Gibson: Maybe we should learn to appreciate hedonism

About the writer: Scott Gibson returned to his childhood home 30 years ago to practice medicine. A board-certified internist, he served on the McMinnville School Board from 2011 to 2017, when he and his wife, Melody, moved to the outskirts of Amity to open the Bella Collina B&B.

In the late fourth century B.C., a group of philosophically minded men would meet in Athens under the Painted Porch, the Stoa Poikile, and discuss what defined a meaningful life. They became known as the Stoics, and their philosophy stoicism.

Their belief in accepting the difficulties of life, to live uncomplaining in spite of the slings and arrows of fate, has been handed down to us as a way to live bravely and virtuously.

The Stoics stood against a competing philosophy — epicureanism. The adherents of the philosopher Epicurus looked at a world of pain and difficulty and held that the goal of life was to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

While this sounds much like an “eat, drink, and be merry” concept, the Epicureans actually advised avoiding excess and limiting desires. But they did advocate finding and enjoying pleasure whenever it could be had.

The philosopher emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, was one of stoicism’s most famous and eloquent adherents. He extolled a life of virtue over comfort, fitting for an emperor who spent most of his reign in military tents at the edge of the empire.

He penned such admonitions to a life of endurance as, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears,” and, “You have power over your mind, not outside events.”

The emperor’s aphorisms sound admirable. Who would disparage the Stoics’ call for pursuing a virtuous life?

Yet within these high-sounding admonitions lie a passivity toward nature that I would argue held back the ancient world from advancement.

The Stoics believed nature or fate governed the outcome of events, that all humans could do was to submit to the vagaries of accident, disease and conflict. Finding peace was their goal, regardless of the circumstances.

To this day, a stoic attitude conjures someone facing adversity with strength and forbearance. Accordingly, we tend to admire stoic individuals who persevere against sometimes hopeless odds. Epicureans seem too soft, pampered and self-absorbed.

Curiously, though, it was the Epicureans who proved more pivotal in giving us the world we live in today. For in their effort to avoid pain and suffering, they sought out better ways of living.

Their philosophy of seeking a more pleasant and comfortable life prompted them to seek ways to thwart nature, cheat disease, bend metals and harness energy, thus serving to allay the drudgery that burdened man and beast.

Edward Jenner was an Epicurean, because he refused to accept the inevitability of smallpox. And his vaccinations eventually rid the earth of that dread disease.

James Watt showed his epicurean credentials when he improved the steam engine to the point where it could power coal mines, ships and virtually the entire Industrial Revolution. Backbreaking work was now done by machines, allowing humans to pursue more detailed and less strenuous labor.

Every inventor, every scientist, every artist that makes our world easier, safer, more comfortable and more beautiful endorses the philosophy of Epicurus. But today we more commonly refer to seeking a life of pleasure as hedonism, and often use it pejoratively.

Certainly, the lavish, self-gratifying lives of the very rich, flaunting yachts and arrays of seldom-occupied homes, deserve popular reproach.

A good Epicurean would seek not only a better life for himself, but for others as well, and would be generous in supporting causes that alleviate hunger, disease and poverty. So too, one can have selfish (thus bad) hedonism or widely inclusive (thus good) hedonism.

While Marcus Aurelius served as emperor, a great epidemic swept through the Roman Empire.

Called the Antonine Plague, it was probably the first introduction of smallpox into Rome. A tenth of the empire’s population died during its years-long devastation in the second century A.D.

But Marcus took no measures to stop the plague. He accepted it as an act of nature to be faced stoically, without complaint. As a result, nothing of value was learned to stem the epidemic.

By comparison, a tenth century Chinese story relates that after the chancellor’s son died of smallpox, he called together the most esteemed physicians and sages from across the empire to find a way to treat or prevent the disease. And they came up with the concept of inoculation.

The stoic passivity of Marcus Aurelius may have cost Europe the chance to prevent many millions of deaths.

Our modern, capitalistic world is built upon hedonistic demands. And these stretch from the self-indulgently trivial to life-saving necessities.

It seems the same system that provides us with 70 different brands of cola drinks also has led to cancer therapy that trains your own immune cells to fight your specific tumor. Stoicism has its virtues, but it’s the Epicureans who have given us a world of choices and progress.



If, and when, you retire you can write newspaper articles and travel to do your photography. As well as the B&B.


And now, the other side of the story:

Smallpox and vaccination. A glimpse of forgotten history.



Unfortunately, there are many that walk among us that hedonistically enjoy anger, outrage, belittlement, bigotry, misogyny, and pain.




It's better to be thought a fool than rant in your local newspaper comment section and remove all doubt.



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