Virtuous hedonism

If I were the kind of guy to worship a God, I’d worship Bacchus. Sundays wouldn’t be spent drinking the communion wine, just wine-wine.

I spent a dollar or two on wine in the second half of the nineties, when my hedonistic streak hit in 1996. More wine that I’ve drunk since the nineties.

I also like a good beer. Brewed more in the nineties than I have since the nineties as well.

Now I average less than a standard drink a day and I don’t think I’ve passed four in a day more than five times in the last ten years. But this isn’t some creeping conservatism on my part. No.

I genuinely don’t enjoy getting plastered. What I enjoy is the slightest, initial hint of alcohol in the system and what the beverage can bring to a social or gastronomic event.

Well considered hedonism wasn’t something I really had at the time. Ad hoc, faux-considered hedonism was. I reached the conclusion first and then engaged in some pretty superficial, instrumental reasoning to distract my executive functions from cock-blocking me.

However, persistent critical faculties and an increase in the myelin sheathing in my frontal lobe (something that finishes developing in the mid-twenties) gradually put an end to this self-deception. There was more to hedonism that just screwing everything in sight and drinking yourself into a stupor and if I wanted to get my head around it, I’d have to start conserving a few braincells.

You’ve been lucky, or living on another planet, or both, if you haven’t noticed that quite a large number of religious people frown on this kind of behaviour. In as far as rampant hedonism can cause harm, I’m sympathetic. The categorical objections, hellfire and brimstone however can go and take a flying leap.

I’ve never been an egoist, it should be said. It’s usually at this point in the discussion, that you’ll (if you are an atheist) have the occasional religionist associate your ethics with that of Ayn Rand. Even if you have more in common with say, John Stuart Mill (a utilitarian and dare I say, an actual philosopher.)

Whenever my pleasure, or the pleasure of my group has been at the expense of others, it’s been as a result of thoughtlessness. This was more a problem in my youth than it is now. That harmful externalities (loud noise past the neighbour’s bedtime and the like) weren’t good things wasn’t in dispute – they just went un-noticed. I suspect that this is the case for a lot of young yahoos.

I’m not selfish with my pleasure. I cook for people, for example. I share creativity in general with the aim of maximising pleasure. Nowadays, I do so with the aim of first avoiding the afore mentioned harmful externalities.

I think a few of Nietzsche’s assessments of the human condition are flawed in these respects. The things that he asserted were life-affirming on a primal level, I’ve never found life-affirming. And I think I’ve been a tad more primal that Nietzsche.

I don’t gain pleasure in subjugating people. I don’t see pleasure in others in being subjugated and I have a visceral objection to seeing other people subjugated – it’s not just slave morality that sees me looking out for others. Not that I deny what Nietzsche felt, rationally I object to it and the animal in me objects to it.

What I think Nietzsche’s error was, was to generalize his own imperatives the way Freud generalized his own sexual peculiarities to the entire human condition. The primal imperatives of the human condition are far more diverse, subjective and elusive than that.

Sexuality is a great example. Some people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, others to people of the same sex and some people aren’t particularly sexual beings at all. And within these divisions (and others) there are a multitude of other preferences for various sources of pleasure. A virtuous hedonism, as opposed to a self-deluded one, takes all of this into account.

When I worked at a deli in Norwood during the early years of this decade, there was this repeat customer who really got on my nerves. She was the stereotypical pretty girl that supposedly all the guys like. While she was in some respects a nice young lady (she was also at times a very noisy neighbour) and capable of eliciting quite a bit of sympathy from me, I actually found her quite sexually repugnant.

Aside from not being attracted to her that way (I find living stereotypes of all sorts rather unappealing), she quite unwittingly had the body language of someone who took entitlement (to men) for granted – cornering me rather aggressively a few times and otherwise not giving me my space, this annoying, incessant crotch-staring habit and the occasional but rather obvious barging in between me and other females. So when eventually I objected (which in terms of workplace sexual harassment I felt I was rather entitled to do – the crotch-staring was a bit much), she couldn’t quite get her head around the notion that I didn’t find her attractive and had to (self-deludedly) contort things to fit her narrative of men finding her attractive.

Suffice to say it ended with acrimony*. Reminds me of how Ayn Rand went off the deep end when she found out that her lover Nathaniel Branden, found the younger Patrecia Scott more attractive.

Sometimes people just don’t find you sufficiently attractive. It doesn’t matter to them that you find you attractive.

It’s like that with food and drink, music and the visual arts (and more.) A virtuous hedonism is permissive of peculiarity while seeing suffering as the only true perversion of the human condition.

Unaffected atheists clearly have an advantage over theists in accessing this virtuous hedonism, not carrying the same metaphysical baggage (i.e. sin.) Not that a theist necessarily can’t, nor do so easily – at best they fall superficially short of the same ease atheists can achieve the more superficial the differences in ethics become.

The same may not be true for a number of ex-fundamentalist theist, atheists. Not that I’ve ever had the experience of a religious enculturation, but I’m convinced by the tales of people who are still influenced by the spectre of hell even after refuting its existence.

All I’ve ever been able to rebel against in religion is the socio-political privilege it seeks and often attains (which I suspect is more obvious the less your religious enculturation), religion has never had that kind of control over me. I suspect though, that rebellion is still the answer.

Conservative Catholicism is particularly guilty of reducing atheism to rebellion against God, while at the same time finding their imaginary hell insufficiently harmful, venturing to create it on Earth through all sorts of insane sexual restrictions. Atheism isn’t rebellion, but rebellion against religiously motivated suffering is probably quite healthy behaviour for affected ex-theist atheists (and probably for newly moderate theists as well.)

Really, you are coming from a pretty sick place if you can find fault in people wanting to keep the Pope’s (or anyone else’s) liver-spotted hands off their genitals.

A virtuous, life-affirming quest to find and give pleasure is one of those things I think atheists need to give serious consideration before they check out of this fleeting existence.

~ Bruce

* In all fairness though, I think through my creative, generous and then mutating bakkheia, more than a couple of women (and at least one guy) got the impression that I was attracted to them when I wasn’t. This and a fair amount of beating around the bush not wanting to tell people the straight-out awful truth that I don’t actually like them that much, probably served to confuse the situation.

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