Theology For Hedonists

David Sedley delves into the philosophy of Epicurus:

Hedonists are ethical thinkers who hold that things are good precisely in so far as they are pleasant, and bad precisely in so far as they are painful. Epicurus was, more specifically, an “egoistic” hedonist, in that he took it to be obvious that the good for each individual, from the moment of birth, is that person’s own pleasure, not other people’s: in other words, your life is a good one if, and only if, you yourself enjoy it. Although an enjoyable life must, according to Epicurus, be centred on moral virtue, what makes it worth living is in the last analysis your enjoyment of it, and not the morality for its own sake.

Moreover there are, besides moral propriety, other factors equally indispensable to enjoying your life.

In particular, because the fear of the gods and the fear of death do more than anything else to blight lives, overcoming these is the essential starting point of Epicurean living. And almost equally important is the moderation of your desires, gastronomic and otherwise, restricting them to the most basic and readily satisfied ones. Extravagant pleasures – even that of meat-eating – threaten to make us their slaves, yet their satisfaction brings no more pleasure than living on the simplest fare. Epicurus was no epicure!

Sedley goes on to explain why the thinker valued a tranquillity “simply incompatible with the world-governing role that popular religion attributes to the gods”:

According to Epicurus, our innate conception of god is simply that of an immortal and blessedly tranquil being. Reduced to moral terms, this means that the ideal that from the moment of birth we all intuitively seek is a life of tranquillity totally unmarred by the fear of death. Unfortunately in most of us this basic aspiration has been distorted by superimposing the values of a corrupt society, so that our ideal role models come to be characterised by vindictiveness, greed, belligerence, lust, tyrannical rule and so on. This plausibly accounts for the popular worship of deities (Ares, Aphrodite, etc.) whose profiles distort true moral values.