfect. For they never come, but accompanied with their contrarie griefes.’In the sixteenth century, ‘honest’ meant ‘respectable’ and ‘honourable’ as well as ‘virtuous’, so Robinson's prose condemns bodily pleasures as vulgar and socially degrading. The moral connotations of ‘base’ and ‘unpure’ suggest that physical pleasures are not only unsatisfactory, but wicked and shameful. The best way to reconcile hedonism with virtue is to demonstrate that only virtuous thoughts and actions provide pleasant sensations. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case with most people, even in Utopia. More's philosophers tackle this difficulty by rejecting subjective experience in favour of intellectual and ethical standards as a means to establish the intensity, value, and reality of pleasures. They condemn as false such alleged enjoyments as pride in dress or ancestry, covetousness, gambling, and hunting. At first they make sensation the criterion of enjoyment: ‘why sholdest thou not take even as much pleasure in beholdynge a counterfeite stone, whiche thine eye cannot discerne from a righte stone?’ Subsequently, however, they concede that sensory gratification may arise from some false pleasures, but that does not prove their authenticity, for ‘perverse and lewde custome is the cause hereof’.

Utopians maximize the benefits of deferred gratification. Life led according to nature, right reason, and virtue will inevitably foster the physical health which is necessary for all other pleasures. Generosity to others is trebly advantageous:
‘For it is recompensed with the retourne of benefytes, and the conscience of the good dede with remembraunce of the thankefull love and benevolence of them to whom thou hast done it, doth bringe more pleasure to thy mynde, then that whiche thou hast withholden from thy selfe could have brought to thy bodye. Finallye (which to a godly disposed and a religious mind is easy to be persuaded) God recompenseth the gifte of a short and smal pleasure with great and everlasting joye.’This influential text airs many aspects of pleasure theory which were debated for ensuing centuries.

Pleasure and the enlightenment

Hedonistic theories proliferated spectacularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were frankly materialistic, like the analysis of psychology, politics, and morality in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). He believes the fundamental law of nature is ‘to seek peace, and follow it’; the ‘Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living’, and ‘a Hope by their Industry to maintain them’. His views, often condemned as atheistic, inspired philosophes like Claude–Adrien Helvétius (1715–71), Paul–Henri d'Holbach (1723–89), and Julien de la Mettrie (1709–51). As material prosperity increased, it became easier — and more necessary — to devise theories which demonstrated that human happiness was consistent with the order of the universe. The political economist Adam Smith (1723–70), champion of the unregulated laissez-faire economy, believed that the more its people were left to their own devices, the more prosperous and efficient a nation would become. British natural theologists, including John Ray (1628–1704) and Robert Boyle (1626–91), united science with religion in an attempt to show that happiness was part of God's plan. Drawing their evidence from observations on the world about them, they argued that God, having designed such a well-run, comfortable universe, must intend men to be happy, in this world and the next. This optimism was extended to psychology and morality by those who claimed that virtue and benevolence were not only profitable, but sources of pleasant sensations. The Revd Joseph Butler, in Fifteen Sermons (1726), Sermon Nine, expounds the paradox of hedonism: people intent on their own pleasures gain less gratification than those who care for others' interests. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), and Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) argued for the existence of a ‘moral sense’; David Hume (1711–76) declared it the sole criterion of ethical value. The full hedonistic implications lurking in Utopian accounts of virtue's benefits could be spelled out in embarrassing detail. Some philosophers cynically suspected that all actions were essentially self-gratifying. Did altruism really exist? Bernard Mandeville's Essay on Charity (1723) says, ‘thousands give money to beggars from the same motives as they pay their corn-cutter, to walk easy.’ Shaftesbury advocated the cultivation of virtue for its own sake, believing the introduction of any ulterior motive, like hope of heaven or fear of hell, rendered it ‘illiberal and unworthy of any honour or commendation’. Christian apologists retorted that only the prospect of eternal pains and pleasures could ensure good behaviour among the population at large. A properly regulated hedonism must find moral approval from a viewpoint which regarded pleasure not only as a direct and indirect reward of virtue, but as proof of God's benevolence, if not his existence.

Even animals could benefit from divine goodness. The Revd William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle (1743–1805), in Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), claims that God enables every sentient being to experience an appropriate degree of bliss:
‘When we are in perfect health and spirits, we feel in ourselves a happiness independent of any particular outward gratification whatever, and of which we can give no account. This is an enjoyment which the deity has annexed to life; and probably constitutes, in a great measure, the happiness of infants and brutes, as oysters, periwinkles, and the like; for which I have sometimes been at a loss to find out amusement.’

