A common objection to atheism is the argument from personal incredulity—the idea that because something seems incomprehensible it must therefore be false—in which the believer claims, “I don’t understand how anyone can find life meaningful if they don’t believe in God.” It so happens that as an atheist, I don’t understand how anyone can find life meaningful when they do believe in God. It’s a stalemate of incredulity.
It’s not as though atheism is a recent development. Socrates was accused of being ἄθεος (átheos)—literally “without gods.” Although he denied it, he was put to death for it. Others were accused of oἀσεβής (asebēs)—being “impious” or “ungodly.” Philosophers such as Epicurus and his Roman counterpart, Lucretius, went the extra step of arguing in favor of an atheist way of life thousands of years ago.
In a recent interview on Fox News, entertainer Russell Brand opined, “When you live in a nihilistic, post-rationalistic, materialistic world … there can be no telos, no meaning.” Journalist Peter Partoll of The Western Journal was sufficiently moved by this to write, “Brand is giving us a message that we really need to hear today: There is more to life than the materialism and hedonism that the world provides us.”
Telos is a term from ancient Greek philosophy that means both the ultimate goal or end that is sought for its own sake, as well as the greatest good or highest value. Brand’s argument—that a materialistic world leaves no room for a telos—is just plain wrong. Thousands of years ago, the followers of Aristippus of Cyrene, and later Epicurus, lived their lives believing in a materialistic world according to the principle that telos was pleasure. This is a worldview to which I am personally quite attracted and from which I have derived tremendous meaning and satisfaction. In other words, I am a hedonist.
I’d wager to say most people would balk at that choice of identification, hedonist. After all, the word is primarily used today as an insult to accuse someone of moral turpitude. According to the stereotype, all a hedonist cares about is wine, women, and song—or as we’d say in modern parlance: sex, drugs, and rock and roll—consequences be damned. The implicit assumption is that a hedonistic lifestyle is inherently selfish and self-destructive. So how could anyone truly derive value or meaning from that kind of life?
The Hedonistic Lifestyle
Some hedonists, such as Aristippus, were criticized for their “voluptuous nature” (trupherē phusis). While Aristippus certainly valued eating, drinking, having sex, and avoiding hard work, he was very careful and thoughtful in how he chose his sources of pleasure. One good example is his response to the criticism of his relationship with a famed courtesan, Laïs, in which he said, “I have, but I am not had.” In other words, mastery over pleasures (to kratein) is preferable to abstinence from them. Another way to say this comes from The Satanic Bible, which states, “The true Satanist is not mastered by sex any more than he is mastered by any of his other desires. As with all other pleasurable things, the Satanist is master of, rather than mastered by sex.” There’s nothing wrong with indulging in pleasures, but we should follow Aristippus’s example (and Anton LaVey’s) and not allow ourselves to be compelled by them. We should be “disdainful of excess (huperoptikēn tou pleionos einai).” [JS: PLEASE ADD REFERENCE FOR THIS QUOTE. -NS]
To have the confidence to make those wise distinctions (tharrantōs), to choose the right kind of pleasures and keep them from controlling us, we don’t pray to God or seek some deep spiritual insight. Rather, we engage in the practice of philosophy. Keeping in mind that our telos is to live as pleasurably and easily as possible, we hedonists subject our choices to the harshest scrutiny, for as Epicurus said in his Principal Doctrines, “If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the end ordained by nature, but instead stop short at something else when considering whether to go after something or avoid it, your actions will not be in keeping with the principles you profess.”
Let’s consider a concrete example of hedonistic philosophy in practice. Russell Brand has spoken at length about his struggles with addiction. In the same Fox News interview, he said, “The fact was, I just didn’t have enough self-discipline to resist the allure of stardom, and I fell face-first into the glitter.” A hedonistic approach to drinking and drugs would be to acknowledge, sure, that feels great. Yes, you can have a great time partying to excess, but one must also consider the dangers of addiction, in which we become trapped in a cycle of chasing pleasure to avoid pain.
“For we have need of pleasure at that time when we feel pain owing to the absence of pleasure,” writes philosopher Eugene O’Connor in his book on Epicurus. “When we do not feel pain, it is because we no longer have need of pleasure.”
Indulging in drugs and alcohol may not be bad, so long as we follow the advice of Aristippus and are “disdainful of excess.” Or, to get more technical, we ought to follow the example of Epicurus and consider what kind of desire it is to indulge in drugs and alcohol. As Epicurus explains in his Letter to Menoeceus, “We must consider that of the desires some are natural (phusikai) and others idle (kenai epithumiai); of the natural desires, some are necessary while others are natural only.”
