The Ethics of Happiness: Hedonism, Cynicism, and Stoicism

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Happiness is the goal and purpose of life, the culmination and culmination of human existence (Aristotle n.p). Almost everyone is on the lookout for happiness. Is happiness a pleasurable experience? Is it a state of prosperity? Is it possible that it is the individual’s well-being? To different people, it means different things. Philosophers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happiness really means and how to achieve it. The paper delves into the philosophies of the Hedonists, Cynics, and Stoics, offering examples of each competing happiness theory. Hedonism is named after the Greek word hedone, which means “pleasure,” and is based on a basic and primal understanding that pain equals evil and pleasure equals good (Piering n.p). From the second we are born we experience this. A baby cries because it is cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, irritable or in pain. The same baby will coo when it is satisfied and happy. These innate behaviors are not taught, which leads the hedonist’s to state that pleasure is our birthright.

Two types of hedonism will be looked at in this paper. The first one was created by Aristippus, a follower of Socrates. After he had returned home to open his own school of philosophy, he named it Cyrenaic hedonism, sensual hedonism, after his hometown.

Aristippus taught that pleasure is always good and that it was obvious that people always seek it. He went so far as to put pleasure above happiness. The pursuit of pleasure should be done so without guilt or apology because we’re following our natural desires (O’Keefe n.p). Since pleasure is a natural desire, we might as well seek as much sensual pleasure as possible.

Cyrenaic’s thought that physical pleasures were more intense than mental and emotional ones, so they must be better. They also focused on pleasures that were immediate over pleasures that might occur in the future. For instance, given the option to spend money on a one pound hamburger for lunch or save the money and spend twice as much on dinner and get a delicious filet mignon, one would choose to eat the hamburger every time. Those future pleasures, even of higher quality, might not occur, so they would rather live in the present with the guaranteed pleasure.

Cyrenaic’s don’t look at pleasures as being good or bad. All pleasures are wanted, and the only difference between each pleasure is the intensity of it. “Whatever pleases me most at the moment is the highest good there can be (Soccio 188). They basically live by the motto: Be happy at all costs” (Soccio 190).

Epicurus created the second type of hedonism and therefore named it Epicureanism. Epicureanism also revolved around pleasure, but they did so in a different way from the Cyrenaics. Epicureans wanted the finest pleasures possible and did so at the cost of the amount of the pleasures they indulged in (O’Keefe n.p). For them, it was quality over quantity. For example, they would rather wait for that filet mignon at dinner, instead of eating the hamburger for lunch. This was a more refined and disciplined form of hedonism.

Epicureans looked at all pleasures as being good, but these pleasures were segregated by desirable and undesirable, unlike the Cyrenaics that viewed all pleasures as good and who said that distinguishing between them would be hypocritical. The pleasures that the Epicureans viewed as being undesirable were the ones that carried with them undesirable consequences.

Another difference between the two was that the Epicureans looked at pain as also being desirable and undesirable. A desirable pain could produce greater satisfactions than some pleasures. For instance, voluntarily putting oneself into long and stressful situations in college to help further one’s career prospects, instead of having the free time to sit at home watching football, basketball, and soccer every night.

Epicureans had a theory that being the pain, need and worry free was desirable and a good thing. The Cyrenaics would make fun of the Epicureans because to them this neutral state was equivalent to a corpse’s state.

The next theory of happiness is Cynicism, which was advocated by Antisthenes. Cynicism comes from the Greek word cynic meaning “dog,” and which describes the pure and simple life that they led (Piering n.p). Cynicism bucks the norm and chooses to shun the essence of civilization due to its corruption, which in turn destroys individuals by making them soft, weak and wanting.

Cynics despised hedonism and the hypocrisy and phoniness of manners. They look at material wealth as something that weakens people, because those possessions start to define their happiness, and soon they become slaves to it. One sees these behaviors running rampant today. Our society defines people by the house they own, the car they drive, and what brand of clothing they wear. People are putting themselves in debt to keep up with these expectations. When a person goes to a job interview, the first impression means everything, and if one is not dressed for success, then they most likely won’t get the job, even when they are the best candidate.

