A Hedonist Manifesto - The Power to Exist
A review of A Hedonist Manifesto by Rob Mason
Hedonism is the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. Michel Onfray constructs a positive, hedonistic ethics that enlarges on the work of the New Atheists to promote a joy-ful approach to our lives in this, our only world.
A Dialectic of Politeness
Michel Onfray explains that, “ethics or the moral principles that govern a person's behaviour are a matter of everyday life and of subtle appearances that arise in the complex fabric of human relations. They have nothing to do with pure ideas and ethereal concepts, for instance, politeness offers a way to realise morality. It is the small gate to a great castle; Why politeness? It tells the other that one has seen them. Thus, it tells them that they are. Holding a door, practising rituals, carrying on the logic of good manners, knowing how to say thank you and you’re welcome, giving, being cheerful in lacklustre company: that is how to do ethics, create morality; embody values. This is knowing how to live, knowing how to be.
Civility, sensitivity, kindness, courtesy, urbanity, tact, thoughtfulness, reserve, commitment, generosity, benefaction, effort, and attention: these are part of hedonic morality.
Acting as a hedonist entails a mental calculation, a regular practice that generates certain momentum. The less one practices politeness; the more difficult it becomes to implement. Conversely, the more one activates it, the better it functions. Habituation leads to neuronal training. Everything is either ethical of ethological. Impoliteness is the characteristic of savagery. Only the poorest, most humble and modest civilisations dispose of their rules of politeness. Only broken civilisations on the verge of disappearing, dominated by those stronger than them, fail in practising politeness amongst themselves.”
Between Theory and Practice
A large part of traditional, classical, idealist philosophy keeps re-producing these scholastic schemes. There are interminable discussions about the gender of angels, heaps of sophistries, ad nauseous rhetorical spins, wilful verbal obfuscation, religious neologisms, onomastic and autistic approaches to practice and other peculiar symptoms. A kind of schizophrenia always threatens philosophers who segregate theory and practice. But in secluded cabinets-like the philosopher under Rembrandt’s stairs-they can live and make a living from his teaching. This is the character of a Philosophy Professor-well described as a Socratic functionary. Is he a corporate sell-out? I would say that Hegel is the epitome of all the vices of the profession.
Despite all of this, the existential tradition survived in philosophy. The Greek and Roman spirit continues with Montaigne, for example, and also with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard: Essays, The World as Will and Representation, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Repetition can affect our real existence, the concrete one, in the same way as the Letter to Menoeceus. The ancient spirit still offers a chance to get through the impasse where theoretical philosophy too often stagnates. Yet it is theoretical philosophy that dominates the University and official venues of philosophy. I believe that the spirit of ancient existential philosophy should be re-activated.
What can a philosopher show for himself? His life. If someone writes a book, but it is not accompanied by a philosophical life, it is not worth our time. Wisdom is measured in details. It is found in what one says and doesn’t say, what one does and doesn’t do, what one thinks and doesn’t think. We can put it in terms of Proust’s theory of multiple selves: we can, for example, radically separate the philosopher writing Being and Time from the man who adhered to the Party of Hitler during the entire period of Nazism. If we accept this split, a great philosopher can be both a Nazi and a great philosopher with no problem. There is no connection between the person who composes a voluminous treatise on ontology and the one who vouches for a politics of extermination! Certainly, acknowledging Heidegger’s political commitment is not sufficient reason to ignore him. We should still criticize him, comment on him and appreciate his writings. But it’s important to avoid the double bind - acting as if the real does not exist and seeing only him. For Sainte-Beuve deserves careful consideration when he says; "that to understand an artist, it is necessary to understand that artist's biography."
A philosopher has to be a philosopher twenty-four hours a day, including while making his laundry list. Plato was philosophical when he wrote against hedonism in the Philebus; but it was even clearer when this preacher of the ascetic ideal died at a banquet. He was a great philosopher when he promulgated the Parmenides, just as he was when he expressed his desire to burn the works of Democritus. He was a philosopher when he founded the Academy as he was in his youth as a dramatic writer and fighter. He was a philosopher when he published the Republic and Laws, just as he was as a courtier to Denis of Syracuse. And so on. They are indistinguishable.
Hence the need for a close relationship between theory and practice, mental reflection and life, thinking and action. A philosopher’s biography is not just a commentary on his published works; it shows the nature of the relationship between his writings and his conduct. Only both of them together constitute a work. More than most people, the philosopher must keep these two forces, which so often oppose each other, connected. Life feeds the work, which in turn feeds life. Montaigne first discovered and demonstrated this. He knew that one produces a book, yet what makes it all the more remarkable is that the book shapes the author in return.
What is the principal philosophical arena? It’s not the school, the university, or any other enclosed space. It’s the open theatre of the world and daily life. There, the Lineage, Concept, Idea and Theory do not have the same status that they have in the Idealist realm. Logic does away with the religion of the Incarnate Word. Words serve to exchange, communicate and formulate not to separate. Theory proposes a practice; it intends a practice. It does not have a purpose beyond that. In nominalistic logic, words work in a utilitarian way; they are nothing more than practical instruments - there is no religion of the incarnate word.
I believe we should promote a utilitarian and pragmatic philosophy, not its evil sister- idealist and conceptual philosophy. Only the former allows for the existential project. But before pursuing it, we have to decontaminate these two terms because in the classical tradition, utilitarianism and pragmatism suffer from a double meaning, as is often the case with non-classical ideas. Thus, materialist, sensualist, cynic, epicurean, sophist, sceptic, and many other terms have one philosophical meaning, but also a trivial sense; one seems to negate the other.
Thus, materialist; In the philosophical sense, refers to a thinker who argues that the world is reducible to a pure and simple arrangement of matter. But for most laymen, it refers to one who is obsessed with accumulating goods and riches. The same goes for cynic; Philosophically, it means a disciple of Diogenes of Sinope, someone who practices total asceticism and moral rectitude. However, for most, it means a crude individual without faith or principal. Epicurean designates a disciple of Epicurus, a proponent of the frugal life and asceticism. But it also means a vulgar and gluttonous boor. Sophist refers to a methodological perspectivism, but it simultaneously denotes an amateur reasoner who cheats in order to win a debate.