With God omitted from the calculations, the prospect of animal pleasure could still enhance a system of universal harmony: in The Origin of Species (1859), Chapter 3, Charles Darwin attempts to soften the harshness of natural selection by arguing that, for the successful, a sense of well-being is the order of the day:
‘When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.’


Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) shifted the emphasis from individual happiness to the good of society, announcing that all legislation should be designed to achieve ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ His hedonistic utilitarianism combines psychological and ethical approaches:

‘nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to determine what we ought to do as well as what we shall do.’He was concerned with quantity rather than quality, defining ‘utility’ as
‘that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.’

In Utilitarianism (1861), Chapter 2, Bentham's disciple, John Stuart Mill, introduces a hierarchy of pleasures to defend the system against the traditional anti-Epicurean complaint that a life with no higher end than pleasure was ‘worthy only of swine’. Mill points out that
‘the Epicureans have always avowed, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation suposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.’

He claims that the ‘higher’, or intellectual, pleasures, are better in quality than ‘lower’, physical, enjoyments. He declares, with a touch of arrogance,
‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.’

Utilitarianism is perpetually controversial. What happens when the individual's interests conflict with those of the rest of society? ‘Ideal utilitarians’ question the validity of identifying the good with pleasure. Problems also arise from the difficulty of calculating consequences. Should we be ‘act utilitarians’, always trying to do whatever will produce the greatest good on any occasion? Or should we become ‘rule utilitarians’, conforming to whatever behaviour would normally turn out best? Whatever the uncertainties about individual duties and gratifications, there can be no doubt that hedonist utilitarianism has extensive applications for society in general. With the rise of democracy and consumerism, pleasure must be acknowledged as a formidable economic and political force. Pleasure is not merely the preoccupation of frivolous moral weaklings; the founders of the world's most powerful nation held it self-evident that man had an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

The science of pleasure

Important twentieth-century developments included psychological investigation of hedonic reactions (feelings of liking or disliking) to various stimuli, and neurological research linking responses associated with pleasure to specific areas and chemical reactions in the brain. Recent advances in pharmacology and technology have given new urgency to old problems. With the appropriate use of drugs and electrodes, attempts to assess the value of a life spent in constant pleasure, regardless of other considerations, might cease to be a matter of philosophical speculation.

Carolyn D. Williams


Annas, J. (1993). The morality of happiness. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.
Campbell, C. (1990). The Romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism. Blackwell, Oxford.
Glover, J. (ed) (1990). Utilitarianism and its critics. Macmillan, New York: Collins Macmillan, London.
Porter, R. and Roberts, M. M. (ed.) (1996). Pleasure in the eighteenth century. Macmillan, Basingstoke.

See also pleasure; pleasure, biological basis.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"hedonism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 18 Nov. 2017 <>.

"hedonism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (November 18, 2017).

"hedonism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from


hedonism (hē´dənĬz´əm) [Gr.,=pleasure], the doctrine that holds that pleasure is the highest good. Ancient hedonism expressed itself in two ways: the cruder form was that proposed by Aristippus and the early Cyrenaics, who believed that pleasure was achieved by the complete gratification of all one's sensual desires; on the other hand, Epicurus and his school, though accepting the primacy of pleasure, tended to equate it with the absence of pain and taught that it could best be attained through the rational control of one's desires. Ancient hedonism was egoistic; modern British hedonism, expressed first in 19th-century utilitarianism, is universalistic in that it is conceived in a social sense— "the greatest happiness for the greatest number."

See J. C. Gosling, Pleasure and Desire (1969).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"hedonism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Nov. 2017 <>.

"hedonism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (November 18, 2017).

"hedonism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from


he·don·ism / ˈhēdnˌizəm/ • n. the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence. ∎  the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. DERIVATIVES: he·don·ist n. he·don·is·tic / ˌhēdnˈistik/ adj. he·don·is·ti·cal·ly / ˌhēdnˈistik(ə)lē/ adv.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"hedonism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Nov. 2017 <>.

"hedonism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (November 18, 2017).

"hedonism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from


hedonism XIX. f. Gr. hēdonē pleasure + -ISM.
So hedonist XIX.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"hedonism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 18 Nov. 2017 <>.

"hedonism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (November 18, 2017).

"hedonism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved November 18, 2017 from