The word “hedonism” today has a very specific meaning. It refers to an excessive pursuit of enjoyment, most often through sexual pleasure and extreme indulgence.
It comes to us from the Greek world hedone, which did not originally have such pointedly negative connotations. It meant “pleasure,” without any specific morality.
Like many aspects of the world, including emotions, pleasure in ancient Greece was personified by a deity. Hedone, the daughter of the god of love, was the embodiment of pleasure.
While some people embraced Hedone as a goddess who brought them joy, others took a more sceptical view of her powers.
Hedone was a goddess who could bring joy, but some people saw her as a potentially dangerous force. Common people may have embraced the goddess of pleasure, but some of the leading philosophers of Greece and Rome saw her as a source of corruption.
In Greek mythology, Hedone was the only daughter of Eros, the god of love, and his wife Psyche. She was the personification of pleasure.
Hedone was a daimone, a minor deity in Greek mythology that personified a specific idea. As such, she had no real mythology or personality beyond her domain.
As a daimone, Hedone completely embodied the idea of pleasure. It was even her name; like most daimones her name was the word for her domain.
Hedone was often identified with Aphrodite, who in most versions of the Olympian family tree was her grandmother. The mother of Eros was the goddess of beauty, but was sometimes called by the name Hedone as well.
The goddess of pleasure was sometimes called Aphrodite, although many Greek writers made sure to clarify that they were two separate beings. While beauty could sometimes bring pleasure, Hedone was linked to other aspects of life as well.
Eros was specifically the god of romantic love. His powers were often interpreted as those of sexual attraction; with a shot of his arrow he drew romantic partners to one another.
Hedone, therefore, was linked specifically to sexual pleasure. She was the result of the desire and attraction that Eros inspired in couples.
Ancient writers made it clear, however, that Hedone was not only a sexual goddess. Any type of pleasure could be associated with her name, even if sexual pleasure was the most common type said to be caused by her influence.
The Romans called her Voluptas and used her name to describe many types of pleasure. In addition to sexual feelings, Voluptas could also represent the pleasures of material wealth and a comfortable life.
One Roman poet, for example, claimed that a noble’s summer villa was so luxurious that it could have been designed by the goddess of pleasure herself. Such a place would have been dedicated to the enjoyment of banquets, entertainments, and material comfort.
Another account claimed that Hedone or Voluptas was a close associate of the god of sleep. One poet claimed that Hephaestus created beautiful things within the halls of Hypnos with Hedone at his side.
In this poem, Hedone is associated with pleasurable dreams. These could be of any type.
As the personification of part of the psyche, however, Hedone was only loosely spoken of as a goddess. Her name was more often used in philosophical works, where she embodied a central part of many writers’ works.
While pleasure is, by definition, enjoyable, Greek and Roman philosophers often looked upon hedone negatively. To many, the goddess of pleasure represented a threatening force.
It could be expected that the goddess of pleasure would be welcomed as a positive force in people’s lives. Whether as sexual pleasure or more general enjoyable feelings, some people embraced Hedone.
To many philosophers, however, Hedone was a divisive character. She personified a feeling that some men distrusted.
Aristotle and Epicurus both took a measured approach to the idea of hedone. While they did not dismiss it outright, they cautioned their followers that Hedone might ultimately bring about negative effects.
Aristotle thought of pleasure as one half of a greater concept called pathe. The other half of pathe was pain.
Pleasure and pain were not opposites, he claimed, but subject to personal interpretation. Things that might bring one person happiness could be unpleasant to another.
Aristotle contradicted the Cyrenaic school of philosophy that professed the importance of seeking out hedone. Instead, he cautioned that some forms of pleasure could ultimately cause pain.
Types of hedone that aligned with reason, virtue, and natural law were acceptable to Aristotle. He recognized, however, that some people found enjoyment from things that were morally and socially negative.
Epicurus expanded on this idea by defining the types of pleasure. Hedone, he said, could be either based in virtue or in vice, while terpsis was always virtuous.
Both philosophers believed that more virtuous types of pleasure were lasting, while immoral hedone was likely to be short-lived. A moment of pleasure, according to Greece’s leading philosophers, did not bring as much enjoyment as a life that was lived in accordance to their ideals.
Another of the leading schools of Greek philosophy had an even more negative view of Hedone and her domain. The Stoics believed that the goddess of pleasure was a force of wickedness.
Stoicism taught that emotions were negative regardless of how they made a person feel. Emotional reactions and attachments went against logic and reasons, which they believed were the highest ideals.
Because pleasure was one of the most subjective emotions, and was often brought about by actions that were entirely against logic and virtue, it was seen as entirely excessive and illogical.
By giving in to feelings of pleasure, the Stoics taught, a person opened themselves up to further illogical behavior. The rational worldview of the Stoics had no room for Hedone as a goddess whose only role was to bring about an intense emotion.
While Roman society, particularly that of the upper classes, is often thought of as excessive and devoted to pleasure, some Romans embraced the teachings of Stoicism. They believed that the pursuit of pleasure that the ruling class was known for was damaging the stability and order of society as a whole.
Cicero, for example, lamented the idea that such excesses had been deified at all. While Eros and Hedone were thought of as gods, he called the “vicious and unnatural” vices that overpowered a person’s natural instinct toward virtue.
The negative view toward pleasure by some leading minds of the ancient world has continued to influence our perception of it today.
While Hedone’s name simply means “pleasure,” our modern understanding of the world has been colored by Stoic views of excess and vice. Hedonism is used today to describe an excessive and possibly ruinous pursuit of pleasure regardless of consequences.
Hedone was a Greek goddess who personified pleasure. As the child of Eros, the god of love and desire, her name was often applied specifically to sexual pleasure.
The Romans called her Volupta and saw her in a similar way. Some Roman poets also associated the goddess with the pleasures and excesses enjoyed by the elite.
While Hedone brought enjoyable feelings, many of the ancient world’s prominent thinkers took a more negative view of the goddess.
Leading philosophers recognized that pleasure could come from immoral and illogical behavior. They distinguished between these actions and the feelings brought on by virtue.
Men like Aristotle and Epicurus believed that Hedone could inspire both goodness and wickedness. While pleasure was derived from virtuous acts in accordance with reason and natural law, she could be beneficial.
The Stoics, however, took a broadly negative view of Hedone.
Stoicism taught that all emotion was excessive because it went against logic and rationality. Because pleasure was a strong feeling that was largely subjective, it was even more against the ideals of the Stoic philosophers.
This view of Hedone influenced the modern perception of the idea. Her name is familiar today in the concept of hedonism, the excessive and extreme pursuit of immoral pleasures.