According to cynicism, the desire for success corrupts individuals making them dishonest and desiring more (Piering n.p). Once these individuals achieve success and accrue luxury, they become burdened with complications, which in turn creates unhappiness and the need for more success. An example is when one graduates from college and gets a decent job making more money than they have ever made before, and yet they are broke because they raised their lifestyle in addition to being in need of more money to save for retirement.

The Cynic’s happiness is based on self-sufficiency, nature, and living the simplest life possible, which leads to freedom from everything. The less that you have, the less that you need, and therefore the less that your happiness can be affected by outside pressures. They feel that social conventions and the code of conduct that society creates get in the way of nature and reason by opposing them and blocking the path to happiness and ultimately enslaving us all.

Cynics prefer to live in poverty, embrace hardships, speak freely and do whatever they like whenever they like without worry of offending others (Piering n.p). In our society today we would look at that person as a lazy vagrant and pay them no mind. It is sad because these are people just like everyone else and they deserve the same respect that we all feel we deserve.

The third and final theory of happiness is Stoicism. Stoicism came about as a reaction to hedonist’s preaching that pleasure is always good and pain is always evil. Stoics were monists and believed that life’s events were controlled by Logos that is World Reason, God, Cosmic Mind, Fate and much more, which were made of materials or stuff (Anon n.p).

These people felt that happiness is achieved through the acceptance that events that unfolded before us were out of our hands and that anything other than self-control over our attitude would result in avoidable unhappiness. Examples include getting cut off in traffic, road raging, and then showing up to class to take a midterm and not doing well because you allowed that event to affect your attitude. Through the control of their attitude, they were able to be happy no matter the condition.

Epictetus, a former slave, is one of the most famous Stoics. He was born into slavery and from an early age realized that he had no control over the events in his life. He focused on the only thing that he could control, which was his reaction to what happened.

He had a severe limp his whole life due to an incident where we were tortured for another slave’s mistake. “The story goes that as his leg was being twisted, Epictetus reminded his master that a person’s leg was likely to break under such torture. Epaphroditus ignored this, and when his leg finally broke, Epictetus said, “See, it’s just as I told you.” He later said, “I was never freer than when I was on the rack.” He had learned that he could control his attitude, but that fate controlled his life” (Soccio 197).

Epictetus was freed from his bonds of slavery around eighteen years of age, and by the age of forty he had opened up his own school in Nicopolis in northern Greece (Anon n.p). He lived a modest life, loved children and was very charitable to all the people who approached him for wisdom. His actions throughout life show that he led a happy life and that the events he was faced with did not control him.

Another famous Stoic was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who became emperor of Rome, a philosopher king. Like Epictetus, Marcus had many painful events in his life. It is crazy to think that a slave and an emperor each could have just as tough of life as the other, yet they controlled their happiness the same way. Marcus’s beliefs were also tested on a regular basis due to the dealings of uprisings, which kept him away from home for extended periods of time. He lost four of his five sons, was betrayed by a trusted general, dealing with his incompetent stepbrother and it was rumored that his wife cheated on him constantly (Anon n.p).

Through it all, he controlled his emotions and did not let the string of events affect his happiness. He was also one of the most virtuous, wisest, and kindest of philosophers (Soccio 198). Marcus was once described as “by nature a saint and sage, by profession a warrior and ruler (Soccio 199)

Everyone is in the pursuit of happiness whether they know it or not. The competing theories of happiness created by the Hedonists, Cynics, and Stoics have all been formulated with concise blueprints to achieve the ultimate goal of happiness, and it is up to each of us to choose to follow one of these theories or to carve our own path.

Works Cited

Anon. “Stoicism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | An Encyclopedia of Philosophy Articles Written by Professional Philosophers, 2008, www.iep.utm.edu/stoicism/.

Aristotle. “The Internet Classics Archive | Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.” The Internet Classics Archive: 441 Searchable Works of Classical Literature, 2016, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html.

O’Keefe, Tim. “Aristippus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | An Encyclopedia of Philosophy Articles Written by Professional Philosophers, 2011, www.iep.utm.edu/aristip/.

O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | An Encyclopedia of Philosophy Articles Written by Professional Philosophers, 2016, www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/.

Piering, Julie. “Cynics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | An Encyclopedia of Philosophy Articles Written by Professional Philosophers, 2013, www.iep.utm.edu/cynics/.

Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2013. Print.

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