Hedonism versus Puritanism

Blessed pedaling

Hedonism consists in bathing in one’s feeling of pleasure. Recommendations abound about it. How far should you let go? The caricatural form of hedonism, in fact, is symbolized by the rat which presses tirelessly on the pedal of pleasure, perpetually busy stimulating its center of reward.

Puritanism, on the other hand, represents self-observation, the rules that are supposed to lead to a better future. In its cartoonish form, it pushes to make its earthly existence a prison, assuming that a heavenly afterlife will come as a reward for this effort. The self-observant stifles behavior. The feeling of pleasure is quickly accompanied by guilt.

Perhaps this puritanical attention is responsible for the paradox of hedonism: the conscious pursuit of pleasure interferes with its experience. The more we try to find it, the more it runs away. As if by wanting to extract black gold from a well we would immediately dry it up. This phenomenon can be explained very well with the double look that we will use a little later.

Puritanism is discreet

We hardly ever read Puritan authors any more in the West. While promoters of hedonism have invaded bookstores. It is pure irony to see Michel Onfray praise this philosophy, he whose every minute of pleasure must have been undermined by the tight schedule that awaits the following ones. This shows that it is possible to feel a continuous pleasure in bathing in a work that unfolds, each moment chained to the next, therefore not isolated. No “pleasure of the moment” but a pleasure of all the moments aggregated in a purpose whose realization is still indistinct. This kind of euphoria is rather that of puritanism, which leads me to say that Onfray is puritanical and not hedonistic. The Puritan is able to enjoy any entertainment, including the sexual, provided it does not threaten his life-work.

The pleasure of devoting myself to my life-work

The life-work is what most radically differentiates the human from the animal. The human is able to give up immediate pleasures to gain a higher, complex, global one. There are two sides to pleasure, really:
1) The pleasure-reward, easy and quick to access, which we try to reproduce but which quickly fades if it becomes habitual. Immediate pleasure, pleasillico, associated with hedonistic behavior.
2) Pleasure-self-image, confidence in one’s own abilities, which is nourished by achievements. There are also fast ones, like giving pleasure to one’s partner, and slow ones, which stretch over an entire life, if one dreams of setting oneself up as a guide for Humanity. Visionary pleasure, pleasoeuvre, associated with puritanical behavior.

The pleasure of my animal nature

These two aspects of pleasure take on meaning under the double look. The pleasure-reward is ascending: it satisfies my impulses, follows the highways cleared by my habits. The broader pathways are called ‘addictions’. I do not see the birth of these preferences until they have already taken on a familiar form. I don’t know the underlying reasons for my tastes, apart from a few barely distinct markers from my early childhood.

I have to let this instinctive taste for pleasure flow out. There’s no point sucking it up. What aspires is an observer, not the generator. The two can meet, not control each other. Attempts to control weaken them mutually.

The pleasure in perspective of the planter

The pleasure-image is descending: it reinforces my image as constructed by my inner Observer. This representation is extended in the future. It includes an ideal that I hope to achieve. My identity has a temporal scope. Thanks to this extension, I easily support daily insults, the repetitiveness of mandatory tasks, the first failures of a new project. I can even refuse an immediate pleasure with the prospect of savoring a later but more complimentary one. I plant my seeds of pleasure.

Pleasoeuvre is that of my vegetal Nature, slow to establish itself but invincible. While the pleasillico is that of my animal Nature, whose instincts push to consume it without waiting, with sometimes the frustration of seeing it flee so quickly. These natures are inscribed in the temperament. The widely cited ‘marshmallow experiment’, performed by Walter Mischel in the 1970s, offered 500 children the option of enjoying this treat immediately or waiting 15 minutes and having a second one. A third of children resist temptation. Ten years later these children are more successful in life, have fewer addictions, and more long-term prospects.

The good Good Life

Does this imply that Puritanism should be encouraged in self-realization books? Let’s hear the reverse speech: The magazine ‘The Good Life’ touts hedonism throughout its pages, in particular in an article by Jean-François Haït in the April issue. Claiming a benevolent positivism, this philosophy cannot be too incisive. On the contrary, it presents itself as a victim. “Hedonism suffers the wrath of Puritanism,” says Haït. One could just as well say that his text subjects Puritanism to the wrath of Hedonism. Opposed tensions that feed on their time and the favors or disfavors encountered by the social castes. Hedonism has never taken well among slaves, while Puritanism resists badly among the clergy living in opulence.

Both Hedonism and Puritanism descend into alienation when they become radicalized. The first generates addictions, the second inquisitions. Frightful inhumanities! Humanism, then, is to be wary of the boasting of one or the other. If puritanical negativism forms conspiratorial doubt, conversely the positivism of The Good Life blinds to doubt:

Industrial societies like ours have abandoned Puritanism, which is the work of more traditional societies. In large-scale cross-cultural studies, there is a consistent relationship between economic growth and the decline of Puritanism. If the economy shrinks, puritanism returns,” says Léo Fitouchi, a social cognition researcher. Cause or consequence? The tone of Haït’s article suggests that Puritanism weakens the economy. No !! It is caused by its weakening. The relationship also suggests that Hedonism is caused by the economic boom, but is not the driving force behind it. Stop manipulating us and leave us with some doubts, dear Mr. Haït…

Let’s finish illico

I don’t particularly like marshmallows. Certainly I would have been one of the children who easily resisted the immediate attraction of the treat. Not for the reasons assumed by Mischel. Because I would have had 2 marshmallows 15 minutes later to exchange for something more interesting? Not my type either. But this type of bias should also make us doubt psychological studies. Human motivations are complex.

From childhood the ascending direction of the search for pleasure interacts with the descending one. They weave in this relationship a pyramid of organization that rises throughout maturity. Our highways of pleasure are getting longer, branching out. My attention no longer bothers to stop at the marshmallow. It rushes to strike on the keyboard this pleasant reflection on hedonism. At the risk of forgetting to take advantage of the pleasillico around me?

Certainly not, when some have such ravishing forms. I’m looking to see if there aren’t some illicits in the middle of the illico. Never know… That damn puritanical Observer could have a few minutes of inattention…


The paradox of hedonism, The Good Life, April-May 2023

1 thought on “Hedonism versus Puritanism”

  1. This is tired, trite, yet oh so true: happiness is different things to different people. Puritanical aspects of culture are re-asserting themselves with vengeance. A recollective guilt seems to say, after a few decades of free-wheeling hedonism: oops! we have royally screwed up; strayed too far from that straight-and-narrow path. Time to recoup and regroup. It is amusing, in an ironic way. And also cyclical, to some extent. Political thought and extremes are off the charts in either direction. I am not especially puritanical. Nor am I hedonistic, beyond a few simple pleasures. Never did see much in marshmallows. A good, icy cold, dry gin martini: more my idea of vice. Stirred, not shaken.


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