“A firm understanding of these things enables us to refer every choice and avoidance to the health of the body or the calm of the soul, since that is the goal of a happy life,” Epicurus goes on to say. “Everything we do is for the sake of this, namely, to avoid pain and fear.”
The desire to indulge in drugs and alcohol is not natural, according to Epicurus’s definition, because it is not a basic requirement of survival to get drunk or high (despite what some folks might tell you). Therefore, it falls into the category of idle or vain, empty desires. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with indulging in these desires, but they certainly shouldn’t be given priority over natural desires, especially those that are necessary. Drinking yourself so deep into the bottle that it destroys your relationships with others and ruins your health is hardly pursuing a pleasant life of ease.
But Is It Egotistical?
How can someone derive meaning and value from a life focused on enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain? It’s a reasonable question, if one accepts Brand’s and Partoll’s characterization of the secular world as inherently nihilistic. As someone who proudly identifies as both a materialist and a hedonist, I believe they are entirely wrong.
For the Cyrenaics such as Aristippus, the only thing about which we could have infallible knowledge is pathê—affections or experiences—which for each of us are immediate and self-contained. There are many things about which I might be mistaken; my experience of my own pleasure or pain is the only thing of which I can be certain. As such, the highest good for me is my own pleasure, with all else being valuable only as a means to securing my own pleasure.
No doubt many people would treat such unabashed egoism with disgust. All you care about is yourself? I submit that it’s preferable to pursue one’s own rational self-interest over believing, perhaps falsely, that you are acting in the best interest of others. Consider the efforts of early Christians to forcibly convert pagans, the reeducation and cultural genocide of Indigenous Americans, or the current sweeping bans on abortion and the criminalization of gender-affirming care and drag. As a hedonist, I care about others. I derive joy from their joy and sorrow from their sorrow, even though I cannot share in the same joys or sorrows. I don’t know what’s best for others, even though I can make reasonable assumptions. Hedonism is a way of life that encourages humility rather than a solipsistic belief in moral omniscience.
Another argument for how one can derive value or meaning from pleasure and pain is perhaps best articulated by Diogenes of Laertius, again discussing the beliefs of Epicurus and his students. Diogenes tells us, “As a proof (apodeixis) for the fact that pleasure is the end, he [Epicurus] points to the fact that animals, as soon as they are born, are well contented with pleasure and fight against pain, naturally and apart from discourse (phusikōs kai chōris logou). For we flee pain by our very own natural feelings (autopathōs).” The pleasure derived from indulging in drugs or alcohol is enough for us to desire it, and the pain that comes from either withdrawal, hangovers, or long-term abuse of our body should be enough to teach us, “Don’t try that again!” You shouldn’t really need a persuasive argument from someone. The problem is that we pick up all these wrongheaded ideas from the world of opinion (tois kata doxan), such as the idea that doing drugs or getting hammered makes us cool when it’s really hurting us.
Life is anything but easy. It is full of disappointment, death, disease, and heartbreak. But do we really have to posit some kind of eternal afterlife and cosmic scoreboard for it to be worthwhile to wake up every day? Isn’t it enough that there are great works of literature to read, artistic masterpieces to contemplate, and delicious meals to enjoy? What more could you want than to be free from hunger, thirst, and pain? What could be better than spending time in the company of friends or family, sipping a Château Cheval Blanc, or puffing on a fine H. Upmann No. 2, with a warm, purring cat on your lap?
Partoll is wrong precisely because we don’t need anything more than the materialism and hedonism that the world provides to live a personally fulfilling life. But hey, that’s just me. After all, I can only speak for myself, being intimately acquainted with my own wants and needs. How about you?
1. Fox News, “Russell Brand and Tucker Carlson Talk Spirituality and Fame” (video). Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXY62OU8ZKg.
2. Gregory B. Sadler, “Diogenes Laertes, Lives of Philosophers bk 2 | Aristippus, Wealth, Power, Philosophy | Core Concepts” (video). Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BOZRGezi-k.
3. Anton LaVey, The Satanic Bible. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1969.
4. Eugene O’Connor, The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993.
[7. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
A common objection to atheism is the argument from personal incredulity—the idea that because something seems incomprehensible it must therefore be false—in which the believer claims, “I don’t understand how anyone can find life meaningful if they don’t believe in God.” It so happens that as an atheist, I don’t understand how anyone can find …