Hegesias of Cyrene (ca. 320 - ca. 280 B.C.)
The “Death Persuader”
A late philosopher of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, Hegesias of Cyrene was history’s most pessimistic hedonist. The philosophy of hedonism is, of course, founded upon the principle that it is wisest to act in such a way as to maximize pleasure and to minimize suffering; indeed, the ancient hedonists maintained that the goodness of pleasure is denied only by those whose minds are perverted. In ancient times there were two varieties of hedonism. The first of these was the egoistic hedonism of the Cyrenaic school, in which unbridled pleasure-seeking was the chief goal in life. Although the Cyrenaics admitted that the immediate sensual gratification of physical desires may yield only momentary pleasures, nevertheless they maintained that these are the most intense types of pleasures — and what are our lives if they are not the sum total of all such moments? Pleasure can only be experienced in the present moment and so it would be foolish to forego present pleasures for the sake of future ones because the future never really arrives — for it is always right now — and if one spends one’s life sacrificing present enjoyment for the sake of possible future enjoyment, then one’s life (being the sum total of all such moments) would on balance end up being a joyless one. Furthermore, the Cyrenaics maintained that you aren’t even really the same person from one year to the next (are you really the same person that you were when you were a five-year-old?) so to forego present pleasures for possible future ones in essence amounts to giving your own pleasure and joy to someone else who doesn’t even exist yet, and may never exist, if you should happen to die before you get the chance to metamorphose into that person. This was the line of reasoning that motivated the Cyrenaic hedonists to strive always to do all they could to enjoy the “here and now,” because, after all, no matter where we go, or how long we wait, it is always “here and now.” This carpe diem “live for today” approach to life is the mode favored by children, who live in the present moment better than anyone else, and it may even be a serviceable approach to life for wealthy and privileged adults who also happen to be blessed with youth, good looks, and good health, but what about those who are not so fortunate? What about the sick, the poor, the lame, or the old, whom nobody wants to have sex with, and who have nothing to look forward to in their lives but suffering? Cyrenaic hedonism is not a workable philosophy for such people because there is nothing more pathetic than a person who lives solely for pleasure who suddenly finds himself condemned to living without pleasure! Few people are fortunate enough to be able to make a lifestyle out of enjoying a continuous succession of pleasures — even those that are so blessed cannot usually keep an uninterrupted stream of pleasures coming for long, for if the pains and infirmities of advancing years do not stanch the flow of pleasures, then the physical unattractiveness of old age will at least put an end to the greatest pleasure — one’s sex life. Where carnal pleasures are hard to come by, and suffering plentiful, Cyrenaic hedonism is simply not a workable way of life, for the only thing such a hedonist has to keep him going in life — pleasure — is unattainable to him. A second variety of hedonism arose in order to address this shortcoming of egoistic hedonism, and that variety is the kind we call “rational hedonism.” Epicurus was the most famous exponent of this philosophy. Like the Cyrenaic hedonists, the Epicureans also considered pleasure to be the supreme good, but their concept of pleasure differed substantially from that of the Cyrenaics. Unlike the egoistic hedonists, the Epicureans (or rational hedonists) contended that true pleasure is attainable only by Reason, and that happiness comes not of passionate cycles of ecstasy (followed by agony), but is rather the result of equanimity of the soul — and this, even the old, the sick, the poor, and those too ugly to get any sex, have at least a chance of attaining. Therefore, they stressed the virtues of self-control and prudence in all things. The Epicureans recommended not abstinence, mind you, but moderation, for total abstinence is even more destructive to our ability to enjoy than is over-indulgence. Nevertheless, the self-restraint advocated by the Epicureans smacked of repression to the shamelessly carnal Cyrenaics, and, perhaps when pleasure had finally become unavailable to him, the Cyrenaic hedonist, Hegesias was forced to conclude that life has in it more pain than pleasure, more grief than joy; that happiness is impossible to achieve because the mind and body are subject to much suffering that is the result of fortune beyond our control; that friendship does not really exist, for everything that anyone ever does is for egoistic reasons — to please himself, or for his own advantage — and friendship thereby really amounts to no more than people using each other. Because pleasure is good and suffering is evil, and because to live is to suffer, the only recourse left is to end one’s life without delay, so as to minimize one’s suffering. It is said that he argued the point so eloquently that a wave of suicides arose in Alexandria, he became known as Peisithanatos (“the Death-Persuader”), and King Ptolemy II “Philadelphus” (who reigned from 285 to 246 B.C.) found it necessary to banish him from Egypt [Source: Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, i,34.83 , Loeb Library]. It is not known whether or not Hegesias took his own advice, but in any event, his career of advocating suicide was not a long one for it is estimated that he did not have to endure this vale of tears for more than two-score years. Today the name of Hegesias is almost unknown, his philosophy all but forgotten. Why? Because philosophies are subject to a kind of natural selection: any philosophy that kills off those that subscribe to it, is itself slated for extinction. It can only survive as long as people only pay lip service to it, but do not act in accordance with its tenets. And so it is with anti-hedonistic religions, too. A pleasure-hating religion, such as Christianity, which demands chastity of its members, can only survive as long as its members are hypocrites. If they ever start practicing what they preach, and give up fucking, there will be no “next generation” of Christians, and the religion will become extinct just as the philosophy of Hegesias did.
Although its historical influence was not profound, the philosophy of Hegesias marked the beginning of the end of the shameless, orgiastic, life-loving pagan Greek way of life. The pursuit of carnal pleasures can only be a viable raison d'ętre where pleasure is readily and dependably attainable, and suffering is avoidable and scarce. Such a state of affairs can only come about in an enlightened society which is understanding and tolerant of human nature, and which recognizes that peace does not come from the harsh repression of human needs, but in providing justice to all, by allowing all to meet their human needs without resorting to crime or violence. Needless to say, there have not been many such enlightened societies in history. Usually, those few wealthy fortunates who are in a position of power maintain their lives of pleasure and luxury at the expense of those less fortunate than they, while ignoring the suffering of the downtrodden wretches that they are standing upon to hold their heads above the rest. Although ancient culture was not harshly intolerant of human needs, as today’s culture is, and legal prostitution, love cults, and orgiastic festivals provided a way for all to meet their human needs at least occasionally, still there was a vast gulf between the wealthy freemen who could afford lavish pleasures on a regular basis, and the many poor slaves who could barely afford to eat occasionally. Lest we get too self-righteous about the fact the slavery is abolished in our time, we should bear in mind that the ancient injustice of the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” persists to this day. Today, in the United States, wealthy capitalists amass obscene amounts of un-labored-for wealth by paying illegal immigrants or the people of impoverished nations a meager subsistence wage for doing things that the privileged class would never deign to do — such as scrubbing toilets — and the minimum-wage-earning lower-class drudges have to strle to eke out a subsistence which is little better than the slaves had it in the Roman Empire. Without a system for ensuring that anyone could get pleasure who was willing to work for it (such as the system outlined in the cult of Aphrodite scenes in Khan Amore’s controversial novel, HYPATIA), Cyrenaic hedonism was a philosophy for the privileged and the fortunate, not for the poor and the downtrodden, and the poor and the downtrodden have always greatly out-numbered the Hugh Hefners of the world. In a world without a system of societal support for such a way of life — a way which dependably makes pleasure available and suffering avoidable for all — the pessimistic philosophy of Hegesias was the philosophy of hedonism taken to its logical conclusion. It was the philosophy of the friend who has been hurt, betrayed, or taken advantage of too many times; that of the idealist who has been slapped in the face by reality too often; that of the hedonist who finds himself living without pleasure.